"Life without an eating disorder is, truly, beyond words"
I had always been told I was different, from a young age. Having been told this throughout my early years and upon entering high school, I grew up knowing I was mature and (thinking I was) very intelligent for my years. My high school teachers told my parents that when I grew up, I could do whatever I wanted; that I’d become whatever I wanted to be, do whatever I wanted to do, and achieve anything my heart desired. Over the course of my life, the idea that I was different became part of my identity; I became used to being the overachiever, the perfectionist, the anal-retentive one—whatever that meant. It always seemed like I had been given a gift; I could excel at almost anything I put my mind to, leaving my future full of opportunity and success. And while I still believe this is true, I no longer see it as a fundamental part of my being.
I should start off by saying that I had an amazing childhood. I don’t know why I feel the need to bring that up; my guess is that it is because most people attribute mental illness or delinquency to issues founded in childhood and/or early adolescence. While that can be true, it does not mean that someone who develops some kind of problem as teenager has had an awful childhood with abusive or neglectful parents, and therefore no sense of solidity in the home. In fact, mine was quite the opposite. I do, however, think that it’s important to see that the idea of weight and dieting was present in my life from a very early age. Though it really only became a large concern as I got a older, the idea of being thin crept into my conscious mind little by little with every passing year. And then suddenly, it took over. I told myself that if a boy could think I was attractive, there was nothing wrong with my weight. Looking back, the correlation between feeling attractive to myself, and feeling accepted by others, was well underway by the time I was twelve.
Though I felt like I was thriving, I believe that it was a superficial kind of confidence. I had constructed a house of happiness built on no more than a shaky foundation of scales and numbers; though its walls kept me satisfied on a surface level, something dark and mysterious was lurking in the attic. Does it really seem possible that I found true happiness for myself—dieting, restricting and measuring every little thing that I put into my mouth—in my attempt to control everything that I ate?
In February 2008 I met with a doctor at a local adolescent clinic specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, her name was Dr. Suzanne MacDonald, she ended up being one of the warmest, most patient, kindest women I have ever met. It was at this appointment that I received a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, and the process of treating my eating disorder began. My friendships had indeed suffered in the past few months (a result of anorexia), as my girlfriends became frustrated that I would find excuses to never go out for dinner for their birthdays. It is evident that my eating disorder had definitely isolated and alienated me from my friends; there was a growing disconnect with some that, unfortunately, could not be bridged. My eating disorder became my best friend, and subtle changes in everyday patterns created such anxiety in me you’d have thought a tsunami had hit inside my brain. Anorexia nervosa is not about weight—quite the contrary, actually, as there is always something much greater and deeper below the surface. Someone once told me an analogy of an iceberg; though you only see the tip of the iceberg, there is a whole lot beneath the surface of water. That sums up any eating disorder quite accurately.
The day I was admitted to the hospital (as a result of my eating disorder), I told my parents not to tell anyone I was in the hospital, not even my cousins, aunt or uncle—I was trying to exert some kind of control in response to the loss of control that I then had over my own life. Even though everyone was trying to make me as comfortable as possible, I was furious with the world, and at many points took it out on my poor parents. The struggles with dietary concerns (between myself and the professionals) continued to conflict throughout much of my treatment until I realized that in fighting with what the professionals wanted I was ultimately hurting myself. In general, I was making compromises with myself—I was cheating myself, and although I knew “little” changes would cause minor anxiety, I knew exactly what I was doing; I was trying to rationalize the irrational, to justify the unjustifiable—I was trying to create a life for myself where hope, true happiness and health lived among the eating disorder-infested thoughts. But they are complete and utter opposites, and, in the words of J.K. Rowling, “One can not live while the other survives.” In the case of the two words I was trying to combine into a nice, pretty package—opposites do not attract.
Becoming an adult:
My eighteenth birthday was approaching, and I knew it would signify the end of my treatment at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. Entering the adult healthcare system meant that my case would be transferred to the specialized Eating Disorder Program at the Douglas Mental Institute of Montreal. I had been dreading this, as I had come to emotionally depend on my regular interactions with Sally and Dr. MacDonald, and whom I would eventually stop seeing after my transition period to the Douglas had been completed. Though I had known that it was inevitable, I wanted the transition period to last as long as possible. I was told, however, that I could always visit, and, as it turned out, I would occasionally speak to Sally, and once even hear from Dr. MacDonald.
On October 22nd, 2008, I turned eighteen years old, and therefore became an “adult”. I was now legally in charge on my healthcare, and this scared both my parents and myself. My first semester in CEGEP was going very well, and now I had something else to worry about. I expressed my fears about entering the adult health care system to Dr. MacDonald, who assured me that my worst fears would not be realized. It was also understood that the Children’s Hospital would not “abandon” me. I would gradually space out my appointments with Dr. MacDonald and Sally (therapist)—even after I turned eighteen—and begin to see my new doctors at the Douglas on a regular basis. I expressed my fears of not being taken seriously in the “adult” system, my anxieties of being left alone to recover from the eating disorder that was still plaguing my day-to-day life.
