Disclaimer: This story contains details pertaining to eating disorders that may be upsetting to some.
“’Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, skip dinner, wake up thinner,’ echoed rhythmically in my mind as my feet pounded against the pavement again and again, my chest on fire, and my eyes fighting to stay open and remain conscious. The half sandwich I had dared to eat that day was taunting me, numbers and calories propelling me forward, even though I felt like I was dying. The screaming, angry voice in my head telling me I was a worthless failure kept pushing me harder and further, and I could not believe I had ended up like this.
My first experiences with negative body image and disordered eating began when I was around 10 years old. Growing up with social anxiety from the time I was a toddler, I was constantly searching for ways to be like everyone else and blend in. I even begged my mom to let me blow out my curly hair because I hated receiving compliments on it! This, combined with growing up in a diet and healthy eating focused environment, made becoming more aware of my body and weight in relation to others.
I was by no means overweight, but at 10, I put myself on my first diet. It entailed monitoring my food, measuring myself daily, taking progress pictures on my digital camera, and hoping with all my heart, once I lost a little weight, I would look like my friends and be small enough so no one would notice me. Throughout the rest of my childhood and high school years, I bounced between various diets and exercise routines while increasingly hating every aspect of my body. I constantly compared myself to those around me and felt so much shame around how I felt my body looked, but hoped everything would change once I started college.
Like a toxic relationship, the eating disorder began to take control over my mind and body so gradually that I hardly noticed it at first. It began with skipping meals and noticing a sense of pride as I could even ‘feel thinner’ already. Then, poring over the calorie contents of all the foods I had in my apartment ‘out of curiosity’ and ‘just so I know what I’m eating,’ which soon became testing myself to see how little I could eat in a day. ‘But it’s not a problem,’ I would tell myself. ‘I’m just not that hungry anymore.’ This led to regular binge drinking on an empty stomach so I could get drunk faster, which led to a long-term pursuit of the feeling I began to long for the most: numbness. In my life as a busy music major, I was usually in classes, rehearsals, or a practice room from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., but often much later at night. This put me under a lot of stress and pressure, both from the school and myself, to succeed and live up to everyone’s expectations.
I had a huge desire to do well academically and excel musically despite my depression and anxiety that felt crippling at times. Slowly, I began to set rules for myself such as no longer packing any food for the day, needing to fit in a run before my 8 a.m. classes, tracking every little thing I ate or drank, and only eating small amounts when I went out. Overall, I had convinced myself I was generally happy. I had a great group of friends, I was doing well in school, and I was feeling optimistic about my weight loss. The gnawing hunger and my focus on losing weight helped take the edge off of my anxiety surrounding school and music performances. Numbing my emotions through alcohol and starving myself was working to distract me from my depression and anxiety. I knew what I was doing would not be sustainable long term, but I had already planned to stop all the diet rules and exercise routines once I was thin enough. So what could go wrong?
By Thanksgiving break of that year, a few friends and family members had begun to express concern for what I had labeled just a loss of appetite. I brushed most of their questions and concerns off, but weighed myself for the first time in a month when I got home. I was shocked when I saw how much weight I had lost in just one month, more than I had ever lost in such a short amount of time. I felt a twinge of worry for myself, a fleeting thought that maybe I had gone too far, but the concern was quickly replaced with so much pride and happiness at what I had accomplished. I still did not believe I was thin enough to stop yet, but at least everything I was doing was finally paying off. Something suddenly clicked in my mind, and I was willing to do anything to achieve that same high from weight loss again.
In the short month between Thanksgiving and Christmas break, I started to feel myself spiraling further. During that break at home, I slept as much as I could to avoid any family meals and isolated myself from everyone. My family’s growing concern and efforts to make me eat pushed me away even further. I remember my mom bringing me a plate of eggs and toast one morning in hopes I would eat something, but instead I secretly threw the food into a bag I stashed underneath my bed and returned the empty plate without consuming anything. The obsession with exercise and numbers resulted in me lying to myself and everyone around me, but I was too in denial to realize I no longer was in control.
