February 22 to 28 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. We'll be sharing information about this important issue throughout the week, from what to do if you or a friend is suffering from an eating disorder to how to love your body just the way it is! Be sure to check out all of our content here.
If there’s one thing I’ve always known, it’s that I’m skinny. Growing up, everyone around me always commented on my weight—or lack thereof. I never knew for sure if I was smart, or kind, or even just pretty, but I always knew that I was thin. If nothing else, it was drilled into me that I had a great figure.
These comments set the bar for my self worth: they gave me the sense that I was valuable for being skinny. It also set the stage for my development of what I now know to be an eating disorder.
During my junior year of high school, things became hectic, to say the least. Besides being enrolled in several honors classes and working hard to earn straight A’s, I was looking at colleges, taking the SATs, acting as secretary of the theatre company as well as acting in its productions, writing for my local newspaper, and trying to balance some semblance of a social life which included navigating the waters of my first relationship. I felt like everything I did demanded perfection, and despite being a generally laid-back person, I felt panicked as everything slipped out of my control, including my body. The year before, during my sophomore year, I had gone on birth control to correct some problems with my period and went from a twiggy B cup to a voluptuous D in a matter of months. This played a huge part in how I viewed myself. Truthfully, weight-wise, little changed, but I felt so much more curvy and uncomfortable with my new body.
So I tried to gain control in a way I saw fit. I stopped eating. But only for a few days at a time, just enough so that I could gain that feeling of emptiness and skinniness that I so craved. Eventually, I would snap out of these spells, overwhelmed by hunger or appalled by what I was doing to myself. I figured this was just a stress-relieving device, nothing more. But when I started my freshman year of college, what I dismissed as a coping mechanism revealed itself to be an actual disease: one with which I would struggle for the next few years and probably continue to deal with for the rest of my life.
My freshman year of college, I once again became overwhelmed with a busy schedule. I was feeling the normal stress that comes with moving to a new city and starting college; and on top of all that, I was dealing with the breakup of my high school relationship, only adding to the loneliness I felt at a new school where I knew nobody. I was miserable. So I gradually began my fasting habits again, not eating until two or three in the afternoon and even then, not eating more than a bowl of soup. I became obsessed with being thin again, to the point where it was all I could focus on at times. All my problems would be solved if I could just be thin—at least, that’s what I told myself. But as I settled in and school became more manageable, those habits died down a little bit.
However, I could not kick my habit completely. By the time I entered sophomore year, I was feeling better, but I was still well aware of the fact that what was going on with me was not normal. At the end of my freshman year, I did a project for my speech class on eating disorders, hoping that it would give me an excuse to look into what might be wrong with me. It was then that I learned I might have what’s now known as an “other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED). According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, half of the people who have eating disorders fall under this category. Basically, I was showing symptoms of anorexia without the significant weight loss. Despite the commonality of OSFEDs and the high mortality rate associated with such illnesses, I had never heard of them—and I didn’t feel like I was sick enough to deserve help.
It wasn’t until I studied abroad during the second semester of my sophomore year that I truly began to feel like I was in a grave situation. Again, copious amounts of stress and transition in my life triggered my need to control my weight, only this time to a new level. Not only was I restricting my food intake to increasingly insufficient portions each day, but I also began using laxatives. I did not care about their effectiveness or the health risks associated with taking them. I was just so focused on losing weight that I would do anything to gain the feeling of emptiness that came with taking them.
The same went for my other weight loss methods that I picked up from pro-anorexic websites—sites that support and encourage eating disorders. I would drink water before every meal as well as between bites so I’d feel full more quickly. I began snapping a hair elastic against my wrist anytime I ate so I’d associate food with pain. I was an addict, willing to try anything to get that high that came from feeling weightless.
The worst part was about this was I thought no one cared. I had told my ex-boyfriend that I thought something might be wrong with me during our freshman year. He said he’d intervene if “it got bad,” and then rarely mentioned it again. I also confided my suspicions in another friend, but she stopped hanging out with me shortly after and I always suspected that my confession was why. When I saw how others reacted, I felt that I didn’t deserve any help, and came to believe that what was going on with me wasn’t really a problem.
Luckily, I got a much-needed change in perspective over my spring break in Venice with some of my friends. We had gone out to several bars one night and I was definitely feeling the effects of what I’d been drinking. I ended up sitting in the bar of our hostel with my friend, Chris, and drunkenly confessing that I’d been taking laxatives. I started crying right there in the bar, feeling that, despite the wonderful time I was having being abroad, I was at an all-time low. But Chris took care of me. He forced me to calm down and think about what I should do. But he recognized what was going on with me as a problem and his compassion made all the difference.
After telling Chris, I managed to open up to a few more friends, all of who confirmed that what I was experiencing was a problem and I should get help. Despite their support, I remained terrified to tell my parents. My laxative intake only increased over the following summer as my habit became out of control.
It wasn’t until I got back to school in the fall of my junior year that I began to get help and improve. I started seeing a counselor at school, which eventually led to my diagnosis and my strength to tell the people most important to me in my life, including my parents. Having a counselor validate my feelings and give them a name was the most freeing feeling since my behaviors started. I cried when reading others accounts of having an OSFED because it just felt so good to know I wasn’t alone in what I was going through.
It’s now been over three months since I’ve used any laxatives. My body image and my eating habits are not quite yet where they should be, but I am miles away from where I was before. I’ve discovered writing is a great coping mechanism and allows me to gain some control over my life and situation. Since getting help, I’ve been trying to use this medium to share my story and both learn from and educate others based on my experience. No one should ever have to go through what I did. No one should ever feel like they don’t deserve help. Eating disorders are eating disorders, regardless of how you may look and what others make think. The road to recovery has not been easy or always filled with understanding. But, in the end, I have no doubt that I am going to come out stronger. I already know I am.
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Think you might be suffering from an eating disorder? The National Eating Disorders Association has a free and confidential screening to help you determine next steps. If you're looking for more information, be sure to call the NEDA helpline. Looking for ways to help spread the word? Find out how you can get involved on your campus.