A true experience, written by anonymous
I am not fully recovered. One day I hope to be, and I will do the work necessary to get there—and believe me, it is work.
I want you to know this because what I am about to share is only the beginning of my recovery story. I don’t know what the rest of my recovery process looks like. Everyone’s recovery from an eating disorder is as unique as they are.
How it Started for Me
One day in ballet class, I scanned the room of dancers in leotards as we all moved in unison. Other than a variation in hair colour, they all looked the same. The ballet instructor walked down the line of dancers she gave each a compliment or a correction. My correction that day was the same as it always was: “Tuck in that butt!” She would say this sternly every time as she poked my bottom with her long fake nails, sometimes hard enough to cause bruising.
She failed to understand that I was tucking in my bottom. I was built differently than the other dancers and no amount of tucking was going to make my bottom match theirs. It was in that moment of comparison and poking that I realized that maybe if I controlled my food intake, I could fix my body. That evening I skipped dinner intentionally for the first time.
This wasn’t the first time I displayed disordered eating behaviours. I was what parents call a “picky eater” and I rarely finished a plate. I liked what I liked, I didn’t eat what I didn’t like, and I hated the feeling of being overly full, so I made sure to stop eating the very moment that “full” feeling started.
This ballet class, however, marked the first time I associated food with control. It is a connection that (so far) has lasted the rest of my life.
The Evolution of My Eating Disorder
I began skipping meals, reducing portion sizes, changing what I did eat to match the newest trendy fad diet, and exercising until I was dizzy enough to see stars. And I began to see results: it did change my body. My very athletic build turned into a long skinny body that seemed to impress those around me. I was clearly below average weight by any metric, but I never looked “bone thin” or emaciated like many stereotypically expect from a person suffering from anorexia. I liked the praise I received in this body.
My childhood included its fair share of trauma: bullying, racism, an identity crisis, a divorce, and sexual trauma. I never wanted to be seen as a victim or a burden, so I didn’t complain. Instead, I pulled up my bootstraps and found a sense of control through my food rules.
My food rules would evolve with age and they still impact me today as I work towards recovery. Simple rules, such as how my food was organized on my plate or what foods could be eaten together, morphed into laws regarding when or if I was allowed to eat at all. By the time I was in university, my over-achieving tendencies led to a full course load, a full-time workload and a few hours left for sleep and study time. I existed on coffee, the occasional bag of chips, and lentil soup.
My eating habits (or lack thereof) created a host of digestive issues including an ulcer in my early twenties. Even with a stomach ulcer, doctors never asked about my food intake. I always found this strange. It is so clear to me now that all of my health concerns have been directly related to my eating habits and poor nutrition.
Denial About My Struggles
By my late twenties, I was still an overachiever who no longer had the energy to follow through. Everything felt like a ton of effort. I woke up each morning with extreme anxiety and “the shakes”. I would sit in a warm bathtub to soothe my cold body and drink soup broth until I was calm enough to get dressed and start my day. Existing started to feel like a chore I no longer had the energy to complete. I wasn’t suicidal, but I was over the daily struggle.
A very close friend who was suffering from substance addiction and an eating disorder moved in with me. It was the first time I lived with someone since living with my family. I put all of my focus on trying to help him through recovery because taking care of him distracted me from my problems. One eventful day, we were fighting about the effort he was putting into getting better. I was mad that he didn’t want to get better as much as I wanted him to get better.
I’ll never forget his response: “You keep telling me how damaged I am. Take a look in the mirror. Can’t you see that you are just as damaged as I am? You don’t even acknowledge your own eating disorder!”
I was pissed. My first thought makes me giggle now, but at the time, I really believed it. “I am perfect! I don’t have an eating disorder! I don’t have any issues at all! I am perfect! My life is perfect! What does he know anyway?” (Insert eye roll here.)
I spent the next few hours desperately trying to prove him wrong. I didn’t know much about eating disorders and held a lot of misconceptions about them. I watched as many video testimonials about anorexia as I could find on YouTube. After a few videos, I started to cry. I knew my friend was right and I hated him for it.
Trying to Get Better
I thought I could recover on my own. I became more aware of my eating patterns and put more effort towards ensuring there was food around to eat.
Yet the more I tried to eat, the worse I felt. On many occasions, I sat in front of my plate in tears and angry at myself for not being able to eat the food in front of me. I felt a lot of shame. The food was right there—all I had to do was chew and swallow. However, the thought of chewing made me feel sick. Thinking that I could not do the most basic of human activities made me feel like a failure. Even this became a daily struggle.
In a moment of desperation, I finally booked an appointment with my family doctor. By the end of the appointment, I was on a waiting list for an in-patient treatment facility and my fear of recovery went up another notch.
