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When I Was Diagnosed With an Eating Disorder I'd Never Heard Of

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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 “NEDA” to 741-741.

It’s Thursday and I’m sitting down for a typical lunch, packed with all the nutrients I could possibly need for the day. It might not seem obvious from the snapshot of one meal, but this is what my eating disorder looks like.

On a brisk February evening during my sophomore year of college, I was enjoying (what we considered) a high quality meal at one of the dining halls with a longtime friend. Somewhere in the course of our animated conversation, I inhaled a piece of food. I coughed as forcefully and as gracefully as possible without drawing attention to the fact that I thought I was choking. After a few intervals of this, it still felt like an object was teetering on some razor’s edge between my larynx and my esophagus. It wasn’t full on zero oxygen choking, but it felt like it could happen at any second. With all of the hacking and water guzzling, the feeling didn’t go away and I thought death was imminent.

I immediately called the one friend I knew with a car (thanks Rahul!) and we spent the next four hours, on a school night no less, sitting in an ER in the middle of central Illinois. A lot of sitting and an inconclusive chest X-ray later, the doctor, in his doctor jargon, said it was likely that if a piece of food was lodged, it had since passed. Rahul, my vehicle-wielding hero, and I headed back to campus, tired but cheerful that my incident hadn’t resulted in something worse.

Between classes the next day, I ducked into the dining hall for my usual lunch. I put a large forkful of spinach in my mouth and prepared to swallow leafy green goodness. But the second I did, my throat instantly constricted and the choking feeling I felt the night before returned, stronger than before. Spitting out my previously favorite food, I cautiously got a bowl of soup and yogurt, convinced I couldn’t choke on liquids.

The next months were plagued with paralyzing fear of choking on food. My sole sources of nutrients were mostly liquids. Determined to not feel alone about my anxiety, but terrified to tell anyone for fear of looking “crazy,” I took to the anonymous internet, googling in my free time to see if anyone else experienced this affliction: the paranoid fear of solid foods.

The answers I found were both comforting and disappointing. For instance, many infants will display a fear and avoidance of swallowing following a choking incident. But a 19-year-old? Trying to fit my problem into a neat little box, I stumbled upon a relatively new disorder called avoidant and restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

As of 2013, the 5th edition of the DSM, the standard manual of psychological disorders, broadened the previously selective eating disorder (SED) and renamed it ARFID. ARFID is characterized as, “an eating or feeding disturbance associated with one or more of the following: significant weight loss or failure to achieve expected weight gain or faltering growth in children, significant nutritional deficiency, dependence on enteral feeding or oral nutritional supplements, marked interference with psychosocial functioning. 

ARFID largely encompasses those who we think of as picky eaters: the texture, temperature and even color-sensitive folks — even sometimes the broccoli haters. AFRID causes my strict dietary preferences to interfere with my nutrition, social life and psychological well-being.

Nearly two and a half years later, eating solid food is still a scary task. The difference between “sophomore me” and “now me” is massive though. I’ve gone from nonchalantly always ordering soup at restaurants (in my experience, that’s an easy way to indicate that you have a funky eating habit) and hiding bottles of boost in my bags (which is a staple, nutrient dense drink commonly given to elderly people) to making food hierarchies and forcing myself to try foods that scare me, even in small quantities. I still get weird about eating out and eating in front of people and eating certain foods, but then I remember that I have an eating disorder. And like any health problem, it won’t resolve overnight.

While it seems silly that I wouldn’t want to tell people about my ARFID, the fact that I often get scared to do something as simple and necessary as eating is equally silly. After all, the amount of people who eat every day without issue is exponentially greater than those who find it difficult and nerve wracking. As much grief as I give it, living with ARFID has given me plenty of pleasant memories too: the time the TSA took away my peanut butter on the way to London, the alarming amount of cottage cheese I ate at summer camp, my odd tendency to eat hummus plain.

Though it’s not always easy and definitely not enjoyable, eating disorders can get better. 10 million men and 20 million women in the United States alone will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. Here’s to telling more of their stories.

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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Thinkstock photo via Inner_Vision

Originally published: August 11, 2017
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