^photo credit (right) The Official Photographers
**Warning** This is a long post, with few pictures
Today I am sharing something that has taken me a long time to process and feel confident enough to talk about openly.
I struggled with an eating disorder for over 5 years.
Finally, 18 months ago I stopped denying it and consciously made the self-realisation that something was wrong. The last year and a half have been spent healing my body both physically and mentally and repairing relationships with family, friends and myself. It’s taken a while to build up the guts to discuss it publicly. I’ve spent the last few months writing and rewriting this piece and I now have the courage to be able to share it with you… here goes.
First let me say, I was never officially ‘diagnosed’ with an eating disorder by a medical professional. But ask any of my friends or family and they will assure you that I was ‘anorexic’, unhealthy, waaaay too skinny and had an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise… even if they couldn’t say it to my face at the time. Whatever you call it, it was not healthy. The generic term used for these conditions is ‘disordered eating’.
For a while I knew I was too thin but it wasn’t until last year (mid 2015) that I finally admitted to myself and said the words out loud, “I have an eating disorder”.
Growing up, I was never what you would call an unhealthy overweight person, perhaps a little chubby but certainly not obese. I loved sport and was very active – from swimming club and netball, softball and team handball to ballet, jazz and contemporary dancing. The notion of “fitness”, however, was never something I followed or understood – I just enjoyed being active and having fun with friends. I was your typical overachiever at school – School Captain, Sports Captain, SRC President, selected for science trips to Russia, state-league netballer and eisteddfod dancer just to mention a few.
As a family we ate a pretty standard Australian diet: cereal/toast for breakfast; sandwiches, fruit and muesli bars for school lunches; and dinners were anything from salad and chicken to stir fries, spag-bol with vege, whatever. Yoghurt and fruit were favourite desserts in our house.
This continued when I moved interstate (Brisbane to Sydney) for University (Chemical Engineering). I lived on campus and ate the food dished up by the college and or course enjoyed a pretty typical student lifestyle with my fellow collegians and engineering mates that included plenty of beer, wine and rum & coke (it was on tap at the local).
So how did it all start?
In my final year of Engineering (2010, age 22) I joined my local Surf Lifesaving Club. I loved the ocean, the swimming and the people. I began to train a lot more, physically. It seemed that simply being surrounded by others who more active, fit and more conscious about what they ate rubbed off on me and I seemed to follow suit.
The year was going well – I was getting fitter and stronger and lost weight, dropping from a size 14 to 10. I loved the beach lifestyle and final year of uni was fun. I always loved uni, it was a time where I made some of the closest friends I have in my life.
However, the second semester of 2010 became much more stressful than I had anticipated. My thesis was not progressing well, I had my wisdom teeth removed and the wounds subsequently developed infections prolonging a painful recovery. I was doing all my normal extra curricular activities – playing State-League Netball, working part time in a campus admin job, working part-time as a student-ambassador, tutoring high-school students. I also lived on campus in a residential college providing pastoral care for the residents, nevermind my full-time uni load. And, as always, I did it with a giant smile.
Looking back now, I was probably taking on too much. But it was all I knew and all I’d done my whole life – typical Type A personality and overachiever.
The Straw that Broke the Camel’s back
Tragically, one of the residents in the college decided to take her own life. To use a cliché, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The impact of her death on myself, the other residents, pastoral carers and entire community was like the hit of a shock wave. In the weeks following her death, I’d often find myself walking to class and inexplicably just bursting into tears and needing to run and hide, or not being able to focus on anything, or crying myself to sleep at night. I couldn’t work out why I was so upset – I was not particularly close with this student – and was frustrated that others were getting on with life without the same emotional stuff going on.
On the advice of a close friend I made an appointment with the campus psychologist which I found extremely helpful at the time. “Situational, Stress-induced Depression” she called it.
I’d always been an extremely resilient person, headstrong, I just got on with things. I remember when my sister and I got home from school one day and found my mum semi-conscious, covered in vomit on her bed. Scans later that evening showed that she’d had a cerebral aneurism and mum was having brain surgery the next morning. But that afternoon, after Dad went in the ambulance with mum to the hospital, I just sat down and got on with my grade 8 homework for that day. [Mum is fine now by the way! On one hand she often jokes that the aneurism must have been in an unimportant part of the brain, while on the other hand she frequently uses it as an excuse when she says something a bit silly – “but I have a brain injury” haha.]
Similar memories appear from when my parents divorced and when my dearest Grandma passed away.
