Friday, 7 February 2014

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week Workshop

Wow, so, I did it. I spoke. I told my story. I almost passed out a couple of times, and I am pretty sure I looked as if I was about to collapse, but I did it. And it wasn't just me. Two very brave, very amazing individuals gave their first hand accounts as well. I have never been so inspired. These two women spoke of their battles, their histories, and their run ins with ED. They spoke about where they were, where they are now, where they are going, where they are hoping to be. I was so insanely inspired by these two amazing souls. I hope to get to know them better. We exchanged info, we hugged, we cried. We bonded! Today truly was a humbling experience. I am so grateful that I was asked to do this, and I am so happy that I went through with it. I'll admit, I had my moments of doubt. You won't be able to write anything down, you won't have anything prepared. You'll cry. You're going to lose yourself and you're not going to be able to get it back together.

I'll admit, I cried. I cried when I was talking about loss, what ED took away from me. But, I got myself back, I reeled my emotions back in. I was strong, I felt I spoke well and I felt I made a connection with the audience (which was quite large). There were many faces from many different career backgrounds. There were nursing students, guidance counselors, nurses, psychologists... Lots of people. I was afraid Harv might explode being surrounded by so many academics, but he did ok. It meant a lot that my psychologist was there, and even though my brother and best lady bro were unable to make it, I know they were there in spirit. I was even given flowers in honor of my birthday! I thought that was really sweet.

In the end I was able to be myself. I was surprisingly comfortable behind the mic. I made people laugh and I fekt I humanized things for people. What we did today, me and the other two young women, was very difficult and very brave. My goal was to inspire, to educate, and to open people's eyes to what really goes on behind the scenes in "recovery". I think I achieved that pretty well.

Following is the transcript of the "speech" I prepared for the workshop. I have been getting a lot of emails and messages from people who want to read it, so, here it is. I really put myself out there with this one, people. Part of me still can't believe what I have accomplished today. I'm taking it easy for the rest of the night. Tomorrow is my real birthday celebration. A nice big old Fuck you to ED. Imma stuff my mouth with cake and there ain't nothing to be said about it.

What a day.


42% of first to third graders want to be thinner, 81% of ten year olds are afraid of “being fat”, 70% of 18-30 year olds are dissatisfied with their bodies, 50% of girls use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking, vomiting and taking laxatives, nearly 20 million women will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, 95% of people with eating disorders are between 12 and 25, one in ten people suffering from anorexia nervosa will die within the next ten years. 

Besides the obvious, that being that there is so much body hate among people nowadays its unfit, or that eating disorders are serious business that aren’t addressed nearly enough, what do the things I’ve just mentioned have in common?

Numbers. Statistics. Generalizations.

We need statistics. We need the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (or DSM) to give us overarching signs symptoms of illnesses in order to properly diagnose people, we need to develop timelines and brush strokes of recovery. We need these numbers in order to even come close to understanding what sufferers go through, even the tiniest bit, or in order to put into action campaigns for body love, for ending self-hate, and for media awareness. 

However, there’s an issue here. There’s the issue as to what these numbers neglect to tell you. There are statistics that will tell you that an eating disorder is an illness that can be completely recoverable, but that not many fully recover. There’s the information that will tell you what to expect when it comes to physical side effects of refeeding, weight restoration… that old hat. These numbers. These statistics. They neglect so much when it comes to the recovery aspect of it. So much is focused on negativity, how many people are affected; horrific statistics that make you cringe and force you to second guess ever bringing a child, especially a little girl into a world where all of this stuff has the potential to harm her. These overarching diagnoses and expectations neglect to tell you just how difficult the recovery process is going to be, should you choose to accept it. 

These numbers aren’t going to tell you about the panic attacks, the agony that is mechanical eating, the feeling of hatred toward yourself and others. It’s not going to tell you that recovery involves sitting at the kitchen table faced with a half cup of dry cereal, begging you’re mom “not to make you eat it”. That it involves cold chills, the shakes, the sweats… All withdrawal symptoms that come with breaking the addiction to starvation. Recovery means screaming, crying, pulling your hair out, throwing things, wishing you never woke up. It means being scared, uncomfortable, learning to feel, learning to love. It means hitting rock bottom.

At least, it did for me.

I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, restrictive type in late September of 2012. In my opinion, I should have received such a diagnosis months prior to this, but because I did not show all of the “symptoms” of Anorexia according to the DSM, I was not able to be given a clear diagnosis. To me today it almost seems as if I wasn’t “sick enough” for treatment, which is problematic in so many ways, but that’s beside the point. Upon receiving my diagnosis I was speechless. All of a sudden, what was going on in my head and the residual side-effects happening to my body were given a name and a label. I hate labels. Labels bring about stereotypes and judgement. Labels bring stigma.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was residing in Sackville, New Brunswick where I was going to school. I attended Mount Allison University and was studying a Bachelor of Arts degree with an honors in Sociology and a Minor in Psychology (a degree I am very proud to say I have graduated with, with first class honors and a mention on the Dean’s list). Because of my background I have had plenty of time to study stereotyping, stigma (especially as it revolves around mental illness), and specifically Eating Disorders. The words that came out of my mouth, no lie, were “Well. That’s really fucking inconvenient”. Which is true. I had things to do, I had plans, I had a LIFE plan (or so my type A personality thought).  On the outside, I may have seemed somewhat collected, but trust me when I say my mind was a whirlwind,

How did this happen? How did I LET this happen? I’m SMART. I’ve preached the importance of being unique, I’ve preached body love, I’ve been a fan of myself in the past, I have friends, I have a wonderful and supportive family, I have studied and am aware of the effect the media, the beauty ideals and hegemonic ideals of gender (especially femininity) have on the psyche. I know what objectification is and I work hard to advocate for people and make others aware at the dangers of self- hate. Where did I go wrong?

