‘At 4 years old, I refused to eat my lunch, hoping it would help me feel better about myself, and it did.’: Woman shares lifelong journey with disordered eating, mental health struggles

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Disclaimer: This story includes mentions of sexual assault and suicidal ideation that may be triggering to some.

Childhood

“My story starts pretty early, around age four. I was sitting on a chair, waiting for my swimming lessons one summer. While I was waiting, I sat and contemplated how ‘big’ I looked in my swimsuit. Later that day, I refused to eat my lunch in hopes that it would help me feel better about myself, and it did. It is one of my earliest memories and one that had a big impact on my future.

A young girl sits in a plastic chair wearing a bathing suit
Courtesy of Natalie Seitz

I had a happy childhood. Growing up, I was very loved—I had great parents and was surrounded by friends. Around age four is when I started developing body dysmorphia and started using some disordered eating habits, although then it was just occasionally that I would purposefully restrict my food intake. My parents were heavy dieters, but I never considered this a big factor. The biggest factor was my own insecurity—I was a shy, quiet, and insecure child who just wanted to fit in. I have a cousin who is the same age as me, and from the time I was born, we were always compared by my whole family, and I always lost, unfortunately. She was always smarter, prettier, skinnier, and better than me. My parents also raised me to be a high achiever, which is good, but that also meant that my performance in school was never enough and that there was always more to do. I yearned for something to stand out about me and for me to be enough as I was.

Flash forward to 12 years old, when my disordered eating turned into an eating disorder. I had just started puberty and my body was changing. I was putting on some weight, and I was perfectly healthy, even a little small, but I felt unhappy with myself and my life. I didn’t have any friends and thought that no one liked me. I told myself that maybe if I lost weight, I would be accepted. Maybe I would be pretty if I was skinny, or maybe I would have more friends.

A young girl holding a black and white kitten
Courtesy of Natalie Seitz

Developing Eating Disorders

So, I went on my first diet. One diet turned into the next, which turned into the next. Counting calories and losing weight gave me a false sense of control and purpose. I was praised for my ‘self-control’ and for my skinny body. I genuinely thought that was the only good thing about me; that my body size was the only thing I had to offer the world. My anorexia progressed, and the summer before freshman year, I also developed orthorexia. It all started when I decided to ‘eat clean,’ which meant I started cutting out refined sugars. Before long, I cut out processed food too, as well as anything high in fat, or anything high in calories. By the end of the summer, I was too scared to eat anything but fruits and vegetables. I started already underweight, but it didn’t take long for me to drop 20 pounds. My parents started to get worried and took me to the doctor, where I was diagnosed with anorexia and orthorexia. I was later also diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and OCD.

I missed 4 months of my freshman year spending it in an eating disorder treatment facility. I spent my sweet 16 there, which is not at all what I had envisioned. I didn’t want to get better, but I was just going through the motions. I went home with the intent to relapse, and adjustment was very hard. I had relied on food and restriction to cope with stress my entire life, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t cope that way anymore. I started randomly having panic attacks, without warning, for hours. Most people have had a panic attack in their life, but I was having multiple a day. One moment I would be fine, the next I would be crying and hyperventilating. My mom used to sit with me every night while I had panic attack after panic attack. This continued for about 4 months.

A young girl wearing a white sweatshirt stands by the water
Courtesy of Natalie Seitz

Mental Health Struggles

After a trip to the psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with a panic disorder and was able to get it under control with some medication. I finally felt at peace for the first time in my life, and it was then I realized that maybe my body wasn’t the problem at all. My personality had finally started to show after being suppressed my entire life. I had starved myself hoping to be this bubbly, friendly, super sweet girl who had plenty of friends. But, it turns out, once I stopped paying attention to numbers and started living in the world around me, I WAS that girl.

A young woman with her friends in high school
Courtesy of Natalie Seitz

I realized how much my eating disorder had taken from me, and I didn’t want that to happen to any other girl, so I started advocating for eating disorder recovery and mental health. I flourished in my recovery, however, my depression got worse and worse, and I began to get suicidal thoughts. I knew that my eating disorder wouldn’t help, so I started replacing restriction with cutting. It started as a way to ‘punish’ myself but soon turned into an addiction. Then, during my sophomore year of high school, I was repeatedly sexually assaulted. I blamed the assault on myself—believing it was my fault, that there was something I could’ve done to change it, and that it wasn’t as bad as some others so it didn’t count. I spent many nights on my bathroom floor having panic attacks until I passed out, but it’s something I kept very secret. I was too scared to speak up for fear that no one would believe me or that others would judge me, so I suffered in silence until it eventually stopped several months later. For years to come, I suppressed the trauma deep down and it became fuel to my depression and self-harm.

A young woman advocating for eating disorder awareness
Courtesy of Natalie Seitz

Soon after, I developed chronic nausea. I began to get nauseous all the time and I was having trouble eating, and after a few weeks, I was having trouble going to school because of the nausea. I had all sorts of testing done, but no one could figure out what was causing it besides some gastritis. Everyone told me it was my eating disorder, but it wasn’t. I genuinely wanted to eat and keep myself healthy, but my body wouldn’t allow it, and I felt so frustrated.

Before long, I lost enough weight that my doctor told me I had to go back to treatment because they might be able to help me gain back the weight and figure out my nausea, even though I wasn’t struggling with my eating disorder. So, I spent a month in a different treatment center. While I was there, I felt out of place, was kicked out of my IB high school for being in the hospital, and my depression continued to skyrocket, but I gained some weight back and managed to get some medications that helped my nausea. However, I continued to struggle with my nausea and depression, and then in my senior year of high school, I began to get really suicidal. I started struggling with my eating disorder again, but for different reasons this time. It wasn’t to be skinny, for people to like me, or because I thought it would make me like myself. I was restricting because I was so suicidal I didn’t see a point in eating if I didn’t want to live. It was a slow suicide, and that was the way I wanted it to be.