The psychologist suggested that I’d not let myself really ‘feel’ things before. She used the analogy of a full glass of water; “you only have so much resilience (water) in the glass and if you keep taking sips without replacing it then it will drain out”.
One of the ways she advised me to help get back on track was to focus on maintaining “the basics”:
- don’t skip exercise
- make sure you eat well
- get enough sleep
- maintain social interactions
The psychologist said depression would pass, and it did.
Just the One Piece of Advice
I think this is where the disordered eating started. Being the Type A personality that I am, I scheduled everything to a tee. I went to town on making sure I exercised EVERY DAY and ate super healthy – trying to implement every single one of the tips and tricks I read in the array of women’s health magazines. After a while I subconsciously began to balance out everything I ate, with exercise. 2011 was the first time I remember purging (making myself vomit) after a massive meal out with friends. I remember having an intense fear of gaining weight – “I don’t want to be a size 14/16 again!” – and thinking that I’d wake up the next day a size bigger if I didn’t burn off what I ate.
While I’m consciously aware of these feelings and habits now, they were mostly subconscious at the time, and things like tiny meal portions, daily hour-long workouts and epic runs just became habit.
After uni, I was offered, and accepted, a graduate engineering job in Sydney. 3 days a week I’d run 5km from home to the train station in the morning and the same returning in the evening. There was a 3km distance at the other end which I’d often do too. Then I’d rock up to Netball training or a gym class in the evening. Other days I’d swim kilometers in the pool with a squad from the surf club or hit up an aerobics or spin class at the gym. Weekends I loved working out on the beach or making a habit of running the 14km (and hilly) round trip from home to Coogee then to Bondi and back.
My meals were tiny, and very controlled, certainly not something you’d expect someone of my activity level to be eating. I followed a bunch of food trends – low carb, paleo, vegetarian. But all had the common theme when I adopted them – low calorie.
It’s only now that I look back that I see how unbalanced and unhealthy I was, I can now better describe the feelings and thoughts, but at the time it was all an obsessive blur. To the outsider, and to myself now, it seems so distorted and irrational. But to me in my own head at the time, I thought I was healthy and doing the right thing.
Things got worse before they got better.
I moved to Geelong for work, and the obsessive/disordered eating habits continued. I took up the Victorian pastime of road cycling and would love any excuse to do a long ride, counting up the calories I burned.
Of course, I kept losing weight, getting down to 56kg at my lowest (I’m 178cm tall so that’s a BMI of 18). I stopped menstruating, my hair became thinner and I developed psoriasis which I was so confused about because I’d never had skin issues aside from the occasional teenage zit. I had a Dexa body composition reading done at a friend’s gym which told me I had less than 5% body fat (I wonder if this was really accurate due to just having completed a workout… regardless, I had a very low body fat %).
I’d get anxious when going out to dinner or eating at a friend’s place where I couldn’t control what was being served. I’d opt for coffee dates with friends rather than meals so I wouldn’t have to eat food I didn’t make. If I did go out, I’d run 20km the next day, or I would have starved myself all day.
Friends and family expressed worries about me. It started with some people remarking at how much weight I’d lost or maybe pulling a funny face while saying I was looking really ‘lean’. “Thanks!” I’d say, brushing off their worried looks.
But it then turned into more forceful comments – “Penny, just eat a bloody burger will you?”, and loud rows with my sister when she served me homemade curry and rice and I wouldn’t eat it. Colleagues at work even approached mutual friends with concerns about my health. I lost friendships. Several have hung on only by a thread. All because of my irrational obsession with my body and refusal to really listen to their concerns.
I continued to deny that anything was wrong.
When did I realise something needed to change?
I guess subconsciously I’d known for a long time that I was too thin.
But there was one point in 2014 when I saw a photo of me with my sister at her graduation that I could really see it myself. I looked disgusting. I was scrawny, gaunt, pale and ‘wasted’ looking. I knew I had to do something.
I loved my exercise and didn’t want to stop, so I approached a trainer to help me gain weight. And I did gain about 4kg or so. But I plateaued there for over 8 months. I think I was afraid I would “blow out” and not know how to STOP gaining weight. Many of the obsessive habits still remained.
It wasn’t until I started doing regular yoga, and became good friends with one of my yoga teachers that things really changed. I’d done yoga before, but viewed it mainly as another form of exercise.
I don’t know what it was about her but there was something in my practice that changed on a mental level. Yoga became more about the meditative, mind-clearing focus than about the physical movement. I began to see the irrational thoughts that arose during practice with perspective and see them for what they were – nonsense! I slowly began to be able to hear what my body was trying to tell me, that I was starving it and not giving it the love and nourishment it needed.
