National Eating Disorders Awareness Week - My Story

Hi everybody!  Many of you may already know this, but this week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.  I'm a huge proponent of this week and am in full support of this year's goal (according to NEDawareness.org) to focus “on the importance of early intervention and recognizing the diverse experience of people personally affected by disordered eating.”

I’ve never kept it a secret or tried to hide the fact that I used to really struggle with an eating disorder (and, in all honesty, still face challenges to this day).  I actually like to be really open about it, in the hopes that anyone else who has struggled/is struggling with disordered eating will know that they’re not alone and maybe find the support they need.  Because this week is so important to me, I wanted to share a piece I wrote about a year or so ago about my own story.  Please feel free to share your story/ask questions/discuss/reach out/spread a message of positivity in the comments below or send me an email at augustagail@gmail.com.

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Show of theoretical hands – who thought/thinks high school was/is easy?  Not easy in terms of homework or tests. I mean, who had an easy time adjusting to the beginnings of womanhood, relationships with boys (or girls), and dealing with all the other issues that accompany high school (popularity, acne, having small boobs, etc. etc.).

I actually – in the scheme of things - had a pretty good high school experience. I made some lifelong friends, created some cherished memories running cross-country, and learned some educational stuff along the way.  But there were certainly low points.  And it is these low points that have had a profound effect on my sexuality and my opinion of myself.

It’s unfortunate, but we’re wired to remember and be affected by the negative events in our lives.  Human beings are essentially programmed to retain the bad things that have happened to them in order to protect themselves in the future.  The four years of high school are fairly formative years - for most girls this is when sexuality and femininity really begin to play a role, and insecurity rears its ugly head.

One of my first insecurities was my boobs.

Suffice to say, I could have gone through high school without wearing a bra and nobody would have noticed.  Except in the winter (and even then, probably not).  But besides the protrusion of chilly nipples, my chest was flatter than most of the boys’ I knew.  I bought myself A cup bras (I actually worked at Victoria’s Secret for about 3 years…oh the irony), but definitely didn’t fill them.  My cleavage was non-existent, as was any notion of curves.  I was tall and stick-skinny, and was constantly mistaken for five years younger than I actually was.

I had always been thin.  My whole family is on the skinny side, I have a high-speed metabolism, and I’ve always been an avid track and cross country runner (so I tend to burn a crazy amount of calories).  Up until high school I’d never really thought much about my frame, my body was just my body.

But then my friends started looking less like little girls and more like young women.  They also started attracting male attention, of which I was getting zero-zilch-nada.  A lot of my good friends were guys, but I’m pretty sure none of them wanted to date me.

While my fellow cross-country teammates were getting told how pretty they looked, or asked out on dates to barbeques at the lake, I wasn’t being told or asked much of anything (besides if I wanted to come over and play video games – and not in a sexy, hot-nerd-chick kind of way).

Well, that’s not true.  I was told often that I was a talented runner.  That I was a great writer and a wonderful student.

These were not the compliments that stuck with me.

Rather, it was the void of comments related to my physicality that left me perplexed and, when I let myself really think about it, more than a little upset.

I was an excellent runner.  I was a talented writer.

But was I pretty?  Suddenly this question needed an answer.  And I couldn't seem to find it anywhere (besides my mother, who, bless her heart, always told – and tells! - me I was beautiful – but we all know mothers are biased).

Up until this point I’d never really thought I wasn’t pretty.  I’d always been a bit on the vain side as a child - a drama queen and a bossy pants – my parents would laugh at how often I looked at myself in the mirror.  I don’t think I looked at myself and thought “oh wow, I’m gorgeous,” but I felt good about the way I looked.  But, come high school, any semblance of vanity came crashing down.  If I were attractive – if I was right to stare at myself in the mirror – surely someone would have told me so by now right?  Right…?

Well, there was no long line of modeling agencies or young men waiting to tell me I was the most beautiful girl in the world, so…maybe I’d overestimated my appearance.  I mean, sure, I didn’t have a chest like so-and-so or thick, shiny blonde hair like what’s-her-name…but…I wasn’t ugly…was I?

I did a good job of talking myself out of a total meltdown.  At least temporarily.

 

My junior year of high school (I was still deficient in the breast department), the insecurities I’d tamped down about my appearance decided it was time to test me.  This was the first and only test I ever failed in high school.

One day, seemingly out of the blue, my cross-country coach declared that, every week, the girls’ team would have a weigh in. 

Let me paint you a picture of what this looked like:

A long line of ridiculously skinny girls standing in the field house hallway, waiting one by one to step on to a scale, have a grown-ass man pronounce their weight OUT LOUD, and proceed to tell them how much they needed to lose.

Every girl in front of me was told to drop anywhere from three to ten pounds.  And each and every one of them stepped off the scale with tears in their eyes.

