The cost when ‘eating healthy’ becomes an eating disorder
My eating disorder started when I was 15 and in Year 10. My illness was probably triggered by multiple factors, but the one I remember most was having to weigh myself in the physical education class as part of our fitness testing.
I noticed that I was gaining weight but not getting any taller and, because I had internalised diet culture messaging, or having to look a certain way to be acceptable, I was scared of becoming overweight.
Somewhat suddenly, I decided to lose some weight so I wouldn’t become unhealthy and overweight. But what started out as a relatively harmless idea, quickly became obsessive and took over my life. My eating disorder was a ravenous weed that rapidly grew and overran the beautiful garden that was my life before, stretching into areas of my life that weren’t even related to food or exercise and handing me a never-ending list of rules to follow.
At first I could only see the benefits
Within a few months, I was weighing myself all the time, obsessed with exercising “enough”, and restricting my food. I started engaging in orthorexic behaviours and was terrified of eating “unhealthy” food such as takeaways, chocolate and desserts, because I genuinely thought it would harm me. As a someone with a Type A personality, my eating disorder seemed to give me a sense of control and achievement, a reassurance that I was “doing things right”.
At first, I could only see the benefits that my eating disorder gave me and no one around me noticed anything was wrong because I was still able to function in all areas of my life. I was a high achieving student and loved dancing and I continued to attend dance class and was receiving good marks. Time passed, I graduated high school as one of the top students in my year and things continued as usual. I moved interstate to university and, once again, outwardly I was a happy young person with my whole life ahead of me.
Then the darker chapters started
After three or four years, my eating disorder started affecting my life to the point where I wasn’t okay with it anymore and I wanted things to change. I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) – a chronic autoimmune condition that I’m sure was at least partly caused by the huge amount of stress I was putting on myself.
I lost my period, I felt very cold in winter, my hair got thinner and my fingernails became so brittle they started falling off.
My relationships suffered because I was a difficult person to be around – constantly anxious, stressed and often in a bad mood due to feeling guilty or scared. I’d project these negative emotions onto those around me, especially my family who would have to deal with them. At this point I knew my problem was more than just “being super health conscious” and I didn’t like the person I was becoming – seemingly selfish, stressed and often miserable. At the same time, however, I felt compelled by a voice in my head, and I couldn’t stop the thoughts and behaviours that were not true to me. I was scared of what would happen if I let go.
My eating disorder ended up sucking a lot of joy out of my life and, when I was 19, I began to acknowledge I had a problem. Again, no one around me was greatly concerned because I was never “underweight” and was secretive about my thoughts and behaviours. On the outside, I was fine, but secretly, I was fighting a battle inside my head every day.
At the end of 2017, I accessed help. That year I had started to have occasions where I felt out of control around food, a new experience that was really distressing for my restrictive eating disorder. To this day, I remember the exact moment when the lightbulb went off in my brain and I decided to get help. I was sitting on a plane returning from a short holiday with my mother and sister and I started to think, “Do I really want the rest of my life to be like this?” “So confined and driven by rules and ‘shoulds’?” “Maybe my relationship with food isn’t normal?”
My relationship with food became an enormous obstacle to living a fun and happy life
To be honest, before that point I thought that everyone was doing what I was doing, in order to be “healthy”. But my relationship with food had become an enormous obstacle to living a fun and happy life and it was exhausting to maintain. A few days after that realisation, I saw a nutritionist who referred me to a psychologist specialising in eating disorders. I had my initial appointment with the psychologist and from that day, despite the overwhelming fear of the unknown, I committed to recovering from my eating disorder.
Today, almost four years later, I’m proud to say I’ve recovered from my eating disorder and I’m using my lived experience to help advocate for eating disorders and help others. I’m a speaker with The Butterfly Foundation and regularly engage in advocacy work such as media, podcasts and consulting on projects.
This may sounds cliché, but I’m a whole different person to who I was during the depths of my eating disorder. It’s like my eating disorder cloaked who I was for five or six years, becoming my identity and forcing me to present a façade. Through recovery, I’ve managed to pull the cloak off and reclaim my authentic self who was waiting for me underneath all along.
I feel like myself again
In recovery, I’ve become more generous and although the underlying traits of perfectionism and a need for control remain, I’ve learnt to channel them in healthier ways. Although I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on ANYONE, I also I wouldn’t change my experience because as part of my story I’ve been able to reclaim and find meaning in it.
My life looks completely different now and things I never thought possible during my eating disorder are part of my daily life. I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want to, make plans spontaneously and be fully present in moments that I want to remember. I feel like myself again. I’ve kicked my eating disorder out of the driver’s seat of my life and put myself back in it.
Now, I decide how I want to live. If you are currently struggling with symptoms of an eating disorder, I want you to know that your struggle is valid, and that recovery is possible. Recovering from an eating disorder, especially orthorexia, in a culture that is obsessed with appearance, weight and health, isn’t easy. But I want to tell everyone that, even though it’s difficult, recovery is possible and there is hope.