“I lived a healthy, fulfilling life for 25 years. I was referred to by friends and family as a ‘sunflower’ and known for my bright smile. I identified as a happy, high-spirited individual who valued optimism, gratitude, and positivity. I did not struggle with my appearance, body image, or relationship with food, and I never felt a need to lose weight. I had a fulfilling career, a great place to live, and healthy relationships with my friends, family, and partner. So what happened? How could I, everyone’s ray of sunshine, have developed an eating disorder and reached a state of malnutrition so severe I was hospitalized for months in a residential eating disorder treatment center?
Let me start by explaining that eating disorders, and mental health problems in general, aren’t a choice. I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to develop an eating disorder. I don’t think anyone would intentionally put themselves through that kind of pain and neglect. Eating disorders serve a purpose. That purpose will be different for everyone and is often difficult to pinpoint, but for me, my eating disorder is a coping strategy and defense mechanism that ‘helps’ me through times of uncertainty and chaos and gives me a sense of control when I feel lost and confused.
Last year was a whirlwind of unexpected life events, challenges, and changes. I got engaged, my older sister and several close friends got married, a mentor of mine ended his battle with cancer, my younger sister went off to college, my younger brother continued his struggle with addiction, my partner relocated for work causing us to be long-distance… the list goes on. And while many of the year’s events were positive ones, it was a lot to handle and process all at once.
I was living and working in the Kansas City area with my family on the East Coast and my fiancé on the West Coast. I was far apart from my main support system and navigated the chaos of last year alone. I worked a full-time corporate office job, volunteered at the animal shelter on the side, and was heavily involved in my church community and other social circles. If I wasn’t engaged in one of those obligations, I was checking on a family member, friend, or my partner to ensure they were supported in whatever big life event they were going through. Did we have everything we needed for my sister’s bridal shower? Is my fiance all packed and ready for his big cross-country move? Did my friend’s most recent chemo treatment provide any relief? How was my sister’s first week at school?
I went non-stop 24/7. I was in survival mode and operated on the idea that my own needs were minimal. I put everything and everyone else in the world before my own mental and physical health. If I wanted to make it through such a chaotic year, I didn’t need to devote time, energy, or attention to myself. I had too many other people and obligations who needed it! Those were the lies I believed anyway, and that is how my eating disorder came to be.
I filled each second of my days, pushed my mind and body to their limits, never rested, and heavily restricted my food intake. While losing weight wasn’t my intention, it didn’t take long for the pounds to fall away. I noticed the changes in the mirror and in how my clothing fit, but I assured myself it was fine. I liked the idea that I could survive on so little and didn’t want to change my ways. I got by on less and less each day, and it became a dangerous, slippery slope.
When friends and coworkers noticed my weight loss, I brushed their concerns aside, telling myself it was none of their business. How well did they know me anyway? But I was given a much-need reality check whenever I got to see family and my fiance throughout the year (which was usually for a wedding, graduation, etc.). Each time, they’d be shocked at my appearance. I could see the hurt, confusion, and concern written on their faces. For months, I assured them I was just busy and promised I would take care of myself. Surely, I didn’t really have a problem. But each time we saw one another and I had withered away further, I knew I had to fix this mess I unintentionally created. I owed it not only to them but to myself.
I had never struggled with mental health before and knew next to nothing about eating disorders, so merely recognizing and accepting that I was struggling with one was significant. I sought professional help and tried to turn things around with an outpatient team of a therapist, dietician, and my primary care doctor. Unfortunately, however, I had spiraled downward quickly and became severely malnourished in just a few months’ time. In addition to dropping from a healthy 110 lbs. to a mere 75, I struggled with lightheadedness, brain fog, wooziness, and constant fatigue. I could no longer regulate my body temperature and was always cold. I’d be bundled up in sweaters and long pants on hot summer days and had terrible muscle pains from clenching them so tightly to try to keep warm. My hair, skin, and nails deteriorated, and later on, I would learn I had developed osteoporosis. My health was so poor that some nights I feared going to sleep because I thought I would never wake up.
My outpatient team recommended a higher level of care since day one, and as I continued to feel myself fade away, I too came to accept my body and mind needed more. I was a shell of the woman I once was and did not want to live as a prisoner in my own body any longer. I was completely unfamiliar with eating disorder treatment, but I couldn’t let fear of the unknown stand in my way. I knew this problem couldn’t be ignored any longer and made the brave decision to take a leave of absence from work, pack my things, and admit myself to a residential eating disorder treatment center in St. Louis, MO. It was the scariest, hardest decision I’ve ever made, but it ended up being a life-saving one.
I had a ton of medical testing done upon admission and learned more about the severe state of my health. I had been aware of the obvious physical symptoms like weight and hair loss, but little did I know, my body was deteriorating from the inside out. I had low red and white blood cell counts and hemoglobin levels, hypoglycemia, osteoporosis, and even heart problems. My body was conserving its energy to try to stay alive, therefore causing my heart to beat slowly and irregularly (conditions referred to as sinus bradycardia and sinus arrhythmia). My body was literally giving up.
I asked myself how I could allow this to happen. What had I done? I was terrified at how sick I had become but relieved I was getting the help I needed. By going to treatment, I finally put myself first and gave my body the love, attention, and time I always directed towards others. As much as I knew I needed to be in treatment, however, that did not make it easy. Recovery is not pretty. It is grueling, taxing, exhausting, and by far the most difficult work I’ve ever done. You must dig deep, unravel, reverse, and challenge everything you’ve known. My eating disorder kept me numb and treatment made me feel. There were many points along the way I wanted to give up and go home. The vulnerability, confusion, fear, and chaos of recovery felt too much to bear.
However, I knew the pain and discomfort of being in treatment was temporary and promised a lifetime of peace. An eating disorder, on the other hand, gives temporary relief and promises a lifetime of pain. Recovery is a battle, but the struggle is so worth it. I am forever grateful I chose to stay in the fight, finish my treatment program, and pursue recovery. I walked into the doors of the treatment center just a shell of who I was and walked out of those doors my whole self again. The carefree, high-spirited girl with her positive attitude and grateful heart returned. The sparkle in my eyes and my bright, big smile came back. I could fully, authentically participate in life again. I felt restored, at peace, free, and ready to live according to my values once more.
Recovery is a choice I must continue to make every day, and I’m not afraid to admit my journey hasn’t been perfect. With a move to a new state, change in careers, planning a wedding, and navigating the global pandemic, this year has been characterized by just as much volatility as last, and unfortunately, I’ve used my eating disorder to cope. But because I preserved through treatment, I’m able to recognize when my eating disorder tries to creep back in and can turn away from it. I know it has nothing to offer me anyway. Just because I’ve struggled again this year doesn’t mean my time in treatment wasn’t worthwhile or successful. Recovery is not linear. It will always be a rollercoaster of ups and downs, but it IS possible and it IS worth it. Though I still have far to go, I am feeling freer each day and couldn’t be happier to be choosing a life of fullness.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Allison O’Neil. You can follow their 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.
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