Brooke Butler: "After almost four years, it took *this* for me to finally start my eating disorder recovery"
CONTENT WARNING: This story discusses eating disorders, such as anorexia, which may be distressing for some readers.
Actress and singer Brooke Butler, 18, opens up about her struggles with anorexia, binge eating and body dysmorphia—and what she hopes others can learn from her experience.
Holding my cup of black coffee, I looked at the creamer and thought about adding a splash to my drink. But the second the thought crossed my mind, anxiety flooded my system and something deep in my brain screamed, "No!" Adding creamer meant adding extra calories...and that was unthinkable.
From the time I was 13 to almost 17, I’d wake up every morning and limit myself to a low, low number of calories for the day. If I ate more than that? I’d feel guilty and hate myself for it. And if I could eat even less? It felt like a victory.
When my body was in starvation mode, I’d go through phases where I was really hungry, but I’d also go through times where I didn’t really feel like I needed to eat, so I thought, “What’s another day going to do?”
The answer was a lot, actually. Anorexia nervosa (which is what the disordered eating I was experiencing at this time is called) can cause all kinds of health problems.
My hair started falling out—well, the hair on my head, anyway. While my ponytail got thinner, I actually started to grow fuzz on my face, arms and legs (that’s the body’s way of trying to keep you warm when you’re lacking fat). I also felt cold all the time because anorexia causes poor circulation.
And the potential long-term effects? Weakening my heart, nerve damage, losing my period, fainting, fatigue, headaches, osteoporosis, depression and anxiety, just to name a few.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that anorexia is a self-perpetuating cycle.
I felt like I was “too fat,” so I didn’t eat. But then, when I did eat again, my stomach tended to bloat a lot—something that happens when you’ve been starving yourself—which only reinforced the negative view of my body.
Eventually, after starving myself long enough, I would break down and binge. On one particular day, I ate about three days’ worth of food (and I could’ve likely had more, if I put my mind to it). I remember sitting in the shower afterward, feeling so sick and sad, bawling because I felt like I had no self-control at all. I felt powerless over my own body.
That was the turning point for me. I knew I needed help. One day soon after, my dad was driving me home from school and I was really on edge. Suddenly, I started crying and just blurted out, “Dad, I think I have an eating disorder.” He didn’t judge me at all, he just asked me questions and really listened to me. He asked why I thought I was struggling with disordered eating. I just opened up and told him about all the things that I’d been going through.
It was a scary conversation to have, but in the end, my dad was so awesome about it. He didn’t treat me like I was damaged or a failure. He listened, then asked what he could do to help.
After that first conversation, opening up to other family members and friends about my eating disorder got easier. They were all so supportive. Once I started telling people my story, I got more comfortable, not just with talking about it, but with knowing that it wasn’t my whole story. It was just another stop on my journey through life.
Just finding one person who you trust, who you really can open up to, makes all the difference. For me, it was my dad. But for other girls, it might be a doctor or therapist or school counselor.
Once I had that talk, I realized I had someone who was going to help me through the process of recovery—and who wouldn’t stop loving me just because I was going through this.
When I started my journey back to health, I realized just how much my disordered eating had been holding me back. And not just when it came to food, but in my relationships with other people, too.
For so long, I had been so afraid to see the number on the scale rise that it controlled my every decision. I was scared to work out because if I gained any muscle mass, the number might go up. I wouldn’t eat dinner with my family. I was constantly lying to the people I cared about—and I know now that’s no way to live a happy life.
The other thing I noticed during my recovery was just how warped my vision of myself had been during my struggle with disordered eating. I look back at pictures and I can remember exactly what I was thinking: I hated the way I looked.
I was suffering from body dysmorphia, which is a mental health condition that makes you obsess over flaws only you see in your body, mentally exaggerating them (even imagined flaws— things that no one else is thinking or seeing).
Body dysmorphia affects people of all ages and sexes, no matter their shape or size. In fact, according to some estimates, body dysmorphia affects one in every 50 people. And much like disordered eating, body dysmorphia prevents you from living your life the way that you want to.
For me, it was everything from starving myself to making me completely cut items from my wardrobe (there was a time when I wouldn’t wear things like tank tops, which I love, because I was convinced my arms were “too big” to let anyone see them).
The effects these disorders have on your life aren't just physical. I'll be honest: When I was struggling, I was very moody.
