Deep breath. It’s time now to write about my recovery story.
I’ve been dreading to write about this because I’m feeling more and more excited about this blog and the short stories I’m working on, and I didn’t want to go into a, quite frankly, bummer of a subject. Don’t get me wrong, recovery is the happy part of this story, but before I get there, I need to talk about how I realized I was sick. An (my – weakening – anorexic voice) would just love me to not share our dark story, but I can’t not do it. The more I’m reading back into my old “health logs” and diary entries from over the years, I see how incredibly wrong it all was, how twisted, unhealthy, and dangerous my actions and thoughts were. If I could make just a few people aware of these things, I think other young people (or old ones; eating disorders don’t discriminate), can be helped.
I want to share my story with you because many of my readers already know me. Maybe you’ve had suspicions about me being anorexic, but I certainly never thought anything of it. I want my story to serve as an example.
An example that says this: no matter how much you think you know someone, no matter how happy and put together they seem, and no matter what they look like, they can still be suffering inside, from something. Everyone has their struggles, some are more intense than others, and I think we all just need to be aware of that. I guess it was more obvious with me that I was perhaps anorexic (because I “looked like” it more, but please note that anyone, at any size, can have anorexia or another eating disorder), but I just seemed so darn happy all the time, so how was it possible? How can sweet Nikki be upset with how she looks, or how beautiful a ballerina she is, or how smart she is?
I’ll tell you. I will tell you with my personal experience, some visuals, and credible sources from researchers.
[ Before I start, I just want to say that parts of this following section were taken from my old diary entries from when I was really sick. I’ve edited them a bit because I don’t want to give out too much information, or give any vulnerable people any… ideas. Please know that these are not my beliefs anymore, and they only serve as examples in my story to give you an idea of what it’s really like. Therefore, I’m going to be using lots of quotation marks to put the unhealthy thoughts in, and correct myself often with more rational and healthy thoughts. Ok, here goes. ]
It all started…
Back to my path. In high school, when I’d privately ask myself do I think I might be anorexic? I denied it right away, but the more I thought about it, the thought appealed to me that I might be – and I was happy about it. Very sick. I never thought I was anorexic because I believed I “wasn’t sick enough” to be considered it. I also thought one had to be hospitalized, or something, to be considered anorexic. (That is so false.) Anyway, for some twisted reason, I thought it made me feel different than others, and I was absolutely obsessed with being different from everyone else – classic teenager! I grew to love my 13º scoliosis because I didn’t know anyone else with a curved spine. They have nothing to do with each other, but I loved the idea that I “might be” anorexic because it made me different from others, like my scoliosis.
In therapy I learned that anorexia can start as this nagging voice inside our heads. I’ve never had a voice telling me certain things. I read that it’s the anorexia’s voice telling you you can’t be happy without it, that you can’t eat xyz, and so on. But it was never an outside voice because it felt so internalized, and I don’t remember it ever not being my own. Maybe some hear their mom’s, or acquaintance’s, or bully’s voice telling them they’re too fat or something, but no one ever told me that, thank goodness. It was just me, making sense of what was being said around me. Because, let’s be honest, everyone hates on their bodies, say they shouldn’t eat dessert, say they need to workout more, celebrate when perfectly healthy people drop 20 lbs… It’s acceptable small talk (which is so weird because aren’t there better things to talk about than how we look?), therefore, why couldn’t I do that too? All of this is just… so wrong. I don’t care if other people talk about it, but it’s really not healthy for me to listen to. Anyway, here are a few other delusional things I thought:
- I thought that since I wasn’t doing as much dance in the week, and just sitting in class and studying, I didn’t need to eat as much. WRONG.
- I needed to compensate. All the time. Before Christmas dinner, a birthday, or after in the form of exercise. WRONG. Food is food, you don’t compensate for it, or earn it.
- I’d catalogue everything I ate. Don’t do that either. It’ll literally make you go crazy.
- I was obsessed with weighing myself, and wanting to see a certain number. WRONG. Never do that. Especially growing girls, doctors may need to weigh you for something, but you should not need to weigh yourself and “be somewhere.” I haven’t weighed myself for about 8 or 9 months now. My parents monitored it for me while I was gaining my weight back.