A young girl with an eating disorder wearing a bathing suit
Courtesy of Natalie Seitz

Treatment Again

A few months after my 18th birthday, my parents and doctor convinced me to go back to treatment. I was there a couple of weeks but quickly decided to check myself out against medical advice. I went back home and immediately relapsed, with no intention to stop until I died. I faded quickly, with everyone around me worried but unable to help. Three months passed and I weighed under 70 pounds. My parents convinced me to go to the doctor, and I did to prove to them that I was ‘fine.’ However, that doctor’s appointment ended with me being told I was being admitted to Denver ACUTE for Extreme and Severe Eating Disorders in a few days and that there was nothing I could do about it.

My mom flew with me to Denver, where the doctor told me he didn’t think I would make it through the night. But, somehow I did. I was soon transferred to another treatment center, where I stayed for a few months. I was gaining weight, but my mentality, depression, and suicidality were showing no improvement. I was told I had treatment-resistant depression and I had failed all the anti-depressants I could try. However, there was one more thing I could try—electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. This involved doctors giving me anesthesia and a muscle relaxant, then triggering a seizure in my brain to help reconnect the synapses in my brain. I thought it sounded absolutely insane, but I decided I had nothing to lose. It did help my depression, but it also had a huge negative impact on my memory. I continued to do it when I got home for a few months until I decided to stop.

When I got home, I planned on relapsing immediately again. However, that changed when my mom asked me to give life a chance and see what happens. So I did—I started living more intentionally. A little under a year after I got home, I had a big turning point in my recovery. I went to visit my best friend, who I met during my first treatment stay. I felt free for the first time in years. But most importantly, while I was there, I realized that only I could help myself get better…no one else could. I was in charge of my future, and the most reliable way to predict the future is to create it. So, I decided I would find what I wanted in life and go get it. My eating disorder would always be there if I changed my mind, but I decided to take a chance that maybe something could go right, instead of assuming everything would go wrong.

A young woman leans against a lamp post
Courtesy of Natalie Seitz

Another Diagnosis

A few months later, just before I turned 20, I moved across the country for a fresh start. It really empowered me, and I flourished. I stopped self-harming and did really well in my eating disorder recovery. I felt a true love for life, and others noticed. However, about six months after I moved, something started to go really wrong. I started sleeping 12 hours a day, plus a nap or two, and I couldn’t figure out why. I started barely being able to breathe after walking up a flight of stairs, as well as barely being able to stand for longer than 30 minutes. Occasionally, I would even pass out or start randomly falling asleep on accident in the middle of the day. I woke up feeling like I hadn’t slept at all, I was still so exhausted. I went to doctor after doctor, but no one could figure out what was wrong with me—my heart and lungs looked normal, my labs were great, and I seemed otherwise healthy. However, it was making it hard for me to keep a full-time job, and I started to feel hopeless. Before long, I was in a psychiatric hospital with suicidal ideation.

After the time I spent in the psychiatric hospital, I decided to take short-term disability from my work to get more ECT treatment. It helped me again, but it soon started to trigger my panic disorder, and I would get panic attacks just walking into the hospital. I realized that even though I don’t remember the procedure, my body was remembering and it was having traumatic effects on me, so I stopped my electroconvulsive therapy. My depression continued, but not as bad as my medical issues continued to progress. I decided to start college but soon dropped out because I was too exhausted to do anything. My doctors sent me to a cardiologist, did chest x-rays and lab work, gave me a sleep study—you name it. However, no one could figure out what was wrong. I began having trouble being on my feet at work, as I would randomly pass out or get really dizzy, so I decided it was best for me to work part-time.

Soon after I turned 21, I got an opportunity to move again with my boyfriend and his family. I established a new doctor and about a month later, I was diagnosed with an autonomic disorder called postural orthostatic hypotension disorder, otherwise known as POTS. There, unfortunately, is no cure, and not a lot you can do to manage your symptoms besides some lifestyle changes.

A young woman with her friend by the water
Courtesy of Natalie Seitz

After my diagnosis, I felt at peace, but my depression skyrocketed and I worried about what the future would bring. I decided to go off my antidepressant, with the help of a doctor. It had been 5 years since my body had not been on an antidepressant, and doctors told me I would never be able to live without one. However, soon after I went off it, my depression started improving dramatically. I started to feel free and happy.

Now, we flash forward to today, about 6 months later. My depression is still under control, as well as my eating disorder, with some help from outpatient therapy. I soon celebrate 6 years in eating disorder recovery, a milestone I never thought I would reach. My POTS is an everyday struggle, but well managed. I feel good about life, for the first time since my eating disorder began. I still have days I struggle, but my worst days in recovery are still far better than the best days in my eating disorder.

Sometimes I still think about that 4-year-old girl waiting for her swimming lessons. She had no idea the journey she was about to endure, but I know she would be proud of who I am today. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, depression, sexual assault, or chronic illness, please know that there is some sunshine after the rain. Please keep holding on to hope. You are not in control of what happens to you, but you are always in control of how you respond. Keep reaching out for help, it won’t be dark forever. You are so strong, loved, and important.”

A woman and man together holding cake pops
Courtesy of Natalie Seitz

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Natalie Seitz of Georgia, USA. 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.

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