Alexis Hoffer (My Experience with Eating Disorders)
English Composition 101
My Experience with Eating Disorders
In the words of Flatsound, congratulations, you’re cordially invited to a small list of things that I normally would hide. Let me just start out by saying that on top of all the messed up, undiagnosed issues going on in my head on pretty much a constant, daily basis, I have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). This basically means that I see myself very differently than others because I obsessively hyper-focus on perceived flaws in my appearance that may or may not even be there. Now, like I said, this isn’t necessarily diagnosed by a registered physician or whatnot, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure these things out. If you aren’t getting any help from anyone and you’re determined enough to find out what’s wrong with you, it’s actually fairly easy to figure it out— or at least this one was. It’s funny how misunderstood BDD is, though— even amongst therapists in my experience.
When I first found out that there was a name for what I’d been dealing with for so long, I approached my aunt about it. Seeing as she has a major in psychology and works as a child therapist, I thought she’d be a good person to talk to about it. I brought it up to her and her immediate response was, “Don’t be silly, that is only a diagnosis for people who starve themselves or throw up and you’re not doing either, are you?” At the time, I hadn’t really considered what I’d been doing as “starving myself” so I answered honestly with a no and she changed the subject. But that’s not what BDD is.
BDD is about how one perceives themselves. An eating disorder is just something that can pop up because of it and an eating disorder isn’t just “starving yourself” (Anorexia Nervosa) or “throwing up” (Bulimia Nervosa) either. In fact, you could have the complete opposite of anorexia, which would be binge-eating and just eat compulsively. I guess I had a combination of binge-eating and anorexia at the beginning, but mostly anorexia. Wow that was really weird to type since I’ve never actually told anyone. I was never too bad about it— never noticeably, of course, so no one ever found out.
I have always had a problem with the way I look— or problems to be more specific. I’m sure you could’ve already guessed that, but because of that, I’ve spent a lot of time in front of mirrors, criticizing myself. It’s an impulse I can’t control. Any reflective surface I pass—a shop window, a trophy case, a glass door— I immediately turn my head and look into it as I walk by, looking at my reflection mirroring my own walk. It’s like clockwork, really. And as the seconds slip by, I stare hard into my reflection, looking for every unmistakable flaw in myself before I’m past it and I have to act like nothing happened. In those short few seconds as I pass the reflection, though, I think of the foulest things about myself and I try to think of something— anything—to fix those things. That’s how I ended up skipping meals in high school. When I was younger, I was always fairly thin. People used to marvel at how they could fit my wrist in the space between their pointer finger and their thumb. As I started to grow out of my high metabolism, though, I got increasingly more obsessed with the way I looked and the fact that I didn’t think I looked skinny enough or pretty enough. Mind you, when I say that I was growing out of my high metabolism and gaining more weight than I ever had before, I don’t mean that I was blowing up like a balloon or anything—I had just gone from about 76 pounds to 110 in middle school and since I was so delusional about the way I looked, I thought I looked horrible and ugly. I struggled with just that for a really long time and I couldn’t think of a way to lose weight fast enough for what I wanted. After all, food and I never really had any problems getting along before since I could basically eat whatever and never gain any weight and I also am a bit on the lazier side so I don’t really exercise although I know I really should. My only solution that I could come up with was to eat less and so I did.
I would get away with it at school more because there was no one there to supervise me and know I wasn’t eating much except for my friends, who never even had a clue anyhow. At first, it just started with me eating less and less for breakfast. In elementary school and the beginning of middle school, breakfast was always just like any other meal (like it should be since it’s the most important meal of the day) and it would consist of pancakes some days, eggs and bacon on others, and so on and so forth always with the usual glass of milk or orange juice. But as I started eating less and less, it became a Special K meal bar on the bus with a few sips of water. That breakfast routine was enough to satisfy me for a bit, but I started to notice that I wasn’t losing any weight. I was, instead, still gaining some and got up to 120. It was the normal amount of pounds that any girl should put on to maintain a healthy weight I suppose, but I thought it was the absolute worst. My solution? Eat even less.
