When It's a Struggle to Recognize Your Own Eating Disorder

“Have you ever thought of maybe getting help?”

My boyfriend asked me this while we were eating lunch in a mall food court. Rather, he was eating lunch while I tried not to look at his pasta.

“I’m in therapy.” That was the only response I could think of.

“I mean… going away somewhere.”

And that’s when I started crying.

“Why are you upset?”

I couldn’t tell anyone I was broken down, crying because I had eaten a plate of cheese fries by myself. I couldn’t find the words to tell my friends I felt worthless because I had eaten food that day.

“Have you lost weight? You look amazing.”

I had lost weight. I didn’t think I looked amazing, but that was the validation I needed to keep doing what I was doing. I thought if I continued down my path of destruction, then I would finally be happy with the way I looked.

“I hope you feel better!”

I was leaving my best friend’s house at 6:30 a.m. I hadn’t slept at all that night. I had gotten lunch with a great friend who lived far away. It was supposed to be a day of catching up and exploring Georgetown. The moment I stepped out the doorway of her house, I threw up. I thought I would need to go to the hospital for most of that drive home.

“It’s OK. They already played my favorite song anyway.”

This same best friend found me in the bathroom of a club. We had gotten lunch earlier in the day before going to a concert that meant a lot to both of us. We had been planning this since my last visit. Apparently, the universe had other plans. I listened to most of the show from the bathroom, throwing up.

I didn’t think I needed any treatment. I didn’t look “sick.” I was never technically underweight. In fact, the last doctor I had seen told me I was a healthy weight and to “keep doing whatever I was doing.” It’s so hard to see the big picture when you’re right in the middle of it. Honestly, that’s the most dangerous part.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

I never purged. I thought if I drew the line there, then I would be able to say “Well, I don’t fit into bulimia, and I don’t fit into anorexia, so I’m fine.” That’s entirely not the case. When my therapist told me I was struggling with “disordered eating,” I brushed it off. I shouldn’t have. I was limiting my calories and doing an extreme amount of jumping jacks every day.

My health really went downhill this past summer. I was out of therapy for about three months, not good. I knew I was struggling with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety and major depressive disorder, but I always had been. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fighting a mental illness. It sucked I was having trouble finding a therapist, but I figured it was no different than when I was in high school without therapy.

Every day, my parents would ask me if I’d gone to see someone, and the answer was always no. That made me feel even worse than simply not being able to get an appointment. Telling them, “No, it’s been a month, but I’m not in therapy,” made me feel absolutely worthless. I felt like my parents thought I wasn’t trying, that I didn’t care.

“Do you think I enjoy feeling like this?”

“I cry every day.”

“I can’t breathe.”

Every time someone would tell me I wasn’t trying to get help, those were my go-to responses. My favorite was, “Well, I’m not sick. I’m a healthy weight, and honestly, I could stand to lose a few more pounds.”

I kept telling myself I wasn’t worthy of treatment, that my eating disorder was just in my head. I told myself I was just being dramatic, and there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. Finally, I called a treatment center, and they made my appointment within three days.

The woman on the phone told me to pack my things in case they wanted to admit me. In the back of my mind, I hoped they would. I couldn’t get better on my own. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to start eating. I could go to therapy, but I needed to be in a place where it wasn’t possible for me to act on symptoms, somewhere that I had no choice but to recover.

When they took my vitals, it didn’t hit me. When they were asking questions about my eating habits, it didn’t hit me. When my mom started to cry so hard that she couldn’t even speak, it didn’t hit me. When we toured the unit, it didn’t hit me.

All I thought was, “Wow, these patients look so sad.” When they searched me, it still hadn’t hit me. Yet, when I was in my first session of group therapy that night, I realized this wasn’t just an extended therapy session. I couldn’t go home at night and sleep in my own bed. I couldn’t talk to my boyfriend, except for on the three unit phones that were provided. I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself. In one day, so much had changed for me, and I didn’t know how long I would be there.

“Two weeks,” I would repeat over and over in my head. It became my mantra. I would journal every night. The heading of each entry was how many days I had been there. I was so homesick. I missed my friends, my family and my cat. I just wanted to go home, cuddle up with my loved ones and sleep for the rest of my life. That was honestly the hardest part of treatment for me.

I was in treatment for a little more than a month, and I learned so much while I was there. I found out a lot about myself. I found out my anxiety isn’t just regular anxiety. I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I found out my mind, body and emotions are all disconnected. I found out I really did have a fear of foods. I realized what I was doing was incredibly destructive and unhealthy. I found out I wanted to recover.

In the grand scheme of things, one month isn’t long. When you’re in an inpatient program, it seems like forever. I did the same things every single day and saw patient after patient completely discharge before my psychiatrist would even discuss stepping to a lower level of treatment. I’m so glad I didn’t discharge when I thought I was ready to. I would have already relapsed and would still be inpatient.

Recovery sucks, but recovery is also really awesome. I’m still going through it, and I probably will be for a long time. I still struggle with meals, and I still have problems with body dysmorphia. I still have PTSD and anxiety, and I’m still depressed. I still have an almost non-existent self-worth.

However, now I’m able to identify that. I know things need to change, and I have a wonderful support system to help me. My recovery is what I make it. There are lows and highs, but eventually, I’ll come out on the other side. Without treatment, I wouldn’t be able to see a better life, but now, I can. I want to be healthy and happy.

I want to live.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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