The first therapist I saw about my eating disorder told me she didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. To this day, I don’t know if I’d just managed to fool her into thinking I was normal? Or maybe she wasn’t so great at her job? You’d assume any eating disorder therapist would be primed to expect denial from their patients — denial is a hallmark of almost every eating disorder. She lasted two sessions before my parents shut that down and dragged my problems elsewhere.
The next person I saw seemed nice enough, and acknowledged that I was dealing with a real problem. But she ended every sentence with an annoying “Okaaaaaaay??” and after a while that was all I could hear. By the end of the session I was dizzy from nodding my head so much.
I won’t talk about every therapist and nutritionist I’ve ever been to, because that would be a novel unto itself. However, this was the beginning of many, many therapy sessions, including the outpatient program at North York General Hospital (I will get to that later on), fights with my parents, and fear and tears that ultimately – somehow – got me started on the yellow brick road to recovery.
For a long time, I thought my eating disorder defined me. What I wasn’t consuming in food I allowed the eating disorder to consumer of my life — my friendships, my concentration, my energy and my happiness. I don’t talk about that time very often anymore, partly because I don’t like feeling pitied, but mostly because my eating disorder no longer defines me. Now I define me. I’m in my third year of University, and I am happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. I am not my eating disorder. I am a girl who loves to learn, to be active, to be social, and most importantly I am a girl who loves herself.
Recovery is a journey. I spent over four years allowing my eating disorder to consume my life, so I didn’t get over it in a day, a week, a month or even a year. It’s like breaking up with someone you’ve been with for half a decade. Even if it was a shitty relationship it was a powerful one. Those years you were together you found comfort in their presence and predictability. But at some point, their presence became suffocating. It takes a long time to feel okay after a bad relationship like that one: there are better days than others, but truth be known that loser never fully leaves you. You have to keep working hard to keep them out of your life because it’s more important than keeping them in it.
Looking back, I can’t pinpoint exactly when I decided I wanted to get better. However, university was pivotal: suddenly I was exposed to a new environment and was given the opportunity to recreate myself, if I chose to. I’d spent the last four years obsessed with and scared of food. I’d allowed those preoccupations to end friendships and take away opportunities. But things didn’t have to be like that at university. I was placed on a floor of girls who I credit with helping to pull me out of the shell I’d been hiding in for so long. I met some great people in my program and through fundraisers that we held. I became more enthusiastic about fitness and getting stronger. Somewhere in all of that, I consciously placed myself in an environment that felt comfortable and safe, where I could be myself without feeling that I needed to change to be good enough for some unknown standard.
It might sound odd that I can’t tell you exactly when things started to look up for me, because I can tell you exactly when they started to go downhill. I was fifteen years old, and like most fifteen year olds, I’d always had insecurities about one thing or another. I hated my legs, I wanted my stomach to be flatter. I’m sure that looking at myself in a mirror in tights and a leotard every day of the week at ballet didn’t help much.
One day during, my group of friends at the time suddenly began to shut me out. They wouldn’t talk to me at school and ignored my texts. As someone who had never felt quite good enough, I began to believe they were rejecting me because I really wasn’t good enough, playing into all my worst insecurities. I convinced myself that if I was thinner, my friends would like me more. It was not a cry for attention, it was a cry for help. This led to a variety of disordered behaviors. At first I started to toss my lunch at school. Then I started avoiding carbs, high-fat food and desserts. Slowly these behaviors started to spiral downward. It got to the point where I’d rather be doubled over in pain from hunger or close to passing out than eat. The lengths I used to go to get rid of food make me almost laugh now. My poor dog probably suffered some uncomfortable bowel movements from the amount of stuff I fed her (it’s okay, she’s a lab). I also frequently flushed food down the toilet and sometimes threw it out my window. Looking back it seems ridiculous, but at the time I was desperate, and, hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. Eventually, my mom caught on to what I was doing, and approached me about it. Tearfully, I agreed to see a therapist because I ‘wanted to get better’.
Fast-forward a year, and I was clearly nowhere near better: I’d lost nearly twenty pounds, my hair was thin and I was always tired. In that year I’d been to see six different therapists in an attempt to convince my parents I was committed to recovery. But I was not.
