Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash

Ill Advised Coping Strategies

I never realized, until recently, that an eating disorder is simply a coping mechanism for another underlying issue. I thought the eating disorder was the issue itself. Turns out I was wrong.

I remember first thinking that I needed to be on a diet at 11 years old. My mum was always on a diet, talking about diets or what she was eating. There was talk about diets and women’s body shape all over publications, TV, billboards pretty much everywhere you looked in the 1980’s. Fat will kill you, low calorie no fat is where its at! From all of this input I determined at 11 that I better start watching what I was eating because every other woman was doing it so it must be done. I remember grabbing a notebook and starting to write down everything I ate during the day. I think that only lasted a week or so but it was the start to something much more sinister to come.

Once I hit high school there was a plethora of body image issues, not only with myself but pretty much all girls were experiencing this. We were too fat, too skinny, fat in the wrong place, not enough in the right place. We would all try to be good, eat healthy and exercise but the constant focus on “the Diet” was a no win situation. I think many of us believed that to fit in and to be accepted you needed to look the part. That part was perfection. As sad as that is, it is very likely still the case for girls today . This caused some seriously messed up behaviours of starving ourselves, binging, strange diet fads, over exercising and many more attempts at perfection.

I only dabbled with this in high school, it never really took off for me then, but I saw it all around me. For me, my high school experience was just an appetizer for what was to come in University. I think in High School I was too busy focusing on partying, breaking rules and being as “bad” as I could be to get a thrill. I needed to feed some deep desire of intensity and the best way I knew how to do that then was sex, drugs and alcohol. Looking back it was just a way to numb myself from what was really going on in my life.

In the fall of 1993 I went off to the University of Colorado in Boulder. My sister had gone there and loved it so I was to follow in her footsteps. My parents at the time were also moving to a far off paradise — Turks and Caicos in the British West Indies. This was the first time in their 30+ years of marriage that they had no kids at home! Party time for my folks. My siblings were nowhere in sight as they were all grown up and doing their own things by then (I am the youngest of 4, the eldest of which is 18 years older than me!). This was my first time really leaving home and I felt deeply alone. I knew nobody in Boulder and had never spent more than a few days there for orientation the following spring. I was like a cat out of water — freaked out and lost.

I tried desperately to follow my sister’s footsteps and do the “Rush” experience to try to get into a sorority. Within the first three days I had dropped out. It just wasn’t for me. Luckily I met two of the most awesome gals who lived right next door to me in our dormitory. Kathryn was a soul mate. Our first night together we went off on the campus bus to another dorm and partied with some friends of hers form Denver. Joints were sparked, some drinks were flowing and the laughter was contagious. I had a friend! The other was Emily who was an absolute hoot. She didn’t drink or do drugs and that’s because she absolutely did not need to. She was totally insane without them and I loved it. The three of us got up to all sorts of crazy antics — from roaming the dorms in our robes or PJ’s, making up ridiculous dances to car alarm sounds or just acting so strangely that people could not help to stop and watch what the hell was going on. It’s like we dared each other to be more and more crazy.

There was a lot of fun had that first year but there was also a very bad habit starting to form between us. It turned out that Emily had some very odd eating behaviours. She only ate certain foods which included a lot of fruit and vegetables and not much else. She had an amazing body and had done some modelling in her past. She was really quite stunning. What started out as a curiosity about how she ate turned into me picking up her same habits. This wasn’t about eating or my weight, it was about control. I didn’t know that at the time. I do now. My life felt out of control. I was away from home, my family were all busy and off doing their own things and my past was silently eating away at me from within like some sort of fungus that I didn’t even know was there.

Within the first three months I think I lost about 15 lbs. I wasn’t a big girl to start with. What started as not eating very much also turned into over exercising. It was a great combo. Starve myself and then push myself until my body literally felt like it is going to collapse on a daily basis. Super healthy. I went back to Montana for Thanksgiving to see my boyfriend at the time. He was shocked by what he saw but at the same time I think he was in some sort of awe. Like I had some sort of power that I could do this to my body. I don’t know that he thought that for sure, but it felt like he admired my willpower.

