Most people who know me know that I have struggled with anxiety and depression for the last few years. I struggled alone and in silence for a long time before I got to a point where I was comfortable enough to open up about it and share what I had been through because eventually I stopped feeling ashamed. Opening up about these issues that I had and talking to people about them was a huge factor in my process of recovery and it’s why I’m still here today.
However, this is not about my depression or my anxiety. This focuses on something else entirely that I have never really been able to talk to anyone about. I am choosing to finally open up about this now because I feel like it is something that is spoken about far too little and when it is mentioned, people don’t really think of it as a ‘mental illness’, but they should.
For the last 11 years I have struggled with a serious eating disorder. Since I was 9 years old, this disease has taken over my every thought and corrupted me with beliefs that no one should ever be forced to struggle with. People don’t understand that this is just as debilitating as depression or anxiety or any other mental illness. It takes control of your life and you feel helpless and eventually you surrender to these demons that are in your head telling you that you’re not good enough, because it just seems easier to give up than to fight back.
This all started when I was in the fourth grade; I weighed 50 pounds and all my bones were visible from the outside of my body, but I was healthy nonetheless. I had never thought I was too fat or too skinny, I had never heard the word ‘anorexic’ before and I didn’t think there was anything drastically wrong with the way I looked. All around I was just a happy nine year old kid with not much to worry about. Suddenly, out of nowhere, kids at school started telling me I had an eating disorder and that I was anorexic and bulimic, that I was way too skinny and I needed to eat more. The first time someone told me I was too skinny was the moment this disorder started to develop, I just wasn’t aware of it at the time. I came home from school and asked my mom what “anorexic” meant because people at school were calling me that. She assured me that I did not have any kind of weight issues and I shouldn’t listen to the kids at school because I was simply just born a little smaller. I let it go for a bit, but people didn’t stop. Every day people called me “Annie-rexic” and told me that I needed to eat more and that I looked unhealthy. I didn’t really know what to do because I knew I ate enough and I was active and all around a healthy nine-year old girl, but if everyone thought this about me then maybe it was true. Months went by and I started to use the word ‘anorexic’ as an identity, and as an image of what I needed to be. I fixated constantly on how skinny I was; I would spend hours staring at myself in the mirror, sucking my stomach in, counting how many ribs I could see poking out. I was 10 years old, always counting calories when my parents weren’t looking, portioning my food to make sure I ate less than what was necessary to guarantee I never gained any weight. I had gotten this idea in my mind that people expected me to be unhealthily thin; I started to take being called anorexic as a compliment. Every time someone told me I looked unhealthy, I felt accomplished, like I was conforming to the image of what people expected me to be. High school came around and it was more of the same. People continued to tell me I was anorexic and unhealthy and too skinny and I continued to live an unhealthy life to make sure they kept saying it. There was this feeling of pride that surrounded these comments; it was obvious to most that people were not complimenting my frail figure, my tired eyes or my constant state of exhaustion, but it wasn’t obvious to me. I got this rush whenever someone expressed concern about my weight, whenever someone would make remarks about how I was too thin, how I obviously wasn’t eating enough. This constant criticism from friends, family, and even strangers moulded my entire young adult life and impacted every single decision I made. It was because of these comments and what they had done to my perception of myself that my condition began to spiral. My severe issues didn’t take form when people were calling me these things; I started to lose control when they stopped. I was about 14 when I started to realize that the remarks about my weight had died down over the last two years. This caused me to go into full on overdrive. I was so anxious and fixated on why people never called me anorexic anymore, or told me I was too skinny and that I should eat more. Was I fat? Was I gaining weight? What was wrong with me? I couldn’t understand that people were simply maturing and realizing that you couldn’t say these things to people; I was still incredibly thin, but the way I saw myself began to morph into someone who needed to lose weight so that people would start seeing me as dangerously skinny again. I weighed 71 pounds in the 9th grade, and I thought that was way too much. Doctors were starting to tell me I was underweight and it was bordering on extremely unhealthy; as someone battling an eating disorder, this was music to my ears, but I still wanted to be skinnier. I started starving myself in the 10th grade for days on end, convincing myself that this was the only thing that would make me happy. “Just one more pound, and you’ll be pretty”, “When there’s a gap in between your thighs, you can eat”, “Until you can see your ribs through your skin, you can only drink water”. These are all thoughts that went through my mind millions of times, and it completely consumed me. Somehow no one noticed when I threw my lunch away, when I never ate anything at their house, when I was always too “sick” to go out to eat. I managed to hide this entire disease from my parents, who saw me every single day, and my best friends, people who knew me so well, and yet no one could see that I was suffering. The problem was I didn’t think I was suffering either. I had a boyfriend for two years and I successfully hid all of this from him. Someone who saw me and spoke to me every single day couldn’t even see what was really going on, and that’s because I had gotten so good at pretending it wasn’t there. I started to see food as a reward, and not as a necessity. I could go many days in a row surviving on nothing but water and celery. I would come home from school and sleep for 7 or 8 hours, partly because I was depressed, but mainly because I was lacking nutrients. I would purposely make sure to sleep through dinner because if I was sleeping I wasn’t hungry and if I wasn’t hungry I wouldn’t eat. I cried myself to sleep most nights because I thought I was fat and gross and I just wanted to weigh less.
There were periods where I was okay, eating at a stable rate, not hyper-focused on how many calories I had consumed that day, but the thoughts were still there at the back of my mind, and just as I thought I was on the right track to getting better, it came back at full speed. I would binge when I was sad or lonely, and then I would starve myself for three days to punish myself. I was really struggling, and it wasn’t until about two years ago that I realized I had a serious problem that had been affecting me for years, but I still never spoke to anyone about it. I figured if I could make my way through the really manic episodes, the rest of the time I would be fine. I was wrong, because I still struggle with this today. I haven’t starved myself in about a year and I am not as fixated on all of this as I used to be, but I still get a small rush out of skipping a meal or seeing my rib cage when I look at myself in the mirror. I wanted to share this because if there’s anyone else out there who is struggling with this, I want them to know that they are not alone, and they are valid in calling this a mental illness because it 100% is. An eating disorder changed the course of my entire life; I harmed myself by not eating for days at a time, I missed out on many social events because I was scared to eat in front of other people, or because I felt too “fat” to go. Other people harmed me by the names that they called me and the things they would say to me. If you can take anything from this, please take this: eating disorders are a real and very painful mental illness that millions of people (girls and boys) struggle from, so please be understanding and acknowledge that. If you read all the way through, thank you, I love you.