Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Eating Disorders: Numbers, behavior, and body size aren't the point.

I have never done a post about eating disorder with numbers, but today, I want to. This could backfire. I could be super triggering and make a mess of things. To anyone with an eating disorder, you know that ALL numbers can screw with your head, so maybe stop reading here.

At the same time, to anyone with an eating disorder, I want you to know that just because you don't think you are sick enough, you still are. (And a good sign that you need help, is if you think you are not sick enough to get help. Think about that for a second: If you have to make yourself more sick in order to get help, there's probably definitely a big problem in your head. Or if you are competing with someone to be the closest to death (aka the skinniest), that's a good sign things aren't right. Anyway...)

Every time the news runs a story on eating disorders, they talk about the extremes. They love to tell how little a person eats in a day, and it's usually such small amounts that no one can fathom how that girl (because it's almost always a girl) can still walk around. They love to tell how many hours are spent exercising, and it's usually as much as an Olympic athlete, sometimes more. They like to talk about all of the other extreme behaviors a person can do, and there's a lot. (I'm not listing them here, but if you've ever seen a news piece, you know there's a whole lot more.) They LOVE to show scales and low weights and skeletal bodies.

Those stories are real, but they aren't the only stories out there. In fact, they are probably more rare... That's definitely not what all eating disorders look like. I have been inpatient twice. The first time, I firmly believed I didn't have an eating disorder and I didn't deserve to get treatment for one. Just because it didn't look like the stories on the news... or the women that came to speak at my high school... or the made for TV movies. I wasn't sick enough to deserve help.

The second time was different. I didn't wait until it got so bad that I didn't have any other options. I was sick, and scared, and confused... and somehow still somewhat grounded.

I don't want to dismiss how bad off I was. (That was BJ's fear as I was writing this.) I don't want to glorify or glamorize an eating disorder. (That's a fear in writing this.) I don't want to give people ideas, or give anyone a reason to justify or excuse behavior. (That's my biggest fear in writing this.) I don't want to trigger anyone, or make anyone else's battle with food and weight and eating disorder and shit worse. I just want people to know what the eating disorder looked like for me.

Here goes.

The week before I went inpatient (in 2008), I averaged about 1400 calories/day. There were days I ate less, and days I ate more, but that was my average.

The week before I went inpatient, I was walking about 6 miles/day. Walking. Not running. I also played DDR most days. I don't think I lifted weights the week before I went in, but that was a regular part of my routine up until I knew I was for sure going.

I didn't lose my period. I didn't lose my hair nor did I ever have detectable problems with my heart or other internal organs.

(Although while inpatient my blood pressure started doing funky things and I was dizzy ALL the time. I'm still not sure if the dizziness was because of the eating disorder, or if it was a problem that was already there, or if  it was anxiety related. My guess is it was a combination of all three.)

I kept working both of my jobs, and I was still a good employee. I fulfilled all of my responsibilities. My employers didn't know there was a problem until I told them I needed to take time off to go inpatient.

I was considered underweight. (Fifteen pounds. That's how much I gained while I was inpatient.) I didn't think I was fat. I knew I was thin. I didn't own a scale, and I didn't care to. I wasn't against gaining weight, but... more on that later.

There are diet sites out there that tell people to do exactly what I was doing. These aren't "pro-ana" sites. These are sites that are supposed to be all about healthy living. (Weight watchers, the government website ( and, and others) Most people saw nothing wrong with my behavior. They were still congratulating me on my "will power" and my healthy habits.

None of the above is me trying to say I wasn't sick. I was! That's the point.
If I had kept doing what I was doing, I don't know what would have happened to my body. How long until there were health problems? Or until I couldn't go to work? Weeks? Months? Years? How long could I keep up that behavior without it getting worse? The worst part wasn't what I was doing, it was the fight going on in my mind that was going to kill me. I was in mental and emotional hell.

Food was a constant battle. I felt guilty for every bite I ate. I felt like I was bad. I felt like a good person would eat less. I felt disgusted with myself for eating as much as I did. If I was a good person, I wouldn't need food. I hated myself for spending money on food. I kept track of every penny I spent on myself, and felt guilty for it. I thought I was selfish and needy and out of control, because I spent money on food AND I ate it. I kept track of every bite I ate, and added up every calorie over and over and over again in my mind. It didn't matter how I added it up, it was always too much AND too little. If I was good, I would eat nothing, and if I was good, I wouldn't make people worry about me by not eating. The thinking and the behaviors were just symptoms of a much bigger problem.

I felt panicked if I couldn't exercise. I told myself I was lazy if I sat down, or slept, or stopped walking. I told myself I was lazy for not running... I was angry at myself for only walking and not running. I was constantly worried that I should be exercising more. I hated myself for not going farther or doing more.  That doesn't mean I was always exercising - I just felt like I should be even when I wasn't. My mind never rested. Every time I felt sad or scared or depressed or angry or anxious or happy, I wanted to walk. (In case you missed that, that means, I felt like I should be walking, wanted to be walking, had to be moving 24 hours a day/seven days a week.) Walking was the only way I knew how to feel okay. I'd walk at night. I'd walk in the cold. I felt safer on the streets alone at 2 am than I felt at home... as long as I was moving.