When it was my turn, I hesitantly stepped onto the electronic scale, a gnawing, gravely feeling in the pit of my stomach.

103 lbs.

I was 5’7” and I weighed 103 pounds.

Any sane person would have rushed me off that scale and to a nutritionist.  Any sane person should have known I was drastically underweight.

My coach’s response?

“Perfect!”

In a strange and sick haze, I felt a nasty sort of happiness spread through me, and I walked into the locker room beaming.  I was the only girl who didn’t have to lose weight.

Finally.  Finally my physical appearance had been recognized and appreciated.

From here things began to deteriorate.

But first, a side note.

Before the whole weigh-in fiasco, I had never thought twice about what I ate.  My two favorite foods were Ritz Bitz crackers and vanilla milkshakes.  I drank soda, devoured cookies, and only ate fruit and vegetables when I had to.  But avid running, coupled with my aforementioned fast metabolism, had kept me at a dangerously low weight since I was young.  Neither I, nor my parents or friends, knew that my near sub-hundred pounds was unhealthy, simply because that’s how I’d always been.  Besides, I devoured sweets and Cheese-Its without a care – I wasn’t displaying any habits typical of a drastically underweight girl.

That all changed the moment I attributed “skinny” with pretty…after all, I’d already determined that pretty determined my self worth.

I went from never giving food a second-thought, to thinking about nothing but food.

I went from zero to sixty overnight.

I started counting calories.  I started restricting the things I loved.  No more processed, cheesy crackers.  Definitely no more soda.  Absolutely no more cupcakes.

I remember one moment vividly.  It was breakfast and I wanted a bagel.  I desperately, frantically wanted a mini-cinnamon bagel.  But it had 200 calories.  That was unacceptable.  That would ruin everything.  I remember standing in the kitchen with the cabinet doors wide open, staring staring staring at the bag of bread.  I was shaking, on the verge of tears.  A bagel sounded so good.  But I couldn’t.  I couldn’t do it.

I was miserable.

But I was getting attention.

“Oh my gosh you’re soooo skinny!”

“You look so good!  How are you so thin??”

“Ugh I hate you – you’re so tiny!”

My bagel sacrifice had not been in vain.  For every snack I skipped, it seemed someone paid me a new compliment.

Okay, so maybe my boobs were the size of those little candy dots stuck on wax paper.  And maybe my hair didn’t billow in golden waves and maybe my fashion sense was more than a little questionable (I was obsessed with the idea that everything had to match – shoes, earrings, shirt, everything).

BUT I WAS SKINNY.

If I couldn’t be pretty, if I couldn’t get my guy friends to ask me out on a date, at least I was thinner then the rest of the girls in my grade.

I latched onto this life vest with fervor, not realizing that, in reality, it was a rock and I was drowning.

Something is wrong with our society when a young woman determines that her worth is dictated by how much she weighs.  This is why eating disorders run rampant in our country, and why everyone is obsessed with being a size 00.  And yes, there have been strides toward curtailing the overwhelming obsession with skinny.  I’ve seen a fair amount of ads lately featuring women of all sizes.  But the scary truth remains – women, young and old, still feel a dangerous pressure to look a certain way, whether it’s to fit into skinny jeans, maintain a teeny waist while boasting a 34C rack, having a washboard stomach but hourglass curves, or showing off some other ridiculous idea of “beauty” and “desirability.”

I could rant and rave all day, and I’m not the only one.  These topics are broached constantly by women all over the world.  My goal here isn’t to relay the fact that there are stereotypes, rather, I want to share my experiences in dealing with them in the hopes that my failures and successes will inspire and encourage others.  So!  On that note, I’ll step off my soapbox (but it’s a very important soap box and one that I can’t promise I’ll stay off of).

As I lost more weight and continued to run more, something else stared happening besides compliments.  I began to have terrible chest pains.  Suddenly, with no warning during or after a run, intense jabs of pain would rip through my sternum and along the muscles of my heart.  It would stop me in my tracks.  I also began to notice a bizarre shudder occasionally in my heartbeat – a thu-thump-thump-thump that made my nonexistent bosom twitch uncomfortably.  I complained of this to my mom, blaming it foolishly on indigestion.  Soon after, one of my aunts pulled my mother aside and told her, concernedly, that my arms were frighteningly thin.  I suppose she must have whispered the word “eating disorder” – I wasn’t there, but my mom quickly put the pieces together and, unbeknownst to me, scheduled an appointment at a cardiologist’s office.

When I was told that, in several days, I’d be going to the hospital to meet with a cardiologist and have some tests done, I was outraged.  I remember balling my hands into fists and demanding why I had to engage in such a ridiculous procedure.  My mother didn’t mention her concerns about my weight, and simply blamed the appointment on my chest pains.  I think a part of me suspected that she had finally seen through my façade of false health, hence the anger that bubbled out of me.  I was afraid of being called out.  Afraid that if someone saw what was wrong with me, I’d have to admit to myself that I was sick and that was absolutely terrifying.

