I’ve always been a perfectionist, desperate to please my parents and everyone who matters to me. I can remember every criticism I’ve ever received, every negative thing anyone has said about me. I set myself to an impossibly high standard and exist in a world of black and white—I can either fail or I can succeed. If I fail, it’s the end of the world. If I succeed, I’m usually able to convince myself that I could have done better. It took me a long time to realize how maladaptive this mindset is, and I still grapple with challenging it today.
I was 10 years old when my mom found me inconsolable because I was convinced she was going to die. I had no reason to think this, but for some reason I was sure that it was going to happen. It was almost as if overnight I’d developed crippling separation anxiety. I’d gone from a confident, independent little girl to one who could barely handle a day of school away from her parents. Over the next little while, we worked to manage this anxiety with some success, but little did we know this was only the beginning of a long journey.
In the next few years, I slowly learned that my anxiety was reduced when I was hungry or when I skipped meals. This association grew stronger as time went on, and so did my desire to feel in control of something. Restricting my food quickly became a comfort to me. It was like a safety blanket that protected me from scary things like anxiety and emotions and meaningful connections with other people. My eating disorder kept me company and kept me safe from vulnerability.
But things reached a boiling point when I was 15. I was taken to the emergency room, admitted to the hospital, and diagnosed with anorexia. I spent just under three weeks there before I was transferred to the outpatient eating disorders clinic. I was hospitalized again when I was 16, and went back to the outpatient clinic.
From good to bad to worse and back again
For the next few years I existed in an excruciating limbo between bouts of trying to get better and slipping back down into the depths of my eating disorder. I experienced a few big relapses and had one more hospitalization, but for the most part after my first stay in hospital, my weight was normal. This was the hardest part: I looked fine on the outside but on the inside I was experiencing unimaginable suffering. Words can’t describe the constant pain of being at war with your mind, and the fact that no one can see that pain makes it even worse.
In the years after my first hospitalization, we tried many drugs and therapies. I’ve been on anti-depressants and anti-psychotics, tried outpatient treatment, private therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and dialectal behaviour therapy. Nothing really seemed to help, and I was in constant mental agony.
In my first year of university, I became so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed. Every bone in my body hurt, I was too tired to even think, and I could barely carry on a conversation. My parents, fearing for my safety, begged me to go with them to the emergency room. I agreed, and when I got there they put me in a room with nothing but a bed and a camera. That’s when something clicked in my mind. In that moment I knew that this sorry existence wasn’t a life, and realized I had to do something to try and crawl back from the depths of this despair I’d found myself in. In the ER my parents and I made an agreement: I could go home as long as I promised to tell them when I felt unsafe and be honest when they asked me questions.
When I got home with my newfound motivation, I expected things to get better instantly, and got very discouraged when they didn’t. But I kept chasing that feeling of hope, and very slowly things started to look up. I was taking positive steps and the mental progress that I was making kept me moving forwards when things got tough.
Finding support outside the comfort zone
At this point I began to realize that my eating disorder was a symptom of something bigger. Once I’d started to manage it, my anxiety came back with a vengeance. It became clear that I’d been using food to cope with my anxiety, and now that that was changing, the anxiety was back in full force.
My parents and I agreed that with this increased anxiety, it was time to get professional help again. We found a therapist who came highly recommended and I had my first session in April of 2014. The first few sessions were excruciating and pushed me far beyond my comfort zone, but they were effective. It’s now been about two years of hard work, time, and energy, and I’m sitting here today feeling like a different person. That’s not to say there weren’t any bumps along the road (believe me, there were), but sticking through it when things got tough was worth it.
Eating disorders can be extremely isolating, and many people suffer in silence because they don’t feel as though they’re “sick” enough. People’s struggles are often invalidated because of their appearances, when in reality your size has nothing to do with your amount of suffering. There’s a lot of work that has to be done to change the way we perceive eating disorders, to improve access to effective treatment, and to create awareness about the illness.
If you’re struggling, please know that you’re not alone and you don’t have to suffer in silence. Dalhousie’s Counselling Services has an eating disorders group that meets weekly, and Eating Disorders Nova Scotia has resources if you’re looking for help. I never believed it was possible to recover, but now I know that couldn’t be further from the truth. There may be some ups and downs and failed attempts, but there definitely is life after an eating disorder.
Emily won’t back down from a challenge.