From the inside looking out, it’s impossible to explain. From the outside looking in, it’s impossible to understand. This is what it is like to live with an eating disorder.
Imagine this: It's your senior year in nursing school as a division one athlete and you are in a relationship with the love of your life. You are 5 months away from achieving your dream job of becoming a registered nurse and having the opportunity to compete for a CAA lacrosse championship. Then your entire life turns around in the blink of an eye and everything is put on hold. You lose your relationship, you lose the trust of your friends and family, you can no longer take care of patients at work because you are too sick, you are unable to play the sport you have such a passion for because you are too weak that your legs buckle when you walk, and you have to take a leave from school because you cannot find the energy to finish a paper. You go from living the life every 21-year-old female dreams of to being hospitalized for an eating disorder. I had to leave everything that I worked so hard since I was a young girl. Living with an eating disorder destroyed me, but also made me stronger.
I never thought that I would have the courage to write about my eating disorder. But I woke up today feeling very thankful and motivated. I am grateful that I fought for my life back so that I can enjoy life. Each morning when I wake up, I am appreciative for another day to grow. I was embarrassed to tell people that this is what I was hospitalized for. Over the last couple months as I have been in true recovery, I have asked myself: why should I hide something that has the highest mortality rate out of any mental illness? There is such a misunderstanding about these disorders and I don't think that it is talked about enough. My eating disorder was not a choice. This needs to be reiterated. It disheartens me that the stigma that exists in society is that everyone who has an eating disorder has a body image issue or makes him or herself throw up what they just ate. So for those of you who do not struggle with this, I hope this helps you realize that eating disorders should not be treated lightly, but rather just as any other addiction or health condition. Most people don't understand how badly you have to think of yourself to deprive yourself something you know you need to survive. I remember being told countless times: "just eat, it's not that hard." I have learned that sometimes doing what you are afraid of the most is the thing that will set you free. To those who struggle with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness…I write this for you. So that you realize you are not alone and recovery IS possible. Remember that little progress is better than no progress. You deserve a lifetime of happiness. My recovery journey has not easy by any means and it has tested my strength, but the past year has been life changing and allowed me to find true beauty inside myself. Months ago the doctor told me that I was very lucky to have seen another day and now I make the most of each moment. I have gained 55lbs since my admission and the days of depression, being constantly freezing, weakness, isolating myself, and basing my worth off of a number no longer exist. I am grateful to have a body that can do so much for me. I am open to being an advocate for anyone that may need support with similar issues. Living with this will always be a part of my life, but it has made me stronger and recovery will be a choice that I continue to make each day. Our struggles are the building blocks of our strength. I am so excited to be back at my college today to finish this semester and use this experience to become an even more compassionate nurse. So here is MY story…
Being a division one athlete and nursing student, I would have never expected to have a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. I know that it is the most fatal mental illness. I know all of the ins and outs about the health complications that are associated with eating disorders. So I still ask myself everyday: “Why me? How did I get sucked into this?” All of my life I have been happy, outgoing, and the girl who is always looking for a good time. Then something crept up on me and I hit rock bottom physically and emotionally. I didn't know what life was anymore or what I was capable of achieving.
I woke up in the morning wishing that it was already time to go back to sleep. I experienced this sick sense of comfort from feeling extremely hungry and freezing cold. My hands were a constant shade of light purple and my lips were blue. I thought that I was beautiful at such a low weight with my prominent collar bone, sunken eyes, protruding ribs, and bones sticking out of my lower back. Many of my friends may have thought they were boosting my confidence with compliments such as, “You have amazing abs…what workouts do you do?” or “I wish I was as skinny as you!” Little did they know that I was struggling with and that these comments drove me to keep it going. All of my time was consumed thinking about what I would have my next meal (or what I could not have) or planning when I could exercise. I constantly heard a voice inside my head that controlled my every action. “Don't eat that. You didn't do enough today to deserve that.” If I didn’t listen then I was worthless. The number on the scale measured my worth. A number dictated whether I was going to have a good day or spend it hating myself. I would weigh myself and if I was less than the day before, I was in a good mood…it was like an adrenaline rush and I would do a happy dance. But if I was just a little more than the previous day, even 0.1 lb, I had to do something to change that. If I ate “too much” one day, then the next day I would spend so much time planning how I could make up for it by restricting my meals or working it off. I had a mental calculator that would count up the calories. I would look up calories for every single food, down to a single blueberry. I counted every pretzel