I spoke about this perspective with my yoga teacher who commented on the great number of people she’s seen begin yoga practice for physical reasons, then end up ‘healing their soul’ through yoga.
This was when in May 2015 I said those words out loud to myself for the first time – “Shit, I have an eating disorder”.
I can’t say I followed any specific path to ‘recovery’. And certainly the path has not yet ended.
For me, I think that after gaining perspective and making that self-realisation, things just happened naturally. I confided in friends and family and continued to listen to my body through meditation and yoga. If I felt like eating peanut butter, I ate peanut butter and didn’t consequentially go and run 5km the next day. I found both my anxiety and desire to exercise excessively decreasing. My mindset shifted from ‘how little can I eat’ to ‘how much nourishment can I give my body’.
There are still a few things I need to work through. I saw a doctor about my psoriasis. His prescription of cortisone cleared it up but it soon returned.
I then decided to see a highly recommended naturopath who explained (and I’ve since also learned, through my Nutrition Masters) that when the body is starving like mine was for so many years it uses muscles (proteins) to make energy through gluconeogenesis. This includes the muscles and tissues in the intestine. Over time, as the intestine muscles are used up, small holes appear in the gut wall letting undigested food pass into the blood. This is more widely known as ‘leaky gut’.
Leaky Gut can be caused by other things as well, not just eating disorders. The undigested food that passes into the blood is foreign to the body and treated like a disease resulting in autoimmune conditions. These manifest in different areas depending on the individual, from irritable bowels and bloating to mental fog and hay fever. For me it is psoriasis and occasionally sinus irritation.
This was another turning point for me – I had been so irrational, obsessive and treated my body so poorly for so long that I’d given myself an auto-immune condition. At first I remember thinking “Oh my goodness Penny; for such a ‘smart’ person how can you be so STUPID?”. I’m now not so hard on myself. I realise it wasn’t stupidity but the result of the downward mental and physical health spiral that goes hand-in-hand with under/mal-nourishment.
A simple food sensitivity blood test showed the foods causing most of the problems were eggs, dairy (particularly whey protein), gluten and sesame seeds. Several months of eliminating these foods combined with some gut-healing prescriptions by my naturopath helped to clear up my psoriasis around March this year.
Where am I now?
In hindsight, for those 5 years the ‘restriction’ extended from food to other areas of my life; always making calculated decisions. For a long time I’ve been longing to travel extensively, experiencing places like a local and at a leisurely pace.
Moving back home to Brisbane (to be based closer to family and warm weather) after commencing a completely online Masters of Nutrition gave me the perfect opportunity to be a nomad in Europe for a while! Enough was enough and I decided to go. And what a trip it’s been. I’ve met fascinating and beautiful people, seen the most spectacular places and eaten the most delicious foods.
I think that mentally, I needed the ‘escape’ – although that’s not really the right word. Unfortunately, the psoriasis has returned while indulging in European delights throughout my travel, indicating the the gut walls haven’t completely healed. Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep it at a level that I can still enjoy myself. But it’s something I need to revisit in the near future.
I had hoped that, with the weight gain and improved body composition, my hormones would rebalance and menstruation would recommence by itself (without the use of the contraceptive pill). This hasn’t happened. Gut health and hormone balance will be my focus when I return home in December.
In closing, I just want to say I’m so INCREDIBLY SORRY to all my friends and family for the pain, arguments and worry I’ve caused you and for your frustration when I just wouldn’t listen. At the end of the day it was something that couldn’t change until something shifted inside ME.
THANK YOU to the moon and back for sticking by me, not giving up on me, and being there whenever I needed. There are too many of you to name but you know who you are, I love you and thank you.
If you’ve managed to read this whole post, thank you. I hope that by sharing my story, I can help others who are struggling with, or know someone struggling with, disordered/obsessive eating habits.
– – I’ve since written this evidence-based article on some ways to identify whether you have an unhealthy relationship with food. I hope it will be useful to those who think they may be suffering or on the borderline, as well as their concerned loved ones – –
Ok, time to wrap this up now, or my laptop will get water damage from the tears that have appeared while writing this.
If you think you may be suffering with disordered eating and need someone to talk to, please feel free to reach out for a chat. My best contact is firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you may have or arrange to talk over the phone or Skype.
Additionally the Butterfly National Helpline is free phone call away, 1800 334 673, and National Eating Disorder Collaboration provides an exhaustive list of organisations according to location, age and required service.