Sunday, July 06, 2008

A little bit about being little: eating disorders

I have not written much here about my history with food, and my former eating disorder. It's not a subject I talk about too often anymore, except with my therapist, who did not know me when I was going through anorexia, so she does not really understand my whole history with it. It is a long history, and one that shaped my life to a certain degree, leaving lasting impacts on me. The reason I am mentioning this now is because of a woman named Nancy Bratt.

A few weeks ago, I came across a video on youtube about Nancy Bratt's struggle with anorexia and bulimia, and the fact that she is now dying of complications from her lengthy eating disorder. I got interested and looked into her website and her myspace page, and decided to write to her. I told Nancy that I would do my best, for as long as I live, to tell her story and to tell people about the dangers of eating disorders. I started talking about these dangers to people in 1999, when I did a presentation for an American Pluralism class at the college I was taking on body image and eating disorders. I wrote a paper about my experience with anorexia, and one of my professors approached me to ask me if she could show that essay to her niece, who was developing anorexia and was 14 years old. I asked her if I could write to her niece instead, and this started a correspondence that went on for some months through mail and email. My professor said that I had a major impact on her niece and helped save her life. I said, really, she saved her own life, but I was glad I was able to help.

After that experience, I wrote a bit about body image and eating disorders for my women's issues website. I still keep that online today. However, I haven't written much about eating disorders in a while. So, I would like to discuss the topic a bit here. I know that it does not relate directly to Schizophrenia, which is the subject of this blog, but it was a major part of my life. And, for all I know, it might have been related to a brain issue which also caused my Schizophrenia.

The first time I went on a diet I was 12 years old. I told my mother I needed these special foods to lose weight, according to a secret diet plan that my friend had gotten from someone's mother who had supposedly paid a large amount of money for it from a weight loss program. I remember my mom bought me the cabbage, hot dogs, and other disgusting foods, which I ate for several days, trying to maintain this diet. I believe, at the time, I weighed about 100 pounds. I was not overweight.

Anorexia became, in my mind, a solution to my life's problems. I began to think about dieting and weight loss obsessively, and the more I thought about it, the more I needed to continue thinking about it. I believe that there are reasons why people do things, like developing eating disorders, and that in my case, the reason was I was a very unhappy, depressed young woman with low self-esteem, whose parents had just split up and who had an unpleasant home life. Suddenly, I no longer cared about these actual problems. They had been replaced by the symbol of "problem" - food. I saw my weight as the center-point of my existence. My weight was where all my problems lied, and if I could control my weight, I could be happy. This is the anorexic mindset.

By the time I was 17 years old, I was 5'3 and went down to 83 pounds. I ate very little, sometimes 500 calories a day. I exercised as much as I could, though my body quickly grew weak and tired from any physical exertion. I cooked for other people, and baked all kinds of cookies which I never ate, then gave them away. I read recipes in magazines, watched cooking TV shows and pretended that I could make myself feel full by imagining I was eating something. It was a battle of mind over body, and I was determined that my mind would win.

I ended up in an eating disorder treatment center that year. There, I was the only anorexic person. The other patients had different eating issues, and many were very overweight. I did not comply with the treatment regimine there, because I was absolutely terrified of gaining any weight. I dumped the milkshakes they gave me down the sink and I did jumping jacks in my room after I had been put on bedrest. In a few days, I was kicked out of this treatment center for noncompliance. My father was told to put me into a psychiatric hospital nearby, because, there, they could tube-feed me if necessary (I never got to the point of being tube-fed; I agreed to eat to avoid that).

I spent several weeks in the hospital, and, after that, several years recovering from anorexia, relapsing, then recovering again. It was a roller coaster that went on for years. At one point, my therapist refused to see me anymore, because she thought I was going to die since I did not seem to want to get better. I was absolutely miserable and unable to think or concentrate on anything but calories, fat grams, and my metabolism. When I was about 19 years old, while walking through my neighborhood, when I still lived with my mother, I frequently saw a severely emaciated woman who lived nearby walking by herself. She looked like a corpse, and people stopped to stare at her. I wanted so badly to tell her to get help, because I knew the hell that she was living through, but I did not think she would want to hear that from a stranger. So I never said anything to her. But seeing that woman frequently walking, though she was about 30 years older than I was, left an impact on me. I did not want to spend the rest of my life suffering from anorexia, with my life revolving around diet pills and laxatives. I decided that I wanted to get better, or I wanted to die. I did not want to live with an eating disorder anymore.

It would be simplistic to say that this was the end of my eating disorder. In reality, I continued to battle with it off and on for years. And today, though I am 33 years old, I still have great disgust at my body and am very embarrassed by my weight. In the past two years, for the first time in my life, because of the antipsychotic medications I take, I became overweight. To be truly overweight, after a life time of delusionally believing you are overweight when you are truly thin, is hard to deal with. People make comments to me about diets I should try or exercises that might help me, and I know they mean well, but when people say these things, frankly, it makes me wish I was dead. I have a hard time applying for jobs and going to job interviews, because of my weight. I've been unemployed now for seven months, and a large part of the reason for that fact is my weight and my humiliation about it. There are some jobs I will not apply for, because I feel I am too fat for the role. This may sound silly, but for someone who lived with anorexia for many years, it is not at all unusual.