I started to cut down on my lunches, too. Before, I usually ate either whatever the school served in the main line or packed a lunch, but I stopped doing either. Instead, I would go to the a la carte line and buy some yogurt for lunch and that would be it. Some days, I would refuse to eat anything at all and I just sat at the lunch table, sipping my water as I watched my friends eat their lunch. No one ever said anything, really. Sometimes one of them would ask why I didn’t get any lunch and I would just fib and say that I wasn’t feeling well. They always believed me because I have stomach problems and I get nauseous incredibly often so it would be understandable that I wouldn’t be in the mood to eat. Around my mom, I’d always eat a lot to put off suspicion and also because I would just be so hungry by then from not eating much for breakfast and little or nothing for lunch that I would just compulsively eat. Because of my binge-eating problem, I hadn’t really seen any change in my weight like I’d been hoping for, so I started to cut back on what I ate while I was home, too.
My parents are divorced and I live with my mom, but I used to have to visit my dad every other weekend and that’s when it probably was most apparent. My dad really didn’t care much about making sure my brother, sister, and I ate three times a day and there wasn’t much around the house except for food that’d been expired for years and my stepmom’s diet food that we weren’t allowed to eat. Since there wasn’t much around, my dad had grown accustomed to me complaining about being hungry a lot while I was there or eating a lot of any food that they got delivered, which was generally pizza or Chinese. And I mean I really complained about it. I can remember when I was really little that I was so hungry one time that I ate a bit of my chapstick to hold me over. A word of advice, don’t do that— it tastes awful. Anyway, I guess I had stopped complaining about it and when we did get food, I wouldn’t eat much or sometimes none of it at all. As unobservant as my father is, he still must’ve caught on. I can’t quite remember exactly how I found out— my mom probably told my brother who told me— but at one point, my mom had been on the phone to my dad and he told her that he thought I might be anorexic to which she flipped out. I remember being genuinely insulted at the time for such an accusation. I thought that he must have flipped his lid or something to assume I’d be doing something so absurd, but in reality he was kind of right. He never said anything about it to me himself, though, and he never brought it up to my mom again so I guess he must’ve dismissed the suggestion as much as my mom had and that was the end of that.
My problem with eating got to the point where, at school, the most I’d be consuming all day was a bottle of water and then I would go home and eat a meal bar and maybe something else small and that’d be it. It was physically draining. My depression already makes having motivation and energy difficult, but I was at a point where it was almost impossible to have any energy. I was always pale, but I saw myself getting paler and paler and with my fatigue came lightheadedness, dizziness, weakness, and a general bleak outlook on pretty much everything. I was so sickly and tired all the time that I was convinced something must be wrong with me. I thought that maybe I had anemia, a condition in which the blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells and causes fatigue, skin pallor, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, dizziness, and a fast heartbeat, like my friend and that’s why I was so tired all the time. I took it as far as making my mom make an appointment with my doctor about it and get blood work done. As you can imagine, when the blood work came back, it showed I did not have anemia. It did, however, say I was on the borderline of having hypothyroidism, which explained why I couldn’t lose much weight even though I was barely eating anything. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone and causes fatigue, mood swings, weight gain, and lethargy. In hindsight, that may have had something to do with my fatigue as well, but I was eating barely enough to offset the hypothyroidism. Yet, I didn’t think of that at the time.
Calorie counting and checking the scale became an everyday thing for me. If I ate anything, I would try to figure out how many calories it was and sometimes, I would get on the treadmill a while after and run for a bit to get rid of them. I think checking the scale made me feel the worst, though, because ours is broken so whatever number it gives you, you have to add on 7 more pounds. I would see a weight that I thought wouldn’t be too hard to get down to my goal when I stepped on the scale, but then I had to factor in the extra pounds and it made me feel really fat even though I knew rationally that I wasn’t. I also had never really liked having my picture taken growing up, but I always went through with it. As I was getting worse with my eating disorder, though, I couldn’t stand the way I looked so much that I would literally run away at the first sight of a camera. I absolutely despised cameras and people would think it was funny and try to mess with me by taking pictures of me when I wasn’t paying attention. I always figured it out though and I would flip out on them and scream at them to delete it. It was completely erratic behavior, really, and it got so ridiculous to the point that I’m not even in my yearbook and I paid like $80 for it.
