It’s a parasite that exists within the mind and manifests in the body. When its victim is chosen (nobody is immune) it begins the slow, agonizing process that keeps it alive. It’s always there, ceaselessly berating any rational thought its victim may have about the nourishment placed in front of them. This dark being feeds on the life within them. There is a tug-of-war in the realm of thought — both contenders fight and fight but when the wicked one is victorious, it advances on the body. The process continues in the physical realm. A nightmarish existence begins within the human body; a human body is now inhabited with a thought process not its own. Unrecognizable.
This is what an eating disorder is like.
Nobody asks for an eating disorder. Nobody wakes up one morning and decides he or she will begin the process of slowly destroying his/her body. It just doesn’t happen like this.
The groundwork for my struggle was laid by my strong tendencies towards perfectionism, a few off-hand comments taken in a way in which they weren’t intended, curiosity and believe it or not — a food tracking app.
As a life-long runner, I have always been athletic. I have a petite, muscular build that was toned and strengthened by the hills on which I ran. I had never had an issue with my weight. I am slightly below average in height and had had an appropriate weight to compliment it.
In the early spring of 2015, I came down with a virus. I consequently survived on toast and water for a few days. After this time had passed, I noticed my stomach was flatter. It would make sense since I had barely eaten in days. At the time, I regarded my flat stomach as something attractive and (I cringe as I write this), admirable. I would lie flat on my back and make my hip bones protrude as much as possible. It was a twisted pastime. This led to some curiosity. I found my digital scale, stepped on it and took note of the dark number that flashed on its tiny screen. I loved it. I became obsessed and greedy — I wanted to make that number drop.
Knowing the obvious connection between calorie intake and weight loss, I thought it appropriate to advance new interest in weight loss by downloading the app MyFitnessPal. Then I begin a swift downward spiral. I tracked everything I ate. As I entered every trackable calorie into my new favorite app, I quickly noticed myself treating my caloric intake like a smartphone game. It was also a game of restriction in the real world — a test of my self-control.
I started to think irrational thoughts. I began to eat less and less; I ate as little as I could. I would constantly test my own limits.
My new convoluted thought process morphed my love for running into the justification for my infatuation with food restriction. I would think, “If I just lost another few pounds, I could cut some time off my personal record." This is how I would present my actions. While frantically entering every component of my admittedly small meal, I would explain to others that it was “just for a little while longer” and that I wanted to “get healthier so I can run faster.” These were weak answers, but they warded off concerned onlookers who took them for face value and didn’t push the topic.
This behavior continued until my mind had been consumed. No rational thought about food remained inside my once sensible head. Though I sensed part of me continuing to fight against the darkness, I eventually lost.
As the disorder gained strength my body got weaker. My restrictive behaviors became more intense and destructive. I would measure everything I ate — cereal, nonfat salad dressing, vegetables, oatmeal — everything. I would eat as little as my body could handle and though I didn’t realize it at the time, my body was consequentially losing the strength I once enjoyed.
The numbers on that scale dropped. I loved it. The dark being controlling my thoughts was made stronger in my growing weakness and comments about my slandering, sickly figure.
I distinctly remember one specific moment: I was driving home, gripping the steering wheel, shaking uncontrollably because I hadn’t given my body the food that it craved. I was so profoundly miserable. I understood why I felt this way and I knew I could do something to change it. I wished that I could capture that moment and call it back to the forefront of my mind when I had restrictive thoughts or wanted to continue slowly starving myself to death — because at that point I was scared. In a way, that’s what I did. I remember feeling such an absence of happiness, love and light in myself. I never wanted to feel that way again, though at that point, it was the state in which I existed most of my days.
I also have distinct memories of lying in my bed at night, trembling and wondering how much longer I could carry on with my habits until hospitalization (I got very, very close to that), and even death. This was no doubt the darkest place I have ever ventured. It’s mortifying to have these thoughts cross your mind.
Shortly after this point (perhaps a year or more into the slow downward spiral), I realized something needed to change. The mere realization that something was wrong was my first step in the right direction. There was a long period in which I wrestled with the thought of altering my ways — internally screamed at the darkness which inhabited the shell of the person I once was. I fought hard against it. There were days where I would recognize that I needed to change. There were also days that I succumbed to my restrictive habits.
I eventually chose to seek help. It was excruciatingly difficult to accept it, even though I requested it. I went through a series of nutritionists. I had to find somebody I could trust enough to gradually encourage me to relinquish my restrictive habits. I did — and she is still gently guiding me to a life in which food is just food and not a number of calories. If I were to continue down the path I was on, I would have surely met even more dire consequences. What I was left with was hair that was brittle and thin, gastrointestinal issues, a sickly weight, hormone imbalances, a messed-up menstrual cycle, dull skin, constant nausea and a long road of healing ahead.
It’s been about a year since I started my journey to recovery. Today, though I cannot say I have been able to return to the eating habits I enjoyed before this, I am a much healthier person. I am learning to recognize hunger signals and more importantly, to honor them. My hair is returning to normal, my nails are stronger, and though I am left with lingering nausea, my hormonal levels have returned to normal. I can exercise again — and I do it for my physical and mental health, not just to burn an insane amount of calories.
Unlike the beginning of this journey, I am left with very few triggers that urge me in the direction of restriction. The things that I find most triggering are comments on my still somewhat restrictive eating habits, people saying they need or want to lose weight and my perfectionism still kicks in sometimes when I examine the state of my naked body. But I’m learning to love it. I’m learning that my worth is not determined by a number on the scale or the number of calories in the salad I’m consuming. I will never return to the days where I trembled in bed and let the parasite within me control my thoughts. I have emerged from the darkness, which has changed me, and I am not returning. Never again will I lose myself like I did then.
Lead Image Credit: volkanolmez via Unsplash
Editor's note: Eating disorders can take many forms and have serious, long-lasting consequences. This is just one account; if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder, please visit nationaleatingdisorders.org to find resources for help near you, and eatingdisorderhope.com for support tools.