- I was terrified of fat, and getting fat, as if it was a bad thing. I thought it was at the time, and I didn’t want it. I was so terribly blind and caught up, I still thought I was fat when I was frightfully bony. Why is fat bad? It’s not, it’s a social construct of today.
- I was obsessed with “cleansing” my body, and drinking lots of water.
- I felt in control when I was restricting my eating. I realized later that this always means there’s an underlying problem I need to address.
- I thought being the smallest person in the room made me “different” and “happy.” Oh so wrong.
Here is the rest of my timeline: in high school, I never considered myself anorexic, and because I didn’t want to “get caught,” I was always careful not to go “too far.” I ate the minimum that was required, and revelled in everyone saying oh that’s just Nikki, she doesn’t eat much. It was my way out of finishing a meal I didn’t want to, every time.
In psychology, there are a few things that play a role in determining whether a certain behaviour is considered a disorder or not, and two important ones are the following: if a certain behaviour is harmful to that person and it causes them issues in their everyday life (like concentrating or going outside), then there’s a real problem there. At one point, in my last year of university (winter/spring 2016), when I was stressed out of my mind with doing excellent in all my course and writing an A+ honours thesis and doing ballet and trying to figure out which graduate school in Germany I’d go to in a few months and planning my summer camps and still trying to be perfectly happy little Nikki, I kind of imploded. It was as if the past 8 years of oscillating between a clear and carefree mind and eating a chocolate bar everyday and not giving a damn, then severely restricting my food intake for months at a time and hating myself, created this lying, conniving, vicious, emaciated monster inside me. Or, An. You’ve met her before.
Finally, in the spring of 2016, I knew I had to get help. I felt absolutely stuck, though. Who could I possibly tell first? Will anyone believe me? What if they think it’s made up? What if they get mad at me? I was also terrified about going to get help because I didn’t want to let An go. I didn’t want to part with that strong sense of control over myself, or that thing I thought set me apart from everyone else.
My 22nd birthday wish: “I wish I could have what I really want. A day off from An.”
- Those of us in the non-eating disordered world identify hunger when the thought of food pops into our minds. That’s it. If we feel light-headed, or our stomachs are growling, or we’re getting a bit irritated or moody, then we know that we have gone far too long without food. For most with active eating disorders they will laugh at this concept and respond with “But I never stop thinking about food! It’s all I do.” Exactly. Those with eating disorders are thinking about food non-stop because they are that hungry. The energy deficit in their bodies is enormous. However the threat response system is so fired up when someone with an eating disorder tries to eat, that the idea that hunger is just the thought of food and that the goal is to respond to that thought by eating, is very hard to practice. (From Your Eatopia)
- If too much serotonin is present, this may create a sense of perpetual anxiety, and in theory, by reducing the intake of calories to starvation level, the result would be a calming or sense of regaining control.
In other words, those with low or high levels of serotonin may feel “driven” towards eating or not eating as they consciously or subconsciously realize it actually makes them feel better emotionally, because of a physical response in their brain.
It is very important to note that the act of restricting, and binging (with or without purging) can also lead to a disruption in serotonin levels, thus contributing to an already existing problem, or creating a completely new one to deal with. This can lead to depression and anxiety, which are known side effects of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies, both for undereaters and overeaters. (From Something Fishy)
- The one sure thing about an eating disorder is that it is out to destroy both your quality of life and your length of life. What you do about that is, thankfully, very much in your locus of control. (From Your Eatopia)
- For many of us being hungry does not feel good, much less provide us with a high; yet, for an anorexic it absolutely does.
Starvation in anorexia reduces serotonin and thus reduces anxiety. Starvation can actually provide them with more energy and a sense of control. Both are seen as very rewarding.
Several characteristics are needed to maintain an eating disorder such as minimizing, rationalizing, and justifying behaviours called denial in the addiction world. Eating disorder behaviour results in getting what you need at any cost, mental, emotional or physical.