I was so obsessed with trying to get my thighs to be as thin as my calves, my arms to be as thin as my wrists, and my stomach to be as flat as possible that, that was all I was thinking about. I would be walking down the hall to class, thinking about how fat I am and how tired and hungry I was when I should have been thinking about the test I would be taking in less than a minute. As you can imagine, my grades weren’t doing too great at the time. My mom was valedictorian when she went to school and my older brother was offered to be in the honor’s society every year because he got straight A’s, so it was kind of unacceptable in their eyes for me to be getting bad grades. I knew I had to buckle down and at least try to focus on school or I’d go home to yet another lecture about how bad I was doing at literally everything.
No one helped me. No one told me I needed to start eating like most people who suffer from eating disorders. I had to do it all on my own. I alone recognized my problem and I realized that it was leading to more and more problems. I didn’t have a support system saying that it will all get better or something. I just had myself and everyone else was too oblivious and ignorant to even see that I had a problem or to worry about me getting better. I forced myself to eat more on days that I knew I’d need the energy and on days that I would be testing or making a very sad excuse for a presentation. At first, it made me sick all the time because I had been so used to eating next to nothing in a day and all of a sudden I was forcing myself to eat three times a day. Towards the end of senior year and during the summer, I finally started eating somewhat normally again. Unfortunately, I relapsed quite a bit during this first semester of college. I’m trying to do better, though. Even though pretty much every time I eat, there’s a little voice in the back of my head telling me how disgusting I am and how gross it is that I’m just consuming so many calories without a care, I continue to eat— usually. Some days, it’s harder than others and I’ll just put down whatever I’m eating and not finish it, or I won’t eat anything afterwards. I had to do a project in one of my classes where I recorded everything I ate in a day and how much of it and then turned it in. I ended up losing points because my professor didn’t think I finished it because I only listed two “snacks” and a scoop of ice cream. I ate ice cream. That’s a lot for me and I didn’t want to eat too many calories and overdo it. After all, I just started trying to recover from this not too long ago and it’s a lot better than I had been doing before. Still, no one I know knows about this, so it’s not really her fault for thinking that. My family doesn’t know. My friends don’t know. Nobody knows— except for you now, I suppose.
In the United States, there are 200,000 new cases of eating disorders per year. That’s a lot of people who have problems with eating. Approximately 24 million people in the U.S. struggle with an eating disorder and almost 50% of them also meet the criteria for depression like me. It affects people aged 14-60 the most and usually it’s women more so than men who develop it, although men do make up 10-15% of those with a problem. Eating disorders are characterized as a mental illness, and, while it’s not genetic, it can be caused by psychological issues like coping skills, control issues, trauma, family trouble, or social issues, but there are many causes for each type. Many people probably think that the disorder is harmless, but eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The mortality rate of anorexia is even 12 times higher than any other cause of death for women ages 15 to 24 and more than 50% of teen girls and nearly 33% of teen boys admit to using unhealthy methods to control their weight including smoking cigarettes, skipping meals, fasting, vomiting, or taking laxatives. Personally, I started smoking cigarettes, skipping meals, and fasting, but I never did the other two. I would get the cigarettes off my brother for a while during high school, but then he stopped giving me them to me because he didn’t want me to get addicted, and he was concerned about my health, so I got a few packs off of a kid at school.
I don’t think I was too bad about it because I was never the poster girl for anorexia—someone severely emaciated like the media and other public discussions about eating disorders focus solely on. Many individuals with anorexia may not ever appear so drastically underweight. And while someone can make the choice to pursue recovery like me, the act of recovery itself is a lot of hard work and involves more than simply deciding to not act on symptoms and “just eat” unlike a lot of people think. The best thing to do is to just take it one step at a time like I’m trying to do.