A battle that ate me alive

One first year’s experience struggling with a pre-existing eating disorder

"...I started having regular anxiety attacks over food, and I stopped eating with other people altogether."
Supplied by Pixabay

First year is supposed to be an exciting time, but I spent mine battling with a pre-existing eating disorder.

At the age of 14, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, brought about by a perfect storm of unfortunate life events.

I started feeling symptoms upon entering high school. I was lonely and stressed out by academics. All of this led me to believe that I needed to be perfect, which I decided I was far from. 

It all went downhill from there. I distinctly remember writing in my journal what I was eating every day. I became obsessed with counting calories and watching what I ate. 

When I went to the doctor for an annual check-up, he informed me that my weight of 110 pounds at 5’4” was on the lower end of average. I remember immediately breaking down in tears. To me, “average” wasn’t good enough.

Once grade 10 came around, things looked like they were turning around for me. But despite me doing better socially and academically, I still felt a cloud of my disorder swindling over my head. 

What I couldn’t control in my life was taken out on my body. As more things in my life spun out of control, my level of self-punishment went up.I needed help. 

In grade 12, I was on a wait list for eight months before getting into a treatment center located in the outskirts of Toronto. 

My physical assessment showed the real damage starvation and excessive exercise did to my body. Many of my vital organs were suffering, the most serious being my heart. That news helped me realize that I didn’t want to live with anorexia anymore, because I wasn’t really living. 

When I came to Queen’s in the fall of 2015, my parents were wary about me starting university without finishing treatment, but I was so set on going. And, here I am. 

I moved into my cozy dorm in Gordon House with a roommate. 

Thankfully, my schedule was more relaxed so my stress levels were at a low. I made many friends on my floor and in my classes. The distraction of Frosh Week fun was enough to keep me eating and not working out. I didn’t want to tip anyone off that I might have an eating disorder, especially because first impressions are so important.

The honeymoon phase ended quickly. Even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to workout, my new friends were into this health regime that I desperately wanted to be a part of. I remember going to the gym with a new friend who pushed me to do 30 minutes of cardio, even though I’m only allowed to do a maximum of 15. 

When it came to food, I’m a vegetarian, so despite food being everywhere my choices were limited. I was overwhelmed with having to choose what to eat every day, rather than my mom just telling me in the morning what my meal plan looked like.

Eating at the cafeteria was a challenge. I remember my first meal there with people I’d just met. I cautiously eyed the vegan section and battled with myself about whether or not I could eat the rice and vegetables on the plate. I labeled it a safe food for me, and sat down with people who were practically strangers to try and eat the meal.

It got even harder as time went on. I struggled with trying to find out the calories in the dining hall meals and battled with post-meal guilt. I felt anxious having to eat in front of others and I always felt like people were looking at my plate and thinking I was eating either too much or not enough.

One time, I was eating with some girls, who will be my future housemates, and one of them looked right at my plate and then at me and said, “Is that all you’re going to eat? You’re so thin.” 

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard comments like this, but each time it made me feel anxious, embarrassed and it killed my almost non-existent appetite.

I went through a rough phase in October, where I started having regular anxiety attacks over food, and I stopped eating with other people altogether. I’d find something that I could manage, like a salad from Location 21 or a miniature garden pita from Pita Pit, and eat alone in my room. 

My disorder isolated me from mealtimes with my new friends, and in turn, they began to question why I stopped eating with them. 

I also felt like I had to lie a lot to my new friends. I have chronic migraines from my eating disorder, and I’m not allowed to drink alcohol because non-stop starvation gave me a stomach ulcer. Pretending my head wasn’t pounding on a night out became difficult, and saying ulcers ran in my family was sounding less convincing the more I said it. I still saw a therapist about the disorder, so I had to lie about where I was a few times. 

With my disorder came anxiety attacks. I hated these the most, but during one of my worst ones in November, when I was freezing outside and crying, I wondered, what would happen if I gave myself permission to be healthy? It was worth another shot, I owed it to myself. 

I couldn’t outrun anorexia. I had to open up about it and ask for support from people, so that’s what happened. I opened up to my new friends and they helped me with mealtimes and were very supportive, making sure I was eating enough, while being careful not draw attention to my eating habits. They also refrained from talking about the gym or working out around me.

They couldn’t save me, though. With any mental illness, people can try to help you, but ultimately, you have to decide that you want to recover. 

I had to be the one to save myself.

I got involved with the Mental Health Awareness Committee here at Queen’s, and began sharing my story with other people to help raise awareness. Talking about it openly and acknowledging that relapses happen has been imperative to my recovery. 

It hasn’t been easy. But I’m no longer afraid of being responsible for myself, or prioritizing my health over the numbers on the scale.

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