I hated my body. I wasn't trying to lose weight, but I wanted to punish myself and my body.  I thought that the less I ate and the more I exercised, the stronger I was. I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone else that my spirit was stronger than my body. In my mind, the more I punished myself, the better person I was.

I felt suicidal, depressed, miserable, anxious, MISERABLE, sad, self-destructive, and I wasn't getting any better. I couldn't stop what I was doing, because when I stopped walking, I felt the full rush of emotions, flashbacks, and memories, and I didn't know how to handle those. (And I didn't even know what they were. All I knew was that I felt awful whenever I wasn't moving.)

I knew that I should eat more. Exercise less. I didn't care.
I knew what I was doing was harming my body, or it would be soon. I didn't care.
I wanted to die, but didn't feel like I deserved the relief of death.
I wanted to live, but didn't want the life I had led up to that point.
I felt helpless and stuck and alone.

I felt guilty that therapy cost so much. I wondered if it was a waste on me. I thought maybe I was just crazy, and I needed to accept that. I KNEW I was bad, and I didn't deserve to be happy. I felt guilty for using up my therapist's time.

I said brilliant things like, "I just need someone to help teach me how to 'take it' (meaning abuse)," and, "If I were stronger, than I wouldn't need therapy for this. Other people can eat this same amount and they are just fine," and, "What is wrong with me?" (Meaning: I should be able to handle never eating, exercising all the time, never spending money, allowing people to use and abuse me, and be happy.)

I desperately needed help...

I was lucky. There were people around me that were fighting for me to have a better life. There were people who wouldn't let me fall into the oblivion I knew I deserved... And... I am aware that my small body made people pay attention in a way that they wouldn't have if I had been bigger. That made me feel shitty... as if something I can't control (like the genes I was born with) made me more deserving of help than someone else. NO!

There was something inside me that wouldn't let me give up. I knew there was something more and better just out of my reach, and I wanted it. I felt guilty for wanting it, but I WANTED it.

I understood that I could not do the work I needed to do on my own, or even with an outpatient therapist. I asked to go inpatient. My therapist worked with me. The church paid for my time there. My family was supportive. It was the best thing for me. I know I am so lucky that I even had the opportunity to go. Most people don't have that. Most people have to deal with the trauma of abuse and an eating disorder and depression and all of that shit all alone. Still...I don't know how I could have stopped or changed my behaviors AND dealt with the anxiety and trauma without the help of inpatient, therapy, friends, etc.

The staff at CFC pushed me to eat more. They pushed me to gain weight. They watched me closely and helped me to hold myself accountable, so I never exercised. I learned how to deal with emotions without exercise. They challenged me to spend money on myself. They challenged me to rest. (The dizziness I talked about earlier made it so I was a "fall risk". They stuck me in a wheelchair. Even when I was no longer a "fall risk", my therapist wouldn't take me out of the wheelchair until I was comfortable there. He thought it was good for me to just. SIT. All. The fucking. Time.) They challenged me to change my beliefs about food, but even more importantly than the beliefs I had about food... They challenged me to change the beliefs I had about myself, my relationships, and the world around me. They wouldn't let me punish myself, and in time I began accepting myself.

I was hit with memories, flashbacks, depression, anxiety, and all of the other shit that I had been trying to avoid by my constant motion and obsessing about food and exercise. There were people there that supported me: sat with me while I cried, helped me sort through all of the thoughts in my head, gave me a safe place to feel anger, stayed up all night with me when sleep wouldn't come, made me laugh, gave me a place to talk about myself and the struggles. They didn't care how sick I had been or hadn't been. They saw that I was hurting and needed help. It didn't fucking matter if I was skinny or fat or somewhere in between. All that mattered was that I was hurting and I needed help.

They took care of almost everything else, so that I could focus my energy on healing all of the shit inside. That healing and that work didn't end when I left CFC. Really... it was just beginning, but they gave me a great start. They saved my life, and then gave me tools to create a better life.

Recovery doesn't look like I thought it would either. I eat a lot more than what the government recommends. WAY more protein than the little pyramid shows. Exercise is just doing the things I love: riding, fishing, hiking, and occasionally a walk. (I would like to add some weight lifting in there, but I haven't done it yet.)

Nobody congratulates me on my will-power anymore. Strangers don't give me accolades for my healthy habits. In fact, I have had people tell me I should eat healthier, eat less fat, exercise more. AND, I have energy and a will to live. The mental battle is (mostly) over. I don't battle with food at all. I still have to battle the beliefs about myself and what I deserve, and I'm fighting every single day to change those.

My "before" picture (2008). Me at my sickest. I felt so much shame. I wore big jackets. I hid. I kept myself covered. I didn't allow people to take pictures of me, and the only pictures that exist are ones like this one: taken when I wasn't looking. I smiled, but I didn't FEEL a smile. The smile was nothing but a mask.
My "after". There is a small difference in my weight, but... that's not really the point. I look at this picture, and I see ME.
I'm NOT ashamed of my body. I like getting my picture taken. My smile is real and comes from deep inside. I love life (most of the time, and I have no problem saying I hate it when I hate it.) I am real and honest and ME.
I also recognize I'm still small. It makes me angry that we live in a world that values and/or hates small women. WTF? Being small doesn't mean I did recovery right... or better... or worse...