As I returned to college for the new semester, I was feeling angry and resentful towards my family’s futile efforts to force me to seek help. I felt as though the one thing I had found to give me purpose and happiness was in danger of being stripped away, which would leave me with nothing. I could not understand it was, in fact, the opposite, and the eating disorder was tearing away the real me and my entire personality rapidly. Part of me, deep down, knew I was not in control anymore, but I genuinely believed everything would be solved if I just lost enough weight. Just a few months prior, I believed I was happy and could stop whenever I wanted, but I suddenly found myself in the darkest place I’d ever been. Passing out in hallways, running offstage during performances because I felt sick, skipping classes for extra workouts, and brain fog taking over my mind became my new normal. I was trying my best to stay afloat, but the physical and mental stress I was putting myself under was obviously taking its toll on my musical abilities.
In the middle of playing one of my etudes in a private flute lesson my instructor stopped me, looked me straight in the eyes, and asked the simple question, ‘Are you okay?’ Hearing that question from someone outside my family or friend group broke down my walls as I explained and admitted everything to him. He offered to walk me to the school’s health clinic to get some help and assured me that I could get through this. That semester, he would often use our weekly hour for flute lessons as a time to walk over to the school cafeteria for dinner and to talk about how I was doing. He sometimes even gave me money to go buy lunch in the middle of the day when he knew I had not packed anything. I am forever grateful to him for being the person in my life who was not in my immediate circle, but showed me others cared about my well-being. Having an outside person give a reality check was vital for me to realize my family and friends were not just being overly dramatic, but I was dealing with a real problem.
When I finally went to a doctor, I was officially diagnosed with anorexia. I was told my heart was under incredible strain, I was underweight, and my test results made them concerned about my ability to even walk to classes without collapsing or being in danger of a heart attack at only 19. It was mid February, with three months still left in the semester, and my health was so poor that the school was questioning if I should be allowed to finish the semester, or immediately seek a higher level of treatment. I begged to stay and promised I would do whatever I needed to do, which they agreed to as long as I began a residential program I was already accepted to as soon as the semester ended. Professors excused me from some classes and rehearsals in order to make what felt like never-ending doctor visits and appointments. I did the best I could during that time, but was dreading continuing a program over the summer and being forced to gain weight.
As soon as I was home for the summer, I dodged calls from my treatment team and the program I was supposed to be in. I felt like I could handle recovering on my own, without gaining too much weight, and return healthy and happy for the fall. This plan backfired when I became increasingly self-conscious about my changing body and resorted to eating and purging in private. Although I was seemingly doing everything right and gaining weight, I was still just as sick and struggling.
As I returned to college for my junior year that fall, I was bombarded with remarks on how healthy I looked due to my weight gain. Those well-intentioned comments only made my eating disorder rage even more, as I was convinced my problems were no longer valid if I was not underweight. And, just like before, my eating disorder began to overtake every single aspect of my life. It was like someone else was living in my mind dictating my every move and, though I hated following along, I ultimately had no control. I would go days without eating, then spend a few days eating and purging everything in sight. Any unplanned food or meals resulted in needing to do an extra workout, self harming, purging, or intentionally making myself sick. I found myself terrified to eat anything in fear of what I would be driven to do afterwards. The physical and mental torment I was putting myself through felt hopeless enough that I was driven to suicidal ideations and plans multiple times, which I am so thankful did not succeed.
It did not take long before I ended up right back in the same doctor’s office, almost exactly a year since the first time, being told my heart was yet again under too much strain, and I was now damaging my kidneys and liver. I’ll never forget the mixed emotions I felt as I heard what they were saying and knew I had to stop before I died. My eating disorder was screaming that I was not thin enough yet. Logically, I knew I was sick. But still, it was not enough for my eating disorder. It assured me it would get easier once I had reached a certain weight and level of sickness, and a life without an eating disorder was not worth living.
