When a Part of Me Is Afraid of Looking 'Healthy' Again
Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
I’ve always been naturally slender. I wasn’t a skinny child, but I was most certainly not overweight. My parents kept me away from junk food and soda, so I never developed cravings for processed foods early on. At my “adult/adolescent” height of 5 feet 5 inches tall, I most certainly was slender, but my body mass index was in the low to normal range, so no one ever worried.
By 16, I was unknowingly exhibiting early signs of Crohn’s disease, which I was officially diagnosed with about two years later. I started losing weight rapidly, passing blood, having abdominal pain, and seeing my body change in strange and sometimes frightening ways. Yet I chose to, for the most part, ignore these symptoms. I told myself that was just the way I was, and I lived like this until I was hospitalized for severe pain, an abscess, a high fever and a devastating E. coli infection, which left the doctors mystified for the 16 days that my hospitalization lasted. By age 18, I was officially diagnosed with “severe Crohn’s disease.”
By the time I was released from the hospital, I had lost weight from not eating properly, no longer being able to absorb nutrients properly and simply being too weak and nauseous from the antibiotics I was prescribed.
I tried to gain weight after my hospitalization by drinking Ensure (which was a screaming battle) and eating Häagen-Dazs ice cream and protein bars, but none of it helped. My gastroenterologist started me on the medication everyone swore would “make me feel like a different person.”
As luck would have it, the medicine ended up not working, and by this time, I had switched doctors, since I was now an adult patient and needed a non-pediatric gastroenterologist. He suggested I switch to a newer drug, which was more gut-specific and had just exited its trial period with great results. I started my first year of college the same week I started my first infusion of this new medicine.
But it was an even worse fit for my body than my old medication, and I soon started losing even more weight. No matter what I ate, I was unable to absorb any nutrients, and my weight dropped. This worried my parents and my doctors, but I didn’t really seem to be bothered by it. I was “skinny” now — it was part of my identity as a sick person. I was completely miserable, passing massive amounts of blood and was extraordinarily fatigued, but my weight loss didn’t bother me. I kind of look like a runway model, I thought to myself. This loss of control wasn’t too bothersome to me, since it adhered to society’s obsession with thinness, weight loss and the Kate Moss look of the runway. (I’ve always been a fan of runway fashion.)
Eventually, my doctor agreed that the new medicine didn’t seem to be doing the job, and suggested giving my old medication one last try. Finally, it seemed to be doing the job. I felt stronger and more energetic — I was getting healthier! My bloodwork was getting closer and closer to normal every time I went in to do labs, and then one day I looked in the mirror. I flipped.
My breasts looked bigger, my thighs were touching, my cheeks weren’t hollowed and I didn’t have dark circles under my eyes. The funniest thing? I was at a “normal weight” for my body type. For the first time in a while, I looked healthy — and it freaked me out. I started crying. My body was changing, and it wasn’t because of a diet change or lack of exercise — the medicine was simply helping my body absorb the nutrients it needed to survive, to climb out of the flare I’d been struggling with for so long.
My mind knew this. But another part of my mind started hating my healthy body. I was used to having a sick body, and I hadn’t seen my healthy body for almost a year — and that frightened me. I started obsessing over the change in my breast size. I hated the way I looked and hated the way a medication was making these changes to my body.
Then slowly, for whatever reason, the medication stopped working again. By the time I entered my sophomore year, I knew something was off. I was experiencing more pain, more bleeding and the pounds were dropping off again. This time, however, my stomach had shrunk. I couldn’t (and still can’t) eat a normal meal without feeling ridiculously stuffed, sometimes even throwing up because I couldn’t hold my food down. The pounds kept dropping and dropping—and again, my mind embraced this. I had so glued my identity to that of “a sick person” that my steadily lowering weight was almost comforting. It was my normal. I felt like myself — like the person I deserved to be. Because ever since being diagnosed, some part of my mind has told me that for some reason I cannot fathom, I deserved to get this illness; that I should stay sick for the rest of my life because that is simply my fate.
As I’m writing this, I weigh less as a 19-year-old than I did as an eighth grader. I’ve switched medication once again, and my doctor is hopeful that it will work. Part of me is hopeful that it will work, too.
But a huge part of me is terrified of looking “normal” or “healthy” again. Crohn’s disease can trigger something called “disordered eating,” which is, essentially, abnormal eating patterns or habits that stem from pain while eating, nausea while eating or shrunken stomachs. Thanks to the issues with food and food consumption my disease has gifted me, I have come to identify with being unhealthily thin. I know this isn’t a weight I can survive at for a long time. And still, I remain terrified of being normal. My disease has become such a large part of my identity, just like my sexual orientation or my eye color, that I am terrified of it changing, just as if I woke up with brown eyes tomorrow morning — except worse, because brown eyes have nothing to do with how I regard the number on the scale.
I know that I have deep-seated body image issues at this point. I wish I’d addressed them sooner; wish I’d seen a mental health professional sooner. I’m still so terrified to talk about it, because I don’t want it to be my reality — and because I don’t want to change, even though I know staying this way will hurt my mental and physical health even further.
There are many things I wish I’d done differently; wish my doctors had done differently. But I have to accept that those things have passed; now, I need to accept that my chronic illness has given me body image issues, and that I need to put in serious work in trying to accept that in order to live a happy, full life, I will need to make peace with a healthier body.
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