The drive to the hospital, walking into the cardiologist’s waiting room, staring at the clock on the wall - everything about that fateful Monday is etched brutally into my memory.  I was mad that I was missing my cross-country practice – the district race was coming up, a race that would determine who moved on to regionals, and from there, the state competition.  I was quiet the entire drive, staring out the window moodily, refusing to look at my mom.  The tension built as we wound our way through the hospital hallways, rode up several floors in a bright elevator, and sat down in two utterly nondescript chairs to await my appointment.

When the nurse called my name, I was still clinging to some delusional assurance that this meeting was absolutely unreasonable.  They ran a series of tests.  An EKG, where sticky little nodules were taped all over my chest and back, then a cat-scan process that ex-rayed the valves of my heart. 

My mother and I were left alone in the office while the tests were looked over.  I remember sitting on that strange bed/gurney thing that all doctor’s offices have, the white walls glowing with bright Texas. Still, even then, I hung on to my conviction that I was fine - that this was all a waste of time.

And then the doctor walked back in with a look on her face that made my neck break out in cold sweat.

Within five minutes my delusions were shattered, and so was I.

I was severely underweight and undernourished.  My left aeorta was leaking, and one of my other valves was distended. 

I must have appeared dumbfounded by the scientific jargon, because I remember the doctor looking at me gently, and saying slowly that my heart was leaking.  If I weighed even one pound less than I did right now – I weighed in at 99 lbs – I would have been hospitalized immediately.

She then continued with what sounded to me like a death sentence.

“You can’t run.”

I thought I might throw up.  “Can’t run…at all?”

She nodded, “Not at all.  No running, no driving, no excessive walking.  We can get you a wheelchair for getting around school if necessary.”

I started sobbing, uncontrollable ugly tears spilling from my eyes, snot leaking from my nose.   The doctor left and it was just my mom and I alone in the room.  I jumped up and fled to the window – I stared out at the sun, and the roads, and the trees and wondered what the fuck I’d done to myself.

My mother didn’t say a word, simply wrapped me in her arms and cried too.  I let her hold me like a child, my legs gave out and I melted into her, unsure whether I’d be able to get back up…unsure whether I even wanted to.

At this point everything gets a little blurry.  The doctors and nurses came back in and talked to us about what to do next.  We were given the name of a nutritionist, then I was given strict directions on what not to do, and inundated with a barrage of assuring comments mixed with warnings that this sort of thing could take years to overcome.

I just kept crying, unsure how to do anything but feel absolutely torn asunder.

The car ride home was even quieter than the one there.

That evening before dinner, my mother explained the situation to my father.  They were both extremely supportive and kind; but nothing they said permeated the thick fog of hopelessness surrounding me.

I spent that night and several days after lost in a haze of self-loathing and self-pity.  I had done this to myself.  I had made myself sick.  I blamed myself completely, unable to reconcile with the fact that there were a barrage of messages and sources that had driven me to stop eating.  But all I could focus on was the fact that my running career was temporarily on hold, my social life was now non-existent, and I was on the verge of being hospitalized for what I believed was an entirely self-inflicted illness.

I cried and cried and cried.  I screamed at the top my lungs.  I slept all day and laid awake at night hating myself and hating my body.

I had failed at being pretty.  And now I had failed at being skinny.

I was miserable.

And then – I remember the moment like as clear and crisp as the sky after a thunderstorm - something changed.

Sometimes it takes being at your lowest to begin the long climb back up.  This was the first real low point of my life, and it wouldn’t be my last.  But it prepared me for the fact that, in this life, you have to learn to overcome.

One day I woke up and I didn't feel like crying.  I walked outside and stood in my family’s driveway.  I envisioned myself running down our streets again, my feet drumming on the pavement, my cheeks flushing with adrenaline, and my heart pumping without pain.  I thought about my mom, my dad, my brother, and my friends – how much love they had shown me throughout everything.  I thought of the other women – young and old – who had fought this battle, some of whom had won, others who were still fighting.  And I thought about myself – I thought of everything that made me special.  My writing, my sense of humor, my quirky personality, my creativity, my passion and love for life.  And suddenly words like ‘skinny’ and ‘pretty’ didn’t matter so much.  For the first time in a long time, I understood that I was a hell of a lot more than my size or my looks.  In that instant, something inside me clicked and I vowed that – no matter what – I would get better.