Near the end of grade 11, I was accepted into the outpatient program at North York General Hospital. This is an integrated program combining medical, nutritional and mental health specialists. I remember my first appointment at NYG very clearly. I was thinking I was walking into another session with another therapist who I could fool just as easily as the last. How very wrong I was. There were no cracks in this program (except you can’t force someone to want to get better). I checked in for my appointment and was handed a cup to pee in and a hospital gown to change into before being weighed. Later I would find out they check the dilution of your urine to see if you’re ‘water loading’ before your appointments to make it seem like you’re gaining weight – a trick that I used many a time in the weeks to come.
My parents had thrown out our scale at home because they didn’t want me to fixate on my weight. I weighed in at NYG for the first time in years at a whopping ninety pounds — about as much as a 6th grader. I was seen by the general PE, who didn’t have much to say except how risky my current state of health was. My body weight was extremely low, heart rate and blood pressure were also low and I hadn’t had a period in almost eighteen months. Now here’s the catch to this program. The therapist that you see twice a week is a family therapist. You and your parents sit in on a session together. There’s no telling them that everything is going well. You can’t lie about what ‘fear food’ you hadn’t really eaten that week with them looking on.
Together with my therapist we agreed that I would eat every meal with my parents and they would decide what and how much I ate. No bargaining. That included lunch: my mom would come and meet me everyday at school, or take me home to eat. The goal was to gain one to two pounds a week until my period returned, at which point I would be granted a little more freedom. As it dawned on me that I had no option but to gain weight I was terrified.
Twice a week, every week, for eighteen months we went to NYG. That’s 156 sessions. And at the end of it all? Nothing really changed. Sure, the program succeeded in helping me gain weight, and my period finally returned at the beginning of first year, so physically I was deemed ‘healthy’. But nothing had really changed. I had gone through the motions but I wasn’t ready to relinquish my old habits.
A few months after my final appointment at NYG – partway through my first semester of university – I discovered weightlifting. By university I was no longer dancing, and wanted something to keep me active. I gave resistance training a chance and fell in love, or so I thought. I loved feeling strong, I loved working out, and I was finally allowing myself to eat like a normal person after nearly five years of depriving myself. I thought I was happy, but I still hated my body and desperately wanted to change it. This set off a variety of new bad habits. I was obsessed with the gym. If I didn’t get there twice a day I would feel disgusted with myself. I felt so bad about myself I would binge eat then make myself sick. My obsession with the gym seemed to take the place of my obsession with food. This awful cycle continued until halfway through second year. I’d gained 10-15 pounds since starting university. One day I decided enough was enough. I was so disappointed in myself. I was less disappointed by what I saw in the mirror than the fact that I’d let my eating disorder take over my life again. I knew that putting this behind me once and for all wouldn’t be easy, but I was determined.
In second semester of second year I started crossfit, which switched my focus from how I looked to how I performed. I was welcomed into such an amazing supportive community — people who truly care about me, and slowly but surely I started to care about myself as well.
This journey to recovery does not have an ending. Those weren’t my best years, and there are some scars that never really heal completely. I have a condition called osteopenia, which is essentially a premature form of osteoporosis. Through improper nutrition and chronically low levels of estrogen required to lay down new bone mass, I have extremely low bone mineral density.
I went through some shitty years but I turned myself around and am now in a better mental space than I’ve ever been. I am aware that eating disorders and for that matter, any mental illness are not to be taken lightly. Among mental illnesses, eating disorders have the highest rate of mortality across North America. I know there are those who struggled and still struggle much more than I ever did. I am very fortunate to have had such an amazing support system. I’m not looking for sympathy: I’m putting this out there in the hopes that others who are struggling with mental illness will see that there is another way. Where happiness is an option. Where you can feel at peace with yourself. How do you get there? Well, first you need to ask yourself whether you really want to get there. You can see as many therapists as you like, but recovery won’t begin until you truly want it to.
There are always ups and downs, and at times when you’re down it may feel like there’s no way back up. I still have those days, but I’m getting better and better at coping with them, and they are fewer and farther between.
We all face hardship at some point in our lives. Maybe you’re broke and trying to make rent this month, or your roommate stole from you (true story), someone broke your heart, there’s an illness or a breakup in your family. We don’t hold up the hardships to be admired. The people I admire most are the ones who’ve faced adversity and worked through it and found a way to turn it into something better for themselves and – just as important – for others. It’s easier said than done, I know, but nothing will change if you don’t try. Have the courage to try, because you deserve to be happy, and you deserve to love yourself.
I chose happiness. I am happy, and I feel appreciated and loved, and that feeling is so much greater than the desire to be skinny ever will be.
Written by Alive Kennedy