The team of professionals at the Douglas was superb. They were more sympathetic, helpful, and kind, than I ever could have expected. I was, however, initially told by Dr. Steiger that there was a typical “time frame” for patients—that the hope was, eventually, that a patient could finally be on their own, without the need for a specialized eating disorder program. Though this initially petrified me—how would I ever be on my own—Dr. Steiger quickly assured me that I would not be tossed out, and that the clinic always kept an open door policy for existing patients. To this day, I call my former psychiatrist, Dr. Mimi Israel—whom I absolutely adore—and she calls me back within the same day. Never having to say good-bye for good, certainly made all the difference, as I now no longer feel the need, thankfully—finally—to be involved in eating disorder treatment (only individual therapy, where I now deal with issues in other areas of my life). Again, life is not black-and-white; I know I can always reach my old doctors if I should ever feel the need.
Baby steps were being made, though they were so tiny that sometimes it seems as though I was at a standstill. But I was trying so hard to “fake” it, in the hopes of one day truly “making” it. In group therapy, I learnt the difference between the words could and would, and the difference between the words can’t and won’t—something that sticks with me to this very day. I genuinely wanted to be able to believe that being at a healthy weight did not make one chubby or fat—instead, it made one happy. I genuinely did not want to equate being healthy with being fat—having curves with being fat—but I did. I wondered if I would ever be able to make such mental changes.
Eventually, I decided I did not want to know my weight at all, as it caused too much distress, and I told Dr. Steiger that he should only tell me if my weight grew above two pounds. We decided, as a team, that anything less than two pounds would be considered staying the same. On a side note, the previous theory, actually a fact, still holds true; our weight fluctuates on a constant basis, and it is impossible to truly control it, as we have no control over how our bodies will react to the many, many factors that contribute to one’s weight: metabolism, sodium intake that day, water retention that day (that can even depend on the weather), how much you slept the night before, and, for females, the time of the month. All these factors—many of which not even involving food—contribute to a person’s weight, and it is literally impossible to control one’s actual weight (though we, as a society, continuously tend to try).
Pivotal point in recovery:
Eventually I reached a point in my recovery, where my parents had stopped “trying” to get me to see my true ways; though they could encourage and support me, they could never force me to make the real change within myself—I had to do it on my own, and discover what I truly wanted for my life (though, when I was physically in danger, they had every right to take over, because I was too sick at the time to realize that if I kept going as I had been for months, I would eventually die). My social life was slowly starting to pick up again. I was becoming close with Devin—my longtime childhood friend—again, I started my first real job (at a maternity clothing store, ironically, which would later indirectly help my recovery), and I was beginning my second year of CEGEP. Getting a job, though sometimes proved to be physically stressful, which therefore allowed me to see the importance of eating properly. I soon began going out with friends, going shopping on a regular basis, and having a regular life that allowed thoughts of weight and food to decrease considerably over time. After all, having an active eating disorder required constant obsessing about my weight, though now, I was occupying myself with other things, and this decrease in my obsessive thoughts was more a side effect, rather than a direct goal. For the first time in many months, I was experiencing what it was like to be a somewhat normal teenager/young adult. Though I was still eating restrictively, and I would still not go out for dinner, I was becoming happier again. Though obsessing thoughts about food and weight still occupied a fair amount of my time, I was beginning to see how truly breathtaking, and blissful, life without a full-blown eating disorder could be.
Once my mood started to stabilize, and I started to fill my days with school, work and friends, I did not really want to go to therapy anymore. I wanted to be on my own for a while, though that was hard for me to admit, because being on my own was both exciting and scary at the same time. Also, I still don’t think I was ready to voluntarily “give up” the eating disorder; I had been forced as a seventeen-year-old, but I was now almost 19, and I felt I had found a happy medium between not being miserable due to anorexia, but not exactly being “fully” recovered either. Yes, I was much happier and healthier, but I was still not eating out, not enjoying food, as well as not enjoying my body, which shows that I wasn’t truly recovered, either. I had a long way to go, even though I had come a very long way, and for the time being I wanted to just stay still. Recovery became less of a priority for me as school, work and friends, became much more present in my life. Ironically, this would be what ultimately led to my actual, true recovery.
