What a crazy week it’s been! I celebrated Eating Disorder Awareness Week by eating out, not exercising AND speaking at MEDA‘s Hope and Inspiration this morning. I’ve been hemming and hawing for awhile about posting my recovery story on the blog. I’m not exactly sure what my hesitation has been, but I’ve decided to post it today. This is the exact story I presented this morning, but it is ever evolving…so my next presentation may be even longer! It is such an honor to be asked to present at MEDA. It’s an amazing feeling to think that I may have helped someone today…even if just for that hour. So, without further ado, here’s my story:
I can pinpoint the first time I ever felt fat. I was seven years old. My cousin had sent me a bag of hand-me-downs and I couldn’t wait to try on a hot pink, spangled, puffy sleeved evening dress. It 1993, and those things seemed important to me. I feverishly dug through the bag to find the dress. Once I got my hands on it, I stripped down to my underpants right in the living room and squeezed my round body into the pink taffeta bodice. My mom struggled to get the zipper up and I remember wondering why it wasn’t working. It must be broken, I thought to myself. There was no possible way in my mind that this dress didn’t fit. My mother quietly said, “it’s too small” and instructed me to take it off. She had no intention of making me feel bad, nor did she realize I was upset until she saw the tears streaming down my face as I asked, “am I fat?” She assured me that I was beautiful, but I was not skinny…and that was a fact. I remember feeling sad and confused, and that feeling stayed for many years to come.
I struggled with my weight until I was 16. I hated my body, but hated exercise and loved ice cream too much to make any changes. Eventually I had had enough and a friend and I decided to join Weight Watchers and count points. The weight started to fall off. I joined the YMCA with my dad and the weight continued to melt off. I felt proud and strong, but had no understanding of nutrition or healthy exercise, but I loved all the attention I was getting, especially from boys. I was beginning to exhibit beginning behaviors of an eating disorder, but was completely oblivious to the damage already being done.
I graduated high school and was excited to start college, although nervous about potential weight gain in a new environment. My diet started to become really restrictive and I discovered some other dangerous substances as well. Freshman year ended and I was no longer the bubbly, fun loving teenager I had entered as. I was depressed, bruised from malnutrition, and orange from all the carrots. I was making poor choices across all aspects of my life and showing no signs of self-respect. When sophomore year rolled around, I had resorted to dangerous, unhealthy, and hateful behaviors to control my intake. My friends were concerned and staged interventions in my dorm room. I laughed at them and figured they were just jealous. My parents watched me waste away, but were helpless as I pushed food around my plate whenever I visited. My mother pleaded with me to tell her what was happening inside my head. She asked me specifically what I was eating every day and if I was doing anything dangerous. I dismissed her concerns and we fought regularly. Our once inseparable relationship had become extremely strained.
Then it was Halloween. I had begun seeing this guy. He was older than me and seemed cool, but for some reason did not appreciate my skeletal body. He constantly told me to eat, but I figured he was lying. Why wouldn’t a guy love a skinny girl? After a crazy night out with friends dressed as a scantily clad cowgirl, I showed up at my boyfriend’s apartment. I wasn’t sure how I got there, but I was angry and picked a fight with him. In the midst of our screaming match, I exclaimed, “I have enough problems in my life, I don’t need this!” To which he retorted, “What, like your scathing eating disorder?” That was it. The gig was up. He knew and I couldn’t hide it anymore. I collapsed in a heap and his feet and sobbed for what seemed like hours. I felt empty and hopeless. I was not ready to face this and I had no idea where to start.
In the following days I went home and came clean to my parents. They helped me set up an appointment with my doctor and a counselor at school. I felt like I was moving in the right direction. Then I relapsed. And relapsed again. And again. And so on and so on for several years. I always knew when a relapse was coming. A fight with my boyfriend, a tough week at school, when something didn’t fit the way I thought it should, when I found my parents hidden scale, when a nutritionist told me I had a “large frame”. It was a constant struggle to ward off the enticing call of my eating disorder. I walked the fine line between staying at college or entering treatment and somehow managed to graduate. When I graduated college I felt that I was “in recovery”, which consisted of eating the same foods every day that did not amount to enough for sustaining basic life functions. I was proud that I had made it through all four years, despite my obvious struggles, and had decided that I was simply going to be a person with an eating disorder for the rest of my life. I was cranky and anxious all the time. My boyfriend (god only knows why he stayed with me!) continued to coerce me into eating new and different things and started ignoring my complaints of being “fat”.
