I’ve had this post in draft for months, but I never felt ready to post it. I've been reading it over and over again, adding bits and pieces here and there trying to see if it all makes sense. And somehow this morning I felt ready to share my story. My eating disorder story.
I mean, I've talked about this very openly in the past and have written several posts and guest posts about it, but nothing ever like this. This, my friends, is full disclosure. I'm sharing it all with you, the good, the bad and the ugly. I want to share this story with you because wether you've suffered from an eating disorder or not, wether you consider yourself an emotional eater or wether you've ever felt uncomfortable in your body, I think you can relate to the challenges that come along with the search for a healthy, happy and fulfilling life.
Warning, this is a long post! I decided to split my story into three parts because it's quite a long and heavy read..If you want the quick & easy version, feel free to breeze through the "About Me" section instead.
How my eating disorder began
I was always naturally really skinny. I come from a family that is very active and health - conscious, so exercising and eating healthy was a normal part of my life. I didn't waste a second thinking about my weight or counting calories and it never even crossed my mind to go on a diet. Until it all spiralled out of control one day.
I was 17 and was in my last year of high school in Dubai (I moved around every 2-3 years due to my parents work). Much to my adolescent discontent, I was one of those unlucky teens that had extremely bad skin. The kind that makes you not want to leave the house for days. I tried everything under the moon, from taking natural supplements to going on the contraceptive pill. But nothing seemed to help. In my desperation I decided to start taking Roacutane, a prescription medication against acne. What seemed a good idea in the beginning turned out to be the biggest mistake I have yet made. I was warned that the medication could cause severe side effects, but I was not prepared for what would happen to me in the following months. Turns out I had every single damn side effect listed on the prescription, literally all of them. From the 'less severe' like dry skin, daily nose bleeds, joint pain, easy bruising and dizziness (ha, those are the less severe ones, are you ready for the severe ones!?) to the hard-core ones like headaches, nausea, constant tiredness, depressed mood and sleeping problems.....and the list goes on.
Within months, I was a changed person. And not in a good way. Suddenly I looked in the mirror and no longer recognised the person in the reflection.
I was always tired and would sleep hours on end, my whole body was hurting, I was loosing my hair and I couldn't do as much sport as I wanted to anymore. Mentally, I was having a real tough time with the sudden changes.When you're 17 you're already having a tough time finding your place in life as it is. But this mess that the medication created had my life spiral out of control completely and I seemed to no longer recognise myself in the mirror.
Until this point in my life I had always been an adventurous, life-loving, self confident kiddo. I was on the right track to grow into a confident young woman that was happy with herself and had it all figured out. But over the course of a couple months I became this lethargic and lost bundle of mess. Looking back at it now, I understand the chaos that the medication created, but at the time I wasn't able to see the big picture and realise what the medication was doing to me.
I'm not saying that the medication was the only reason for me to develop my eating disorder, but it was certainly one of the triggers. I'll get to that in a second..
During this time I gained quite a bit of weight. Nothing major, but on my rather small 1,64m frame it showed immediately. Once I finally went off the medication, two things happened:
- My skin got horrible again. HORRIBLE. Yay, all for nothing. (I wish I would have the courage to post some of those horrific pictures here, but I'm not ready yet to share those things quite yet...)
- For the first time in my life I decided to go on a diet. Before this whole ordeal, the word 'diet' wasn't part of my vocabulary. I couldn't have cared less about counting calories, restricting food and exercising for the sole purpose of weight loss. Until this point, I had always been more or less happy with my body and had a healthy relationship towards food and my body. But that all changed.
"Great, now that I'm off the meds I can focus all my energy on eating healthy, working out again and loosing those annoying kilos I gained."
I thought it would be easy. And in the beginning it was. The first couple kilos came down naturally with very little effort. But then something happened; I didn't get back down to the weight that I had before. So I decided to reduce my food intake just a bit more, and just a bit more, and just a bit more...And before I even knew it I was restricting to the point that I was starving myself.
Obviously this is a somewhat simplified version... There is much more to developing an eating disorder than a couple extra hip rings that you want to loose. There is no one reason why someone develops an eating disorder, there is no a + b = c sequence of logic. The medication was certainly the trigger, but it was my perfectionistic, competitive and self-disciplined nature that presented the ideal feeding ground for an unhealthy body image. Even though these type-A characteristics are essentially great to have, they are also a slippery slope that can lead to tremendous pressure, self doubt and... self – hate. What I always thought to be a great personality trait of mine suddenly made me think that I was never good enough or thin enough and my inner mean girl was constantly telling me I wasn’t worthy. Top that with living in a somewhat fake and pretentious city like Dubai as a 17-year old girl trying to find her way, and there you have the mess.
