By Sarah Sticklen
Most people erroneously think having an eating disorder means you are currently starving yourself or running to the bathroom after meals. However, an eating disorder does not always result in hospitalization or rehabilitation. An eating disorder is not always noticeable. An eating disorder, for many men and women, is not something that is automatically overcome just because you begin eating “normally” again.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, an eating disorder is defined as “any of a range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits.” In addition, people with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are thought to be perfectionists with low self-esteem and are extremely critical of themselves and their bodies. They usually “feel fat” and see themselves as overweight, despite the life-threatening malnutrition that can result. Those with eating disorders suffer from an intense fear of gaining weight and of being fat, which can become all-consuming. Often times, those suffering will deny they even have a problem.
Does this sound like you? I never thought of myself as having an eating disorder until I was 22. I thought failing at fully starving myself, failing to throw up, failing to lose weight after laxatives and diet pills were all just ways that I failed at being thin, and ultimately, ways I failed as a human. I wished I could have the will to not eat. I wanted an eating disorder; I wanted to succeed at not eating just as I had done in previous years. The whole time, I failed to realize I was suffering from the disorder.
Living with an eating disorder is the physical manifestation of your psychological neuroses that make you feel both disgusting and unworthy. Eating is one thing we can control, and whether you are in a situation in your life that feels out of your control, or you are a natural perfectionist, there is something so rewarding about feeling your hunger and then depriving yourself of your needs. There is something satisfying about the emptiness.
My eating disorder began in junior high. In the sixth grade, my new year’ s resolution was to “get skinny.” In the eighth grade, I began “dieting.” I brought an apple to lunch, as my lunch. I’d occasionally make half a sandwich. If I were feeling generous, I’d throw in a Yoplait Light. At first, the high of not eating is exhilarating. I felt that I could survive on apples and yogurts and small portions of whatever my parents made for dinner.
I loved how I felt after about a month of “dieting,” but I also hated myself. I would sit in class and make lists of all the food I was going to indulge in once I was “skinny enough.” When the holidays came, I “gave up.” I binge ate everything. I would go to a friend’s house and eat until I couldn’t move, then I would go home and repeat. I wore the same Missouri Southern softball sweatshirt and (size 2, I was so proud) American Eagle jeans because I couldn’t look at myself in anything else. I gained 20 pounds and became my heaviest weight, and I would spend hours on my bathroom floor crying and trying to make myself throw up. I stuck my toothbrush down my throat, but nothing happened. I failed at not eating, and I failed at releasing the food too. I felt stuck.
Eventually, my mom intervened, and then softball season started back up, and I was on a healthier track. I kept the weight off until the 10th grade, and I ballooned again, a combination of recovering from ACL reconstruction and the soft cookies and bosco sticks at Joplin High School. In the 11th grade, I was healthier and more active. In the 12th grade, my body refused to process wheat, and I got a head start at becoming thin again by getting sick almost every day. In the spring of 2011, I became obsessed with being thin again.
Yes, trauma is a common cause, and not eating was a way I coped with the death of a friend in the May 2011 tornado, but truth be told, I was already looking down the rabbit hole. There are pictures of me from April of 2011, when I was very thin, and I’m sticking my elbows out perpendicular to my body to make my arms look as thin as possible. I look like an idiot. I left 7th hour early almost every week in the spring to get on the elliptical for an hour, and I thought a non-fat chai latte was an adequate “lunch.” After the tornado, I was grieving and it made depriving myself of food easy, but that was not the cause of the disorder. After all, I already had done this before.
The summer of 2011 was the thinnest I have ever been. My whole being was concerned with being and staying thin. I weighed myself several times a day. I told myself I would stop once I got below 130 pounds. Then it was 125 pounds. Then it was 120…
The thing is, when you have an eating disorder, there is no end fitness or weight loss goal. The battle is against the way you feel about yourself, not the way others feel about you. It is not a number or a size or the ability to run three miles or do a certain number of pull-ups. The goal is deprivation. The goal is emptiness. The goal is feeling absolutely weightless. There is a high you feel when you have not eaten a full meal in a few days and your mind seems to have taken control over your body; you have become too busy too eat, too distracted too eat, too sad, too anxious, too happy, too everything, and you no longer are a slave to the bag of chips or cookies or cheese you could not put down the week earlier. The food you ate so much of that you almost threw it all up? You wish you had thrown it all up. Why couldn’t you throw it all up?!
Time periods of disordered eating are quiet and secretive, and embarrassing. With a diet, you want to let everyone know the sacrifices you are making in the name of health. With an eating disorder, you don’t want anyone to know what’s going on behind closed doors. When I was not eating, I would purposefully eat tons of junk food in front of my friends. I didn’t want anyone in on my secret, that I was ordinarily having a handful of pretzels and an iced coffee for lunch.
