‘My extreme ‘healthy eating’ convinced me drinking milk was ‘treating myself.’ I’d go to bed happy with a 500-calorie deficit.’: Young woman battling orthorexia details journey to self-love

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“I don’t remember a time when I hadn’t been highly aware of what my body looked like. From comparing sizes of clothes between me and my friends to wanting to cover up while on beach vacations. In my senior year of high school, I really focused on watching what I ate, working out every day, and being a size 00. Cheat meals were strictly off-limits and my routine was followed to a T. Every morning I would wake up, weigh myself and take a ‘progress’ pic. I would calculate my calories for the day, making sure everything was ‘healthy’ and working out was non-negotiable. After my workouts, I would weigh myself and take another picture. I’d track my weight, how long my workout lasted, and remind myself of my goals.

Courtesy of Ashleigh Bowling

‘You’re so dedicated.’ ‘I wish I had your willpower.’ I wore these compliments with pride. One day I thought, ‘If I eat less than the calories I need, I could lose even more weight.’ So, it became a challenge for me to see how many calories I could end up with as ‘extra’ at the end of the day. I remember one day I was SO happy I had a 500-calorie deficit. I went to bed being so pleased with how ‘healthy’ I was.

Fitness was my entire identity. I held myself so strictly to eating healthy foods — I still remember one time when my family stopped for ice cream and I didn’t order anything and instead watched my family enjoy themselves. I thought if I ate ice cream, then all of my hard work would have been ruined. My ‘healthy eating’ got to the point where I considered drinking milk to be ‘treating myself.’ I started using a calorie counting app religiously to count my calorie and macro intake. When I would let myself have a ‘cheat’ though, I couldn’t stop. I would binge eat an entire pint of ice cream, feeling gross, sick, and defeated. I’d tell myself, ‘THIS is why I’m not reaching my goals’ and, ‘If only I could have more self control, all of my problems would be fixed.’ Food was constantly on my mind — having internal battles over how many calories I limit myself to in a day or how hard I could push myself in the gym.

Courtesy of Ashleigh Bowling

Going off to college just fueled my need to control my body. I had really bad social anxiety and my depression got worse — I was starting to fall behind in class, spending hours in my bed, and constantly shaming myself for not getting the grades I was holding myself accountable for. During this time, I was using my disordered eating to cope with my anxiety and depression, as food and exercise were things I knew I had control over. In my sophomore year of college, I joined a fitness organization, CHAARG, to find other people like me who cared about being healthy. Luckily, I didn’t exactly find that; instead, I saw how people didn’t obsess over eating ‘good’ foods and that there was more to life than thinking about what your body looked like. I learned my obsession with being healthy was orthorexia, finally having a ‘reason’ and being able to get help. Most importantly, I made friends who talked about their mental health struggles, showing me I wasn’t alone.

Courtesy of Ashleigh Bowling

It was around this time I really found my stride with running. After going on runs with friends and completing a few races, I was getting praise from others about how ‘dedicated’ I was again. I put all of my time into it, signing up for my first half-marathon, though I’d never ran more than a 5k, and then signing up for a full-marathon just a few months later. I had a rude awakening during my training though, as my body could not physically handle the added mileage. I knew something had to change, I found a new identity in running and I couldn’t lose it again. So, I researched the best diets for runners – my ‘good’ foods changed to things that would help me meet my running goals, and I was remaining strict in my training, making sure to hit the mileage and speeds I needed.

Courtesy of Ashleigh Bowling

I wasn’t focused on what my body looked like, but more of what my body could do. I was completing races, eating to fuel my body, and enjoying myself. I thought I was finally being healthy. The truth is, everything was calculated and thought out. Though I knew I needed to eat more in order to run, I was making sure I wasn’t eating *any* extra as I felt a need to maintain my weight. I forced myself to run, getting my happiness from hitting my mileage and not caring how I felt during or after the run. It wasn’t until after I got injured during my second marathon, forcing me to stop running, that these unhealthy habits came to light.

