Trigger Warning: This story contains details of eating disorders and suicidal thoughts that may be triggering to some.
“I don’t have a concrete idea of when my mental health started suffering. When I was maybe 8 or 9, I would sometimes feel exceptionally upset and experienced a feeling of unease, especially at night time. Once I became a teen, it suddenly seemed to cool to have a mental health issue, and although I definitely did have anxiety, I felt as if maybe I was only feeling these things because of the culture, and perhaps I was causing myself to have mental health issues because it was trendy and I wanted to seem cool.
I carried this, a form of almost imposter syndrome, with me as when I discovered what I had been dealing with for years was an eating disorder. I was shocked. I remember crying to my therapist at the time, saying, ‘I never saw myself as someone who experienced mental health issues.’ I said this despite having a history of anxiety, panic attacks, periods of being exceptionally low, and going to therapy since I was 13.
Once I started my work on recovery with my therapist, I was determined to find the point I became disordered, the thing that caused it. I felt like if I could do this, I would suddenly get better and everything would make sense. This only caused more confusion as I realized there were many, many things that had happened throughout my whole life that may have caused my eating disorder. I began carrying a journal with me everywhere and I would write down any thought related to the eating disorder I needed to get out or that may help me with my journey to recovery. Inevitably, I ended up glued to this journal. I realized some things I felt may have caused my eating disorder had happened years before I felt I had even become disordered. From this, over a long period of time, I learned eating disorders are not caused by one trigger, but a lifetime of small things, and my eating disorder may have started long before I had initially realized it.
I often talk about one of my first memories of engaging with this behavior. I now know it was part of my eating disorder. A few days before my seventeenth birthday, I refused to eat so I would look slim in my outfit for a party in the evening. I say ‘refused’ because my boyfriend at the time couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to eat. I now realize I was engaging in behaviors like this for years prior to this ‘first’ memory, perhaps as young as 14.
Since educating myself on eating disorders and doing a lot of work on myself during recovery, I now know eating disorders can be triggered by things that happen in our lives and we can also be more predisposed due to our genetic make-up and whether we are predisposed to mental health issues. Restricted eating can predict the onset of an eating disorder. Recurred dieting can increase the risk of an eating disorder by eighteen times. Two-thirds of people who suffer from eating disorders also suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Before I knew I had an eating disorder, I used to glamorize it in my head. When I was in a period of restricting, I would idolize my times of engaging with purging. When I was binging, I longed for the time when I was restricting. Once I had graduated to being a full time ‘bulimia babe,’ a phrase echoing around my head to make light with myself about the situation I was in, I longed for the euphoria of when I first discovered excessive exercising. The harsh reality: eating disorders are not glamorous.
I experienced exceptional highs and exceptional lows when binging, purging, restricting, compulsively exercising, and even when struggling with Orthorexia. Any of the high points I felt, I have come to realize, were not really felt by me but by my eating disorder, therefore they do not matter. They cannot even compare to the high points I have felt since starting recovery, like hugging my friends, eating meals guilt-free, staying up late, going for a drink, loving myself. However, I am not perfect and I am not this ideal of the ‘perfect recovery story.’ People often seem to think I have recovered. To be honest, I’m not sure I will ever fully recover. I still have periods of time when I am plagued by my disordered thoughts and even when I engage in my disordered behaviors and my recovery clock may go from over a month back to day zero.
For a few months, recently, I was not able to get my recovery clock past 14 days. At these times, I am dangerously on the edge of being sucked back in by the comfort of my disorder, but this is when I try to remember the bad times. Crying, stomach in pain, with my head hanging over my toilet while my music is blaring so no one can hear me. Not being able to participate in movement class at drama school because any movement made me almost vomit. Having a panic attack because I didn’t run. Having a panic attack after running. Experiencing a head rush every time I stood up, being afraid when I drove because I was so light-headed from not eating. Not being able to digest even a cucumber. Being in pain every time I ate. Not experiencing bowel movements for over a month. Eating so much it hurt to walk. Scraping off my skin after being touched. Wanting to die because I hated how I looked. None of this is glamorous.
I am very blessed to have lots of friends. I have so much love for them all. When I think about my whole journey, I feel so much gratitude for every single one of them. When I realized I had an eating disorder, I was very lucky as I didn’t experience opposition from any of them, only love and support. I know this sounds like the minimum but I have friends who are also in recovery and had negative reactions to the recovery process. This is a normal reaction. However, recovery entails big changes such as setting new boundaries. While in group therapy, we discussed having to end relationships if they do not serve your recovery process. Fortunately, I only had a very small amount of friendships end due to this, although all of them did change.
