How I accidentally developed an eating disorder

This is a personal thing I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while for a couple of different reasons. I may follow up later and talk about some of the other mental health stuff I went through last year, but I wanted to get this part out.

(Trigger warning: disordered eating/anorexic behavior)

Last year was my senior year of college. Like most academic years in my life, I started out wanting to see how far I could go before I broke myself. I’m a quintessential overachiever and I have trouble saying no to things, so I’m usually pretty busy and definitely enjoy having a hectic schedule. Generally I start a year off with a lot going on, figure out what I’m really enjoying and drop a few things once I decide how busy I actually want to be.

Senior year, however, I quickly veered into unhealthy territory. I was working at editor-in-chief of a college newspaper, which ate up at least 30 hours per week and often more than 40. More than the hours it took, it was one of those jobs that required you to be constantly available, on call, checking your email and just thinking about it, which takes a toll on your brain and can cause a lot more stress than just working long hours. On top of that, I started a 20 hour per week job at the daily newspaper in town, which required me to work early mornings after late nights of newspaper layout. With a full-time and a part-time job sucking up most waking hours, I also still had class—not a lot of it, to be fair, but I was writing an honors thesis, taking one of the hardest politics classes offered at my school, and doing a few other miscellaneous things that ate up my time.

One result of this was that I rarely had time to eat. Mornings were get up and go—I might have an egg before I ran off to work, but as I got busier, even that was hard to do. I started eating most of my meals at our student cafe, which basically serves fries and burgers. Being a vegetarian, I ended up having fries and onion rings for dinner a few nights a week, and grabbing a sandwich at the local sandwich shop once of twice on top of that. Between those purchases, haphazard snacking and getting invited to dinners all over campus, I could survive without ever really cooking.

Gradually, my body got used to this kind of diet. I considered it a good day of food when I had two eggs for breakfast and a large sandwich for lunch and dinner (half for lunch, half for dinner), plus maybe a snack sometime in the evening. It was not uncommon for me to work sixteen hour days on under 1000 calories. I still got hungry, but my body stopped screaming for food if I didn’t feed it. After an hour or two, it would quiet down and let me work in peace.

As my body adjusted, I started associating my diet with strength. I took pride in being able to get so much done without eating as much as I knew, somewhere deep down, that I should. And I convinced myself it wasn’t a problem (certainly not a capital-D Disorder), because I would gladly eat whatever was in front of me if it was convenient—four slices of pizza on newspaper production night, something full of calories while out with friends. The fact that I had lost about fifteen pounds was something I saw as a nice side benefit. My cheekbones looked great, my stomach was flat, and I wasn’t even trying.

I’ve never had an issue with food, really (which I think makes me a rare 22 year old woman), and I’d never thought of myself as having issues with my body compared to just about every other woman (and some men) I knew. And because of that, I didn’t think I could have an eating disorder. I read young adult books about anorexia and learned that eating disorders meant dropping down to 90 pounds and having heart irregularities. Fifteen pounds in four months didn’t seem worth worrying over. Nothing I was doing fit my image of what an eating disorder was, and because of that, I thought I didn’t have anything to worry about.

Anyone rational who stopped to put the pieces together could tell you that what I was doing wasn’t healthy or sustainable. I knew I couldn’t live my life like this forever, but figured I’d hold out until the end of the year and be fine. Everything I was doing became part of a marathon, a death-march of endurance towards graduation, with me constantly betting my health and sanity that I could walk across that stage with a diploma before I collapsed. I did have friends who tried to remind me, gently, to eat, but since I didn’t have a roommate and didn’t spend a ton of time with any one person, it was hard for people to keep tabs on me. Even my boyfriend, who I slept with just about every night, would only see me for one or two waking hours on many days and with his own schedule being busy, he couldn’t be expected to keep track of whether I was eating.

My eating disorder started out functionally, as a way to compensate for my busy schedule, but it quickly took on a life of its own. Like so many other problems and health issues, it became self-reinforcing. And I was so caught up in the idea of suffering until graduation that I didn’t even notice this was happening.

My first clue that I wasn’t okay should have been when my already fussy stomach became impossible. Between the stress of my jobs and my lack of food (and often water), I would wake up with stomach and back pain at 6:30 or 7 a.m. almost every morning. I had random stabbing stomach pains, duller aches and vague feelings of nausea and unsettledness which I woke up with and which made me literally terrified to eat breakfast. Some mornings, the thought of trying to decide what to eat for breakfast would make me start hyperventilating with panic, which meant that I more or less stopped eating more than two bites of breakfast ever for about a month. That panic extended to attempts to prepare food for myself. Even when I had free time, I would come home to discover a fridge full of random items acquired on a whim, half of which were rotting and none of which could be combined into a suitable meal. I couldn’t justify shopping and buying more food when I had so much, but I could rarely put the puzzle pieces of ingredients together into something that sounded edible. More often than not, I had a taco or two and called it good.

With all this, it took until I blacked out in my friend’s shower (I’d been up for four or five hours with no food and no water, and the heat from the shower made me woozy) for me to realize that I had a problem and needed help. I had friends sign up to eat meals with me for an entire week, because the idea of cooking anything or planning food was so terrifying at that point that I couldn’t handle it. I had more or less forgotten how to feed myself, and if told I had to eat lunch or dinner and couldn’t just go buy a sandwich, I’d end up staring at the food in my fridge in confusion, then sitting on the kitchen floor almost crying because I just didn’t understand how to make a meal. I felt weak constantly and rarely had a day where I didn’t feel lightheaded as soon as I stood up. My body seemed frail to me in a way it never had before, and the idea of exercising or doing anything physical genuinely scared me, because I wasn’t sure I was in a condition to do anything challenging without hurting myself further.

I got better, with some real talk and tons of help from my friends. My stomach got better at eating normal amounts of food instead of being full after three bites of lunch, and I re-learned (with some stress in my life removed) how to cook, go shopping for food and take better care of myself. I stopped feeling like I was always on the verge of collapse, and starting playing tennis again. I got better, though it took months for me to feel that my body was really back to normal.

Looking back, what stands out to me is how much my ideas about what an eating disorder is and should be ended up hurting me. I assumed that, in order to have an anorexia-type eating disorder, I had to be consciously trying to lose weight or eat a certain (small) amount of food. I thought that if I didn’t lose tens of pounds over the course of a month or two, it didn’t count. After reading accounts of people who had been rushed to the hospital with heart failure from lack of food, I didn’t think symptoms like general weakness, exhaustion, stomach pain and constant lightheadedness counted. I thought if I knew that what I was feeding myself wasn’t enough, it wasn’t an eating disorder. I thought it couldn’t be real if I wasn’t in it to lose weight. I thought I was just genuinely too busy to eat.

I’ve never been formally diagnosed with an eating disorder, and I think whether I “officially” had one is beside the point. I know many people struggle with anorexia, bulimia and other disorders for years, and that what I experienced last year is relatively mild by comparison. Whether you’d call this an ED or not, though, it’s clear to me in retrospect that I was eating in a disordered and unhealthy way, and in a way that could have had a lot of more serious consequences.

I’m sharing this, I think, because I want people to know that even if your suffering or struggle doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria in a textbook, or your image of what a problem looks like, it doesn’t mean that it’s not real or important. I want to remind friends out there to take care of each other, and to know that even if someone is okay or thinks they are, an offer to cook a meal and share food with someone who’s struggling can mean so, so much. And I want to thank everyone in my life who gave up an afternoon to make sure I was fed, and who helped me get to a place where I can write this all down.