My name is Debbie and I have fought an eating disorder for 50 plus years. I was a young child when I first learned that being fat was a bad thing. I was told I was fat and that I had to lose weight. I remember going to a weight watchers type program when I was in my teens and I lost weight. Everyone was so proud of me. That’s where my eating disorder began.
I saw that I was much more liked in school and finally had a little bit of pride from my father. Quickly I realized that I could get some attention and love if I lost weight. I went on my first anorexic journey. Quit eating and lived off orange juice for six weeks. I dropped a substantial amount of weight when I was 17 and was hospitalized after the six weeks. Being that this was 1972, the topic/prevalence of eating disorders was not something that was on many doctors’ radar. This was the start of a lifelong battle with an eating disorder.
I hid it very well for many years. Just like so many of my friends and family, I was on the most popular diet at the time. There was nothing unusual about that – everyone was doing that. I’d lose weight, I’d put on weight and the cycle started. I continued to try the newest trend from shakes to weight watchers to fasting to purging. As the comments would come in on how well I was doing on my weight loss journey, it only fed my desire to keep getting smaller.
I never realized I had an eating disorder till sometime in my 50s when I remember thinking, I am hungry all the time, weight loss isn’t working anymore, and I’m not eating. Over the years of my life I had lost and gained hundreds of pounds, literally hundreds up and down. I suddenly realized; this may be a problem. I got in touch with a counselor from my employee assistance program from my employer and said, “I think I have an eating disorder.” She set me up with a therapist in my neighborhood. At the time I was spending excessive hours each day at the gym seven days a week, running as much as I could, and I was taking in very few calories a day. I had no life except for work and working out.
My perception of what my family thought was I was dedicated to losing weight and was making them proud by really pushing myself to do so. I remember hearing words from my family saying they would brag about me and that if I could lose the weight anyone could. But I was miserable. I had the face of someone who was happy and content. I had a job I loved and was very active in my church. No one really knew what was going on in my head. I knew I had to keep losing weight to continue the approval of others and of myself. However, with every pound lost I wanted more. I never seemed to lose enough. There were still problems with the “fat” on my body.
I started seeing a therapist who confirmed that I had anorexia. She was not a therapist trained in eating disorders, but we worked together for 2 years and she had me admitted to a treatment center two times. We worked on the depression and anxiety that were the benchmarks of my eating disorder. I would come back from the treatment centers and maybe last a few weeks with the prescriptive eating but was so frustrated with body size I would go right back to my behaviors. It got to a point where I was abusing laxatives and pain pills to try and numb out all the feelings of inadequacy. I was never enough for some and too much for others. I had a psychiatrist who did specialize in eating disorders and he was consistently trying to get me to go back to treatment. I fought him constantly. It wasn’t until my employer caught on to my issues because of consistent hospitalizations due to electrolyte imbalances and passing out at work that things came crashing down on me. The medical team of my employer put their foot down and said unless I go to treatment, I was suspended from work. I loved my job and I would do anything to protect it. My job was my identity. I got praise for my performance. I was consistently promoted for outstanding work. I received the validation I longingly wanted all my life. My job was my reason for living.
Off I went to another treatment center. I was a very sick woman when I left to go to another treatment center. I traveled through three airports all on my own as my body was shutting down. I got to the treatment center and could not get out of the cab to go into the building. I was crashing. A doctor from the treatment center was exiting the building and the cab driver got her attention. They had to get the medical team for me and had me in a wheelchair and going up the elevator to the center when my heart stopped. I died in their elevator. After CPR and my heart restarting I was transferred to a medical hospital and put in a dedicated eating disorder treatment unit of the hospital. I spent a month there trying to get medically stable. Little do I remember except fighting them on what I was supposed to eat. Eventually I made it to the eating disorder treatment center where I spent the next 3 months in their inpatient, residential and partial hospitalization programs. I made progress but was not ready to go home. Insurance had said I was well enough to go home. I went home and immediately went back to behaviors.
Some of my journal entries are just so distressing.
“I am in trouble. I am starving hungry but that stupid scale says I am overweight. Haven’t been this high in a very long time. Why is this so important to me? I don’t ever want to go back to where I was. They tell me I won’t, but the numbers keep going up. When is it going to stop? No more – I’d rather die than be fat and if I keep this up, I am going to end up doing that Is that so bad? Probably – for poor Hannah if no one else. She doesn’t have any other grandparent than me. Oh, what to do, what to do. Such a quandary. If I was eating 10,000 calories it would be different. I’m not, so I should at least stay stable. I’m scared of myself now. I don’t want to eat but my stomach is growling something fierce. I hate this disease and I hate me for letting it get to me. I just want to die.
So, what If I wear a larger size – I’m sure I can find decent clothes in that size and look presentable. But I won’t feel presentable. All I feel is fat. Am I fat or is this really a distortion? I don’t even know anymore.”
I was nowhere near where I needed to be to be out of treatment. It was at this time my therapist said she could no longer treat me. She told me I needed an eating disorder therapist, someone who specialized in eating disorder treatment.
