My eating disorder started during my freshman year of college. I was desperately trying to combat any trace of the freshman 15, so I threw myself into the media’s version of “health.” As I my daily consumption of health/fitness influencer vlogs/blogs increased, so did my thoughts about food and exercise. At first, I didn’t see my new obsession as a problem. In my eyes, I was taking good care of my body by only fueling it with “clean” foods and pushing it to its limits in the gym. That was what “healthy” people did, right?
I remember making my diet immensely restrictive during the week. Only lean meats, fruits, veggies, nuts, etc. I started eating a paleo-based diet at first, which made me squirm any time I was offered some bread. Now, I couldn’t imagine my life without eating a peanut-butter and banana sandwich at least twice a week. However, if you would’ve told me that a year ago, I would’ve shuddered at the thought of “too many carbs” in one meal.
So anyway, I ate super clean during the week in order to justify completely binging on whatever I wanted on the weekends. In the beginning of my college career, weekends usually consisted of a little too much vodka, late-night milkshakes and pizza, and greasy homefries to cure the morning hangover. I can not put into words how much my physical and mental well-being resembled a piece of shit after many of these nights, but I promised myself I would “balance it out” by spending a little extra time at the gym, and eating nothing but protein and veggies during the week. This vicious cycle dragged on for months. I would severely restrict myself from eating whatever I was craving for five days out of the week. So over the weekend, I finally got a taste of everything I deprived myself of, and BAM! I went crazy and stuffed myself until I was past the point of satiated. My typical thought process would be: I’m not sure when the next time I’ll be allowed to eat pizza will be, so I might as well have three more slices. Immediately after, I dissolved into a bottomless pool of guilt: the one thing that truly fueled my fire to go back to my restrictive eating habits and compulsive exercising every week.
My internal dietary rules that guided my every move became significantly more specific. For example, I wasn’t allowed to eat a banana and an apple on the same day because they were both too high in sugar and carbs. I had to stop eating before 8pm, and I couldn’t start eating before 8:30am. I would even sometimes avoid social situations because I knew they would be centered around food that I “couldn’t” eat. I remember the day that I finally realized that these rules might have actually been a problem. My mom had offered to pick up Chipotle (my favorite) for dinner, but I remember feeling physically distressed because I already had avocado in both breakfast and lunch, and I didn’t want to eat “too much fat” that day because I knew if I got Chipotle I would want it all with sour cream, cheese, and guac. Then there was the time when I went out to lunch at Tulley’s with my best friend, and we split a DELICIOUS reuben sandwich and an order of chicken tenders. I ate everything on my plate. Instead of enjoying a pleasant afternoon and a yummy (and rare) treat, I thought about it for the rest of the day and immediately starting strategizing about how I could make up for it with restrictive eating and exercise. I remember my friend telling me how annoying and even more concerning it was when I talked about it for at least twenty minutes after. This “food anxiety” as my mom and I called it, truly reached its peak during the fall of my sophomore year.
I became even more restrictive, and tried to plan my meals out for the week, like, I LITERALLY wrote what I was going to get at my college’s dining hall in my PLANNER. I left no room for honoring my cravings or listening to what my body wanted. I knew this constant need to be in control was spiraling out of control, but I lacked the courage to even attempt to get it under control. As the semester progressed, it was getting harder and harder to say “no” to the abundance of sugary treats and greasy delights around me. I mean, I was in college! I remember the day that I FINALLY gave in to the dining hall’s weekly ice cream sundae bar, the day that my extraordinary willpower failed me. I was so excited to celebrate the dawn of autumn in early September that I had the featured pumpkin pie ice cream. I topped it with plenty of whipped cream and some Reese’s peanut butter cup pieces. And oh my God I was shaking because of how immaculate it was. I finished my serving far too fast and immediately wanted more. So I got more. It was that evening when my mere “restrictive eating habits” developed into bulimia.
Although I was never formally diagnosed with any eating disorder, I knew I didn’t need to be. The degree of severity doesn’t matter; if your thoughts about food and body image are interfering with your quality of life, it’s an eating disorder, and you should consider seeking professional help. Shortly after Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream day, that’s exactly what I did. Reluctantly, I made an appointment with the counseling center on campus, because I knew I didn’t want this new habit to progress any further. Although I can’t pinpoint exactly what ignited my conscious decision to start my recovery journey, I knew that deep down, I didn’t want to be a victim. I wanted to excel in my academics, my job, and my relationships. Simply, I wanted to experience all the joy that this life had to offer. And any self-destructing thoughts and behaviors remarkably held me back from achieving my goals. Here are a few things that aided my recovery process, and helped me to think less about my next meal, and more about my next move in life.
