Sunday, May 14, 2017

On Eating Disorders #Moretothepicture


At this point people are surprised to hear that I used to have a severe eating disorder – because I am usually very bubbly and cheerful and full of energy, and not at all depressed or sick of life. However, that wasn't always the case.

Ever since 1949, the month May has been appointed Mental Health Awareness Month in order to raise awareness about mental illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. In honour of this awareness movement, I want to embrace the opportunity and talk about (my) Eating Disorder.




This blog post was written two years ago, but I never felt comfortable enough to share it on any social media platforms where it would also be read by my real-life friends. Here is the slightly revised version.


First off, the photo to the left is what I looked like when I was in the middle of my eating disorder, summer 2013. Now, you might look at this picture and think: that's actually quite nice, and you might not see that – behind that picture – this girl was suffering from a mental illness. 

Let me make something very clear.

Eating Disorder is not a physical illness, but a psychological. It's important to know that just because some people don't look anorexic doesn't mean they aren't, and the other way around. That means that a) people who are skinny are not automatically anorexic, and b) people who have a "normal" body mass can still suffer from an eating disorder. I, for example, had "perfectly normal" measurements for years (more on the "feminine" side actually, so not skinny at all), even though I was deep into my eating disorder at that time. The main reason for that being that I massively underate, causing my body to go into "starvation mode" with my metabolism running extremely low. Eventually I got skinny, but that took almost 2 or 3 years, and my body almost broke because of my long-lasting abuse.

To clarify:

I do not want to give you tips on how to force your body to get skinny - I do not want to encourage you to develop an eating disorder - what I do want is to show you that there is always MORE TO THE PICTURE. Do I look pretty in the left picture above? Well, I was pretty miserable for sure. For months and months (years even!) I had been thinking: "If I don't get skinny, I don't want to live like that anymore." Can you believe that? I was so obsessed with my body image that I was determined to sacrifice my life (!) in order to lose weight (!). A life is so much more valuable than a skinny body! And what good is a "perfect" body if you constantly torture yourself and feel miserable about yourself either way?

Let's look at the next picture, the one below. As you can see, my collar bones stuck out, my shoulders were angular and my boobs had shrunken noticeably. Is that a beautiful body? Some would say it is. Did I feel beautiful at that time? No I did not. I would find my body disgusting. Not because it was bony, but because I still felt "fat" and "weighed down" and "contaminated". I couldn't stand being dependent on such a "vulgar" thing as food. That's really how I thought! I wanted to be in control, and that meant: I wanted to prove that I didn't need to eat to survive. (pretty arrogant, right?) As you can see, eating disorders are considered a mental illness for a reason.

 

How did I, lover of food and the most vivid person on this planet, slip into disordered eating?

When I was 16 I moved to England for a few months and was confronted with a whole nother diet – I had grown up in a world of whole foods, and there I was in a family that mainly lived off white toast, late-night dinners and sugary granola bars. Which for me was a huge shock. I would eat so much yoghurt and cereal and sandwiches... and I'd still be hungry! So I gained weight. Not a huge amount, maybe 5kg (10lbs), but it made me feel very uncomfortable in my skin. I began to become very aware of my body.

And so the roller-coaster ride began.

To give you a better understanding of how disordered my eating habits were back than, I will mention a few different stages of my abusive eating. Again: I am not trying to encourage this way of eating and abusing your body in any way – on the contrary, I am trying to show you how twisted and destructive a mind works that has been completely taken in by an anorectic eating disorder. I know that if you are determined enough, you will find pages on the internet that will glorify anorexia and further increase your eating disorder. I can't stop you from that. It is your life, it is your responsibility. But I can show you the impact it made on me and my life. Please, do not repeat my mistakes!! 

So back home from England I cut down on my meals, trying to lose the extra-pounds, forcing myself to go for runs every day (which might sound like a good and healthy thing at first but I ended up pushing myself so far that I could barely breathe and run any more and almost collapsed), skipping meals, going low-carb, and starting to pay attention to calories. I did lose weight during that time, but first of all I felt pretty miserable and second of all this method was not sustainable at all. I went so far to even cut out all calories, even fruit and vegetables and whatnot. On most days I would eat below 800 calories, on some even below 300... (I kept a list)

Obviously, the yo-yo effect hit me. BIG time. Which made me look for another weight loss method. I discovered a popular health shake made of soy protein, honey and yoghurt that is used as a meal replacement for "weight loss without yo-yo effect" (you wish! full-blown yo-yo effect coming your way!). As soon as my temporary diet was over, I totally rebounded and stuffed my face with M&M's, chocolate, ice cream, gummi bears,... you name it.