To put it quite plainly, I blamed myself.  I blamed myself a lot through this whole recovery process. I still blame myself sometimes, especially when the “quirks” show through. Constant ramblings of “why can’t  you just be normal? Why can’t you just BE?” I know that these things take time, and I knew that I was in for one hell of a ride, but I was impatient, and I was in denial. This sucked. I didn’t want to have Anorexia. I didn’t want to have to get better. Sure I wanted to get better, but I knew how difficult it was going to be, well, at least I thought I knew.

I didn’t know it would involve making the decision to leave my home in Sackville and come back here to Cape Breton. Sure, I had my schooling, I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to finish my degree from home, but I couldn’t go to class (which was something I loved to do. I loved to learn). I didn’t know it was going to involve quitting dancing, something I’ve done since the age of two and a half. I didn’t know it would involve losing a lot of my friendships,  that it would involve a relationship ending because I wasn’t “getting better fast enough”. I didn’t know it would involve lying to people and to myself, tears, countless tears. I didn’t know it would involve weekly trips to Moncton in order to see a psychologist, or that most days I would wake up and simply wish I was dead. I had no idea how meticulous and deliberate I was going to have to be. That I was going to have to re-learn certain social behaviors, or re-learn how to relax. I didn’t know how much my body was going to deteriorate before I realized that yes, I really did want to get better.

The recovery process for me was, and still is, an ongoing battle. It is not so much a struggle now as it was, say, a year ago, but I still have my moments. You may have heard the quote “the worst days in recovery are far better than the best days with my eating disorder”. I’ll let you in on a secret, those words are so true. Before I got to the point in my life where I was able to accept and embrace this fact was a full out war with myself and everyone in my life. For the months leading up to when I was really gung ho into getting better (roughly this time last year, actually), it was a constant struggle of mechanical eating and trying desperately to increase my caloric intake. Introducing food back into my diet such as complex carbohydrates, proteins, and especially healthy fats. When the alarm went off, I had to eat. Often times I distracted myself with school work until the dreaded “feeding time”, other times I slept. Eating was a nightmare; I feared it more than I feared death. I remember the thoughts going through my head when I would sit down to my meals (“It’s feeding time at the zoo, time to feed the fatty, eat as fast as you can, the quicker it’s over, the better”).  Fighting with myself and others in order to eat was exhaustive, and took up so much of my time. On top of that were the physical side effects of what those in the business like to call “refeeding”. I had physical symptoms such as pain, nausea, indigestion. I was often sick and almost always in pain. These were no lie, withdrawal symptoms that came along with breaking the addiction my brain had to starving. Starving made me feel powerful, it gave me a high. Add food into the mix, and that high is taken away. The body doesn’t like that, so it responds in a really mean and terrible way. This subsided in time, but it didn’t make life easy by any means. 

Now, I wasn’t the only person affected by this process. We are never alone in the recovery process. My family was at the forefront of my illness as well. 

One of the biggest roles my family (my mother especially) had in my recovery was meal support. For a very long time I had to have someone sit with me through my meals. Sometimes I got through it, other times I needed distractions. Constant conversation. We often played Jenga during snack time, and that was fun. Other meals didn’t go so well. Screaming, crying, physically holding my own mouth shut in order to chew and swallow my food. I blamed who ever was with me for having to eat. “You just want to make me fat”. Dinner time was always a scary meal. It was a big meal, and involved having a few people at the table. I usually ate in silence, hunched over my food as if I was ashamed to be viewed for participating in such a filthy habit. I’m happy to say that now you might have a hard time keeping food away from me, but back then, every bite was a nightmare, and my family was there for almost every bite. Getting me through this, helping me introduce “fear” foods, dealing with my irrational mind (because that’s what it is… You are ED, you are not yourself)… I commend them, I thank them. I thank them, my family, and my friends, for being there to talk me through situations I may be in. I may be feeling fear, second guessing myself, but there are always people who I can count on to give me a good kick in the ass when I need it. 