That summer after my first year was the real whammy. I went back to Montana after visiting my parents in Turks for a few weeks. I had the house to myself. I had my friends locally and my boyfriend but I was living by myself for a time, which led to feelings I could not cope with. I had to up the control and obsession so as not to think about what was really going on. I began each day with two or three very large bowls of cereal. One of which was Lucky Charms, very odd right? Then I would begin my exercise routine. First I would bike up our local ski hill, The Big Mountain. I wouldn’t just bike up to the parking lot which would take one hour. I would bike up to the top of a lift on the mountain bike trails. That would take me at least two hours round trip. I would get home, drink some water and then hit the road for a run. I would run anywhere from 5–10km. After which I would come home and get ready to swim in the lake. After a few laps back and forth to a boat I would finally rest. When dinner came and I was literally starving and spent, I would allow myself a salad. Finally before bed I would have some fruit. That was it. The same routine every day, all summer. I am 5'6" tall and I got down to less than 100 lbs that summer. I was no longer menstruating as I didn’t have enough fat on my body to do so. My body was literally eating itself alive.

I knew something was wrong with me. I could not enjoy myself with friends as I once had because my schedule was so rigorous. My friends and family tried to talk to me about what they could see but I denied it. I wasn’t ready to go there. I was hurting but I didn’t understand how to get out.

By my second year of university I switched schools due to financial reasons and also the fact that I felt seriously fucked up. I went back to Montana to attend school in Missoula and live with my eldest sister and on and off boyfriend at the time. Again another change in my life. I thought it would be good but because I wasn’t dealing with the underlying issues it just continued. That year I dabbled with bulimia. I didn’t enjoy that very much so it didn’t really last. The getting sick thing was just not my cup of tea.

My third year I went off to Europe to study and meet up with my wonderful friend from first year, Kathryn. I spent the first semester studying in France. I had some amazing experiences there but it was all tainted with this damn eating disorder and obsession with exercise. We had to keep a journal at the time (in French) and my professor who read it added a comment that I would probably do much better if I wasn’t so obsessed with what I ate! I was obviously writing what was in my head which wasn’t pretty. For the second semester I met up with Kathryn in London to start our four month trip across Europe. We pretty much visited every country possible by Euro-rail and man did we have adventures! Again it was overlaid with the eating disorder, but we still managed to have some amazing moments together that I will never forget.

This affliction continued through my final year of university and into the year after. That was going on five years or starving myself and over exercising on a regular basis. I’m really surprised my body didn’t fall apart. Yet somehow it did not. Throughout those years I tried many things to fight a battle I felt I could not win. I read books, I went to counselling, I did group therapy, I got on meds and I talked to people. The meds that they put me on were my first introduction to anti-depressants which I am still on today! That certainly helped somewhat with the OCD but didn’t fully take it away. What it did do was get me hooked to SSRI’s. That will have to be another story another day.

This disease is so powerful. The best way I can describe an eating disorder is being addicted to a hard core drug like heroine. Now, I have never done heroine but it’s what I would imagine an addiction of that sort to be like. You cannot stop it, it takes over your mind, it is like someone else is controlling you completely. You try to fight it but it has you in its grip so very tightly. You manage to win one day but the next it comes back with a vengeance you didn’t even know it had. You have such anger with yourself and with the world not understanding what you are really going through. You have sadness and shame at what you have become. It is a very dark and scary place that grips you.

I’m not exactly sure what helped me be released from its grasp. It could have been a roommate at the time, it could have just been the right time in my life. What I do know is that it took a very very long time to completely be over it in full. I feel for all of these young kids struggling with this today and even adults who struggle. It is so very painful. I also know that one can recover and recover fully to lead a fulfilling life. It is so worth getting over! I look back on it now as a complete waste of time but maybe it wasn’t that. Perhaps it was another lesson in my life that has led me to where I am today.

Note: An eating disorder can be a very serious illness and should not be ignored. If you are suffering or know someone who is get help. The first step is just realizing and admitting to yourself that something is not ok. It is frightening to confront but again you are not alone.

Daughter, Wife, Mother, Sister, friend, nature enthusiast, Dharma seeker, animal lover.

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