I slipped into the habit of secretive binging and "purging" by taking laxative agents, almost slipping into bulimia (luckily I can't throw up by command – back then I was honestly devastated about that, but in hindsight I am very, very glad I couldn't go down that miserable road...). 

By the time my a-levels came around, I had gotten used to this way of secretive disordered eating that I constantly tried to cover up. Being emotionally stressed by the exams, I did not wanting to "burden" myself with food – so I went back to "health" shakes only consuming liquid calories – no solid food, just juices, milk, yoghurt drinks, coffee, and milk shakes, then after a while only milk, tea, coffee and hot chocolates (yes, at that stage I would rather drink a pot of milk with a chocolate bar melted into it than eat an apple because I was so afraid of eating!! You can imagine how crappy I felt. Looking back I cannot believe how god-damn stupid and irresponsible I was!

Long story short, when my father got sick after my a-levels and was suspected to have degenerative disease, I clicked. Finally. I wanted to stop this crap. Who was I to gamble with health? I was lucky enough to be born healthy, so why would I spend my life destroying my body?! Slowly, I re-introduced food (thick yoghurt drinks and smoothies) back into my life. Basically, that's also when I discovered veganism.

That wasn't the end though (an ED is a massive vicious circle). For a year or so I would only eat RAW food, since this was promoted on the internet (FullyRaw Kristina, Freelee the Banana Girl etc.) as being the "purest", healthiest, best, skinniest, "cleanest" foods – I even kept a Pain & Pleasure list about how cooked/processed food would make me "break out", have "hot flushes, bad mood, low self-esteem, no desire to do activities, tummy aches, guilt, fatty tissue" and "feeling dirty, feeling stuffed, never satisfied" – whereas raw/fresh food supposedly gave me "clean skin, lots of energy, higher self-esteem, clear mind, slim tight body (that was the only thing i cared about i think)". I had turned my anorexia into "Orthorexia", the urge to eat healthy and nothing but healthy ("healthy" meaning "raw vegan" in my case).

Well, turns out the hot flushes and tummy aches did NOT come from eating cooked foods, but from eating COLD, RAW foods that a) caused acid in my joints, and b) caused my body to overheat at any warm input in order to balance out the cold foods. When I was 22, I moved into a shared flat (where I live to this day) and there I was kind of forced to start eating normal again, i.e. cooked and occasionally processed foods that weren't "healthy and clean". It's also the place where I met my present boyfriend, who has done a great deal of teaching me to love myself.

The thing is that the motivation to change your diet and lifestyle has to come from within yourself. I WANTED to have fun with my room mates, to eat popcorn at the cinema, to have a shared midnight snack, to make a massive sushi party etc., so that is what kept me going to overcome my fear of gaining weight (which I did initially) and trust in my body to heal and to adapt to a normal, healthy diet again. I discovered veganism for myself – this time not for the sake of getting lean, but because I couldn't bare knowing about the disgusting way that the animals are treated to produce things like meat and dairy.

So yeah. That's pretty much where I am right now :)


The result of abusive eating

- mostly sinister, irritated, aggressive, angry or depressed
- mood swings
- dysfunctioning memory (by that I mean that I couldn't memorize things, couldn't do simple maths any more, switched letters in words etc.)
- lack of concentration
- different food addictions in unhealthy amounts, such as chewing gum, milk/yoghurt, cottage cheese, honey, protein powder, almonds, liquor, oatmeal, peanut butter... all to avoid "eating normal"
- a severe loss of vitality and joy of living
- constant fatigue
- sticking out collar bones (wearing a shoulder bag would hurt)
- pale, yellow-ish skin
- loss of fat
- loss of muscle
- racing heart, angina
- unproportionally skinny arms
- hair loss (including eyelashes) and brittle hair
- skinny legs, reduction of cartilage, joint pain in the knees
- always freezing to the bone, even in summer
- loss of period
- constant cravings and "binges", followed by the urge to punish myself for the backfall (usually by starving myself or working out excessively)
- avoided meeting friends and family and going to parties because I felt uncomfortable in my own skin


I hope this list showed you how (self-)destructive an eating disorder actually is. Restricting yourself to the point of starving is not a shiny, happy state. It is the worst feeling of constant hunger and emptiness, and even more dangerously, it is addictive (which is why they call it "Magersucht" in German, the addiction to being/getting skinny). It's like a drug. And you will constantly be craving. 