After realizing I had fallen back into disordered eating habits, I went into full self-love mode. By now I was a junior/senior in college — I finally was happy with my classes, I had the chance to study abroad for a semester, and I found love. ‘Now I’m finally healthy,’ I thought to myself. Looking back though, I was just going from one extreme to the other. This time, my lies were ‘you are happy,’ ‘you are healthy,’ ‘you are confident.’ When in reality, I had been the least confident I’d been in so many years. After graduating, I was so lost. I couldn’t find a job, I lost my running identity, and in an effort to ward off restriction, I wasn’t exercising at all and was in a cycle of eating whatever I wanted, then feeling immense shame about it.

Though I had been going to therapy for a few years, I had always talked about school being a trigger for my anxiety and depression. Now that I had graduated, we started going deeper, and the topic of eating came up. I remember answering my therapists questions so nonchalantly — ‘A few years ago I had an undiagnosed eating disorder of orthorexia, but it’s all good now.’ Thankfully, my therapist didn’t let this go. She recommended me to a dietitian and I realized I wasn’t restricting foods or over-exercising anymore, but food rules still overtook my thoughts. My inner dialogue changed from ‘that food is bad, I can’t eat it’ to ‘thinking food is bad, is bad.’ I was constantly shaming myself any time a disordered eating thought came up, telling myself I was ‘recovered’ now and I couldn’t go back.

The truth is, recovery isn’t linear; it will look different for each person. Speaking of, I hate the phrase ‘recovery.’ To me, it insinuates there’s an ending to disordered eating. Just as with any disorder or addiction, recovery takes work each and every day. People talk about their transformations — how they were able to overcome their ED, being open about their struggles and even inspiring others to get help, but nobody talks about relapse and how normal it is. While I’m so grateful to have been a role model to some people from sharing my ‘recovery’ story, knowing others resonate with my story had come with a big responsibility and a lot of pressure. I didn’t want to talk about my struggles as I feared this would make me a disappointment to those who I inspired. Wanting to acknowledge I was struggling made me feel like I haven’t made progress at all, like I had lied about the whole thing.

Courtesy of Ashleigh Bowling

My therapist and dietitian both reminded me, though, there is one major difference between then and now. Now, I can acknowledge those thoughts and work with the tools I’ve learned to accept and move past them. This past year, I’ve learned to fall in love with running again — taking the focus away from numbers and using the time to gather my thoughts, or not think at all. To meditate. My training was flexible, listening to how my body was feeling and checking in with where I was mentally. Missing runs wasn’t cause for make-ups and future restrictions; I wasn’t running to earn my food, I was working towards a goal — to finish running 13.1 miles. Though my race looked nothing like I thought it would (creating my own route, wearing a mask the entire time, having no audience to cheer me on, and the finish line being nothing more than the spot my phone said was 13.1 miles), it was such a powerful moment for me to end my training without being restrictive, and be able to finish the race without injury.

Courtesy of Ashleigh Bowling
Courtesy of Ashleigh Bowling

I often think, ‘What is my identity now?’ Through overcoming an eating disorder and dealing with anxiety and depression, I’ve been many different versions of myself. I’m always learning and growing, so I like to think we don’t need to have one identity. As I come up on 5 years of being aware of my eating disorder, I’m still learning it’s okay to not be okay sometimes. Learning to listen to my self-doubt, instead of pushing it away, and acknowledging it before moving on, I’m able to see any sign of relapse as an ebb and flow of life as I know I’m more than those thoughts and feelings in that moment. Having one happy day doesn’t take away your depression, just as having one negative self-thought doesn’t take away the work I’ve put into recovery. When I let go of the make-believe rules, like saying recovery is a simple finish line I cross once, or I will be ‘cured’ from my depression, I can live happily in the in-between space – a space of kindness where life isn’t all or nothing and showing up is enough.”

Courtesy of Ashleigh Bowling
Courtesy of Ashleigh Bowling

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ashleigh Bowling of Pittsburgh, PA. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her website. 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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