I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. A huge and extremely common reason why eating disorders emerge is due to restrictive eating. It’s another reason why almost every trendy diet fails. Think about it: if you challenge yourself not to eat certain food groups, those food groups are going to be ALL you think about. This way of thinking also promotes an unhealthy all-or-nothing mentality. During the weekends when I allowed myself to cheat, I couldn’t just have one cookie. Nope, I would have FOUR because I didn’t know when the next time cookies were going to be available to me. As soon as I allowed myself to have a bagel at the dining hall, a cookie after lunch, or cheese on my sandwich, eating these things didn’t seem to be a big deal. Because guess what–they aren’tt! A sandwich became a regular, nutritious lunch rather than a “cheat” meal simply because it contained dairy and gluten. A small dessert after dinner became part of my regular routine that I looked forward to, but didn’t spend all day thinking about like I did when I had a “cheat” meal. It took awhile for me to accept that I was going to put on some weight, and I did. But in the end, I was grateful for the few extra pounds if it meant that I could see food as fuel and not a reward.
I got out of my comfort zone. Perhaps the most detrimental consequence of my ED was that it took such a toll on my social life. There were times where I would quite literally say “no” to plans if they involved food or interrupted my fitness routine. I always wanted to leave parties early so I could avoid feeling sick or sleep deprived the next morning (nothing wrong with this of course, but it truly kept me from enjoying the moment and having fun!). And the more anti-social I became, the more my social anxiety amplified. Ultimately, the only thing changed this was when I forced myself to do things that made my uncomfortable. I started to say “yes” more. I met new people, I took on new projects. I took advantage of new opportunities. I tried new hobbies. I changed up my routine. I stayed BUSY. I made the utmost effort to foster social interaction, even if I wasn’t really “feeling” it. One of the things I did that significantly helped me was when I went to South Carolina with Habitat For Humanity during their Spring Break service project. There, I spent an entire week with fourteen other student volunteers constructing a home for the Habitat affiliate in John’s Island. Not only did I become really close with so many amazing people, food was almost completely off my mind! (I say almost because we went out to eat at so many cool places). I realized that there is so much more to life than what I eat, the ingredients of what I eat, how often I go to the gym, and how my body looks. I only saw food as the fuel I needed to get through a long work day of manual labor. Overall, there is NOTHING wrong with staying in and chilling once in awhile (sometimes it’s a necessity), but crawling out of my shell was one thing that aided in conquering my eating disorder.
I started fixing the root of the problem. For many people, eating disorders are seldom about food itself, but rather a disguise for a deeper issue. For me, it was my generalized anxiety disorder. Food was something I could usually control in my frenzied college life. In order to soothe my panicked thoughts about food, I had to soothe my anxiety. Seeing a therapist certainly helped. At school, I also attended a group therapy session every week with other students who struggled with similar issues. I started meditating for five minutes every day before I woke up. Before going to sleep, I read a book for 30 minutes. I practiced yoga, used essential oils, and read/listened to self-help books and podcasts. Truth be told, this step isn’t a singular hoop I had to jump through in order to eliminate my eating problems. Rather, it’s an ongoing journey that I will likely be on my entire life. My anxiety is never going to vanish into thin air, but I can find more ways to manage it. I have been learning to go with a flow, and give up control in areas of my life that shouldn’t need controlling: such as my diet. Remember, recovery is a journey, not a destination.
I started being kinder to myself. When my eating disorder was at its peak, I was the hardest I have ever been on myself. I was always pushing to be better, especially when it came to my fitness level and my physique. Of course, the drive to improve oneself is healthy and essential to some degree. However, my overall “healthy and fit” routine was something that was starting to cause extra added stress to my already-stressful college life. When I started focusing on creating a healthy relationship with food and exercise, I started to take myself a little less seriously. I started using the gym as an outlet to RELIEVE stress, not something to CAUSE it. I stopped comparing my body, my food choices, and my portion sizes to what I saw on Instagram, and ate in a way that made my mind and body feel nourished. Most importantly, I paid more attention to the way I spoke to myself. Think about it: if a friend of yours approached you and told you she felt guilty for having something sweet or eating a little more than usual, what would you do? Certainly not make them feel guilty, encourage them to skip their next meal, or punish them with a crazy workout. Treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you have for your loved ones. 🙂
In the end, it all comes down to YOU. This is where a little self-discipline comes into play: you can THINK about getting better all you want, but nothing is going to change until you take actual steps to do so. It was easy for me to get caught up in the safety and comfort of my ED. But the freedom to enjoy allllll types of food, rest when I need and want, enjoy social events, and live in the moment is worth every ounce of discomfort the recovery process took. I am now about to enter my junior year of college, and am very happy with how much I’ve personally grown. As I said before, recovery is a journey, not a destination. Sure, I still think about food every now and then, because I’m a foodie!! But it’s more of a “hmm what am I feeling for breakfast today?” rather than “okay I didn’t work out as hard today so I probably shouldn’t eat something high in carbs.” As I said before, recovery is a journey, not a destination. I’m not all together, but I’m getting there. Instead of counting calories, I spend my mornings and evenings counting my blessings. Life is too short not to soak up every joyful moment, and experience everything you’ve dreamed about without ANYTHING holding you back.
I hope that this short version of my story may have helped some of you who are struggling with something similar. Just remember that you are NOT alone, and that it DOES get better. Thanks for reading!!