You will not feel comfortable in your skin unless you accept yourself the way you are! Without first tormenting your body and mind! Don't fall for the illusion that "once you are skinny, you will be happy". If you are not happy now, you will not be happy then. At least not if you don't change your attitude! It's not your body you have to change, it's your mindset.

The solution

If you are already suffering from disordered eating right now, please don't despair. Even if you are afraid of eating and gaining weight, there are ways to enjoy food and still lose weight and get lean. (and I'm not talking about bulimia here!!) I honestly wish I could go back and stop my old self from slipping into an eating disorder. Why did I have to make such an extreme cut and stop eating altogether? Why didn't I just try cutting out meat and dairy? I'm sure that would have been much more efficient! Well, I can't do anything about it now. And I guess, it served its purpose back then.

Recovery isn't easy and I'm sure as hell not saying that there aren't days that I still look in the mirror and find myself ugly and weird-looking. But those days are rare, and I don't feel the urge to cut back on food any more. Recovery is especially hard when you come from a past of years-long abusing your body, meaning that it remembers the times you wouldn't provide it with the food it needed, and it will go back to starvation mode if you start restricting again. Like a car that needs gasoline to run on, otherwise it will run slow and eventually stop. 

I do not want to pretend like there was one solution that will heal everyone from their eating disorder. No. It is a long and painful process. Most of all, it's a personal one. It's a rocky road that you will have to go by yourself. But I do have some advice to give that helped me personally. One important realization. 

You only have this one life. Even if you believe in reincarnation (which I actually do kind of believe in), do you really want to throw away your life  because you don't look like somebody else? Think of it this way: Would you want to have a boyfriend (or a girlfriend) who hates himself? Who despises the way he looks and would rather die than accept the body he has, no matter what you tell him? And would you actually love him more if he dropped a few pounds and got skinny and bony?

As of now, aged 25 turning 26, I am eating to my heart's content every day (sometimes a bit too much, lol). I eat when I'm hungry, and I don't ever count calories. Yes, I did have some chubby cheeks during my recovery for a while (but along with that I also got my cute dimples and my smile back ;), yes I did gain weight (back), but as you could tell by my collar bones sticking out and my baggy cardigan, that was absolutely necessary. What I gained in weight, I also gained in self-confidence, knowledge, tolerance and happiness. That sounds a bit over the top, but to be honest, I am really very proud of how far I've come. 

December 2014
April 2015
May 2015

As of now, I am OKAY with how I look. I don't have the perfect body by far, and I still aim for a fit, toned body – but I don't want to sacrifice my health and happiness for that. Instead of brutally forcing my body to shrink, I want to form it by eating right (and by right I mean: enough nutrients to fuel my body, not too much, not too little, with a good amount of "soul food") and moving my body in a way that makes me feel good. Yoga, dance workouts, hiking, biking,... being active and energized instead of lethargic and worn-out due to undereating! 

Being OKAY. Being ENOUGH. That is mental wellness to me. And that is perhaps the most important realization in the healing process: you are OKAY the way you are. You are beautiful the way you are. And if you disagree, and think "how can you say that? you don't even know what I look like!", let me tell you: a person who constantly criticizes and picks on themselves, who is depressed and frustrated, rigid and hateful (even if it is "only" against themselves), does not shine as bright as a person who has come to peace with themselves and is okay with the way they are, and who can move freely and be playful and actually happy because they don't put spokes in their own wheels.


After hesitating for a long time, I'm sharing my story now because I want others to know that it's okay to speak up, that having (or having had) a mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. When I was still struggling with my eating disorder, I wouldn't dare to admit I had an ED because I was afraid of reactions like "Really? You don't look like it!", so I'd keep it to myself. My friends and family noticed it of course and tried to talk to me, but I wouldn't listen. Now I'm speaking up, and I encourage you to do the same. Reaching out for support and just allowing and expressing your feelings is the first and most important step in recovery. I'm here. We're all here. So let's support each other. 

From the bottom of my heart,
wishing you well! 



Maisy