I started seeing a new therapist, who was an eating disorder therapist and started seeing a dietician. They worked with me and a primary care physician who also specialized in eating disorders and I continued with the psychiatrist. No matter what, I could not get past my fear of gaining weight. I was afraid to eat knowing that I would put weight on if I ate. Previous experience had taught me that. I was told that they would watch my weight and would not allow me to get fat. (Which I now realize was a means to get me to eat – they really couldn’t control what my body would do). I continued therapy, dietician and doctor visits. We worked hard to get my behaviors under control except that I was so malnourished none of the therapy had any effect on me.
My therapist at the time set up an intervention with my family and told me if I didn’t stop behaviors I would die. I tried my hardest to stop behaviors and get back into eating and stopping the pills. That went on for another 13 months. I fought and I would eat and then I’d gain weight and I’d go back to not eating. During that time, I had many hospitalizations to get electrolytes back to normal. Too many times I was close to death, but it really had no effect on my behaviors.
I was still working, and it was my respite. It was the one place that I felt like a normal person. And so many people were always amazed at my dedication to losing weight. Until some would say, “ok Deb, you’ve gone too far. It’s time to stop losing weight.” I’d always assure them I was fine. I never acknowledged I was as sick as I was. Finally, in February 2017, my employer gave me an ultimatum again. If I didn’t get help, I would no longer have a job. And even if I did get treatment there was no guarantee, as I was on probation for my performance. I was so sick my job was suffering.
I left work on February 8, 2017 and was admitted to treatment on February 15, 2017, 2000 miles from home. I came to treatment in Phoenix where my daughter and her family lived. I was at the lowest weight I had ever been in my life. But I will tell you I still didn’t think I was thin enough. I spent the next 18 months in treatment at Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders in all the various treatment modalities they offered. It was a trying time as my weight continued to go up. My depression and anxiety skyrocketed to the point that I had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal ideation and self harm. I spent the month of December 2017, being treated for major depressive disorder and they had no regard for my eating disorder. Hence, behaviors came flying back. Once out, I went back to Intensive Outpatient at Rosewood for the second time. We worked on my childhood trauma with EMDR and lots of talk therapy. Dietitians worked with me to keep me on a meal plan which I invariably would fail. I hated the amount of weight I was putting on, and they kept telling me it wasn’t me that there was some medical reason why I was putting weight on so rapidly and excessively. I went through medical work up after medical work up. Found out I had chronic kidney failure and multiple gastrointestinal disorders. Not that it made any difference in my weight or my acceptance of my weight, but at least they knew what was causing it. We still had to deal with my acceptance of my now fat body.
January 2019 – I had a breakthrough. I knew I could no longer fight my body and I found Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size. I had heard of it and even my dietician at Rosewood tried to get me to read Health at Every Size and I told her I couldn’t because it was too triggering to me. The first chapter had me in tears because it meant accepting this fat body. But that January I started eating on a regular basis – I didn’t take part in any eating disorder behaviors. It got to be 1 week, then 2 weeks and then a month and the consistency made me keep going. I said to myself I’ve gone this long, let’s see how much longer I can go. It has now been almost a year and despite many, many trials in my life over the past year, I have not stopped eating (on purpose). I still kick myself when I miss a meal because of circumstances but I know I just need to do the next right thing when slips happen. The past year has been quite a journey of learning about Intuitive Eating and learning to listen to my body. When I am hungry, I eat. When I get full, I stop. Does it work all the time, no! Do I know when I’m hungry or when I’m full all the time? Again no. In those situations, that is when I know I need to just eat mechanically – I eat because I must eat. My body needs food even if it isn’t telling me or I’m not listening closely enough. For 50 years, I learned how to turn off the hunger and fullness cues. It’s going to take a while for me to relearn to listen to them or hear them when they call.
My eating is nowhere near what it should be yet. My body image perception is my biggest hurdle and I strive to find ways to like this bigger body. But even though I don’t like my body I do continue to eat. And that is progress. Am I recovered? Not totally. I do think this will be a continual journey for me. I think there will always be times where I am tempted to try that next new diet, or maybe I can go a few days and see what happens. Those thoughts are still there. I know that I could always go on another diet, but I have been told I may not have another recovery in me. My body has been through a lot with my eating disorder and I suffer the consequences of it daily.
I press on. I work on my Diets Don’t Work page for myself to remind myself that another diet will not work. I do it for others as well – if I can help another person from falling into the traps of an eating disorder then there is even more benefit for my work.
I want to be around for my grandchildren. I don’t want them to see a grandma who cannot do the things they want to do. I cannot go back.
I continue in treatment and have much support from outside sources. Many people from all the various treatment centers, the friends I have made in treatment, the professionals I have interacted with on Facebook and Instagram have been a major part of my recovery. I have friends who are my accountability team. My family is my biggest support.
One of my biggest suggestions to other struggling with eating disorders is to get a support system. Isolation is a breeding ground for behaviors. It’s hard but it’s worth it.
I thank all the people who have been a part of my recovery. There is way too many to name. My daughter, Dawn, has been my rock through all of this and she deserves my biggest thanks. I have a God who is very much a part of my recovery. He deserves all the praise for His help in my life. He has saved me from death so many times and I hope that what I am doing now is pleasing Him. There is a quote that I love that I have seen many times, “I want to inspire people. I want someone to look at me and say, because of you, I didn’t give up.”
That is my prayer – don’t give up!