My parents caught on quickly. It wasn’t hard. I wasn’t exactly great at hiding the meltdowns when they made me eat real meals instead of coffee and a bran muffin all day. And I was compulsively running and compulsively working out. On the way up to Chicago to drop me off at school, my dad threatened that if I didn’t put weight on by Parents’ Weekend, he was sending me somewhere to get help. I remember thinking I would be a fraud at some rehab facility. I’m not thin enough to be anorexic. I know how to eat! I’m a pig.
But I did need help. I could barely keep up on the softball field. I felt dizzy, and I was visibly weaker than my teammates, though I loved how they all made me take the smallest uniforms. At first, I refused to drink because I couldn’t incorporate alcohol into my daily calorie intake. Softball was miserable, and I was still looking for ways to control something, anything. And then I quit softball and started socializing. I realized how crazy I had been to not eat. So I started eating whatever, because I was still thinner than everyone at school. I began binge eating. I would drink just so I could justify eating late at night. I would hardly eat all day and then I would eat and eat and eat all night with my friends. I put on a legitimate 40 pounds my first two years of college, and my world felt like it had come to an end.
I spent most of college berating myself, wondering how I could have let myself slip so low. I took laxatives frequently, an unhealthy amount at an unhealthy frequency. I bought diet pills of all kinds and all price ranges, I put them on my credit card. I figured my parents would want me to lose weight, too. I stayed in bed for a quarter, skipping all social events, because I couldn’t fit into any of my clothes. I couldn’t fit into any of my size 4 and size 6 clothes, to clarify. I couldn’t take pictures. I couldn’t attend events. I knew I was too heavy to intern in Chicago or New York or any of the places my friends were applying. I knew I was too heavy to study abroad, I would be shunned in Europe, so I never applied for anything and I hardly experienced the city.
The thing was, though, no one knew this. I was the social chair of my sorority. I was the “honorary Sweetheart” of Delta Upsilon and the elected Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. I showed up to the library every day like everyone else, and I attended every on-campus event social event and frat party, where I could get away with wearing yoga pants and leggings and an oversized t-shirt. No one knew that the fun DG who knew everyone on campus, the girl who “had the most fun at UChicago,” was ordinarily miserable, and was coping with binge eating or not eating at all.
When I turned 22, I started paying attention to health articles concerning eating disorders. My eyes were opened, and I was inspired to take the reigns from the disorder and begin living my life. My erratic eating behaviors and intense weight fluctuations from ages 13-21 were not simply unhealthy, they were psychological manifestations of my need for control and perfection and my disdain for myself for continuously falling short. I incorporated a strict diet and exercise program, which evolved into being kinder to myself. In law school, friends consulted me on eating and exercise. They told me in great detail what they were meal prepping or what workout regimens they were completing, almost as if to gain my approval, as if I was some sort of expert because I ate homemade salads for lunch and attended daily fitness classes. Everyone must have thought I had this totally healthy relationship with myself, but I was just trying to get out of my own way.
Because disordered eating is so psychological, though I am not still practicing those destructive habits, I still undergo frequent battles against extremely negative self-image and the resulting anxiety that could easily lead me straight back down that path if I did not have the knowledge, tools, and team that I now do. It took me years to get here, though. Admitting you have an eating disorder is embarrassing, especially because part of the disorder is you feel you’re “too fat” to have an eating disorder in the first place. In fact, after I volunteered to write this article, I spent a week worrying about a) no one taking my input of this issue seriously because I never thought I was “thin enough” to qualify as dealing with an eating disorder, and b) how embarrassing it is to publicly admit I live with disordered eating and quite possibly, a warped perception of myself.
But maybe that is exactly it—throughout my life, I was always so concerned with how other people viewed me physically, that my physical appearance became the very thing I criticized myself for the most. The thing I realized in my 20s is that all of us are going through our own separate journeys with our own unique struggles. If you are struggling with disordered eating, you are not alone!
The first step is being honest with yourself. I no longer weigh myself. I don’t look at the number on the scale at the doctor’s office. Yes, it’s partly because I am afraid of what the numbers will say, and then I know I’ll hone in on a number until I reach well below that. But it’s also because I feel good. I focus on being strong.
I am extremely critical of the size of my arms, but you know what? These arms made me stand out on the softball field. Without the strength of my arms, I wouldn’t have that extra-special-something that helped me get accepted to the University of Chicago, a dream school for me. Without my arms, I wouldn’t have met friends all over the country. I’m always going to have an athletic body with curves. That’s just me. And when that fails, on a humorous note, I remind myself some women pay thousands of dollars for what I naturally have. Those thin women I envy? They shell out the big bucks for the curves I’ve spent my whole life trying to diminish! How is that for irony? We are all struggling together.
Don’t be afraid to seek help, and if you simply need a push in the right direction, follow Instagram accounts promoting body positivity. Following @womenshealthmag and @shape helped me look at myself differently. I recently discovered @thechain, a peer support network for young women struggling with eating disorders, and the account is currently everything to me. There are a thousand little ways to become more connected with others’ struggles and, in turn, receive insight into your own perceived shortcomings. Find inspiration in daily living, and find inspiration in yourself.