Author: Valery B.
Eating Disorders are not choices. They are not fads or diets or temporary states of mind. A person does not wake up one morning and decide to start adhering to food rituals, unhealthy behaviors, and isolation.
Eating Disorders are serious, life-threatening Mental Illnesses. They do not discriminate in who they affect and, frankly, they do not care. Whether you are young or old, male or female, white or black, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, your chances of being affected are just as likely as those of someone completely different from you. An Eating Disorder will take full control of your physical, emotional and mental states, using your body as a host for its growth and development. It will grow and grow until it devours your soul, leaving nothing but an empty human being to face the once-beautiful world that he or she grew up in. Empty. Gone. That is what you will be if affected by an Eating Disorder.
I wish that I knew all of this when I was younger. I wish I was educated enough to know how wrong it was to make jokes about anorexia or to scorn those who were affected by bulimia. I wish that I knew how scary binge eating disorder was and how nobody going through it should be criticized for his or her actions.
I used to think Eating Disorders were choices – nothing more than temporary phases that desperate people underwent to reach the weight they desired. Why, an Eating Disorder! I’m not strong enough to have anorexia and restrict. I wish I was. Those were the words of an uneducated, unaware, and unkind 13-year-old, who did the most disgraceful things and made the most unfathomable convictions just to be liked by others. That person was humiliating and nasty. That person was me.
But, after going through anorexia and bulimia myself and getting a first-hand look into the unimaginable world of Eating Disorders and Mental Illnesses, my perspective, thoughts, and views have completely changed. Today, I would like to change your views. Eating Disorders are meant to be talked about rather than closeted – exposed to the open world rather than locked away in one’s soul. My life changed forever after being affected, but I am here today to tell you that no matter how hard times get, no matter how defeated you feel, never stop fighting. Never give up. Your life is worth the fight.
I was never very thin. I always had a bit more substance than most girls my age, and I was undoubtedly more mature, both in the physical and mental senses. After competitively swimming for six years, my body was composed of pure muscles and healthy fats, which sustained me through the exhausting, two-hour practices. My life was a beautiful cycle of eat, sleep, swim, with the profuse get-togethers with friends and childish coach-irking comments, which set me aside as the trouble maker of the team.
Swimming was my life, and I loved it; however, in 8th grade, I hurt my shoulder and had to quit. It was in December of 2012, when I waved farewell to six years of hard work, sweat and tears, that my troubles began. I started putting on weight at a fairly rapid rate during the second half of 8th grade, getting to the point where I was just about medically overweight for my height. But, to be completely honest, my weight or weight gain never bothered me. It never went to my head, never stopped me from going out with my friends, never halted me from buying a dozen donuts from Dunkin Donuts and seeing who can eat the most without becoming sick! It never gave me immense self-consciousness (I will admit, it gave me some) and made me feel any less worthy in my own skin.
But, things began to slowly change as I started receiving hurtful comments pertaining to my weight. I remember being labeled as the “ugliest one in my friend group” and called “stupid and worthless” by the boy I really liked. I remember going to a party and being laughed at when a boy saw me and said, “look, here comes the earthquake.” I remember adults, both familial and outside, make comments to me about my weight, some of which included, “if you don’t lose weight, you won’t be able to swim well.” I remember my own father telling me that I looked pregnant bending over the swimming block – a comment he made unintentionally, as a joke, but one that stayed with me for six years and counting.
So, with high school just around the corner, I wanted to change. I wanted to lose weight – in a healthy way -, get fit, change my hair, buy new, more grown-up makeup and clothes. I had a craving to be popular, to have boys like me and think, wow, she’s hot, and to have girls adopt me into their friend groups. And, now, that four of my best friends were leaving me to go to a different high school, I saw the transition from one chapter to the next as my chance to start anew.
So, during the summer of 2013, I started swimming again – just for fun. I started eating a more balanced diet, composed of everything from sweets to fruits and vegetables – though, I will admit, I ate sweets a bit more than in moderation! I was happy and feeling great, and I knew that I was doing the right thing.
I managed to lose a few pounds before the start of my freshman year, and I came into school nervous but feeling more confident than before. Great, I thought, at least I look good! But, I knew that I was not done – not done just yet. I was still at a higher-than-average weight – at least in my thinking back then -, and I wanted to keep dieting until I reached my targeted weight, which was in a very healthy range, one that my parents supported. So, I continued losing weight and getting fit in a healthy manner, eating everything in moderation, going out with my friends, exercising when I felt like it. I even joined the high school swim team – the best decision I had ever made – and got to not only swim semi-competitively for three months, but also meet some of my best and most trusted friends, who I am still in contact with today.
