Reader's Story: Conquering an Eating Disorder
TWC reader Vanessa is an amateur bike racer from the USA. She has been to hell and back having suffered from Anorexia. She has shown admirable determination and strength on her road to recovery. Here she shares her story.
I'm writing this because I'm proud of who I am. I’ve reached the top level of amateur road racing in the United States, with ambitions extending yet further. Outside of athletics, I’m a great friend, a caring girlfriend, a college graduate and world traveller, and I consider myself a happy and confident person. As someone who has lived through and recovered from an eating disorder, becoming this person who I am today took a heck of a lot of fighting and determination.
Those with eating disorders are weak people, they are ‘silly girls’.
For many years I was ashamed or embarrassed that my eating disorder comprised part of my history, even after I considered myself recovered enough to continue living my life happily and confidently. There is a social stigma, eating disorders are dismissed as superficial and fake problems by a large part of the population.
Those with eating disorders are weak people, they are ‘silly girls’. This makes it all the more difficult for those currently struggling with eating disorders to seek help. Women and men with eating disorders often go years with an untreated problem and it’s not until their bodies begin breaking down and are unable to maintain basic functions, that help finally arrives, in the form of hospitalization. At that point, permanent bodily harm often exists. Eating disorders have the highest rate of death for any mental illness.
Ultimately, I hope my journey back to health can bring hope to those still struggling. Knowing that one can dip to the lowest low, struggling with self-hatred and deep depression, only to emerge stronger and more confident than ever before. To those who have never struggled personally with an eating disorder, I hope to bring understanding and compassion, because you undoubtedly have someone in your life who currently has an eating disorder, or is recovering from one, you may just not be aware because of the secretive nature of the people afflicted.
I never wanted to become anorexic. No one wants an eating disorder.
10 years ago this spring, my life changed forever. It only took several months to go from feeling like a normal teenager eagerly awaiting graduation from senior year of high school, an active athlete and good student headed to a top college, to a girl in an intensive care clinic half the country away.
I never wanted to become anorexic. No one wants an eating disorder. Eating disorders are completely alienating and based on personal insecurities. Anorexia nervosa was how my inability to cope with all the variables in my life at the time manifested itself physically.
I was a senior about to graduate high school. I was not unhappy as a teenager, but I had never felt like I had fit in. While I related well with other athletes, it didn't stop me from wishing I fit in, or was beautiful, or had the admiration of boys. There were variables that happened to fall into place, setting me up for an epic downfall.Here are the particular changes in my life that took place in a short couple months:
- I decided, because I had enough credits for the option, to graduate a semester early. Why stay any longer in a place I didn't care for anyways? Get out of that place I didn't like! Ugh! Bring on the bigger, better things of the future. As for the present? Who cares!
- I did not value keeping up my friendships I had established, thinking I was just heading off to college in the fall anyways, I was ready to move on, and my imperfect Santa Fe friendships would be replaced by more meaningful friendships that college over the next four years would provide. Friendships? Whatever!
- Now, swim team, losing my senior year of swimming, that was an immediate, devastating and unexpected consequence of my decision to graduate early. My senior year swimming, that is the only activity I valued at the time. I had just rekindled my relationship with the sport that year, beginning to truly enjoy it after several years of turbulence and not knowing if I was swimming because of habit or because I really wanted to. Senior year, as a swimmer, probably for any high school athlete, that is where you go out with a bang and qualify for the state competition. But that would not happen now, because I was removed from the team halfway through the swim season.
- Soon afterwards, in the early part of the next year, my horse, 'Lucky', who had been up for sale for a while, he finally sold. I had not been focused on riding for the past year, and keeping a horse I was not riding regularly, was too expensive.
- Keeping animals around that you've developed a relationship with over the past several years, and which represented pretty much your entire childhood and teenager life's involvement with horses? Whatever! I'm going to college in the fall!
The number one thing you saw when searching for ‘healthy living’ instruction and tips in mainstream media and literature was weight loss. The two concepts were practically synonymous.
My eating disorder crept in to my life initially as an attempt to ‘improve my diet’. It was a coping device, and at first a seemingly harmless one. What woman wouldn’t mind improving her diet or her body tone? After all, the number one thing you saw when searching for ‘healthy living’ instruction and tips in mainstream media and literature was weight loss. The two concepts were practically synonymous.