Then came graduate school. The stress was unbearable. I needed my eating disorder to keep me sane. I needed to rely on my safe foods to keep me in line. I continued eating the same bizarre combinations of food, but my body had had it. I had a doctor’s appointment in August and specifically told the medical assistant not to show me my weight as that was a huge trigger for me. She obliged, but then when my doctor entered the room, she handed me a print out of my physical with my weight right on the top, circled in red marker. I gained weight. I could feel my body weakening and my face reddening. So much of my self worth relied on this number and just like that, after battling for so long, I slipped right back into old behaviors. I couldn’t stand pretending I was better anymore. My family tried to console me, my boyfriend supported me, but I just continued down a road of destruction. I needed my eating disorder to help me get through the stress of grad school. I needed to control one thing, since everything else was spinning around me.
I met with a new counselor, but she insisted on talking about my weight every session. I began getting anxious about therapy and crying my way home after each meeting, so I stopped going after 3 sessions. I thought I could handle it on my own. I finished graduate school and decided it was time for a big change. My boyfriend proposed and immersed myself full force into wedding planning, job hunting and life changing. I decided that I would deal with my eating disorder after the wedding (I had to fit into my dress, after all!). I met with a trainer that I was completely honest with. He told me to stop counting calories and eat for life. I needed to sustain not only my workouts, but my daily living activities (like…using my brain). I half listened to him, although had become pretty reliant on online calorie counters and was not ready to give that up. I entered every bite that passed my lips and felt proud when I was under my calorie goal for the day, regardless of what my trainer told me.
I got married and it was perfect. The wedding was amazing and truly the best day of my life. But in the following days I suddenly realized I was married, had a master’s degree, a career…and this eating disorder. I should have been happy, but I was more miserable than ever knowing that I still had myself to deal with. I cried for a week straight.
I begrudgingly began searching for a new therapist and found Rita. She took my insurance and was close to where I lived. I figured I’d give her a shot and see how it went, without much hope. I was prepared to live the rest of my life as someone with an eating disorder, and that was that. I could not have been more wrong. From the moment I met Rita, I knew she was going to be the one to pull me out of the eating disorder darkness. She told me that she truly believed recovery was possible for everyone, including me. I had never heard anyone use those words before. I always believed that once you struggled with an eating disorder, then you were doomed to struggle for life. She referred me to Roberta, my dietitian, and the three of us began our journey toward recovery. Rita explained that my eating disorder had served its purpose, but now I no longer needed it and it was time to meet Rebecca the Person as opposed to Rebecca the Eating Disorder.
I made steady progress toward releasing my eating disorder by adding new foods into my diet, trying new activities, investing my time in something other than food and getting to know myself, but I held on tightly to my calorie counters for nearly a year. Eventually, Rita and Roberta coerced me to let it go for a trial period. I finally did and lo and behold, I felt free. The chains of calorie counting were cut away.
I began researching fitness and found role models that ate real food and exercised for a reasonable amount of time. This was difficult, as the fitness industry continues to advocate unhealthy and, sometimes, dangerous lifestyles. I began to realize how numb I had become to social media and advertising that objectified women and glamorized eating disorders.
I realized that I no longer hated my body, which was a weird feeling at first. I began appreciating what my body did for me and noticing how it responded when I was nice to it, as opposed to abusing it as I had for many years. My life began to change. I no longer fished for “you’re so skinny!” compliments, but rather felt offended by such words. I decided to take matters into my own hands and pursue a certificate in personal training. If I could help one person that was struggling with their body like I had, then that would be enough. That’s when Flex and Shout Fitness was born. I needed to show others that recovery could happen…even for me, the former non-believer. In a few short weeks, Flex and Shout has been read in over 25 countries with over 6,000 views.
On paper, it seems like this was an overnight switch. In reality, this realization took years. It took a long time for me to “buy in” to therapy and trust that Rita and Roberta weren’t trying to make me fat. I sat in numerous therapy and nutrition meetings nodding and smiling, knowing that as soon as I left I was going to do my own thing. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but slowly I began to see these behaviors less frequently. My brother came home for a visit from California and commented that I seemed happy. He didn’t know it at the time, but I needed to hear that more than ever. I was happy; not just “happy but with an eating disorder”, but just regular happy!
Recovery is an indescribable feeling. I can smile and breathe and know it is genuine. I can go out to eat with my friends and husband and not panic. I can miss a workout without my life crumbling around me. Of course I still have off days. I still have “fat attacks” when things get stressful, but now I can take a step back and figure out what’s making me feel that way. I am more in tune with the media and find myself getting angry when women are instructed to eat less, exercise more, “be a lady”. I educate my friends on the dangers of social media on our psyche and self-confidence. I love when people comment on my strength and send me “girl power” posts.
It took many years, but I eventually realized that no one was as concerned about my size as I was. No one was watching if I ate something “unhealthy”. No one was judging me. I could truly experience life. Everything is more beautiful. Colors are more vibrant, smells are more pungent. Food tastes more delicious. Life feels amazing.