It results in behaviours never imagined before, such as lying, cheating, and stealing just like alcoholics and drug addicts. Women have been arrested for stealing food, moms have left their young children alone to go buy binge food, college students can’t focus in class because they can only think about food, body image or planning the next purge. (From Eating Disorder Hope)
I thought about what else I would write in this post, while I was at work, where it’s sunny, where I was laughing amongst colleagues, snacking on chocolate, getting lots of work done… These ideal and positive contexts would make me feel better regardless, but I realized something worth mentioning.
What I realized is that I can’t let contexts affect me as much as they do. For example, my first draft of this post was a lot darker, more cynical, and I had a lot more quotes about how I felt when I was sick (not the best of ideas). It was late at night this past Monday, it was dark, someone at work said a comment that didn’t mean anything but I took it right to the depths of my fragile heart, and I was feeling a bit lonely. All these things made me write about An in a more, dare I say it, positive light. I stopped myself. I cannot let myself be taken by An again, and I couldn’t have published what I first wrote.
It was, she saw me sitting alone at the table, writing about her on my blog, it was late, she knew I was tired, exposed, and vulnerable, and she took advantage and made me feel like I need her back. And I let her, for the night. When I got back to work the next day (where I was back in a positive context), I knew I didn’t need her back, and I saw that I couldn’t let my contexts dictate how I feel. Especially the negative ones. I have to be able to feel alone sometimes and be ok with it. More on this later…
If I had to pick the most important thing that I learned on my route to recovery, just one thing that would encompass everything else, it would be this: you know what’s best for yourself. Even when I was in my deepest throes of hating myself and wishing I wasn’t alive, when I was upset at how easily thrown off I got (even a tiny change of plans in my routine would stress me right out and make me stop eating), when I was wanting to make myself smaller and smaller, and even when I was in complete denial of any problem, I still got a little sign. I don’t know exactly what it was… I think it was me telling myself this, old Nikki. But in my head, I heard: “Nikki, what are you doing? Why are you doing this? You’re obviously sick, you don’t need a psychiatrist to tell you that.” And with just those points, I’d think twice. An was somehow put on hold, and I would reflect on my destructive actions and thoughts, and I answered: “This is bad, I know. I can’t help it, but I know I need to change.”
An is not here to help me. An does not care about my health. An does not operate in my best interests.
And from there, I was willing. I was willing a lot of times to recover in the last 4 years, but most of the times, as I said, I was in complete denial. And for the dumbest of reasons! Like I said, I thought I wasn’t “sick enough.” If you ever hear someone say that, then there’s already a problem. One doesn’t need to reach a certain point to know that there is a problem. In my body, I’ve not felt completely alive for a long time. Eight years at least. I did at some moments, but it never lasted. Thankfully, I didn’t reach the point of ever going to the hospital for anything, but there were always little warning signs. I scoffed these as being “part of me.”
So, I think that even at our worst times, there will always be a little part of us that knows what’s best. For me, I think it was my 6 to 12 year old self, the rational one that was not yet affected by societal pressures or susceptible to anorexia, telling my 20-something self that I was nuts. Of course, there are the very real biological factors in me that are not as easy to shake off, like the serotonin levels and my personality traits, but anything else that I make up in my mind (thinking I “feel fat,” for example, compulsively weighing myself, thinking in all-or-nothing ways, and so on), I work hard on those thoughts every day to beat. Fat is not a feeling*, weight fluctuates all the time and it doesn’t matter anyway because your body has a set point it will get to if you just eat, and black and white thinking is not helpful at all. *I actually have a funny thing I tell myself a lot: saying “I feel fat” is ridiculous because we all have fat on us, just like we all have fingernails. So, saying that would be like saying “I feel fingernails.” Ridiculous, right?!
To finish off, I just wanted to say thank you for reading. I try to list off the things I’m grateful for whenever I’m feeling down, and it really does help because you see how privileged and lucky we truly are, even when we think we’re not.
I am so grateful for you readers, and your love and support. I’m grateful for my old Nikki voice that told me I should change, my family, friends, and Jack. I’m grateful for this platform where I can share this with you all. I love you so!
Have a beautiful weekend, and until Monday!