This Sunday begins the annual National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 26-March 4) in the U.S. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 70 million people worldwide will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life. The reality of that statistic is that you either know someone who is dealing with an eating disorder, or are dealing with one yourself. We don't like to believe these things. I didn't like to either, until I found myself in the middle of my own eating disorder.
You may be surprised to learn these disorders don't develop from a desire to be thin; they develop from a need for control. We live in a fast-paced world fueled by stress, perfection, and comparison. We all deal with those pressures differently, and for some people that means paying close attention to the things they can control, including food and body weight.
I don't remember when I started not liking myself, or the way I looked, or when I started counting calories. All I remember is stepping on the scale every morning. I would weigh myself and then look in the mirror at my soft stomach and say, "Still not good enough," even though I was 25 pounds lighter in January than I had been in August.
I remember days of having to take a break on my way to class because I was so hungry I felt like I was going to pass out. But I was wearing a size 4 and weighed 125 pounds, so it was worth it to me. On the inside, I hated everything about myself. I was working, taking 18 hours of classes, serving as an officer in my chapter, and I didn't understand how I couldn't do it all perfectly. I wouldn't tell anyone I was struggling because I wanted to maintain my reputation as someone who could handle anything. People would ask me how I had gotten so skinny, and I developed a story about how I had started running every day. Then they'd compliment me and that would be enough to get me through another day. In my eyes, if I couldn't control anything else, I could at least control the number on the scale.
Looking back on it, I was grasping for any sort of affirmation I could get. Every comment on my size was another reason to keep going because I was doing something right if people noticed, right? I couldn't see the problem, even when I found myself lying on the floor of my Theta dorm room one night while a friend took care of me because I'd not eaten properly in months and my body just gave out.
After doctor appointments to fix what I had ruined by not taking care of my body and a year of weekly visits with a therapist and nutritionist, I was finally able to put things into perspective. No one understood why I let things get so far out of hand and, honestly, I'm not sure either. I look back at photos of myself from that time and see how small and sad I seemed. I was small in size and small in self-worth.
Every day I have to make a conscious effort to not engage in negative self-talk. Sometimes I still see the same tendencies in myself from that season of life. I'll catch myself eating really small bites so it feels like I'm eating more, or I'll push myself too far at the gym for the gratification of seeing more calories burned. Just like an addiction, an eating disorder never fully goes away. I'll always hear a tiny voice telling me I shouldn't eat dinner or that I should run an extra mile, but for the most part I can tone that voice out. It takes extra effort on tough days, but it is always possible.
I spent over a year of my life counting calories and hating myself. I wasted an entire year of college trying to understand why I couldn't measure up, when in reality I had developed a distorted self-image. I realize how lucky I am to have spent only a year dealing with an eating disorder, while some people suffer for much longer. I understand how difficult it is to admit that something is wrong and to ask for help. I feel for every single individual who has looked in a mirror and hated the image staring back at her, and I hope that if you are currently dealing with an eating disorder you can find the strength to face it and fight it. Because you are good enough and you've never been anything less.
If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, you are not alone! Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or call their hotline at 1-800-931-2237 (1-866-633-4220 in Canada) for more information.