The next two years were more of the same, switching back and forth between half-hearted recovery attempts and being swallowed by the depths of my eating disorder. I did just enough to stay afloat and graduated college, got a job, and tried to maintain as much of a normal life as possible while I was with others, though still dealing with a loud eating disorder voice and depression in private. When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, I, like many others, struggled with the isolation taking a toll on my mental health. I spent all my energy and newfound free time to exercise and meticulously restrict my food just like before. My eating disorder was running rampant once again, and I fell right back into the dark place I had been so many times.
I reached a breaking point laying in bed one night where I had to be honest with myself that the constant battle against my mind and body could not continue. No matter what new goal weight I hit, how sick I became, or how miserable I was, it was never enough for my eating disorder, and it would never stop until I was dead. There had been countless experiences and memories I missed out on because I was so focused on my eating disorder. I could no longer hide from the fact that nothing positive had ever, or would ever, come from listening to it, and I felt utterly exhausted. Tired of the screaming voice in my head that was never satisfied, tired of lying to everyone around me, and tired of putting my body through hell. That’s when I finally knew and accepted I was ready to recover, but this time for good.
I found a nutrition and fitness coach who specialized in disordered eating and put me on a meal plan, helped me find exercise balance, and taught me in detail about the body and why it needs food to function properly. Working with her completely changed my mindset from hating and punishing my body to celebrating all it can do when nourished properly, regardless of weight or looks. My life completely changed after that program and, two years later, while there have been many bumps and difficult moments along the way, I can now say I am living the life I never thought I could. Recovery is an ongoing journey, and I am navigating what loving myself and food freedom looks like in a world that often preaches the opposite.
It has taken a lot of hard work and determination to unravel five years of being consumed by an eating disorder, and over a decade of disordered eating, and I am so proud of how far I have come in healing my relationship with food and my body and learning new, healthy coping mechanisms. I love being active and can now do so because I actually enjoy it, instead of using it as a punishment. Since choosing recovery, I am now married, have started my own business teaching music to kids, am a pet mom to a dog and two cats, and am able to genuinely laugh and enjoy life again. I also began an account on Instagram to raise awareness about eating disorders and encourage others who are struggling to keep fighting.
How To Support Loved Ones Battling Eating Disorders
Through it all, I had an army of incredible people come alongside me and support me in a lot of different ways. Some would cook meals for me, drive me to appointments, listen, check up on me often, or simply keep believing in me, even when I could not. At the time, I was not able to fully comprehend how much the people around me cared for me, but I am now overwhelmingly grateful to them and their unwavering support through it all. They truly saved my life. If your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, here are a few ways you can support them:
- Refrain from comments on weight/appearance. Eating disorders are not solely about weight, and you cannot tell the reality of someone’s mental health based on their outward appearance.
- Encourage them to follow through with their treatment plan, but know that recovering from an eating disorder takes a lot of time and patience. Offer to help with transportation, meal prep if they’re comfortable, or other day-to-day tasks so they can focus on their recovery.
- Don’t bring up your own diet talk and body image issues. Try and keep your time with them a safe space away from talk of calories, weight gain/loss, and dieting in any way.
- Ask what would be helpful! Eating disorders are extremely diverse and what may help some could not be helpful to others. The best thing you can do is let your loved one know you are there for whatever they need and ask how you can best support them.
- Educate yourself on eating disorders to better your understanding and how to speak with your loved one about them.
For a long time, I could not envision either a recovered future or even still being alive today. I celebrated my 25th birthday recently and feel so grateful I am still here and thriving without an eating disorder controlling my life! I never believed I had the strength to recover, but I now hope to inspire others and show recovery is 100% possible and worth it.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Alyssa Hamilton of Los Angeles, California. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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