Basically, I started having fun again. I started building memories again. Little by little, “recovery” had changed from being something other people wanted me to do, to something I was going for myself—though at the time, I did not realize that choosing to put it on the back-burner to simply enjoy my everyday life was actually part of my recovery. I was starting to enjoy little moments with friends and family, and these were small, tiny steps that eventually led me to see how much happier I was not always obsessing about my weight and food—how much happier I could be without an active, full blown eating disorder. I soon came to realize that starving myself had not only suppressed, or numbed, the bad feelings, but it had also had numbed the good ones, too. I was beginning to crave these feelings of pleasantness that I had denied myself for so long, that had I forgotten even existed, in the process of starving. My nineteenth birthday was one of true celebration, of rejoice, and of rebirth. I decided that I wanted cake—no one expected me to have one, no one even brought up the possibility of having one for my birthday. For the first birthday in two years, I wanted to do something for myself that surrounded food. My inner monsters—the feelings of depression that I feared as if they were the end of the world, since that’s what they felt like—came to visit me that winter/early spring, though not for nearly as long or often as they had the year before. I could breathe again knowing that my Effexor had indeed made a huge difference, even at my most vulnerable time of year; having my friends in my life again—as well as eating a considerable amount more—certainly helped, too. To this day, I still fear my depression will visit me sometimes, but when it does, I am quick to jump into the arms of the people surrounding me. I know, this time, that it will pass—the mind is not meant to feel depressed forever, and these feelings do pass.
I realized that it felt so good having a glass of red wine with my dinner, having a piece of freshly-baked, warm bread, and allowing myself to actually enjoy a meal, rather than fear it. It soon became easier, and as time passed, I no longer felt the need to restrict myself the day of, or after, a meal. On top of that, real life involved impromptu dinners that are not always planned—sometimes I would not have the opportunity to restrict myself that day. I tried to say yes to as many family dinners as I possibly could, because I did not want my relationship to suffer from an eating disorder and my previous one had. This was probably a major turning point in my recover; I was now in what I considered an “active” recovery rather than a “passive” recovery. I had finally chosen something over my eating disorder, though, at the time, I did not realize it. I was definitely much better, though not perfect, and it showed; I was smiling a lot, I was laughing a lot, and I was finally seeing that food could be enjoyed. I started going out to restaurants again—and more importantly, ordering what I really wanted—and I stopped restricting myself at all, because it simply felt so good to eat what I wanted, not what I thought I should eat. I would often come home from a dinner or family event and joke to my parents, “Who knew?”
What recovery has looked like for me:
Recovery was not at all what I had expected; enjoying food again—and not minding being at much higher weight than I was where when I as sick—ended up becoming a side effect, not the goal. My true happy medium had been to create my own idea of recovery, which was that, to me, recovery would simply be about “feeling better”. I did not include eating normally, or not restricting, in my picture of what it would mean for me to finally be “recovered”. All this time, intention had always been to “fake it” in order to “make it”. Now that intention was not at all to stop restricting, enjoy food or be “healthy”, I was making more progress than I had been in months. Eating normally—and enjoying food—ending up being a side effect, not the main goal. Recovery changed my entire life, and that is why I say that the hardships I went through as a teen were the best things—and no doubt, worst, as well—that ever could have happened to me.
After sharing my struggles I am often asked, “Do you think you would ever relapse?” The answer I have come up with, being completely honest with myself, is that you never know. At this point in my life, I don’t think so, and I certainly hope not; but the truth is: you can never say never. After all, I had never thought that anorexia would ever be possible for me, and, once I developed it, I never imagined myself ever having a life that did not involve a full, blown-out eating disorder. In both of these situations, what I considered absolutely impossible for myself—actually happened. But at this moment, as I have felt for a while now, I believe that I have truly recovered, though my recovery is not perfect, as I still struggle with my body on a daily basis. The difference is that thoughts of weight no longer run my life. After all, I have tried, several times, to see if I could diet like that again, but I couldn’t. Will I ever relapse? I don’t think so. I really believe that my mind has healed itself to the point where I would not be able to go back. I have finally accepted my healthy weight, and I have come to realize that having a healthy body does not signify being overweight; it signifies being full of life. Though the number on the scale is much higher that I had ever originally wanted (I still do not wish to know the exact amount), it is just the way my body is supposed to be, the way my body is meant to be.
My relationship with exercise—which I now prefer to call movement—has changed considerably in the past few months, as well. With the help of my current therapist, I have begun the journey of exploring my relationship with exercise. My goal is to one day, think of it as something that is good for my body—my muscles—rather than associate it with weight loss. I don’t pressure myself to “like” exercise, because we all know how that story goes, and I don’t like how it ends.
I cannot emphasize enough how genuinely convinced—or brainwashed—I was that life without an eating disorder could, and would, be better than one with an eating disorder. In my wildest dreams, I could not have been more shocked to discover that I’d be so much happier than I ever could have been when I was restricting and obsessing over food and weight. I never thought that I’d ever want to let go of my anorexia, because, when I was sick, it was my life-force. But I swear on everything, and life itself, that life without an eating disorder is, truly, beyond words.
I had been bitten by an eating disorder at a tender young age, but had survived. I had more than survived—I had thrived. Things have finally come full circle, and the pieces of the puzzle had fit together into a beautiful, diverse, colourful mosaic, one that I now call my life. Things I thought impossible a mere year ago are now happening, and I feel that life, for the first time, is worth it. And that, my dears, is a very good feeling.
Ashley Tritt, 22
Project HEAL Canada