Control. In the end it all came down to control. Control I desperately felt I needed at a time in my life when so much felt beyond my control.
A familiar story: after having children, I wasn’t happy with my body. Pregnancy and breastfeeding had changed my body shape and, in the years that followed, extra weight had slowly crept onto my frame. I was determined to lose that weight; I just couldn’t figure out how to do it – until the day I discovered the app. A nutrition and exercise tracking app, this tool gave me all the information I needed to shift those pesky unwanted kilos for good. With this app, I would succeed; I had a gut feeling about it. I could scarcely contain my excitement.
Immediately I began tracking every morsel and sip that I consumed. My husband chuckled at my diligence in measuring and recording it all. Was I seriously going to bother weighing and recording those three small florets of broccoli? Hell, yes, I was. ‘You’re really taking this whole thing seriously,’ he said.
Within days I could see, feel the weight beginning to fall away. And as I came to learn the impact of my food choices, I began opting for ever lighter options and smaller quantities. I eliminated any calorie-laden foods or drinks altogether. What a waste of calories they were! I was quite fine with a limited selection of safe foods. And I was happier still to see the number on the scale was already decreasing.
After several weeks, and several kilos lost, I wondered if there was something unusual about my experience. This weight-loss business all just felt so simple. Why had I struggled all those years? I just had to follow the rules!
As the months went by, the app began to take on greater and greater importance in my life. Many times a day I would open it, to check and record my progress. I realised it helped me to feel calmer.
All day long, numbers related to weight loss pinballed through my mind. The maximum number of calories I was allowing myself to consume each day. What I had consumed so far that day. How many calories I had consumed the day before, and the one before that. Once a nutritious eater, I now cared little about the food I ate. One day I caught myself saying to a friend, ‘I just need to have some calories – um, lunch …’
Now back to a healthy BMI, I knew I looked good. But my interpretation of ‘good’ had become narrow: for me, good meant only thin. No matter that my skin had taken on a greyish tone, blemishes had appeared and lingered, my hair was dropping and my smile absent. There was a constant niggling thought that I could look better if I lost more weight.
Friends, family, acquaintances began to recognise my weight loss and compliment me. How had I done it? ‘Oh, it’s easy,’ I said, but noticed their eyes would glaze as I enthusiastically spoke about my app. ‘Gosh, how awful,’ one friend said. It seemed my approach wasn’t for … well, pretty much everyone who asked. ‘I guess you’re stopping about now, right?’ said another. I swallowed my response. NO WAY WAS I STOPPING!
The more weight I shed, the more driven I was to continue losing. Now, instead of feeling ‘good’ about my ever-shrinking form, I began to feel displeased. My thighs were enormous – weren’t they? My arms so flabby – well, flabby-ish. My fingers could be more slender, I thought, ignoring the fact my wedding ring now had a tendency to fly off my finger at the slightest movement of my hand. In shops I would reach for a size large and the assistants would laugh. ‘Sweetie, that’s not going to fit!’ they would say. ‘Oh, you think I need extra large then?’ I would reply. Their looks were quizzical as they exchanged my large picks for smalls.
Truthfully, by then I didn’t care about what size I wore – clothing size was irrelevant. It was space I was focused on. I wanted to take up as little space as possible. Some days I wanted to take up no space at all. Along with the weight, my self-esteem and confidence had disappeared.
One day my GP stopped me in her surgery. Was I really still losing weight? We needed to talk.
She asked me why I was still losing, what my goal was. I mumbled something about 55 kilos perhaps being a good number to stop at. ‘A good number?’ she asked. ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘you know, like a number that just sounds balanced, sounds right.’ I paused. ‘But maybe 50 is a better number, nice and even.’ Again that quizzical look. I didn’t voice the next thought, that something with a four in front would be better yet. I tearfully admitted that there was no end goal. I was still losing weight because it felt safe to me. My world felt more in control when the number on the scale decreased. It was a comfort blanket of sorts. I couldn’t just abandon it.
My GP told me straight up that I had OCD and an eating disorder. This could have serious health implications, and I needed treatment right away. I nodded. I knew it was true. The weight loss had completely taken over my life.
I accepted my GP’s referrals to see a psychiatrist and a psychologist at a specialist eating disorder clinic as well as pathology forms for blood tests and an ECG to check my vital functions, now at risk of being compromised by my food restriction. I walked next door to the pathology clinic. Bared my chest for the ECG, which would become a monthly ritual. How had I ended up here, in this pitiful state? And in the very same moment, my ribs could really be more … defined.
A week later I sat in the waiting room of a private eating disorder clinic. I watched the other clients arriving and leaving. Not an emaciated young girl in sight, as I had expected to see. Rather, the clients were diverse. It seemed eating disorders did not discriminate based on age, gender or body size.
The psychologist greeted me warmly. I trembled, promptly unravelled in her office. I remember only fragments of that first appointment. I had all the symptoms of atypical anorexia, she told me – and a particularly nasty case too. Atypical, because I was not medically underweight … yet. She explained I had starvation syndrome – my body had slowed its secondary functions, and I was ‘cognitively impaired’. I was? I thought of the spacey feeling that occupied my brain lately, how my thoughts and words kept jumbling, how important details kept slipping from my mind.
The psychologist told me that the clients who made progress early were the ones with the greatest chance of long-term recovery. Some clients would never recover. Some would lose their lives to their anorexia – the mental illness with the highest rate of mortality. Lose their lives. It was those words which stuck and motivated me to start making changes.
I was told that in order to recover, I would need to gain back some of the weight I had lost. Weight restoration, it was called. Every week I had to step on my psychologist’s scales, another undignifying ritual that was now necessary to my recovery.
At first I lost more weight. I wasn’t even trying to lose weight by this point: the disordered eating was so ingrained, and my appetite barely there. Each time the number on the scales lowered, I would feel more at ease. But my psychologist’s brow would furrow. A lecture would follow.
My psychiatrist recommended a medication that would dull my mind’s obsessions with weight and numbers. Thanks to this new medication, my mind felt so much quieter. My thoughts were clearer. I felt happier, more relaxed.
At every session my psychologist led me to recognise the changes I needed to make to get better. She was kind, gentle in her guidance. I gave up weighing myself at home, measuring my food, tracking my intake. My appetite returned slowly. As the months went by and the numbers on her scales increased, my psychologist praised me. This time my brow furrowed.
I have now regained almost all of the weight I was told I had to regain. Even as I write this, it’s a thought that does not sit comfortably with me. Some days my brain rages over this weight which is most certainly not a ‘good’ number, in my mind at least. Some days my brain actively plots ways to shed some or all the restored weight. The key, my psychologist says, is to acknowledge these thoughts but not to act on them.
I can say with all certainty that recovering from my eating disorder is the hardest thing I have ever done. I can also say that I have discovered reserves of strength I didn’t know I had. Although I fell apart, in a big way, I chose recovery – survival. At this point, I am making a conscious choice every day not to return to those destructive habits but to live, to enjoy my life. I can and will take up all the space my body needs.
Telling our stories of mental illness is so crucial in increasing understanding and reducing stigma. In sharing my story, I hope to promote awareness that eating disorders can affect anyone, at any age or size. That our culture, which champions thinness, plays a significant role in these disorders. I hope to encourage others who might be heading down a similar path to seek help early and not to give up on recovery.
If you are concerned that you may have an eating disorder, please see your GP. The Butterfly Foundation in Australia has excellent resources and support, including a free National Help Line: 1800 33 4673.