The cardiologists were amazed.  Never before had they seen someone make so much progress in such a short amount of time.  With each progressive check up I proved to be healthier and healthier.  I’d been seeing a nutritionist – a wonderful woman who I am forever indebted to – and consuming a ridiculous amount of calories to boost my weight.  I was acutely conscious of my activity level (I refused to use a wheelchair, but I did limit the amount of walking I did throughout the day).  I cheered my cross-country teammates on from the sidelines.  It hurt like hell  not being able to lace up and take off, but I made an effort to really be there for my friends throughout the weeks leading up to the district race.  I drank protein shakes, ate second and third helpings at dinner, and forced myself to drink more milkshakes than I’d consumed in all the years previous.  I spent time with my family, and was lucky enough to have a best friend who understood what I was going through, supported me fully, and took me to Smoothie King to drink 3,000-calorie smoothies.

It wasn’t easy.  I still struggled when, every time I stepped on a scale, my weight increased.  I went from 99 to 104 to 105 to 112 to 116.  I felt myself getting bigger – my clothes didn’t fit the way they used to.  It terrified me - leaving the comfort zone of skinny, but I pressed onward, telling myself repeatedly that being healthy – being able to run, to walk, to live – were more important than fitting into a pair of jeans.

If I remember my first visit to the cardiologist’s office like it was yesterday, I remember my last visit like it was this morning.

I shook the whole drive there.  This appointment would determine whether I was finally deemed healthy – whether I could resume the life I’d put on hold four months ago.

The walk through the hospital felt infinite.  The waiting room seemed tiny, as though the walls might press in on me at any moment. 

As the doctors ran the tests I’d grown so accustomed to, I tried to retain some semblance of tranquility.  But sitting with my mother, waiting for the verdict, I felt nothing but anxiety.

Please, I thought, please let me be better.

I sobbed just as hard that last visit as I had the first.  But this time they were tears of joy, of relief, of thankfulness. 

My heart was completely healed.

I could begin running again.

I walked out of the hospital doors into sunlight.  And I ran.  I ran through the parking lot and I screamed – a howl of euphoric joy.  Months of sadness and struggle streamed from my lungs, and I breathed in a new beginning.  I hugged my mother, both of our cheeks wet, and I laughed fully for the first time in weeks.

I felt strong – stronger than I’d ever felt before.  My body was different and so was I.  I knew I’d never be the same again, and that was okay.  I was beautiful, I was wonderful, I was worth it.

I’m crying as I right this – it’s been 8 years since I sprinted in circles outside that hospital, but I can still feel the warmth of the sun, taste the salt of my tears, and hear the thumping of my heart.

There would be times throughout the next 8 years when I’d fall victim to society’s notions of desirability; times where I’d once again obsess over my body.  I'd spend the last two years of college struggling with bulimia -  coming back to my apartment after parities and throwing up until my stomach was empty and my eyes burned from the tears.  I felt scared and disappointed in myself - hadn't I conquered this already?  Hadn't I over come this once?  It was the memory of what I'd been through in high school - the recollection of everything I'd almost lost - that kept me from spiraling out of control again.  But I still struggled.  I'd look in the mirror some mornings and absolutely hate myself.  Hate the way I looked and hate the fact that I cared so much about the way I looked.  After graduation I moved to AZ and continued to throw up periodically - usually after especially indulgence meals or nights of drinking heavily (which I did a lot).  I never let my weight drop back down to a point of danger, instead I walked a dangerous tightrope - teetering at just healthy enough to pass for 'normal.'  I never told anyone.  Not even my boyfriend, who I lived with and who I prayed would catch me in the act, call me out, and help me stop.  But ultimately I was the only person who could help myself.  In an effort to be 100% honest and open, I'll admit that it wasn't until I moved to CA that I really, truly began to tackle my insecurity and face my disordered eating habits fully.  Overcoming anorexia in high school gave me the strength, determination, and fortitude to know that I COULD/CAN overcome anything.  That doesn't mean I solved all of problems and insecurities overnight.  But I refuse to feel like a failure for being plagued by insecurity and disordered eating.  To this day I struggle sometimes with what I'm eating and what my body looks like.  But I know from my past that I'm capable of coming out on top - I know now that an eating disorder will not beat me.  Not now, not ever.  Plus, I have an incredible network of friends and family, a loving fiancé, an amazing therapist, and a kick-ass, confident, feminist outlook and attitude.  My journey toward self-love isn't over, and I know there will be pitfalls and hard days.  But I always think back to when I was 16 and stepping out into the crowded parking lot.  I think back to how it felt when I started running and my heart started pounding - the way my whole body filled with happiness, determination, and hope.  I think about the beautiful, wonderful fact that I'm alive and remind myself that I'm beautiful inside and out, that my body is a vessel meant to be cherished, and that nothing will ever stop me from moving forward.

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If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please don't hesitate to reach out to someone (check out http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/find-help-support for resources and contact information). I know how hard that can be, but know that you are SO worth it and that things will get better - I promise.  I'm always available to talk and help in any way.

Much love to everyone!

xoxo