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The Danger of Numbers in Eating Disorder Recovery

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When people see me, they often see somebody that is healthy, skinny and fit. As someone who was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in her early teenage years and finally received treatment in her early 20s, I can say what they told me about my recovery is not what it looks like for me today.

I started obsessing about my physical appearance right when I entered high school and began to rapidly lose weight. I restricted and exercised excessively to keep the number on the scale down. I was rather successful – until my body started giving up. My organs started to fail. I received treatment briefly when I was about 17 – this consisted of my pediatrician sending me to a clinic with a nutritionist for weekly weigh-ins. I had a goal to put on X amount of weight. I have always achieved highly and I met my goal in a few weeks and was discharged.

Fast forward to my early 20s when I cycled in and out of various PHP and IOP programs. Through these programs and my stay at a residential treatment facility (same program), I received treatment for my major depressive disorder and anorexia nervosa. However, the treatment was fixated on the number on the scale. I had weekly weigh-ins and had to track my caloric intake. While it is true I had a part of treatment focused on the reasoning driving my eating disorder and what a balanced diet looks like to help me develop a different relationship with food, a major focus of treatment was the number.

The number became the focus of my sessions – you gained this week, you lost the next week. Every time I lost and didn’t meet a goal, I felt like I failed. I did whatever I could to ensure an upward trend of my numbers each week to not feel like I was a failure. When I knew I didn’t follow my prescribed diet plan, I made sure my pockets had keys, phones, weights, etc. to ensure I did not fail. The number drove my recovery and once I met the number, I was deemed “recovered.”

The thing is, there was no looking at my actual health – blood work, organ function, etc.  I hit a number and that was it. To this day, the number dominates much of my everyday life. I weigh myself at minimum twice, every morning and every evening. I weight myself without clothes on. I want to know the exact number, the truth of what I gained, what I lost, or if I maintained. If my body was hungry and telling me it needed fuel one day and as a result I snacked extra, the next day I would make up for it on a longer run or a second workout. No matter how much I am hurting physically, I still push myself because in the end, the number is all that matters in my head.

While the treatment facility many years ago deemed me recovered and healthy, I don’t know if I truly am. Every day, I let the scale dictate how I feel about my body, how much I will eat that day, and how much I will exercise. I was not given the tools to trust that my body will navigate itself to keep me healthy how my body needs it. I don’t know how to not see the number because in my treatment, I was told the number meant recovered and healthy.

I get comments from colleagues (and sometimes strangers) more and more frequently now about how I am a “stick” and how I am really thin. The dress code where I work is business casual, and my clothes, while they are not skin tight, are also not baggy, so I look professional each day. As a result, my figure shows more now that I cannot hide behind a computer screen while working
remotely (I returned in-person in August 2021). The comments I get include being told I am lucky that I can eat whatever I can, that I don’t have to worry
about my food intake because I am just a stick.

The truth is, though, recovery is not linear, it’s not easy, and it’s not pretty. What people see on the outside is someone who is healthy and can eat whatever she likes because she is skinny. The truth behind the exterior shell is that I still restrict every day, I still subconsciously calorie count, and I still exercise more than necessary to create a calorie deficit each and every day.

This is recovery: restricting just enough to not let anybody suspect anything is wrong and doing what you can to not let those around you know you are struggling because at the end of the day, you have been deemed recovered.

Getty image by kuniharu wakabayashi

Originally published: March 12, 2022
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