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Developing a Fear of Eating After Gaining Weight With Chronic Illness

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“I had to follow a diet like that before. The weight just fell off me.”

I was chatting to a waitress about the medical nutrition plan I was on for my condition. She was lovely; extremely friendly and genuinely curious about my condition, which is refreshing when you are usually just perceived as a “high maintenance” customer. I knew it was a casual, throwaway comment. She meant nothing malicious by it. She was not implying I needed to lose weight.

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

A side effect of my condition is that my metabolism doesn’t function. I have been trying to lose weight for several years. Despite an extremely healthy, nutritious diet completely devoid of refined sugar, processed food and junk food, it is a struggle just to maintain my weight.  I am on a strict nutritional plan for my stomach problems, and while the treatment is focused on improving my chronic fatigue symptoms and stomach issues, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated that my weight will not decrease despite my lifestyle. Conversely, it often increases for no discernible reason.

Needless to say, this has affected my relationship with food. Food has become a source of anxiety. I follow my nutrition plan to the letter because I want nothing more than to get better, but I am also terrified that it will make me gain weight. I’m afraid of eating eliminated foods and triggering a stomach flare. I’m constantly self-conscious, railing against a body that is letting me down in every way. I fight a mental battle every meal, between two voices screaming “I have to eat this to get better” and “If I eat all this food I’ll gain weight.”

The casual comment that the waitress made that day was a reminder to me that my body doesn’t work. That it doesn’t respond to food and lifestyle changes like everyone else’s. My weight is an aesthetic indicator that I am sick, that doctors don’t know what is causing it and aren’t sure how to treat it. My body image issues have spiraled, becoming an external marker of my invisible illness, a projection of the frustrations of chronic illness.

My condition means that I can’t work, that I find it difficult to have any kind of social life and that I feel as though I have lost all control of my life. Yet the symptom I focus on the most is how it affects the way that I look. I feel as though this is something I should be able to control, and my failure to do so echoes the helplessness I feel about my health. It has become a disappointment that I see every time I looked in the mirror.

I was terrified to admit I had a problem with food. I didn’t want to add another condition to a list of symptoms that already felt overwhelming. I was afraid people would think I had caused my condition through my attitude to food (even though it long preceded my food issues). I was also concerned that I would have to stop my treatment. While the stress of the rigid plan and of constantly analyzing and calculating calories and nutrients was affecting my mental health, I was also petrified of losing that structure, and the hope that it could help me.

I have a long way to go. I have to learn to balance my physical treatments with my issues surrounding food. I must find a way of nurturing both my physical and mental health. I need to accept my body as it is, and focus on getting it physically healthy rather than on how it looks aesthetically. I know this will take time. I wish this was a post on how I overcame these issues, but really this is about how I have only just accepted it. I’m still trying to fully process it and all the different ways it affects my life.

There is only one piece of advice I can give – if you think you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it. It was tough to admit I was having problems with food. My therapist is working with me on my psychological attitude to food. My doctor altered my treatment plan so that it is not as emotionally draining but should still help my condition. I found it hard to say that I needed help, that I was struggling. Acknowledging it meant I had to deal with it, and honestly I was already exhausted from coping with my chronic illness. It was only after I opened up and sobbed and raged and felt the weight lift off my chest that I realized how much it was affecting me. Like any recovery, I have good days and bad days. Some days I feel fine, others it’s completely overwhelming. I know how scary it is to deal with, but you’re not alone. Don’t struggle by yourself in silence.

I know it will be a long road to recovery, but I don’t have to walk it alone. And neither do you.

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Thinkstock photo via LucidSurf.

Originally published: February 16, 2017
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