Eating disorders ARE physical. They do manifest themselves with food and the body, but they are far more mental and emotional. I wish the news (and professionals, and recovered people, and anyone willing to talk about it) could help people see and understand that part... but I guess showing a skeletal body does the trick. People immediately understand that THAT person is hurting. It's one of the reasons eating disorders exist.


  1. 1st, I wanna say, isn't my sister amazing!! Jen you rock!!
    2nd, I don't understand eating disorders very well but thank you for taking time and energy to explain so at least I can start. And the news does not do this at all. They show the skeleton lady and ask lame questions like how much do you eat or why don't you eat more and I feel that's just... well bleh.
    3rd, It makes me happy to see you happy. I've known for a while that you're happier than I really remember you being but I didn't see it till the pictures on here. Your 1st one your smiling with your mouth, eyes are tired and bored, body hiding. But the 2nd one your smiling with your soul. Eyes are bright, body looks like it's about to laugh and I was sad when this pic wasn't your facebook profile pic anymore cuz it made me smile every time I saw it. I didn't say anything cuz well who the crap am I so say stuff like that =)

    1. :) Thanks Zacko! You can always say you are sad that I changed the pic... that doesn't mean I'll change it back, but when I get tired of the "Feminine man from Snowy River" pic, I just might.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I felt similar when I first went to treatment. I was underweight but I did not look like the girls that are shown on the news and such. As a seventeen year old kid who did not really know what an eating disorder was except for the drastic stories talked about in high school health class... I was sure that I did NOT have an eating disorder. Every other time I have been in treatment since that first time, my weight was in a completely normal range. It took me a long time to accept that I did deserve the help even if I did not look like a walking skeleton. I can still do a pretty good job of convincing myself sometimes that I never had an eating disorder and everyone made a mistake. Especially when I see stories of those people who are "very sick" and there are treatment professionals supporting that statement.

    I did not find your post triggering at all or that you were trying to glamorize your eating disorder. I think you worded this extremely eloquently.

    I am sorry for my little rant... this is something that has been on my mind quite a bit lately.


    1. NEVER EVER apologize for rants. Especially ones that are just a paragraph long.
      Your "rant" felt very validating. It was hard, even after five years in a pretty good place, to post this. For fear that people would now know I didn't deserve the help I got. (Fucked up, I know, but it's still in my brain.) For fear that I was the only one that feels the way I do (and that if I'm the only one to think or feel these things, my thoughts and feleings aren't justified, which is also fucked up, but whatever.)

      Anyways, what I'm trying to say with MY rant is, THANK YOU!

  3. I remember this. I mean, I remember you 5 years ago. You seem like a different person now, wish I could meet the real you! ;)

    1. I would love to hang out sometime... so next time you are in Utah, or I'm in Texas (cause Texas is such a small place, I can just go to the state and be close enough to you), let's get together!

  4. Thank you for this. I don't think I have an eating disorder (though if I did, it would be stress eating,) but there are definite similarities in my thinking at times. As I was escaping my abusive situation, I felt I always had to be busy. Now, a few years later, the pressure is finally easing off. I am able to sit sometimes without having knitting or something in my hand. I'm able to address some of the flashbacks and things that you mention. But I sometimes still worry about myself.

    I wish people talked more about the experience of disordered thinking of any kind, rather than focusing on extremes. I find that TV shows that deal with abuse do the same thing. It wasn't until I read a certain book that I could see that what I'd been going through was still abuse, even if I didn't have any bruises to show for it. Sometimes, those shows do more harm than good, making us think we can't get help until our problems are obvious and near death.

    1. TV and media are trying to help, but it's true... they sometimes make it more difficult to get help. They show the extremes in all things. The extremes made it easy for me to dismiss myself and my situations. It is a lot harder to show the disordered thinking.

      I'm glad you're more able to deal with the flashbacks and memories.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Oh my Jen.... I LOVE everything about this, about you, about how awesome it has been to see the "real" you come to be... Like Ash, I remember quite vividly the woman I met 5 years ago, remember watching you curl up with your shame while trying to figure out how in the hell to do things differently...
    I think this post says things so perfectly. Not triggering, not glorifying, not a war story for others to compare to... just your battle, your pain and your triumph.
    I see those two pictures and it blows my mind. I do remember the person in Picture 1... But when I think of you,l talk with you, laugh about the most random shit with you... I don't even see the smallest hint of that Woman in Hiding. I see the smile that is in Picture 2.
    And I just love it.
    AHH! I just love you...and think that you are all things that are good and worth the fight for recovery.

    but you already knew that :)

    1. I love you!!! Thank you for constantly reminding me how far I've come and how much I'm capable of. You inspire me... all the time.

  6. Tremendous, gutsy,honest share. All the way, Jen! Remarkable!

  7. Tremendous, gutsy,honest share. All the way, Jen! Remarkable!

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