Restructuring my relationship with food

Toxic eating habits consumed my first year at Queen’s—but slowly, food is becoming a form of self-care

How I’m starting to restructure food as a form of self-care.

This article discusses disordered eating and may be triggering for some readers. The Canadian Mental Health Association Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-875-6213.

The way I look was one of the only sources of control I had over my life.

In my first year at Queen’s, I fell into a deep depression which resulted in a 30-pound increase in my weight. Before I arrived, I wouldn’t have imagined that would be my experience.

I saw university as an ideal—a goal that, once reached, would cause all the pieces of my life to fall into place. I was naive to think a place or goal could help me to achieve structure and success instead of personal growth.

After framing Queen’s as my sought-after haven throughout high school—a place I thought would thrive—I ended my first year unhappy and unrecognizable in the mirror.

I found solace in the partying lifestyle that accompanies the Queen’s experience. If I was intoxicated, I couldn’t think about all the things that were going wrong.

As COVID-19 descended upon the world in 2020, quarantine was a much-needed break from university life.

I sought treatment for depression and anxiety, working through unhealed trauma and finally having my mental health validated by a professional. At the same time, I secretly developed destructive cognitions when it came to what I was putting in my body.

I could barely admit my problem to myself, let alone anyone around me.

When I was growing up, my mother would force me to finish my plate of food in front of her before I left the house. That incentive disappeared when I returned to school.

I rationalized food restriction to myself by saying that this was my opportunity to get my old self back—and at least I wasn’t counting my calories. But then, all of a sudden, I was.

Hidden away in my Notes app are entries over the course of five months where I kept track of everything I ate. On days where I exceeded 1,000 calories, the number would accompany a message of utter disgust with myself. The average caloric intake for an 18-year-old girl is 2,400 calories.

As I continued to work on my mental wellness, I kept my toxic relationship with food a secret between myself and the little yellow app on my phone. My family noticed I was losing weight quickly, but I hushed their concerns by saying it was simply because I wasn’t eating food from dining halls anymore.

I was able to convince myself that restricting my diet would make me happier, prettier, and more myself to the point that my appetite has never quite returned to normal.

Mental health awareness is more common now than ever, but my fears of being questioned on why I don’t “just eat” and of facing continuous comments on my rapidly decreasing weight paralyzed me from getting help.

Restricting myself was no longer something I consciously thought about doing, but rather a habit I had gotten used to.

I complained about my clothes hanging loosely on my body, blissfully ignoring the reality that I was doing it to myself. I was losing my shape and the minimal curves I had as I reached 90 pounds.

I knew what I was doing was wrong but kept my barriers up. Keeping myself isolated prevented me from making substantial efforts for change. Though it seems silly, seeing people on social media work through eating disorder recovery and promote redefining their relationship with food pushed me to take action. Seeing others be so candid with their struggles gave me companionship in my isolation.

I began to increase my food intake little by little, still petrified of returning to the physical and mental state I had been in by the end of first year. It was no longer a conscious thought in my mind but that didn’t stop the self-deprecating comments from slipping in. It still doesn’t.

I no longer count my calories or think about what the food I’m eating will do to my body. However, there’s still a long way to go in the process of healing from my internalized hatred.

A good day of eating for me is far different from what is considered “normal.” My body had become so weak that I’m slowly rebuilding my strength and relationship with food by lifting weights at the gym and forcing protein-dense meals down.

I never felt like I had a safe outlet to express this constant challenge that I’ve faced—I didn’t want to be found out or looked at with concern. I didn’t want the reasons for my weight fluctuation to be anything more than me controlling it for myself, and I didn’t realize the impact this would have on my cognition throughout life.

I’m slowly trying to restructure food as a form of self-care and self-love.

It’s taking time, but my first step is admitting the issue at hand. That’s what this article is for—holding myself accountable and following through with my personal goals. 

For others who experience food anxiety and are struggling to provide their body with the necessary nutrients, I encourage to admit your challenges to yourself and look inwards.

Food is the best way to take of yourself. It can be daunting, but I promise that repairing the relationship is worth it.

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