I share my eating disorder story with hopes to raise awareness about this terrible disease. Before reading any further, make sure you catch up on Part 1 of My Undiagnosed Eating Disorder Story.
For 10 years I hid a very inconsistent eating disorder from the world. I call it inconsistent because I went through periods of time where I didn’t restrict my diet. I have learned the months I spent counting calories or obsessing over my body actually correlate with big life events where I felt anxious or out of control. In order to better understand WHY I developed disordered eating in college, I have to unpack my mental health suitcase.
The Story of an Undiagnosed Eating Disorder – Part 2
Let me start by making a very important statement: I don’t believe my upbringing has anything to do with my eating disorder. My parents did an amazing job raising me to be the woman I am today. What did have a huge impact on the development of my eating disorder is an anxiety disorder. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and catastrophic thinking during my freshman year of college.
How are Eating Disorders and Anxiety Connected?
Did you know anxiety and eating disorders are closely connected? According to the ADAA, eating disorders commonly co-occur with anxiety disorders. It shouldn’t be surprising to think they go hand in hand, especially in a person who was hyper-focused on controlling everything in her life.
What causes GAD? GAD can develop when you can’t cope well with your internal stress. As a toddler I had difficulty controlling some very big emotions. My parents tell me the tantrums and outbursts disappeared as soon as I went to elementary school. For years I believed my love of school and structure helped tame the wild child inside. But now know I was just a girl really good at silencing her emotions so she could focus on her academic success.
How Anxiety Triggered My Eating Disorder During College
Fast forward to 2004 when I entered a long distance relationship with my husband. The first year of our relationship was very difficult – living 800 miles away from your first true love isn’t for the feint of heart. I tried my best to silence my big emotions, the ones I kept quiet for so long, but they became impossible to control. Want to know what happens when you don’t address how you really feel in a situation? You feel everything later, more intensely, at some random time.
My first panic attack hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in my dorm room alone, checking my Facebook or email, when suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe. There was a tightness in my chest, tingling in my fingers, and an overwhelming sense of fogginess in my mind. I didn’t know what was happening but thought for sure I was dying.
A week later, the University Psychologist explained I had had a panic attack. She attributed it mostly to unresolved stress over my long distance relationship. We met ten times in total, uncovering so much about my ability to hide my emotions related to irrational catastrophic thoughts, but never talked about my actual control issues. She prescribed an as needed anxiety medicine and anti-depressant, neither of which I took for years, and sent me on my way.
Then I made the decision to transfer to my boyfriend’s college and things really exploded.
Triggers are stimuli that evoke intense, uncomfortable, and often upsetting emotions. They can “trigger” a negative reaction – social, situational, environmental, psychological, or physiological. When individuals are triggered, they move quickly into a reactive state, ready to find a distraction, relief, or escape. When triggered, those suffering from eating disorders are compelled to act on disordered thoughts and feelings. The campus environment is rife with challenging situations that could potentially trigger students.Source
How is Low Self-Esteem Associated with an Eating Disorder?
One of the biggest decisions I have ever made in my life was to move to Tennessee for a boy. I have zero regrets and only the utmost gratitude for my brave and bold choice to leave my friends and my family in 2005. But walking away from the comforts of home into a brand new environment broke my ability to hold my emotions together at such a young vulnerable age. I firmly believe my sudden life change in college triggered my eating disorder.
Let’s start with the culture shock I experienced moving from the north to the south. Of course I felt some pressure to look and act a certain way at the University of Connecticut – college does that to a girl. But Uconn’s social norms pale in comparison to the expectations of a southern football school. The girls at the University of Tennessee were the epitome of perfection and looked nothing like me. Did I miss a university wide email about a dress code? Everywhere I looked I saw my peers appearing to be flawless from head to toe. How does one keep up with manicured nails, bronzed tans, shiny hair and effortless makeup from morning until night?
It’s only natural I had to find something to control.
With just one stroll around campus I felt inferior and out of place. What’s funny is I thought my low self esteem was new – but it’s something I struggled with for years. It’s just this type of negative self image was new and I was completely out of my element in a different environment.