The gateway spiralled out of control, as I was depressed and unable to see myself or my situation clearly. My self-image was distorted and I became trapped in a vicious cycle of self-sabotage as I restricted the fat and calorie-dense foods in my life to an extreme. My body would crave calories, and I would often ‘lose control’ and ‘binge’, which felt like this huge excess of intake, while in reality it was replenishing what I had restricted. I would then feel disgusting afterwards and resolve to be even more strict with my diet.
Denial can be overwhelming, blinding even. There are many people struggling with eating disorders who never are able to get past their tight grasp of denial.
There was no other way to term it, I was sick. I was obsessed and stuck, I could not see outside the hole I had fallen into and no matter how aware I was of this problem that was literally causing me to waste away, I knew that I did not have the ability to conquer this beast myself. My saving grace was my ability to recognize that I had a problem, and my willingness to try and overcome. Denial can be overwhelming, blinding even. There are many people struggling with eating disorders who never are able to get past their tight grasp of denial.
They say that where there is no risk or sacrifice, there is no possibility for great gain. This is a lesson that transfers across all spheres. I bring this attitude with me now when I line up to race. Racing requires this same ability to risk and allow the possibility of failure, in order to achieve something great. My recovery required me to become completely vulnerable. It was terrifying. Facing my fears without any shield.
Some of the girls I was with, younger than me, are not alive today.
I think I was scared of failure most of all. Failure for me was not being able to recover, and have the life I had before I became anorexic. After six weeks in the inpatient program, I was deemed physically and mentally ready for release. and I was filled with dread as much as excitement and hope. I wanted to cry and curl up in that strange hospital where I had lived for the past weeks, where I didn’t have to be in charge. I was back to a non-threatening weight, but I didn’t trust yet, that it was only because of the clinic and the people who worked there. I was surrounded by other young women who were in the clinic the second time - maybe even third time, relapses were common. Some of the girls I was with, younger than me, are not alive today.
The truth is, the Vanessa from before the eating disorder doesn’t exist anymore. I will never be the same. It took me years to trust that this is an ‘okay’ thing. And even longer to know that I am even stronger because of it. I will always live with an eating disorder crouching in the corner of my mind, but instead of it being a suffocating beast, it is a shadow that I am able to walk right by.
Through the sometimes terrifying process of facing recovery, living with the very real possibility of relapse, having to trust, even though I didn’t believe that what I was doing would work half of the time, wanting to go back to what was familiar and felt ‘safe’ when things felt hard or threatening, I was able to go from merely making sure that I ate the calories I needed, to very slowly being able to enjoy food and feel free from fear. This took years, a wretchedly long time. You have no idea how relieved I was, when, six years later, I finally started to eat pasta again. (It was thanks to cycling for this one.)
I want to share with those who currently struggle, things I wish I was told early on in my recovery: successful recovery does not mean perfection and 100% turnaround. That expectation is completely unrealistic and sets people up with a mentality that is more likely to crumble when bumps inevitably rise up along the way.
Recovery can be ugly, and slow and above all, recovery requires patience and forgiveness when mistakes are made. When I have challenging moments, even moments where I am tempted to revert back to negative behaviour, I allow myself those bumps, and don’t take it as a sign that I am headed for relapse. By not giving them any power or recognition, that is how I am able to move past them.
My desire to live healthily and happily, with occasional feelings of vulnerability and frustrations, trumps the patterns of negativity and lack of self worth that lay at the heart of eating disorders.
In the sport of cycling, there is a lot of pressure on body weight. This has undoubtedly been a pressure I have felt, and I am fortunate that I found this sport later in my life for this reason. The younger women and men who enter the sport are especially susceptible to the pressure to slim down and reach their optimal ‘race weight’. This is often at the cost of their health. No sport is worth reaching a body weight so low that your body begins to lose natural functions, and for women, this most often means losing menstruation cycles.
Trying to gain a competitive edge by reaching optimal weight-to-power ratio is undoubtedly a part of elite-level success, but never without the proper resources and guidance from professionals, and a healthy attitude along with it.
Lastly, make sure to take care of yourselves, embrace the journey, and pedal hard.