I often feel like I have to tell people that I’ve had a past pattern of “disordered eating” rather than stating what is the full truth, that I am in recovery for an eating disorder that first materialized at about the age of 17.
When I have used the term “eating disorder,” I usually get one of the following reactions:
- They ask me if I had anorexia or bulimia;
- If they’ve known me for a long time, they say they had no idea because I never seemed to starve myself;
- If they’ve known me for a long time, they don’t believe it was “that bad” because while I was very thin, I never looked sickly.
I learned the term “ED-NOS” when I was in university and I first started going to counseling. Now, here’s something crazy — at the time I was in counseling, literally no one knew I was in counseling. I’m an over-sharer, but this was one thing I just wasn’t comfortable telling people. I started in my second year and went regularly until halfway through my third, then semi-regularly until graduation. Throughout this I went through two relationships and neither knew that I was going to counseling (I usually said I was doing extracurriculars or even in class).
Going to counseling initially started as me seeking advice for what to do about a good friend of mine who has long suffered with ED-NOS and elements of anorexia and bulimia. I wanted to be a good friend throughout her difficult time. The more I spoke with the counselor, the more I realized that I exhibited a lot of problematic patterns myself, and even though I knew that food and weight were always sensitive issues for me (I never denied that), I was shocked. I thought, I didn’t “have” an eating disorder. Yes, I’m obsessed with my body image, but I’ve never starved myself or purged. I’ve never had an eating disorder.
ED-NOS, for those still scratching their head, stands for “eating disorder not otherwise specified.” And I have it. And I’m kicking its ass right now (even though it still occasionally shows up to say hi).
To specify, I and no one around me thought I had an eating disorder because I literally never did any of the following:
- Skipped meals, even breakfast;
- Physically measured quantities of food;
- “Measured” my waist in the mirror obsessively;
- Forced myself to throw up or abuse laxatives;
- Passed out from how thin I became;
- Cut specific foods out of my diet.
Here’s what I DID do:
- Worked out at an obsessive rate. I started going to a gym the summer I turned 18 and I saw results right away, and this was the start of me feeling like if I ate “too much,” all I had to do was work out and I’d be fine;
- Tried to keep my heart rate in the “fat burn” zone at all times, even when I wasn’t working out. I’d run to my next classes across the school, take a lap around school between classes, jump around with my friends (they chalked it up to my personality), hang out on their exercise bikes while we were together;
- Sucked my stomach in at all times. I couldn’t stand the idea of letting anyone see an ounce of fat on my body;
- “Felt” fat after almost any meal I’d eat, and I’d feel incredibly embarrassed and like everyone could see it. I usually didn’t like being around people after I ate;
- Because obsessed with numbers going down. I used to be a 29 waist and as I saw myself go down to a 26 I felt so proud — but also scared, because I felt like I would just die of embarrassment if that number ever went up;
- My first instinct became to look at every nutritional information label on every piece of food I ate — unfortunately, it still is (although I’m focusing more on looking at protein content than calories and fat). I am not proud to say that I at one point could tell you the approximate calorie count of almost anything you were eating.
Why did I do it?
- Short answer: A lot of reasons.
- Longer answer: I’m scared of being fat. I always have been, and I’d be lying if I said I weren’t still scared of being fat sometimes. But why? I know in my head that being fat is not inherently a bad thing. It’s the things that we associate with being fat thanks largely to media portrayals of fat people. We associate fat as unattractive. We associate fat as lazy. We associate fat as stupid. When in fact, fat people are none of those things — or if they are, it has nothing to do with them being fat.
- Another reason: If I were to believe everything people told me about myself, I would think I have a pretty crappy personality. Okay, I already do think that sometimes. But when I started losing weight in my last two years of high school, I was getting compliments. I was suddenly told I was pretty — all the time! People respected my opinions more and everyone just gave me a chance. It’s sad to say that when I was a bit chubbier (and honestly, I was never even that large — but definitely not comfortable in a bikini), no one really noticed me. When I became a “hot girl” everyone did notice me. And it felt good for awhile, until I realized that people’s interest in me started and stopped at my looks. But I did keep chasing that validation, because at least it was something, right?
How did I stop it?
For one thing, I feel like recovery is almost a perpetual state. Just the other day I remarked to my partner about how I am currently in a phase where I “feel my food” in my stomach after I eat ANYTHING, like even a cup of tea is too much! So I’m not going to sit here acting like I’m perfectly recovered and everything is fully behind me. But here’s what I do know has helped me get to where I am:
- Going to counseling. Though I no longer see a counselor regularly, seeing one in university really helped me get to the root of my problems and address them head on. My counselor helped me not blame or get angry at myself for what I’d done. If you can, find one specializing in eating disorders. Trust me, these people know what they’re talking about, and you’ll never feel judged or like a bad person.
- Developing a better relationship with food. Learning to have fun with food helped me feel like food was my friend, not my enemy.
- Take some time away from exercising. Learn to exercise not because you feel like you “need” it but because you WANT to be active. For me, that meant taking time away from the gym — but if I felt like biking, I knew I had the freedom to bike. If I danced, it was because I wanted to dance, not because I wanted to burn calories.
- Seek out fat role models. Women like Gabourey Sidibe and Mary Lambert have meant the world to me. They are beautiful, intelligent, dynamic and inspiring women. And they are fat. They are living proof that being fat means nothing more than being a certain size — it says nothing about your lifestyle, your personality or your identity. Another beautiful, intelligent, dynamic, inspiring woman? My Mom. My sister. Both fat. Both incredible.
- Tell someone. TELL SOMEONE. Keep the conversation going. It is so much more common than people realize, more so because people don’t think ED-NOS is an “actual” disorder. Reach out to someone — you may never know who needs their hand held. And you also may never know how strong you are until you find yourself in this position.