I began struggling with an eating disorder when I was 12 years old, but didn’t seek treatment until I was 19. Seven years is a long time to suffer in silence, but the truth was that I didn’t think I had a real problem. In retrospect, I see I was kind of like a frog in a boiling pot. Being sick became the new norm, and as the illness progressed I was unable to recognize its increased severity.
Eating disorders are biologically based mental illnesses that encompass so much more than image, but our culture certainly does nothing to help the situation. The reality is that we live in a society that constantly reinforces the idea that ultra-thinness, unnecessary weight-loss, clean eating, and fucking fit tea wraps (looking at you, Kylie Jenner) are positive, healthy things. So for years, I thought my behavior was normal, if not revered. I had lost a significant amount of weight, but because I didn’t think I looked sick, I was convinced I was fine–or at least not in any, or enough danger to stop. But anyone who has firsthand experience with an eating disorder will tell you that “enough” never comes.
It wasn’t until my junior year in college when I started experiencing medical complications and realized I still couldn’t stop that I knew I had a problem, and by that point it was almost too late. My heart rate dipped into the low 30s, putting me, at the age of 19, at high risk for a heart attack. Now I know this is something that would warrant admission to the nearest ICU by any physician familiar with eating disorders, but unfortunately the on-campus doctor was not trained to recognize the warning signs and instead told me that my abnormally low heart rate was simply the result of my intense exercise regime. (A low heart rate can be normal in the case of a professional athlete, but with eating disorders it’s a sign of a damaged, shrunken heart muscle.) One would think that would be enough to scare a person into eating again, but it’s never that simple.
Eventually, my friends and school intervened and told me that in my weakened state I had become a liability, and needed to either seek treatment or take a semester off. I stubbornly agreed to get help and planned to enter a specialized treatment program at University of Chicago Hospital, which would require driving 90 miles each way several times a week while maintaining my status as a full-time student. But on one such commute to Chicago I passed out at the wheel, and following that incident I was so shaken I began to experience full-blown panic attacks any time I attempted to drive. Needless to say, that treatment plan was short-lived, but it was the wake-up call I desperately needed.
Shortly after that episode I was admitted to an intensive treatment program where I began fighting for my life. Obviously, I lived (hi!), but the story doesn’t simply end there because recovery is a long, difficult process—especially once behaviors are so deeply engrained. In the seven years between then and now, I’ve experienced many ups and downs and been in and out of the hospital and various treatment centers something like 15 times. About two years ago I experienced a major relapse which landed me in the hospital on bed rest with a tube up my nose (not a great look, tbh). There were a few older eating disorder patients, most of whom had been sick for decades and as a result lost everything (friends, spouses, jobs, hair, teeth, ability to walk, etc.), and that’s the moment I thought to myself, “I don’t want that to be me.” I knew if I didn’t make a change, that’s what the future had in store for me, and deep down I had a feeling there had to be more to life.
Since then, what has made the biggest difference is that now, instead of doing the bare minimum in recovery to simply not die, I make a choice and a commitment each day to take my life back and really live. Easier said than done? Of course. Worth it? Also yes.
I’m extremely lucky because a lot of people don’t have the luxury of a warning, and I’ve had many. At nearly 20 percent, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, and often it’s the result of a sudden cardiac event. But something I wish I had known sooner was that I didn’t need to let it get to that point before addressing it. With that said, my best advice to anyone struggling would be that if your thoughts and actions surrounding food, weight, and/or body image are interfering with your daily life, you need and very much deserve help of some sort, sooner rather than later.
I still wrestle with regret knowing that I wasted years of my youth being sick that could have salvaged had I sought treatment sooner. But if there’s anything these past 15 years have taught me, it’s that I can survive just about anything (well, maybe not a giant meteor or driving a dump truck through a nitroglycerin plant, but you know what I mean), and that’s made it all somewhat worth it.