My level of insecurity skyrocketed during my first semester at the new school. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my boyfriend, who spent a lot of time with females at Greek life events, was going to break up with me for one of the perfect creatures walking around campus. The pressure to change my appearance was suffocating – so over the course of a year I made a lot of physical changes. While transforming my outside, I found myself losing control of my inside. All those years of controlling my emotions became extremely difficult with the overpowering feelings of diffidence.
Eating is the one area in our life one can exercise complete control. And behaviors such as restricting, binge eating and purging (either from self-induced vomiting, exercise, or taking pills such as laxatives) are described as eliciting a rush or a high or a relaxing/numbing sensation and may be a way of regulating emotional distress.Source
What is the difference between an Eating Disorder and Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
Eating disorders are characterized by unusual or disturbed eating habits. They are most often accompanied by low body dissatisfaction, lowered self-esteem, and distorted body image. Body dysmorphic disorder, which I preferred to name my “issue,” is characterized by obsessions with a particular body part or a perceived flaw rather than with weight. Both eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder can affect people of any age, race, gender or sexual orientation.
Even though I weighed myself twice a day for years, I found my obsession with making a gap between my thighs more alarming. Sources say the Thigh Gap Trend rose to consciousness during December 2012 after the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show aired on television. However, I believe the pursuit and glorification of the thigh gap started in the early 2000s in college dorms across the country.
I’ll never forget the first time a friend described her traumatic sorority initiation. The pledge class was forced to first strip down to their underwear. Then someone brought out a marker to circle parts of her body. A tiny tummy pouch – an area of muscle on her thighs – some extra skin under her chin – these circles were marked as “fat areas to work on.” Not only was I appalled at this humiliating experience from her so-called sisters, but I was also grossly considering an assessment of my own body in the same way.
Do people with eating disorders have body image issues?
Not everyone with an eating disorder has a body image issue and not everyone with body image issues have an eating disorder. However, body dissatisfaction can drive people to engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviors, particularly disordered eating and excessive exercise. (source) Once I transferred to Tennessee I realized the fastest way to lose weight and change the shape of my body would be to exercise as well. In college there is a heavy cultural emphasis on working out – especially at the beginning of a semester and around spring break. Cycling, body pump, and dance fitness classes consumed my free time.
Even though I was in incredible shape, I still hated how I looked. I remember going on our senior year spring break cruise and cringing at my reflection in a bikini. My unhealthy body image continued for years post-college when I entered the real world and encountered all the stressors of adulthood. First job, no job, wedding planning, moving, money problems – every time I felt anxious about a new chapter in my life, I turned to controlling what I ate and how I moved my body.
How did I recover from an undiagnosed eating disorder?
It finally took having a baby in 2013 for me to quit my disordered eating. Six weeks after Annabelle was born I recall crying in my closet because none of my pre-baby clothes fit. My breasts were swollen, my belly was puffy, and my hips were anything but narrow. I don’t recall who told me what ultimately helped me accept my postpartum body, but it was something along the lines of this: “It took you 9 months to grow this baby and it will take at least 9 months for your body to recover. Your body may never look the same, but it’s a beautiful thing to have carried a human life. Give yourself some grace!”
Annabelle suffered from a dairy allergy, so I had to cut all milk products out of my diet while breastfeeding her. When I lost all of my baby weight, plus some, people immediately assumed I was not eating. I underwent so much postpartum body shaming that I became determined to prove to others how healthy I actually was.
I’d be lying if I said I never thought negatively about my body again after Annabelle was born. Of course I do – especially since I’ve been through two more pregnancies in which I’ve watched my body grow and change in various ways. I’m not completely innocent of ‘watching what I eat’ either. The only difference between then and now is that I have put my control issues to good use. I control my urges to resort to old habits and focus on being healthy – not just for me, but for my daughters. I’m grateful my body was built the way it was to carry and deliver three beautiful babies who are watching my every move.
Once a week I meet with a therapist and learn healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety. My past eating disorder and distorted body image are rooted in mental health issues, so I work hard in therapy. By sharing my eating disorder story I hope to inspire others to seek help instead of letting this horrible disease take hold of your life.