I wanted to finally write about something that few people know has played a huge role in shaping who I am today. It’s something that I never thought would be a part of who I am, but frankly, I am glad that it is. This post is fairly long because I think the details are super important in this story. I hope you will take the time to read it – not for me, but for the millions of people whose battle goes untreated every day. I hope that sharing my story can spread awareness of the signs and complexity. This illness is 100% mental – not physical.
After two stints through treatment, countless health scares, and a permanently changed relationship with food/exercise, I am ready to share my struggle with an eating disorder.I have kept it a secret from most people because I never truly wanted to get better until recently. I decided to share some photos for context, which may be triggering for some. I included them because, at the time, I loved the photos that now make me cringe. I think it speaks to the fact that when you’re in the disorder, you can’t, or rather refuse, to see what other people see.
Here is my story:
Whenever my life gets difficult and I feel like I have no control over what is happening, I exploit my control over food, my body, and my health. It started during my freshman year of college – I wasn’t happy anymore and I didn’t know why. I was notoriously happy, and now I could barely get out of bed. The only thing that brought me joy was exercising and restricting food. It gave me an adrenaline rush – it was a high that I had full control over. It got progressively worse and by the end of freshman year, I was logging 3 hours of exercise every morning, eating 600 calories a day, and had only 100 pounds to my name.
I lost 50 pounds in a semester, and it was all too evident. I was anonymously called into the Dean’s office for a check-in (which I later found out was done by my sweet and caring roommates). They called my parents as well and alerted them of the severity. When I came home, I was not greeted with smiles – only horror.
My parents forced me into treatment almost immediately, and I was still in denial. I remember going to the doctor to get my heart rate checked and it was at 42 BPM. My doctor said anyone below 40 is usually admitted to a hospital. For perspective, the average heart rate is 80 BPM. My body was screaming for help and shutting down because I refused to acknowledge my problem.
Restricting gave me an adrenaline rush and an unexplainable high. This high made me feel good, and that was all I wanted. But the highs would turn into lows: when I binge ate food, when I felt light-headed, or when people whispered about me. Deep down I was still so sad, and I kept chasing anything that assuaged my pain.
Restricting was also a form of self-hatred. I deprived myself of food when I didn’t feel I deserved it. I waged war on my body, mind, and spirit. I had to earn food – which could be anything from doing well on a test to a random act of kindness. I took a healthy level of self-criticism and turned it into self-hatred. I wasn’t good enough.
Treatment was something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. In my opinion, eating disorder treatment is underfunded and misunderstood. It is also extremely fragile. Think about it: it seems terribly ironic to host a run/walk as a fundraiser, let alone a dinner. How can you raise awareness and money when the two major events that bring donors in are also triggers?
The facility I went to treated every kind of eating disorder – meaning I had 40 year old women weighing 400 pounds, and 16 girls weighing 80 pounds. To say I was miserable is an understatement.
In treatment, I spent 12 hours a week talking about food, eating meals with others in recovery, and getting more therapy than I thought I’d ever need in a lifetime. None of it got through to me – I was constantly triggered by the people in my program, even by the staff. How was I supposed to take my overweight nutritionist seriously? Why was I forced to eat a meal with other people in recovery? It felt like a competition of who could touch their plate the least, but if you didn’t finish your meal, they made you drink a proportional amount of PediaSure. I still felt like I had outsmarted them every time I drank the PediaSure, surely it was less caloric than the food I had left on my plate. We also had a long list of topics we couldn’t discuss, the biggest one being food obviously. We couldn’t name restaurants or coffee shops; we couldn’t discuss anything that might be considered a “behavior”, honestly I don’t know what we talked about because I was too focused on how I could restrict more than other people at the table. Not to mention we couldn’t wear any type of form fitting clothing, so I pretty much just wore sweats all the time. Nothing screams confidence like sweatpants, right?
I spent the entirety of summer 2012 trying to get better, but my heart was not in it. I hated treatment more than I hated my parents for forcing me into it. I pushed everyone away and emotionally shut down. My body and mind were both in survival mode. I was fighting my basic survival instincts that were begging me to eat and rest. If I did that, I would lose. And I would rather die than face my sadness.
My mom took it the hardest. Her best friend was battling cancer and I remember her walking into my room one day and saying, “How can you be so selfish? Here my friend is fighting for her life while you are just choosing to kill yourself.”
Her friend passed away the following week. I wanted to die too.
I gained a whopping 8 pounds (my goal was 20) over the summer and was somehow allowed to go back to school in California. Away from my support and accountability system, it took all of one week to completely relapse and hit double digits with my weight. I become aware of the severity when I almost fainted during my sorority’s recruitment. I could not even stand on my own anymore – my body was crying out for help. I listened to it because I had no choice. I had no more control. I had lost.