However, after swimming ended, things began to fall apart. I developed an intense fear of gaining my weight back, similar to what had happened when I stopped swimming in 8th grade. I told myself that if I did not watch what I ate, I would start putting on pounds and end up just where I had started. So, I made the worst decision of my life: I started counting calories.
For three months, I restricted my food intake, adhering to such a low-calorie diet that my body was classified as “in-starvation” during this duration of time. Unintentionally and unknowingly, I began isolating – eating lunch alone in the school library – and, soon after, I became severely depressed. Physically, I was always exhausted and cold – so cold that you would see me walking around school in a winter jacket in 70 degree weather.
In May of 2014, during the fourth month of my restrictive intake, anorexia backfired at me, and I developed bulimia. My body was naturally craving the calories, nutrients, and vitamins I was keen on leaving out of my diet, so I physically and mentally could not stop myself from bingeing. The guilt and discomfort were so overwhelming that after a binge, I would purge and then restrict. A cycle that started merely once every three weeks grew to several times a week, causing my health and life to plummet into turmoil. In November of 2014, when I was a couple of months into my sophomore year, I was at the apex of my illnesses. My doctor told me that if I did not seek immediate treatment, I would die from either cardiac arrest, organ failure, or both, for I was severely underweight and mentally unstable.
My family and I knew that that was our cue to seek a medical facility and a treatment team. Luckily, I was unopposed as I hated the state I was in. I hated being ill, hated being unable to control my thoughts, actions and feelings, hated counting every calorie I consumed and feeling guilty and tenuous every time I binge ate and purged. How could this be me? How could the girl, who never had trouble with food or body-image, become so ill, so affected by an illness she didn’t even know existed?
On December 8, 2014, I started treatment at the Goryeb Children’s Hospital Eating Disorder Treatment Program in Summit, New Jersey, spending two months in Partial Hospitalization, two months in Intensive Outpatient, and three months in Outpatient. At the Program, every meal was tailored for each individual – planned by the parents and nutritionist and prepared by the hospital kitchen. There were a multitude of therapies, including individual therapy, family therapy, and group therapy. The patients and I did art therapy and yoga and built friendships that, to this day, hold true. More so, the Program educated my parents on how to better understand Eating Disorders, how to help me, what was and was not appropriate to say, and how to cope. With my parents being more educated and aware, they developed a better understanding of what I was going through, giving me their utmost sympathy, love, and support. Though it was the hardest thing I ever had to undergo, the treatment had helped. It had saved my life.
As a patient in Partial Hospitalization, I was on medical leave from school for two months; however, when I came back, I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to educate others about Eating Disorders and spread awareness of these Mental Illnesses within our community. Although I was still in the early stages of my recovery, I knew that the stigma around these illnesses needed to be diminished and that the misconceptions associated with Eating Disorders needed to be convicted and corrected.
Looking back on the past 18 months, I can truly say that my goal is being met. I have given numerous presentations at my high school and neighboring schools, presented at health fairs, Mental Health Facilities and Parent Information Seminars, started my own, in-school class called, Eating Disorder Awareness and Education, and conducted community-based events, including an Eating Disorder Family Awarness Night and an Eating Disorder Awarness Walk. I also organized small fundraisers, including a T-Shirt Fundraiser, Bracelet Fundraiser, and Bake Sales, to raise money for the National Eating Disorder Association, a nonprofit organization aimed at helping individuals and their families with Eating Disorder treatment and recovery. Recently, I had started my own campaign – “Need to bEAT” (EAT is an acronym for educate, advocate, terminate) -, which is raising money for Eating Disorder research. I intend to raise $10,000 and donate it to the Goryeb Children’s Hospital Eating Disorder Treatment Program, which has a research department that conducts clinical trials and pediatric inquiry into the neurobiological factors of these illnesses. I am looking to put together a team of volunteers, who will help make this initiative a success, and hope that I will be able to give courage to at least one other person to speak up about this illness.
If I can leave you with a lasting message, I would say that your life is always worth the fight. The cliché, “There is light at the end of the tunnel”, is completely true and applicable to not just Eating Disorders, but also to any adversities you may face. For the purpose of Eating Disorders, however, I hope that you will take this newly acquired knowledge and awareness and share it with your friends and families. I hope you will help me reduce the stigma around these mental illnesses. I hope you will help me give hope to all the struggling lives.