It’s been awhile since I’ve written about mental health – my recovery process in particular. I think that is because my tendency towards perfectionism (be the perfect child, be the perfect friend, be the perfect employee) has meant I have also wanted to be perfect in my recovery. However, that is not the case.
Writing is a therapeutic tool for me and though what I am sharing in today’s post is a deeply vulnerable topic for me, I feel it is important to share. I know many of my followers and readers are people who struggle with similar mental health challenges and, like me, when you look to the online community for articles and stories to help you, they are few and far between. So I write this post not just for me, but for you too.
I recently got refitted for a bra and was politely informed my boobs had shrunk a full cup size. For a “barely B” you can imagine how horrified I was at the realization my body was reverting back to its preteen years. I mean seriously guys, MY BOOBS ARE SHRINKING. The same day, I reached my lowest weight of 114 lbs and though I didn’t make the connection at the time, it’s fairly obvious the shrinking boob epidemic is the result of losing weight.
More disturbingly, I failed to recognize that my weight was even an issue. The recommended weight for someone of my height is 120-155 lbs. From all outward appearances, I look normal and healthy even though the scale shows I am underweight. But if there is anything I’ve learned in working with my therapist over the last month on the whole ‘WHY AM I DOING THIS TO MY BODY’ thing, it’s that appearances can be deceiving, especially for people who struggle with disordered eating and eating disorders.
There were two frightening moments I encountered recently that made me pause and question my behavior and one revelation that prompted me to open up to my therapist about the extent of my disordered eating.
One of the frightening moments happened a few weeks ago when I weighed myself and saw the scale jump from 114 lbs to 117 lbs (the result of indulging in Irish food and Guinness). I had gained 3 lbs. You would have thought the world was ending. I was disgusted with myself and immediately put into action a plan to lose the weight, despite the fact I was still below the recommended weight range.
The second frightening moment happened just the other day when I got home from a three-hour workout and refused to eat because I had two cookies earlier in the day (it didn’t matter I had just burned 700 calories). My body was starving and screaming at me I NEED FOOD, I NEED FOOD yet I ignored those cries for nourishment and took a sleeping pill, hoping to sleep off the hunger.
At this moment, I knew my behavior and thinking was irrational. I was obsessively counting calories, restricting my diet, and over exercising. I kept telling myself to just stop it. Yet, I couldn’t. It was around that time I also began noticing that I was picking out my eyebrows more frequently – a habit I engage in when I feel anxious. It’s a disorder called trichotillomania, which leaves bald patches in my eyebrows. I’ve had it since I was about 14 years old and despite therapy it hasn’t ever gone away. With years of experience in dealing with the disorder, I know that when I engage in this behavior it’s a way of me dealing with stress. Having that understanding often makes me step back and look at why I’m anxious. And, this is where the big revelation occurred.
The source of my anxiety – and thus the eyebrow picking – was food.
It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing on my mind before I go to sleep. During the day, I count down the hours and minutes until the next “snack” because I can’t eat a minute sooner. Every night, I plan out my meals for the following day, record the calories, and determine how much I need to exercise to stay at just 900 calories a day. I take in 1200-1300 calories and burn between 500-700 calories. Any deviation from that plan immediately makes me anxious.
For example, on my coworker’s last day in the office we went to our favorite burger joint. I couldn’t not go so I made a deal with myself. I would order a cheeseburger but I would absolutely not eat the bun AND I would work out an extra 30 minutes on the elliptical that evening. To counteract the fries I would eat, I decided I would only have vegetables for dinner that way I could still remain within my daily caloric goal. The entire time I ate, I only thought of the calories I was putting into my mouth. I didn’t even savor the food. I stuck to my end of the deal, though, and my anxiety quickly subsided.
I described similar scenarios to my therapist (like the fact I skipped out on a happy hour last week because I knew I would drink a beer full of empty calories) and all I wanted to know is WHY the hell my mind was thinking this way. She drew me this:
Food is my trigger. When I have to eat, my anxiety skyrockets. The eating disorder yells at me and says things like, “What are you doing!? You’re going to get fat if you eat that!” or, “That’s disgusting! Stop eating!” So, I make a deal with the eating disorder. If I eat this cookie, I will do XX amount of additional exercise. Or, if I eat this burger I won’t eat dinner. The eating disorder says OK and my anxiety plummets. Thus, “the deal” becomes a powerful reinforcer for the eating disorder to continue. It’s the coping mechanism for my anxiety.
I have not been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Partly because the primary diagnostic tool used is whether or not your period has gone away. I have an IUD, which means I don’t have my period at all. But I do have disordered eating, which is dangerous because it can easily lead into an eating disorder – whether that’s anorexia or bulimia. Not everyone who has disordered eating will develop an eating disorder, but everyone who has had an eating disorder started with disordered eating. This scares me and I do not want that to happen.
The most important thing to me right now is recognizing I need help and getting it before it gets out of control. I am going in for weekly metabolic screenings. I have scheduled more frequent therapy visits. I’m working with my psychiatrist to re-address my medications. We’ve made goals to incrementally decrease the amount of exercise I do and increase my calories to at least 1500 a day. I know it won’t be easy, especially since I’m already fighting it.
To the family and friends I have talked about this struggle with, it’s difficult to grasp. As they say, I’m the sanest person they know and when I feel that kind of anxiety, it doesn’t visibly show to them. They don’t know I need help because I hide it well. Though I may look healthy on the outside, my thinking and behavior to maintain that image is not.
Of course, there are deeper seated issues behind the behavior besides anxiety. As my therapist pointed out, the emotional and mental abuse I went through in the last four years by the hands of someone else seems to have been replaced with emotional and mental abuse at my own hands. I have a lot to work through still. Thus is the wild ride of recovery for me.