Like I said, the closer I got to my 'goal weight' the harder it got, so the more severe I had to become in my methods. I started reducing calories more and more and eventually skipped meals all together. I would wake up and go to school without eating breakfast and not eat until lunchtime. There I would have a small salad, a soup or just some fruits. Evenings I didn’t eat much either and would try to ignore the empty pit in my stomach. More often than not I would get so dizzy that I had to sit down or would even black out for a couple of seconds. I also didn't get my period for 8 months or so, but by this point I was already so deep in the sh*t that I didn't count 1+1 together to understand the havoc I was causing to my body. All I wanted was quick, cheap and easy fixing. I was a calorie restricting, anxiety-ridden, scale-fearing (yet I'd weigh myself 5+ times a day, just to feel even more crap about myself), self-loathing, and self-doubting mess.
It was partially about being small and partially about a fixation to constantly be in control. I felt so in control and I felt like my willpower was stronger than anyone else that I knew. I associated avoiding "bad" foods with unyielding self control and indulging in "bad" foods with a lack of willpower and utter failure. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, right? That's what I thought..
I hate myself. I hate the way I look and I hate my body. It’s like there is a monster in my head whispering hateful things in my ear every five seconds.
“You’re fat Stef, lose more weight Stef, I can’t believe you ate all of that Stef.…”
Every second of my day is spent thinking food and my body. "If only I don't lunch and dinner today then by tomorrow when I wake up and weigh myself, maybe the scale will show 45kg. If I don't eat at all and pee right before stepping on the scale, if I'm lucky it will even show 44kg.
I sit there alone in my room with a hole in my stomach, surfing through thinspiration/eating disorder websites. Staring at skinny girls with thigh gaps and rib cages showing, vowing to myself that one day I will look like that. At midnight I decide to go to the gym and run on the treadmill for an hour because I can't handle how disgusting I feel about myself.
How I made friends with bulimia
I thought I was getting really good at the whole restricting thing. But over time I just couldn't take it anymore. I can't really remember why I overate for the first time, but what I do remember is that I felt like I was on the verge of popping. I couldn't eat another thing...And then I was hit with a sudden panic and an urge to empty myself. It was painful and difficult and my throat hurt a lot after. When I was done I looked in the mirror and wondered what had happened to make me sink this low, but it didn't really click. I didn't think to myself that this was dangerous and that I had to stop.
Instead I felt incredibly relieved, satisfied and empowered. The calm after the storm. I actually thought this was a win-win situation."What a handy way to keep myself thin!"
I realized I could eat big amounts of food without the same guilt. I started having eating attacks whose content would all end up in the toilet a little later. With time the attacks grew bigger and bigger and eventually I would consume up to 2000 calories from pizza, ice-cream, doughnuts and co. in just one sitting. I made myself sick every other day at first, then every day and eventually it became three times a day after every meal I ate, which either would be hardly anything or a major binge. Regardless of the quantity, I always had the urge to get it out of my system, asap. I would have to make myself sick, whether it be in my own home, at a friend’s house or out in public, I always found a way. Discreet, without anyone noticing.
I bounced from the restrictive extreme to the other end of the spectrum: the stuff-yourself-with-whatever-is-not-up-on-the-tree-in-five diet. I was now bulimic, a compulsive eater. I ate to feel better. I ate to numb my mind. I ate just so that I was doing something. Bingeing and purging became habitual, automatic, self-perpetuating.
Study, eat, puke, eat, work, eat, puke, work, puke, puke, puke, puke, bed.
I was a determined student by day, bulimic, well, the rest of the time. And no one knew about it. I was living a double life. Binging and purging is a private act that lurked in the shadows of my life, late at night. Often times I would eat "healthy" all day, but then have just a tiny bit of something that was a "bad food" which would trigger a whole binge followed by a wave of guilt leading to me lying sobbing on the cold bathroom floor.
Bingeing and purging is shameful, but it is also invisible: most bulimic people are at a normal weight, which makes it almost impossible for people to notice. I was both very sick and yet very functional; I was playing Varsity Volleyball, had good grades and loved to go out and be social. I probably loved going out a bit too much.
In fact, I was using going out and drinking alcohol as a way to numb myself, to take the focus off things in my life that I didn't want to deal with. I drank too much alcohol and caffeine. I was stressed and anxious. I wasn’t sleeping enough.I was out of touch with my body – in fact, I hated on it. I was trying to starve myself, cocktail in one hand, cigarette in the other.
Eventually I would find my way toward a more balanced life, but I still had a long way to go. And before it got better, it still had to get a whole lot worse.