I have spoken in-depth to one of my longest friends about her experience of watching me get sicker and sicker. She has now voiced the concerns she had as I became increasingly bony in my Instagram pictures she would purposefully not ‘like’ and her worries every time I would tell her about a new food I ‘couldn’t’ eat. Now I’m in recovery, she encourages me to love myself for exactly how I am and to love my belly rolls and to just wear the crop top, because who cares about my body fat?
My sister was the first person I told about my eating disorder, although I do not recollect doing this, as I was very intoxicated when I had made the confession. I, myself, did not come to consciously acknowledge my disorder until 5 months later when I ended up telling my mom in the midst of a breakdown over the phone. My mom, who lived on a whole different continent than me, immediately did everything she could to help me start recovery. She urged me to tell some close friends, as well as seek medical help. She began calling me every day asking for an update on my disorder. At the time, this was painful as I would relapse every day, but because of having to be accountable to her, I kept going.
In September of 2019, 2 months into recovery, my therapist told me, ‘Lean into the binge.’ I found this absolutely terrifying. I now understand what she was doing was giving me permission to eat. I was scared but I was relieved. I then had a 6-week break in England. I planned to ‘give in to the binge’ for the whole holiday and then get back onto calorie counting and exercising, the part of my eating disorder that enabled me to lose weight, once I returned to New York in November. Inevitably, I struggled with restricting. My first week back, I averaged eating an apple a day, but once I was settled, I began to eat more. I would still opt for lower-calorie foods—I no longer counted or track calories. I had just gotten good at knowing what foods tended to be lower than others—but I was eating throughout the day, which very quickly transitioned into food freedom.
Diet culture thrives off of disordered eating. People see disordered eating as ‘healthy.’ However, the reality is disordered eating is exceptionally dangerous and can easily and quickly develop into an eating disorder. One in eight adults experience suicidal thoughts due to poor body image, children as young as three are displaying body insecurities, 50% of people with eating disorders are not sure if they even deserve help, and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. If you feel like you are suffering from disordered eating, I urge you to seek help. There are so many free services available to help you. When I was living in New York, I used many of the services and resources from the NEDA website, and now in England, I frequently refer to the services provided by BEAT.
A small change I would also recommend is changing the media you consume daily. When I was sick, my Instagram was filled with ‘weight loss transformation’ photos and info-graphics of weight loss tips. Now it is filled with body positivity influencers and self-love advocates. Changing your conversations around body image, food, and exercise will also have a big impact, although I understand it is a hard place to start.
Something else helping me through this crucial time of my recovery was time with my best friend. She really helped me stay accountable and taught me how to love myself. When I wanted to start exercising again, she helped me keep my thoughts in line to make sure I was doing it because I enjoyed it and not because of the goal of having a smaller body. This exercise was fitness dancing—I just googled ‘dance party class’ to find one!
The March 2020 lockdown in New York and England began within one week of each other. At that point, I was living on my own in New York and I started relapsing, without even really realizing it. In April, I moved to England and in with two of my best friends. I became exceptionally low and even some of my memories from that time are blurry. I did eventually become aware of my relapse, as many of my fears caused by my disorder resurfaced. I became scared of food, and meal times were daunting. I became scared of drinking, as my disorder tells me this will cause me to bloat if I eat within half an hour on either side of drinking the drink. I was scared to look in the mirror, to feel my body in the shower.
There is one day that stands out as a low point for me. I went engagement ring shopping with one of my favorite people in the world, but I was struggling to focus because I was so aware of my body and felt lightheaded from not eating. When we got back, my body was in so much pain I had to lie down.
But again, something helped me through recovery—my friends. My support system.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Esme Michaela. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more about eating disorder recovery:
‘I lay in the hotel bed in tears. ‘Play with me!’ I snapped at him as I plugged calories into my app. ‘I can’t live like this anymore.’: Woman overcomes 10 years of eating disorders, ‘I’m always enough’
‘Our beautiful, once vibrant Sarah is now a shell of a human.’ I was spiraling out of control. A monster was being born.’: Young woman overcomes eating disorder, ‘struggling is not a character flaw. You are worthy of help.’
‘You better stop, or we’ll haul you off to the loony bin with the REAL crazy people.’ My father was in a drunken rage.’: Woman overcomes eating disorder from childhood trauma, ‘I’ve found strength to set that baggage down’
‘If you keep eating, we’ll have to buy you maternity clothes.’ I felt disgusted. Everything I hated about myself was because of food.’: Woman raises eating disorder awareness, ‘Don’t turn a blind eye’
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