Other facets of recovery included introducing exercise into my life in a healthy way,  planning and prepping my meals, increasing my caloric intake, introducing more and more into my diet, trying to make friends, involve myself in social events, and still balance trying to get my degree. One of the most exhaustive parts of this process was the food prep, the meal planning. As freeing as it was at times, I was still restricted to certain portion sizes, certain foods eaten at certain times. I knew that in order to really take a step forward, the measuring had to stop. I was working toward defining my life by experience and not numbers. This long, grueling and deliberate process brought me over months until one evening, this past August, I had had enough. I was cutting vegetables in my kitchen, weighing and portioning them into bags for the next days’ meals. It occurred to me how very tired I was. I had gotten to the point where I was able to not calculate entire meals in my day, why the need to plan anymore? Realizing that the only thing holding me back was fear, I put down the knife and announced that I was through. I was done with the planning, done with being stuck in the vicious cycle of safety that was really disguised as freedom. I went for ice cream that night. That was the first night I felt no guilt. That night was more than five months ago. 

Now, the recovery process is different for every person. I am but one face behind all of the generalizations and statistics I shared with you. I only mentioned a few things that came along with my battle. There was a time where I was turned away from getting help. I was congratulated on my weight loss and told to “eat almonds and I’ll be fine”. There was discrimination. “Why don’t you just eat, eat a burger, I wish I had your problem”. There were many therapy sessions; there were weekly weigh-ins and blood pressure checks. I didn’t mention just how sick I got before I really committed to living because that is not necessarily what this talk is about, but I had to see a lot of doctors. There was the battle with reintroducing exercise into my life, learning to relax. I remember taking a panic attack the first time I tried to play my guitar again. I have played for 10 years prior to this experience and when I finally picked my baby up, it didn’t feel like “mine” anymore. I remember telling my mother that “I don’t know how” when I was sat down at the kitchen table to play with my watercolor paints, a medium I have been using for at least 8 years.

 There was fear, there was so much fear. There was fear for my own life, fear to gain weight, fear to change. There was fear to accept my situation, fear to commit to a life of recovery, fear for my family. There was loss. Loss of the life I used to live, lost friendships, lost relationships, lost communications. There was also joy, bravery, triumph. Many milestones have passed throughout this recovery process, and I know that there are so much more to come.

I became well enough to run a five kilometer race, a race which my father ran with me. That moment meant so much to me, I was so proud of us. I had a beer, I went out to a concert, out for dinner. I graduated top of my class and actually attended that graduation. I participated in family events. Birthdays, thanks giving (I even baked the pumpkin pie). I stopped weighing myself. I am currently in my fourth month without the scale and am happy to say that I will never define myself by a number ever again. Since giving up the scale my life has opened up in so many ways, so many ways I don’t even know where to begin. I attended a conference in which travel was involved. I made a friend. I found a love for weight lifting and take it very seriously, I play guitar, I sing again, I have performed with my choir and continue to sing with them weekly, I do yoga regularly,  I am strong again. My father calls me “muscles” now. He used to teasingly call me “son”. I am regaining my womanly curves, a process that terrifies and invigorates me all at the same time. I participated in Christmas this year, the dinner, the treats, the family get togethers. I enjoyed that. I write a blog, the blog that was originally created as my honors thesis. I go out, I have fun, I dance again, I DO things.  I met… Well, re-met an individual whom I am starting a relationship with. He is supportive. He has no expectations on me and is only concerned with my happiness. I am actually flying out to see him in just a few days, a trip that means so much more than just seeing a person I care about, but will prove to me that I have strength, can be flexible, and can make it in this world. I make plans for my future, I am looking for work in my field (a job hunt that hasn’t given me much, but hey, I’m still looking). I cook, I look up new recipes and I love trying them out. I eat. A lot. Yes, I still have fear foods, yes I still struggle with “treats”, feelings of “over eating”, little ED in my head things that will all be dealt with in time. 

What I’m trying to say is that the process is tough. It’s the toughest thing you will ever do. It’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s worth it. I make it a point to keep myself in a state of discomfort. Not being in the safe zone means I’m growing, and I have a lot of growing to do.  We are all entitled to greatness. We are all entitled to life. We are entitled to a slice of cake, a cookie, a roast beef dinner. We are entitled to a drink too many, spending time with friends. We are entitled to love and be loved. We are entitled to feel. ED makes you think you need to work to deserve that. So much around you shouts that you will never be good enough, thin enough, smart enough, pretty enough. Fact of the matter is you are. We all are. 

I am a recovered individual. I no longer have anorexia. I have my quirks, and I still have miles and miles to go as far as I am concerned on both emotional and psychological fronts, but I am recovered. I get by. I live in the moment now more than ever. I am learning to let go. Part of me knows that ED is always going to be a part of my life in some way, shape, or form. We don’t have good days every day, we don’t always have the best self-image, sometimes we get sad. Those times of fatigue are when ED likes to pull all the stops. What is important, and what I keep reminding myself is that I have the power to distinguish my voice from ED’s, and though this may be difficult, it is not impossible. Difficult does not mean impossible. 

Everything comes full circle. Everything. If we lived on a linear basis, life would be extremely boring, would it not? I never in a million years thought I’d ever be at this point in my life, where I can see a future, happiness. There were many times in this past little while where I wasn’t sure whether or not I would see my 22nd birthday and yet here I am today, sharing my story of hope. On a day that just so happens to be my 23rd trip around the sun. So remember, I am but one story in millions, one face behind a plethora of statistics and data, but I am here. I am human, and I am becoming whole.

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