I didn’t want to go.
I wanted to get better, but I didn’t want to leave my life. The excuses I repeated over and over went something like this: “I am a single woman trying to pay a mortgage. How can I be expected to just stop my life for nine weeks? I will lose everything. How can I leave my puppy, he won’t survive without me! Who is going to do my job? Will I have a job at the end?” I’ve since learned that this is called catastrophizing. It’s not helpful.
Waiting… and Waiting…
While I was anxiously trying to cope with both my eating disorder and the idea of treatment, weeks rolled by. Then weeks became months. In total, nine months went by. I spent each day clinging to my food rules to manage my fears of the unknowns to come. With the unending support of close and concerned friends, I was able to maintain my BMI. However, the daily struggle with my body slowly tore away at my relationships, my work, and my zest for recovery.
The waitlist was based on an algorithm that considered the date you signed up and the severity of your eating disorder. With each week that I waited, I fought with thoughts that I wasn’t sick enough yet. At the time, I believed that if my eating disorder wasn’t severe enough to warrant treatment, it wasn’t really a problem.
I now recognize that eating disordered treatment within the Ontario provincial healthcare system (and the rest of the country) is extremely limited. The limited funding from the Ministry of Health means a limited number of beds for treatment. The demand for these beds greatly outweighs the supply.
While I truly believe any severity of an eating disorder is sick enough to warrant treatment, the provincially funded system treats the sickest, most urgent cases first, and doesn’t have enough funding to reach those who are “not sick enough”. This means those who cannot afford private treatment options, or who are not aware of their options, endure waitlists until they are considered sick enough to become a priority. I, like many people, was sick enough, but there wasn’t enough space in the system for me.
Going into Eating Disorder Treatment
Eventually, I got the call I had been expecting. My case manager at the hospital said my name was finally at the top of the waitlist. I had two days to organize my affairs and start treatment at the hospital. I was excited at the opportunity to end my struggle, scared of letting go of the comfort I found in controlling my food and trusting strangers to guide me, and ashamed by the fact that I needed psychiatric care.
I kept treatment a secret from most of the people I knew. Even some of those who knew about my eating disorder. The shame was heavy.
In treatment, I met amazing women. Each with their own story to share. My peers varied widely in age from 18 to 72. I was inspired by each of them on their journey to recovery. Some days I felt like a fraud—undeserving of treatment and needlessly taking up the spot of some sicker, more deserving eating disorder sufferer.
Treatment pushed me to gain enough weight that I was medically stable. After five months of treatment, I was deemed to be in partial recovery. More tangibly, I was mechanically eating and (mostly) following my meal plan, I had curbed my exercise habits, and I had gained valuable emotional regulation skills that helped me manage the peaks and valleys of recovery. I was on my way to living a life worth living, but was far from fully recovered.
What Recovery Looks Like
They say on average it takes five years to recover from an eating disorder. I relapsed a few days after leaving treatment. I started restricting because I could. I missed the high I got from restriction and the control my food rules served. I vividly remember the deep breath of satisfaction the moment I felt the hunger pains subside and the light headedness step in. It felt good to feel in control again.
However, that feeling of being in control didn’t last long. I attribute this change to treatment. With the tools and support I received in treatment, I quickly recognized that what I wanted to control was not my food–my eating disorder was never really about the food at all. I wanted to feel in control of my life, my safety, my financial security. This self-awareness, coupled with a healthier, nourished body, a clear mind, and newly developed interpersonal and emotional regulation skills, allowed me stop my disordered eating and focus on the real problems.
Today, I can eat with my friends and family (pandemic permitting of course). I say yes to hot chocolate and cake when it’s offered. Even when I don’t really want to, I eat every day. I can go to the grocery store on my own. These may sound like small successes, but they were all things I could not do before treatment. It’s the little things that truly count.
My eating disorder started as a way to grasp control in my life at a time where it felt like chaos reigned. These behaviours became linked to automatic processes that my brain still wants to fall back on in stressful times. However, treatment taught me to recognize the signs of my eating disorder behaviours, to weigh the pros against the cons for continuing those behaviours, and how to interrupt my troubled thoughts and behaviours in exchange for the healthier choice of pursuing recovery.
While I sometimes detour, I am still on the path to recovery.
EHN Canada Can Help You
If you or someone you love is currently struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out. You can also find more information on our Eating Disorder Program page. Please note: eating disorder programming is not currently available at all our facilities, but a comprehensive Eating Disorder program is now available at Bellwood in Toronto.
An admissions counsellor can help you learn more about the right treatment for you. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.
- 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
- 1-587-350-6818 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
- 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
- 1-888-488-2611 for Clinique Nouveau Depart in Montreal, QC