It Didn't Start Out as an Eating Disorder
It didn’t start out as an eating disorder. I just thought I was sick.
Eight months ago I began experiencing severe stomach pain after I ate. It felt like I could only eat a few bites at a time and I was so full that I was in excruciating pain. Sharp, stabbing pains and bloating were the bane of my existence, seemingly resulting from even plain water consumption. The discomfort grew quickly, and I was fast to dismiss it as stress. I had just moved, changed jobs and was extremely busy working at the co-op farm where I boarded my horse. Things were moving at an alarming pace, and my body was paying the price for the overwhelming changes in my lifestyle.
What I didn’t expect was that the sick feeling in my stomach would grow into a huge mental health battle which I am still going through today.
As my pain grew worse, I started eating less and less — even when I was hungry and my stomach didn’t hurt. At first, I told myself I was just doing it just to feel more attractive — but as I look back, I realized that I developed a brand new coping mechanism for my stress. I replaced meals with diet coke, coffee or cigarettes and chugged as much water as I could when I started feeling dizzy. On the days when I did eat, if I deemed myself worthy of food, I was limiting my body to the fewest calories I could consume. It was easy to avoid eating when I was in pain — inevitably, I convinced myself it would only make things worse.
Eventually, my disorder began to wreak havoc on my relationship. I was in denial about the causes of my eating behaviors, and when my partner asked me about it I lied compulsively. Repeatedly, I blamed my lack of appetite on stomach pain. I figured it didn’t start out as an eating disorder, anyways — so I had nothing to worry about. I had always been pretty self-conscious; it was a symptom of my lifelong struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was always in decent shape and had curves in the “right” places, something my partner loved to compliment me about since we met. Suddenly, I found myself disgusted by every piece of fat I could find on my body. I stared at myself critically in the mirror, intensely ashamed of my stomach, thighs and “fat” face. I wasn’t seeing myself correctly, my mind was creating a misshapen image of my body and that was reflecting back at me each day.
There was no escape. It got to the point where I actually felt guilty that people had to bear the burden of looking at my body.
Previously, my partner and I had loved cooking meals together. We planned our time during the week around cooking and eating, and it was always a special way to spend our evenings and bonding time. Then, I stopped eating. I would spend hours cooking with my partner and sit there to watch him eat when we were done. Sometimes, I would allow myself to take a few bites, but I stopped myself as soon as the fear and guilt set in. Vocally, he expressed his concern, asking what was wrong and if I thought I was developing an eating disorder. I denied this wholeheartedly. He told me how it bothered him to eat alone, and that it was upsetting to him when I didn’t eat, so I began to lie to him at the end of the day about what I ate (which was usually nothing). I was so convinced I needed to starve to be happy, and that I would only deserve anything I really wanted if I was skinny. Instead, I was dizzy and felt nauseous all of the time. The acid in my constantly empty stomach was starting to cause a burning feeling in my GI tract, which I tried to soothe with copious amounts of water and black coffee. Mentally, I felt strained and exhausted. It was hard to sleep or focus, and I stayed as busy as possible, making me even more tired.
I lost weight. A lot. It took me awhile to notice it. When I first began to experience such aversion to my body, I started only wearing sports bras and shirts that would come up close to my neck so I could hide what I thought were my fat, disgusting breasts. Six months later, I would have to stuff my normal bras with a huge wad of Kleenex in order to wear them. My arms and face had thinned out significantly, and the bones in my chest were apparent. The once skin-tight tan riding breeches that I wore to horse shows hung off my body. My boyfriend protested adamantly that I was getting too skinny and he was really worried. I didn’t believe him for a second — I barely noticed my weight loss at all.
After months and months of waiting, I finally had a doctor’s appointment to address my stomach issues. For weeks, I was dreading this appointment. I knew they were going to weigh me, and I was so convinced that I hadn’t lost enough. I can remember my hands shaking violently when they called my name from the waiting room.
The confirmation of the number felt too good to be true. I was happy, and I wanted to be even skinnier. I acted like I was doing better, and I started eating three times a day. However, the portions I allowed myself were so small, I relentlessly plugged numbers into a calculator at work to make sure I never consumed more than a certain number of calories a day. I dropped even more weight. Nothing in my closet fit me anymore, and I was wearing lots of layers to avoid comments from other people. My body felt totally foreign to me and I barely recognized myself. I sat staring at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, seeing my once muscular shoulders gone, my rounded face now much more pointed and my thin arms. Crushingly, I felt more and more confident towards myself, but I was scared. I felt skinny, and that felt more deserving to me. I no longer felt dirty and repulsive. It felt like I had control.
I was seriously trying to avoid comments about my appearance when I went to my family’s house on Thanksgiving day. My family was not supportive or sensitive whatsoever, and I feared they would harass me about my body. I wore the most plain outfit possible to try to blend in and go unnoticed for the afternoon. To my dismay, this was not an effective strategy whatsoever.
“Oh, you lost weight. You look so much better.” My jaw almost dropped to the floor as my rude aunt looked me up and down. Feeling like I was going to explode into tears, I fled to the bathroom to breathe. It felt so crushing because I had been doing much better recently, and I almost had a shred of hope for returning back to my “normal” self.
My aunt reinforced the message that this was not an option.
I am still really trying to get better. I’m trying to remove those rose-colored glasses I use to look at my life when I was restricting — to remind myself that life was actually painful. I started seeing a new therapist and a nutritionist in hopes that I could live normally again, that there would be space in my mind for something other than my obsession. I keep trying to reflect on how starving myself put a strain on my relationship, my body and my brain, but it’s hard to not let the fear take over. It’s hard to eat more than a little at a time when my body has been used to living on empty for so long. Sometimes, I choose to let myself go — I choose to eat until I’m full, and eat what I really want. But that voice in my head is telling me I’m dirty, a heathen, fat and ugly for doing so and the fear kicks bad in. To this day, I feel I would do anything to get that voice gone for good. But, I keep trying to reinforce positive thoughts towards my body image in the hope that I can overcome my dysmorphia for good.
It didn’t start out as an eating disorder — it started out as an illness. And it grew into a monster.
Photo by Ilona Panych on Unsplash