My eating disorder is a symptom of my OCD
The first time I admitted I had an eating disorder, I only did it to make my mom feel better. I was seventeen and sitting in my therapist’s office, and she was telling my mother that she thought I had a problem beyond the depression and panic attacks that had brought me in. I’ve only seen my my mother cry a few times in my life, and on this day, she was crying. “You were so skinny I could see your bones,” she told me later. “I didn’t know how you couldn’t see it.”
But I didn’t see it, because although I did strive to look like the trendy models in the magazine pages I hung on the walls of my bedroom, to have a “thigh gap” like the hipster girls in pictures on Tumblr, my eating disorder was never really about losing weight. It was about having control over my body.
I’ve always had pretty bad anxiety, much of which I have come to understand as obsessive-compulsive disorder. From a young age, much of this anxiety and obsession manifested itself in my body, one of the only things that a child has nominal control over. In Kindergarten I had long hair that I refused to cut and always pushed in front of my shoulders, never behind. When I got a little older, I hated the way my stomach stuck out above my toes in the shower, and would try to suck it in. Puberty was a minefield of adjusting to breasts, hips, and other body parts I was not used to having, the development of which made me feel intensely uncomfortable. Concurrently, I had the kind of social anxiety that comes with being too mature for one’s age, a constant sense of despair that I did not yet understand, and a perfectionist streak that didn’t mix well with my unmedicated ADD.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was dealing with clinical depression, a fairly constant level of anxiety, and the crippling boredom of living in a small town. To give myself something productive to do, I started working out. I figured it was a pretty healthy way to spend my time, and my parents, who always taught me to live a healthy lifestyle, encouraged it. \
From the beginning, it was fairly obsessive: I would make lists and schedules of exercises, look up the “best” ones and compile packets of printed diagrams. At an age where I didn’t control any of the circumstances of my life, it made me feel good to have something that was only mine to manipulate. I started working out every day, sometimes for two hours, getting up at five am to exercise before school. This routine grew in intensity over next couple of years.
As my obsession with fitness grew, I started to pay attention to the food I was eating. I read nutrition labels and calorie content. I decided to eat 1,000 calories or less per day, a round number well under the recommended number that made me feel restrained, disciplined, the opposite of the unruly excess of daily emotions. It calmed me to feel in control of my body. The feeling of an empty stomach began to feel like a victory, and the dizziness, migraines, and exhaustion were badges of honor in my mission. I kept meticulous calculations every day of what I ate and how many calories it contained. Restricting my food intake and working off the calories of the food I did eat was an obsession that dominated my thoughts and drowned out my feelings of despondency and restlessness in hunger and a sense of calm.
At the time, the idea that I had an eating disorder seemed absurd. Wasn’t I doing what I was supposed to do? Wasn’t I just taking care of my body and staying healthy? I was skinny, sure, but at 5’6 and 118 pounds, I was just a shade underweight, and I looked more like the models I admired than like an anorexia PSA.
I had something my therapist called EDNOS — Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Essentially, I didn’t fall into the camp of anorexia, because I did eat, albeit smaller amounts (and sometimes I binged) but also wasn’t bulimic, because I never used laxatives or made myself throw up. My eating disorder was a symptom of my OCD, an obsession with controlling what went into my body and what my body looked like, not to look any particular way, but just for the sake of being able to control it. To be honest, I kind of shrugged off the diagnosis and started eating slightly more to make my mother happy.
In college, I had a stressful freshman year. College was not the magic bullet I had been hoping for, and I was in an unfamiliar place with a new set of people and no immediately available support system. To cope, I turned to my body again. Without the supervision of my parents, I would go days eating as little as possible, then binge on junk food until I felt physically ill. Then I would feel guilty and starve myself again, in a cycle that wreaked havoc on my digestive system and my psyche. I was miserable, out of control, and manipulating my body was not providing the kind of comfort it used to. When I look at pictures from myself at eighteen, I can’t recognize myself. My skin is stretched tight over my collarbone, my cheeks sink into a red and blotchy face, and I have deep circles under my eyes.
Then sophomore year, I made friends with a group of women who loved to eat. We made meals and went to dinner together, praised each other for taking extra helpings, shared ice cream and chips during nights in, and encouraged each other to order the most delicious thing on the menu. Slowly, I learned to eat again, to enjoy food and to stop feeling out of control when I ate too much. The only way to eat without thinking in terms of numbers and minutes of exercise was to teach myself to love food for its own sake.
I still have a complicated relationship with my body — I binge when I’m stressed, and I’m terrified of having problems with my health, but I’ve learned to recognize my anxiety in those moments and use productive coping mechanisms rather than punish my body. But I still can’t look at nutrition labels or listen to people talk about their diets, and sometimes even reading about other people’s eating disorders leads me back into that dark place in my mind.
I will never not have an eating disorder, because regardless of cause, it’s a mental illness that will follow me throughout my life, whenever I feel anxious or out of control. But the more we educate people about this mental illness, and the mental illnesses that can cause disordered eating, the less likely they will be to fall into these habits, and the more quickly and easily they can get the help they need. Not all eating disorders are alike, and I want to do my part to help others, like me, who are dealing with underlying issues of anxiety, OCD, or other disorders. Your experience is valid, and you can recover and find healthier ways of coping.
For more information on eating disorders and National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, visit http://nedawareness.org/ and http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/. For more information on OCD, visit https://iocdf.org/.