to make sure I did not go over the recommended serving size. Then I started eating salad without dressing or trying to just survive off fruits and vegetables. Sometimes I sat in front of food and would just pick it apart, while there were voices going back and forth in my head. If there was an event I attended that involved food, I would load up a plate and that would be all I would be “allowed” to consume for the day and I would have to skip breakfast the next morning. That is what made sense to me. If I treated myself to a cookie or ice cream, I would feel so guilty about it. I thought foods that I once loved would hurt me. I felt obligated to work off what I just consumed. I learned how to make myself feel full with coffee, water, and gum. I was eating close to nothing and still body checking, thinking that I wasn’t good enough to exist. I remember I went a whole day at school eating 1 apple and I STILL felt guilty. It felt like my mind was trained to believe that everyone would know if I lost or gained a half of a pound. The cycle of losing weight became an addiction. I loved being in control of what I put into my body…since I was losing control in every other aspect of life. If I was not getting playing time in lacrosse…I would at least be able to control what I ate. If I didn't get to play in a game, then I wasn’t “allowed” to eat because I wasn't burning anything off. Academically, I would study for 8 straight hours without taking a break to eat or relax…because if my work wasn’t “perfect” then I didn't deserve to eat. It was a constant war in my head. All my thoughts were distorted. All the good things in my life, such as food, friends, and fun, became my enemies. Now I realize that even though these behaviors were providing me a sense of “comfort”, it was slowly killing me. A slow suicide. It reached the point where I was too weak to get out of bed. And if I did get out of bed, my legs would buckle. I was always so cold and would wear 3 layers of pants and shirts. I became isolated from my friends and family. I became a completely different person and I did not even realize it was happening. But others began to notice…
I started getting texts from friends and family asking if I was okay or if I was alive. How was I not seeing that this was a problem? When I was no longer able to focus in school and I realized how worried my loved ones were, I knew that I needed to accept help. One night at school I became overwhelmed with homework and I actually thought to myself…what would happen if I just walked in front of a car tonight? It was all planned out in my head. That is when I snapped out of it and went to my roommate hysterically crying. That was not me, not the Lauren who I knew. This is when reality hit and I knew I needed help. I still thank God that my roommate was home that night. I called my parents crying and told them about my thought. They started screaming and crying. I left school that night.
I thought I was just going to the hospital to gain my weight back. I did not expect to walk in and be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Throughout treatment I worked hard to challenge the issues that were controlling my life. Physically, the most painful part of recovery was the refeeding process. But changing my familiar habits was mentally painful. I should have been going out with my friends on the weekends enjoying a few drinks, but instead I was chugging Ensure supplements. Drinking 5 supplements, eating spoons of salad dressing just to complete 100% of my meal, only getting to see my family for 2 hours a couple times a week, and being watched in the bathroom and the shower was NOT the life a 21-year old should be living. I missed my college graduation because I spent it in treatment. Being stuck in the hospital for 3 months made me realize that there has to be more to life than this. I started to feel more hopeful as I began to increase my nutritional intake and eat things that I once loved. During my first 3-month admission, I gained about 40 pounds. I was discharged and doing well for a month and then I went back to school to complete a clinical and the perfectionism kicked back in. And what was my way of controlling it? My eating disorder. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and worth. But then I slowly started to realize what I was doing. It all became more clear to me. I started to relapse and I thought that I would never be free from the eating disorder voice. On my last day of my clinical rotation, I had a patient ask me, “Hun, are you anorexic? You are just extremely thin.” I immediately broke into tears and this was a reality check. When I finished my clinical, I came home and told my parents that I needed to go back to the hospital to get help. This took a lot of bravery because of how hard my first hospitalization was. But I knew I could not make it another day. I was extremely scared. My heart hurt, I was so weak that I could barely use my muscles talk, and I was dizzy. To this day I will never forget the look on my mother’s face when I showed her that I was only 67 pounds. My brother couldn't give me a real hug because he was afraid he would break me. I made my best friend cry. Not only was I hurting myself, but I was hurting everyone around me. When the doctor told me that I was extremely lucky to wake up to another day…that was another reality check. During my second 3-month admission, I gained a total of 55 pounds and I am proud to say that I am currently maintaining this weight. I feel like a completely different person. This was the hardest battle that I have overcome. I still ask myself “why me?”, but now my answer to this is the God has his plans for me and is preparing me for something even better.
It took bravery to express all of this, but I am hoping that it opens your eyes up to the complexity of mental illness. I am proud to say that I am a survivor. I learned that recovery is not linear and is NOT easy. No matter what happens each day, I always go to bed telling myself: “I am enough.”