I was constantly annoyed at people. I like to think of myself as a really happy and optimistic person, but during the time I was struggling, I just wasn’t myself. And even if I seemed OK, I was just hiding behind a fake smile.
The physical factors that come with disordered eating are only part of it—the emotional impact is just as big in a lot of ways. You feel really lonely and isolated from the world. You’re pulling away from so many people who really care about you and who want the best for you. To me, that was the worst part.
Even though I’m in a better place now, I know that—as much as I wish I could say there’s a way that I can be 100% recovered—this is something that is going to stick with me forever.
I don’t think there’s ever really a full recovery from eating disorders. You have to work at it every day. Of course, there are mornings when I don’t exactly love what I see in the mirror. Then, I’ll make a point to look at everything I’m nitpicking about myself—my stomach, my legs, my arms—and imagine that I’m talking to someone else.
If I were talking to someone I love, like my little brother or my mom, would I tell them the terrible things I say to myself during the worst of my eating disorder? Of course not! I just have to focus on not saying those things to myself, either.
At the end of the day, you can’t start recovering from an eating disorder until you learn to accept and love yourself. The only person who can truly decide if you’re going to start your recovery is you—you have to be 100% determined to do it. But once you realize all the fun, happiness, joy and accomplishments disordered eating causes you to miss out on, that’s when you’ll find the will to take a different road. And know that I’m right there on it with you.
Brooke Butler is an actress and singer living in Los Angeles. She’s best known for playing Ellie on Brat TV’s Chicken Girls. You can follow her on Instagram at @brookebutler.
WHAT TO DO
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating
If you're not sure if your relationship with food has crossed a line (or if you know that you or a friend are definitely struggling but don't know what to do about it), here's straight talk from Dr. Crystal Burwell, director of outpatient services for Newport Academy, an organization that helps teens struggling with eating disorders.
WHAT IS ANOREXIA NERVOSA? An intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat that causes someone to restrict their caloric intake, usually leading to significantly low body weight and negative physical side effects. Some warning signs include refusing to eat, avoiding the grocery store, turning down invitations to eat out, lying about eating, wearing oversized clothing, exercising excessively and denial of hunger.
WHAT IS BULIMIA? Binge eating (eating a lot more in a single sitting than most people would and sometimes even feeling unable to stop eating or control how much one is eating), followed by behaviors intended to purge oneself of the calories taken in and prevent weight gain—such as self-induced vomiting, taking laxatives that weren’t prescribed to you or excessive exercise.
SO WHEN DOES DIETING OR TRYING TO STAY HEALTHY CROSS THE LINE INTO DISORDERED EATING? Dieting usually has an end goal; disordered eating continues to persist even after you reach a certain target. And, unlike keeping a healthy focus with food, where you are able to strike a balance between eating well and feeling great from the inside out, disordered eating disrupts your physical *and* mental health. If you find that your relationship with food is all-consuming and is causing you to feel depressed, irritable, withdrawn and never satisfied with your weight or appearance, you may have an eating disorder.
WHAT IS BODY DYSMORPHIC DISORDER (BDD)? Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a mental health condition in which a person can’t stop thinking about perceived flaws in their appearance—including flaws that are minor or even ones that can’t be seen at all by others. BDD is commonly associated with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CAUSES OF BODY DYSMORPHIA? Body dysmorphia can be triggered by abuse or bullying, low self-esteem, perfectionism, genetics, depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s more common in adolescents and young people—and can also be partly inherited as it tends to run in families (this means that if someone you’re related to has struggled with BDD, you may be more likely to struggle with it, as well).
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU THINK YOU MIGHT BE STRUGGLING WITH BDD OR DISORDERED EATING? Talk to someone. Confide in a parent, doctor, counselor or other trusted adult who can help you get the care you need (also check out our resources below).
GET HELP NOW!
National Eating Disorders Association (nationaleatingdisorders.org)
Call or text NEDA’s hotline for support at (800) 931-2237 Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST, Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST.
Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness (allianceforeatingdisorders.com)
A great resource for education, awareness and prevention of eating disorders.
Rise Up + Recover
This free app can help anyone struggling with body image or other food-related issues.
This “eating disorder recovery buddy” app helps users through the difficulties often faced in recovery by giving them a space to record thoughts and moods and track progress, as well as connect with a supportive community and educational content.
Image: @brookebutler. Edited for digital coverage by Erin Sargent.