Dying to be thin: One girl's struggle with anorexia
GL is proud to be a partner of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 26 - March 4). Below, brave girl Jennifer shares with us the devastation of struggling with anorexia.
My life seemed pretty perfect...until I was 7, that is. That's when my dad died of cancer. I was very close to him, especially because he knew he was ill and made an extra effort to spend time with me, my brother and sister. After he died, I was so sad but too yong to really understand the grief. My mom continued her work as a doctor, but she was around us a lot more after his death. Even so, I felt this enormous hole in my life that I couldn't explain.
Eating Me Up Inside
As I grew, so did that empty feeling. At 13, I gained a little weight and became very self-conscious about my body. Suddenly, I was hyper-aware of what I put into my mouth and was dieting for the first time in my life. I remember in middle school watching other girls eat whatever they wanted, like chocolate cake, and I would get so jealous!
Then there was high school, which kind of threw me for a loop. I was at a new school with kids I didn't know and, to top it off, my brother, who was like a father to me, would be graduating and moving away. I was pretty terrified.
Around that time, I radically changed my eating habits. I only allowed myself to eat a few specific foods, like cottage cheese and oatmeal, which I felt were "safe" since they wouldn't cause weight gain. I always skipped breakfast, but I ate "lunch" with friends in the cafeteria. My friends, who ate regular packed sandwiches and hot meals, sometimes asked why I was only eating a cereal bar. I always had an excuse, that I had wolfed down a big breakfast or had eaten my lunch earlier. Since I always wore baggy clothes, no one really noticed how much weight I was losing.
Every night, my family ate dinner together. I had become so controlling about food that I was the one who cooked meals. I served everyone huge portions and gave myself tiny spoonfuls. If anyone even mentioned food to me or said, "Have some more," I panicked. In fact, I was even mean to them, which was weird, because I'd always been this nice, happy girl. I was suddenly edgy, and everyone had to tread lightly around me. Inside, I was miserable and confused. Controlling my food intake had become a complete priority in my life.
Instead of getting excited when my mom wanted to take us out to dinner, I'd get upset. I thought every single person in the restaurant was watching and trying to catch me not eating. So I would pick ay my food and push it around my plate to make it look like I was eating.
My mom never forced tme to eat. I don't think she ever realized how desperate I was to lose weight. It's likely she was in denial. It's hard to accept your daughter is letting herself wither away.
A Cry for Help
I knew I had to do something, so I went online to learn about eating disorders. When I read the symptoms of anorexia, I thought, "This can't be me!" I just wanted to be normal, but I knew I was losing my life. I talked to my mom, and together, we found a therapist for me.
I began weekly therapy sessions and was prescribed medications. My therapist tried to talk me into going to the Renfrew Center, a nearby inpatient facility for eating disorders, but I refused. Finally, after three months, I agreed to visit the center.
The day I went there was March 30 which, although I didn't realize it at the time, was the anniversary of my dad's death. I really didn't want to enter treatment because I knew I'd have to be admitted for seven weeks, and everyone at school would hear about it. But as soon as I got in the car with my mom after the visit, I said, "I think I need to go there." I went in the next day.
My treatment program turned out to be great. There were about 30 other girls there with eating disorders. We journaled, and had group and individual therapy sessions, all day long. We also had art, dance, coping and empowerment classes. It was just this amazing place where everyone worked together to get better. I felt cool being there because I was the youngest and could still remember a time when I was happy.
During my stay I gained weight, which was emotionally tough to do. But, at the same time, it was relief. I was determined to get my life back on track so, when they wanted me to eat, I ate. If I had refused to et, they would have hospitalized me for tube-feeding. My mom visited me almost every night, giving me strength to get through it. My friends, brother, sister and even classmates I barely knew came to see me. It was awesome because not one person ever placed judgment on me. They just wanted me to know they cared.
A Full Life Once Again
I was released from Renfrew just before finishing ninth grade. I was so grateful because my brother had his graduation that weekend and I was able to be there. That had been a major motivation for me to do whatever I had to do to get better. After I got out, I had support from doctors and therapists. But I knew every day would be a challenge.
Looking back on my time at Renfrew, I think it was the best experience of my life. It was the first time I faced my problems and dealt with them instead of just stuffing them down. I learned so much about myself. I even learned to love myself, although that's still a work in progress. While I can't say I'm "cured," it is an ongoing daily process. But I haven't relapsed, even during stressful times. I haven't forgotten—and never want to forget—how I used to starve myself during trying times.
Now, I use my skills to deal with things in a more healthful way. My life is fairly normal, even though I'm still a big overachiever and get stressed. But I accept that about myself, and I know how to cope. My experience with anorexia was awful, but it definitely had a silver lining. I appreciate life more now—every millimeter of it. I've learned to be humane, to think things through and to be happy with myself. I truly believe my dad helped me through this rough spot. He showed me courage in the face of his illness, so I knew I could do it. And I definitely did not want to put my family through any more pain after they'd already endured so much.
If you have an eating problem, talk to someone about it right away. It's very difficult, if even possible, to get better on your own. Although it's scary to think about, I probably would have died if I hadn't gone to treatment. That would have been a waste, especially seeing how my life has turned out. There are just too many things I want to do that I couldn't have done if I hadn't gotten well. Now, I'm completely confident that I can—and will—accomplish my goals.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2007 issue of Girls' Life magazine.
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