I started eating, but now that I was feeding my body, I couldn’t stop. I felt like I had 10 months of eating to make up for. I refused any and all help. I skipped my therapy and nutrition meetings almost weekly. I finally realized I couldn’t do it on my own, and I certainly couldn’t do it while being a full-time student.
I left the school and people I loved so dearly. I came home and reenrolled in treatment. Much to my depression, almost everyone from my first round had relapsed as well. We were all back at square one, but we all had each other. Sweetbitter.
The second time wasn’t so awful, but it wasn’t great. Again, I was so upset and especially now it felt like my life was on pause while everyone else’s moved forward. I felt like I had nothing to live for – treatment took over my identity and I didn’t want anorexia to be any part of me.
After a couple months, I started as a part-time student at UW while still in treatment. I finally started to feel alive again. I started to feel like myself. I realized that my eating disorder had taken away my privilege to higher education, and I loved my education more than I loved restricting. School became my motivator to get healthy, and was a huge source of joy in my life. If I wanted to be a full-time student again and actually earn my bachelors, I had to face the music.
In treatment, we call it your “ED (Eating Disorder) voice.” You have your normal inner dialogue, but when you have an eating disorder, you also have an ED voice. She is the one telling you to things like:
Do NOT eat that. Don’t you want to feel high and happy? Take a walk.
Exercise just one more hour, I know you’re tired. Think about the scale. Don’t you want to know you gave it your all today? Don’t you want to look at the scale and finally be happy with the number you see? Then don’t you dare get off the treadmill.
You don’t need friends – the ones who are concerned are just jealous. If you’re not exercising, you should be sleeping anyways.
You have to teach yourself to not only disagree with her, but also disobey her. Holy shit. That was so hard. my ED voice was not happy to hear I wanted to get better.
“I cant do this anymore. I’m weak.”
No no no, you are better. You’re better than other people because look at how much discipline you have!!! You finally have a flat stomach. Your thighs don’t touch. You don’t have such a round face. What could possible be better than this??!?!
“My family. My future. My education. My desire to live.”
When I was touring a treatment facility, they showed me their inspiration wall where patients could write things that gave them strength and hope. There was one quote in particular that brought me to tears:
“Losing to your ED voice means winning your life back.”
I redefined what it meant to “lose.” Losing my life was no longer an option. I had too much to live for. I healed my body, my mind, and my spirit. The Tara I knew was growing hair instead of having it all fall out. She got her period for the first time in a year. She regained the rosiness to her cheeks. Her thighs touched and it didn’t make her cry. It made her smile. It made her strong.
My life restored and my resilience grew more than I ever could imagine. I was now confident and up for almost any challenge. In a lot of ways, I felt fearless. I wish I could say I have been completely healthy since then, but restriction is often still how I deal with extreme stress and sadness. I had a brief relapse during summer 2015 that almost didn’t let me start my job.
I wish I could say the ED voice is gone, but she isn’t. My eating disorder, as I initially mentioned, is mental. Although I was able to restore it’s physical manifestations, those thoughts are still constantly in my head. The difference now is that I disagree and disobey with them. Instead of denying the problem and pushing my support away, I welcome it. I stay healthy with the help of the ones I love most. I am proud of who I am today because I fought to become her.
The main reason I wanted to share my story is because I know too many people with similar struggles. Eating disorders are so normalized nowadays and even encouraged. I am sharing my story so that anyone reading this having a similar struggle will please seek help. You are never alone. Although it will be a battle, it’s not only one you can win, but also one you’ll be stronger for fighting.
I want to end this post by saying thank you to everyone who has stood by my side the last five years – you have provided me with the strength, clarity, and inspiration to move forward. There was a time I didn’t think I would make it through college, and when I finally earned my degree, well let’s just say, WE earned it. I cannot express enough gratitude to my family and friends who have and are helping me. A huge thank you to anyone who took the time to read this. It means so much to me.
I hope that your biggest take away from my story is this: Be proud of your character. Be proud of your health. Be proud of your liveliness. Don’t deny yourself life – you’re too important.
There is not nearly enough awareness about the severity of eating disorders, so please take a moment to read some important facts:
- Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
- Anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of any psychiatric illness (including major depression).
- The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of ALL causes of death for females 15-24 years old.
Here is an article that helps contextualize just how normal this illness is. What you can do about it:
- Do not compliment bodies – compliment minds, ideas, other accomplishments.
- Do not engage in dialogue like you see in the above article – dialogue that promotes a culture of illness engage in this type of dialogue. Deny it. Refuse it.
- If you’re concerned about someone, reach out to them – but know that they probably won’t receive it well. Be patient. They need an advocate.
- For more information, please visit this site.