I went clothes shopping last week to add a few new pieces to my summer wardrobe. I hate shopping as an activity altogether (all those people!), but I especially abhor clothes shopping. Standing in the change room under questionable lighting, trying on ill-fitting clothing, is an exercise in body image management for many. But it's especially challenging for someone like me, with a lengthy lifelong history with eating disorders.
I pluralized eating disorders when describing my history for a reason. Most people automatically think of anorexia and bulimia when they hear the term "eating disorders," and many assume a person is only diagnosed with one version of the disorder in their lifetime.
The truth though, is that sufferers may travel along the eating disorder continuum over the course of their illness -- from the clinical diagnoses of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, to the more informal disordered behaviours of anorexia athletica (compulsive exercising) or orthorexia (eating only foods regarded as "healthy").
My personal journey definitely had many stops along this continuum. I distinctly remember restricting my food intake as young as age 8, and insisting on only wearing the baggiest of clothing to hide my (perfectly normal sized) body frame. By the time I was 15, my body image was so distorted that I became a master of skipping meals and couching my school days between strenuous two-hours-long morning and evening workouts at the local YMCA. That's a total of 4 hours a day!
I never took a day off from exercising to allow my body to rest because it was more important for me to punish it and myself for not being perfect. I remember attending a gym class in college one day -- folk dancing -- and being so completely depleted that my knees gave out on me, right there in the middle on the dance.
By the time my early thirties came around, restricting my food intake and over exercising were no longer working for me, so I added purging to the mix. I also became the nuttiest health nut you can imagine - insisting on "all natural" supplements and "clean eating", which consisted exclusively of "whole, organic fruits and veggies, nothing processed or with a mother". As for carbs? They were "evil".
By and large, we live in a diet-obsessed society, so my health nuttiness went unnoticed. Plus, like most individuals with eating disorders, I was a master at hiding all this dysfunctional behaviour for many years. I was also incredibly successful at outwardly presenting a well put-together front when facing the world. I had been a model student, a star employee, a good friend and doting auntie to my young nephews.
But as with all houses that aren't build on a solid foundation, my scaffolding came crashing down on me in a very big way in my early thirties. My lifelong untreated depressive symptoms developed into a full-blown case of major depression and suicidal ideation. I was unable to work. Heck, I was unable to walk ten feet without being completely winded. After a lifetime of self-abuse, my body, mind and spirit staged a massive revolt to get me to stop the madness.
So I finally listened.
I chose to learn to tune in to my self-care voice, rather than my louder and infinitely more developed self-harm voice.
I tearfully laid it all out to my psychologist -- the good, the bad, and the very very ugly.
Then, I sat down in my family doctor's office, and confessed to it all. The reason I hadn't been able to overcome my depression and suicidality, despite her doting professional care, was because I was still very symptomatic with my untreated and undiagnosed eating disorders. Needless to say, she made an immediate referral to a local day-hospital eating disorder clinic, which I checked into as soon as a spot opened up on their waiting list. By the time they fully evaluated me, my official diagnosis was Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), now known as Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED).
The next two years were the most hellish period of my life. Working through a lifetime of pain, self-harm, and distorted thinking is not for the faint of heart. The fact that it was taking me so long to claw my way out from the darkness was incredibly demoralizing. There were many days when I desperately clung to my psychologist's hope that I would make it through the ordeal alive. "I know you can't see it right now Sandy, so I'm going to safeguard this hope for you until you're ready to take it back," he once told me.
And take it back, I eventually did.
I did it by doing The Work.
I did it by acknowledging how my self-harming ways were limiting me. And by understanding my areas of vulnerabilities, of which there were many.
I did it by becoming aware of my psychological, physical and environmental triggers.
I did it by slowly and meticulously developing alternative coping strategies.
I did it by acting on self-care, rather than self-harm.
I did it by acting on love, rather than hate.
It is so troubling to me to read that eating disorders are dramatically increasing in Canada.
I fully recognize that I was one of the lucky ones to receive treatment as quickly as I did. Many sufferers are expected to wait weeks or months under our current health care system, or even to seek costly treatment out of pocket outside of Canada. Eating disorders affect children as young as five. Though the lifetime prevalence of eating disorders affects more women than men, it is important to note that boys and men are not immune to this devastating illness. It is estimated that there is one man for every 20 women with anorexia, and one man for every 10 women with bulimia.
In one 2002 study, 4 per cent of boys in grades nine and ten reported anabolic steroid use, which demonstrates that distorted body image and attempts to alter one's body are serious issues that affect both men and women. I am deeply concerned about the lack of sufficient treatment available to those who find the courage to seek help. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness; an estimated 10 per cent of individuals with this eating disorder will die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder.
My clothes shopping trip last week was a bust. Nothing fit me properly, and it was demoralizing to say the least. Years ago, this event would have triggered me massively, sending me spiralling deep into the dysfunctional arms of my eating disorder.
But I know better than to succumb to its dark allure. I have an arsenal of tools in my toolkit to resist that temptation. I choose to act on self-care and self-compassion. The eating disorder thoughts still periodically pass through my mind, like suitcases swirling around endlessly on an airport baggage carousel. But these days, I choose to not pick up the suitcases marked Eating Disorder. They no longer belong to me.
Thursday, June 2, 2016 marks the first World Eating Disorders Action Day. Through activism, we hope to raise awareness and understanding of eating disorders as treatable illnesses. Please consider taking the pledge, and joining thousands of activists in over 40 countries to promote worldwide knowledge of eating disorders and the need for comprehensive treatment. Use the power of your social media, using the hashtags #WeDoAct and #WorldEatingDisordersDay.
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