A while back, I shared my story on Instagram in a seven part series during NEDA Week. This post is a collection of those captions.
I’ve struggled from disordered eating since I was a teenager. I remember worrying about body image and food at age eleven. However, I played competitive sports growing up and was also a college athlete, so for the first several years of my eating disorder, the excessive exercise I did was considered “normal” and even “dedication.” I ate as little as I could while still maintaining my status as a star athlete. Starving myself completely would have affected my performance greatly, and it would have devastated me to lose my starting position on any team. I spent most of my teenage years at a perfectly normal, healthy weight, even though I was suffering mentally and emotionally. I began to struggle with anxiety and insomnia, further exacerbated by the restriction and exercise compulsion. I stopped enjoying things “normal” teenagers did because I was fixated on food and exercise, but hid it behind my outgoing, tough demeanor. Before entering college on an academic and athletic scholarship, I vowed to myself I wouldn’t gain the dreaded, “Freshman Fifteen”.
I didn’t just avoid the “Freshmen Fifteen” in college- my eating disorder and compulsive overexercise spiraled out of control. Anxiety and stress from nursing school and playing college soccer dragged me deeper down. If I thought we didn’t “work hard enough” at a practice, I would go running afterwards. Sometimes I ran 2-3 times a day, or for 1-2 hours at a time. I lived on Diet Mt. Dew and cereal, and my idea of a meal was fat free ranch and cucumbers. I was plagued by constant respiratory illnesses, asthma, and extreme exhaustion. Still, I managed to receive my nursing license at the age of twenty, lead my soccer team in minutes played, and run cross country on a scholarship my senior year. My weight? All over the place, from what I remember. But that number was irrelevant to me.
I graduated in 2008 and moved to Nashville, TN to start my career as a nurse at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. By that time, me eating disorder was so engrained in me that I didn’t really understand I had a problem. Working nightshift and maintaining the restriction and exercise patterns led me to constantly be sick- doctors even testing me for immune dysfunction because of the frequency and severity of infections. Not once was I asked about exercise or eating habits. I was more bothered by my anxiety. I ended up reaching out to someone- I’ll call her C- at my church who helped me find a therapist. We met for coffee one afternoon, and she asked me various questions, one being “Do you have an eating disorder?” I paused, and said no. After some thought, she gave me someone’s information to contact. As we got up to leave, C said “You know what, wait a minute. The Lord is telling me that you need to see someone else. Let me give you her information.” I didn’t know it then, but in that very moment, God had started writing my redemption story. A story that is messy, ugly, and far from over. I truly believe if it were not for divine intervention that day, I would not be here.
I am endlessly grateful for the time I spent with my first therapist after that meeting. It was in her office the first mention of an eating disorder was brought up, due to my therapists’ own experiences, but I pushed the hints aside. It wasn’t until I hit a new low- an absolute rock bottom- that I realized how very little regard for my own life I had. I owe so much gratitude to my friend Tara for sticking by my side during my absolute lowest. The ways in which she loved me, cared for me, and fought for me are living proof of God knowing exactly what we need when we need it. Because of Tara’s friendship and my therapist teaching me that I had a voice, I went for an assessment at The Renfrew Center, which was located where I lived. I was clueless. I was lost. I was sick, but in denial because I “looked fine.” It didn’t matter that I was ruled by anxiety, food rules, and exercise schedules. It didn’t matter that I hated every ounce of myself and couldn’t remember the last time I ate a full meal, or ate without compensating. When Renfrew immediately recommended hospitalization or residential treatment, I blew them off. I had just accepted a travel nursing position in North Carolina, and didn’t have time for that. At the urging of my therapist and Renfrew staff, I found an outpatient treatment team in North Carolina before moving there. “No big deal,” I thought. “A few months of that, and I’ll be fine.” I didn’t know I was about to begin a journey that would shatter everything I knew. A journey that would break me, again and again. A journey that would give me a second chance at life.
In North Carolina I began to work on recovery and had a very huge reality check. I struggled to function working full time and maintaining my health. Only my friend Tara knew I was getting help- I felt so very alone and scared. My outpatient treatment team urged me to go to residential treatment, but I had no insurance, no medical leave as a travel nurse, and no support. I began researching scholarships for treatment and met an angel of a human named Lynn, who had a foundation known as Melissa’s Voice. Lynn has lost her sister Melissa to suicide after a long battle with an eating disorder, and was interested in helping me. With her support, I told my family about my eating disorder and started to let friends in. Lynn graciously gave me a scholarship and connected me with a friend she had who ran a treatment center a few hours away. I took a chunk out of my savings, and with help of my parents, entered residential treatment in 2012. By this time, I had been enslaved to my eating disorder for nearly fourteen years.
In those weeks at the treatment center, I realized this: eating disorders take everything. Mine had taken my teenage years, my voice, my identity. It had taken my life while still leaving my body physically here on this earth. Life with an eating disorder isn’t living, it’s existing. I know that to be true with every cell of my body because I spent so much time drifting through life. It breaks my heart. I regret it. I have little to no memory of what others thought were the best times of my life. I was there, but it was just a shell of myself. I had myself fooled, and everyone else. I am forever grateful for the amazing souls I met in that big blue house where I found my heart and learned how to fight for my life. I am forever grateful to the people that helped me get there. But, I was still ignorant to the recovery process. As much as I hoped eight weeks of intense treatment would be enough to “cure” me, it was not.
A report in 2017 analyzing the results of 27 studies regarding relapse rates of anorexia sufferers, showed that over 25% relapsed within six months of completing treatment…that percentage increases after one year to 50% or higher. Six years ago when I discharged from residential treatment, I can honestly say that I never believed I would join those statistics. A few months after completing treatment, I moved back to Nashville, and found myself in full blown relapse, and the most physically ill I had ever been. I found myself back in treatment for several months, discharged, and pushed onward. However, I am fighting against something so strong and so dark, and my journey continues to be rocky. I spent 18 weeks in treatment starting last June. I spent most of 2018 wishing my life would end as I dealt with a degree of depression and anxiety I didn’t know was possible. After two treatment centers, an amazing psychiatrist, and life-saver of a therapist who refused to give up on me, I am slowly getting back on my feet and moving forward.
I still struggle. Daily. But I am still here fighting, which is an accomplishment in itself because I did not see a future for myself even 6 months ago.
I have anorexia, I have anxiety, I have PTSD, and I have depression…but these things do not have me. I am not a diagnosis, I am not a failure, I am not too much. This illness that tries everyday to tell me otherwise and convince me my life is not worth living, is wrong.