Mental illness and body image are not exactly two topics to be discussed lightly.
Being an individual who has anxiety and has had an eating disorder in the past, I feel as though it is extremely important to be open and vulnerable in order to communicate the reality of both topics.
The development of my eating disorder began when I was in grade eleven. I was in a pretty brutal car accident with my grandparents, and both of them still deal with a majority of health issues as a result of the accident to this day.
Unbelievably, I was uninjured – physically, at least.
Shortly after the accident I began to display signs of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which over time fuelled the fire for my eating disorder to develop. I have always been active and have always been interested in nutrition and healthy eating, but over time food and exercise became a means for me to exhibit rigid control over my mind and body. I refused to consume over 700 calories a day at my lowest point (the daily recommendation is minimum 1200), and was running for at least 60 minutes everyday after school, on top of attending rugby practice 4 days a week. Obviously not a healthy lifestyle. I am 5’9, and prior to the accident I weighed approximately 160 pounds. By the time my mom and dad told me I had to get some help, I weighed approximately 115.
My fitness teacher at my high school at the time actually called my mom one afternoon during her class, and asked my mom what was going on with me. The two of them talked for a while, and my mom gave my teacher her consent to approach me and talk to me about what I was doing. That very same day after getting home from school, my mom told me she had called McMaster hospital in Hamilton and had enrolled me in their eating disorder program.
I remember being so incredibly angry. Angry at my teacher, angry and my mom, my dad, my sister, my friends… Numerous times friends and family had tried to ask me what was going on, or had tried to express concern, but I shut them out, not wanting anyone to invade on my strict regime of control. The weird thing is that prior to the start of my eating disorder, I never really had any body image issues. Sure, I figured I could use a few pounds, tone up my legs and abs, but by no means did I ever see myself as overweight when I looked in the mirror. A question I get asked a lot when I tell people about my eating disorder is if whether I still saw myself as fat or overweight while I was rapidly losing weight. I never did, before, during, or after my disorder. I still can’t really explain why I started dieting and exercising so compulsively. It started with wanting to lose a couple of pounds, and once I saw results, I was hooked.
So, I very reluctantly went with my mom to McMaster. Looking back, I think the only reason I agreed to go was because I was aware of the damage I was doing to my family. My mom, dad and sister were so scared and so unsure of what to do, and at the time, nothing they could have done would have stopped me. I was so determined to maintain my obsessive control over my mind and body, it didn’t matter to me at that point if I was slowly killing myself.
At McMaster, I went through a lot of counselling sessions – some with my mom present, some without. I had a lot of tests done like blood work, an ECG, endless assessments of my vitals, an physical examination of my entire body… I really can’t even remember it all. After a couple of hours my mom and I were called back in to a room together, and I was told I had a combination of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia. The Bulimia diagnosis confused me, because I wasn’t purging my food after eating by vomiting or taking laxities. The doctor explained to me that instead of purging my food in ways typical to someone with Bulimia, I was purging through my obsessive running.
For the next six months or so my mom and I would drive back and fourth to McMaster every couple of weeks for checkups and physical evaluations. I was prescribed anxiety medication to help with my panic over being told I had to consume more food and more calories, and exercise less. I was absolutely terrified. I had worked so hard to lose weight, and I was being told I had to gain it back. I was extremely hesitant and reluctant at first, but once I started eating food in greater quantities, and furthermore food I had not allowed myself to eat during the duration of my disorder, like chocolate and pasta and dairy, I found myself unable to stop. The doctor told me my body was so starved that its detection of food I hadn’t eaten in so long sent it into overdrive, a frenzy, which is why I then developed Binge eating disorder. Every night for about three months, I would eat anything and everything in sight, to the point where I had to try extremely hard not to vomit it all back up. I hated it and it made me so sad and broken inside, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t stop. I ended up gaining back around 30 pounds in two weeks, and in a couple of months I was back up to my normal weight.
I would love to say that today I am completely satisfied and confident with my body, but I’m not, and I think that it is really unrealistic to say I am. I still have the occasional binge, though not nearly to the same extent as I did a couple of years ago. My weight goes up and down still, but I have to be very careful not to allow myself to fall back into my old habits. I still count each and every calorie I eat, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to stop doing so. I work out every day, though in a much more controlled manner, and I don’t run anymore. I have developed a lot of stomach issues as a result of my disorder, and I am still trying to get such issues resolved and figured out.
My family and my gym teacher are honestly the two sole reasons I went for help and pulled myself out of such destructive behaviour. Had my fitness teacher not called my mom that day, I don’t know where I would be now, and I don’t want to know. Having friends and family who are supportive and loving are so essential in the life of someone with an eating disorder, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to communicate to my friends and family how grateful I am for their determination to get me better.
I wanted to share my experience with mental illness and body image issues because I feel as though it’s an issue that impacts a massive amount of people in today’s society. I don’t think it is something to be ashamed of, or to live in fear of. It’s something that a lot of people can relate to, and I think being able to talk to someone who has gone through a similar experience is one of the best ways to come to terms with the fact that resolution needs to be sought. For a school project last year, I had to create a blog on a topic of my choosing, and I chose to do a blog about societal influences on female body image. Here is the link to that, if you wish to check it out: https://laurenarva.wordpress.com
If you ever want to chat about mental illness or body image, leave a comment below and I would be happy to talk.