Another thing that did not help matters was that, when I still lived with my former boyfriend, he would make comments over the past two years about my weight. He constantly reminded me that I was gaining weight, as if I was not already keenly aware of that fact. He said he was no longer physically attracted to me long before he actually broke up with me. This had a major impact on my self-esteem. I cannot date anyone now, because I feel I am too fat, so I do not try to meet people.

This past fall, I had a reminder of my anorexic past. I tripped in my apartment, hitting my foot on the coffee table in my living room, and suddenly felt excruciating pain. I had broken my ankle. I did not fall hard or do anything that would seem to cause that kind of injury, but I found out when I went to the doctor for my ankle that I had Osteoporosis, and that was why my ankle had snapped like a twig so easily. To this day, I have not followed through with the bone density test I was supposed to get, in order to find out how severe the Osteoporosis is. Partly, I have had too much depression and anxiety to deal with things like that, and partly, I do not really want to know. I feel very regretful that I starved myself for years, which probably shaved years off of my life, and caused irreparable damage. My starving myself may be related to why I developed an autoimmune disease and Fibromyalgia as well. I will never know for sure.

For a few months after I broke my ankle, I had to wear a large brace which made walking difficult. I was lucky that it did not require surgery, but it took a while to heal. But things could have been much worse for me. Compared to breaking an ankle, some women who suffer from eating disorders, like Nancy Bratt, are dealing with far more devastating aftereffects. Nancy was in recovery two years ago, when her organs began to fail. She has been very sick for the past two years, and is now given just a couple of months to live, according to her family's writing on her webpages. Her family continues to update her myspace page and her other website, in an effort to make people aware of the true dangers of eating disorders. Nancy Bratt's story is important, because she was fighting her eating disorder successfully, when she became gravely ill. Sometimes, by the time you get to the point of recovering, it is too late for your body.

In recent years, something that has disturbed me greatly, which did not exist when I was younger and battling anorexia, are the "pro-ana" websites, forums, chat rooms, online journals, blogs, and videos on the internet. These sites portray pictures of severely emaciated women, many of which I am sure are doctored/ photoshopped pictures and they call this "thinspiration". The people who create these sites, usually young women, claim that anorexia is a "lifestyle" and "not a disease". They list tips on how to starve yourself properly, how to hide your eating disorder from your family and friends, and how to motivate yourself to lose more weight. They are a virtual eating disorder factory, churning out starved young women, leaving them hating themselves even more than they already did.

These sites should really be banned from the internet, completely, but that has evidently not happened since they are still very easy to find. So when I wrote to Nancy Bratt, I told her that every time I came across a pro-ana person online I would tell them the truth about eating disorders, and I thanked her for doing the same. If these young women knew what laid in store for them when they were in the midst of a full-blown eating disorder, they would certainly not choose that fate for themselves. They seem to believe that an eating disorder is the same thing as dieting. But, just like drinking socially is not the same thing as being an alcoholic, a diet is not the same thing as an eating disorder.

I remember the lonely days I spent in my bedroom counting my ribs, and looking in the mirror, seeing if I could pinch an inch of flesh on my body. I remember pounding my fists into my legs as I walked as fast as I could to burn calories. I remember the boxes full of Dexatrim and laxatives I kept stashed away for years in secret places, and my mother's outrage when she found them, and my father's note when he found them once, which said, "please stop killing yourself". I remember all the food I could not eat, and all the food I did eat, for which I felt ashamed. I remember my weights at every period of my life probably more than I remember anything else about my life. I remember the physical and mental pain, and the feeling of being locked inside a concentration camp of the mind, unable to escape. I remember anorexia as hell on earth, and it is a fate I would not wish on anyone.

Now, I have not starved myself for years, but I will have Osteoporosis, and be at risk for breaking bones easily, for the rest of my life. It will progress, since it always does, and there is no cure for it. It is a painful, and sometimes debilitating, illness. It is an illness I would never have gotten if I had not been through years of anorexia.

These are the aftereffects of self-starvation which pro-ana sites do not discuss. These are the facts that are conveniently ommitted when people create webpages to encourage others to starve themselves. The truth about an eating disorder is that it's a very isolating, very lonely, very painful, very controlling, thing which takes over people's lives just like a drug or alcohol addiction, and affects every single aspect of life. Eventually, if it does not kill you, it will damage you permanently, and by the time you come to regret, "choosing this lifestyle", your fate will already be sealed.

If you know anyone who is at risk of developing an eating disorder, or if you are suffering from one yourself, please get help. There is an excellent website called Something Fishy, which has been online for at least ten years, and deals with all eating disorders, offering information, support, and recommended resources. If you would like to email me about these issues, feel free to do so. I can listen and offer you what advice I am able to offer. In the end, it is the person who has the eating disorder herself who must choose to overcome it. Unfortunately, many do not make that choice before it is too late for them.

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