Eating disorders are a range of conditions involving an obsession with food, weight and appearance. This obsession negatively affects people's health, relationships and day-to-day living. The two main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Eating disorders are a category of their own in the mental health spectrum and they are a huge concern in our society. When discussing the Life is Sweet project with some people I know, a young man offered to share his journey through recovery from anorexia and I will be sharing his story over the next two days.
Meera died in early January, the victim of a disease few people think about and even fewer understand. Her heart stopped during the night, unable to continue pumping blood for which there were no more nutrients. She had been starving herself for over half her life, assured in the faultlessness of her endeavour.
It wasn’t that she needed to be thin – Meera, even at her heaviest, was barely more than a wisp – but that she knew of no other way to gain control. She asserted it with authoritarian power, over the food she ate (sparingly), the exercise she engaged in (vigorously) and the company she kept (occasionally).
I met Meera in February 2007, when I was admitted to the Ottawa General Hospital’s Mental Health Ward. By the time I walked through the doors of Ward Four North I weighed 90 pounds; my Body Mass Index was under 14.
A person of my height, five-foot-ten, should weigh between 140 and 160 pounds. With a BMI of between 20 and 24. In August of 2006 I weighed slightly more than that, perhaps 170, after a summer of heavy indulgence, living with three university friends in a Victorian house in the Annex, a tree-lined neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. It was between third and fourth year and I was single, frustrated and moody. I worked as a teller for a national bank and slept with my windows open; I chased mice out of my room and spent too much on red wine at the LCBO.
I looked at myself in the mirror one day and declared myself fat. That’s more or less how it started, but it quickly progressed into calorie counting, food restriction, over-exercising and obsessive compulsive tendencies. I lost nearly half my body weight in less than six months. I moved back with my mother, took leave of my job, bowed out of my last year of school after four weeks of hell and spent the months of October until February on the couch eating between 500 and 800 calories per day, drinking untold litres of coffee and slowly, assuredly killing myself.
Looking back on it now, I have no idea how I developed such a severe case of anorexia so quickly. I’d never experienced disordered eating before, and although I was rarely satisfied with my body as a teenager, at 21 years old I never expected to lose myself to an eating disorder. Until I met with a specialist I hadn’t a clue what anorexia was.
To any impartial observer, the treacherous slope began innocently. In addition to cutting out fried foods, I eliminated starchy carbs – rice, bread, crackers, etc. – and began going to the gym three times a week. I would use the stationary bike for an hour while listening to music, then lift a few free weights and call it a day.
When I wasn’t dropping weight fast enough after a month on this regimen, I started counting calories. By this time I had moved out of the shared space downtown and back in with my mother, and had access to a car for work and school. By mid-September I had a full schedule at school, worked three days a week at the bank and was regularly going to the gym. I cut my daily intake to around 1200 calories, a number I believed sufficient to maintain my energy levels while living a very structured life.
I dropped weight precipitously, absurdly. Between early September and mid-October I fell to 130lbs. I had also lowered my daily intake to between 800 and 1000 calories and was not only energetic but joyous; I was going through what I now know to be the first stages of starvation. In order to keep my brain, heart, lungs and kidneys functioning properly, my body upped its metabolic rate and exponentially increased its adrenaline production. It wasn’t euphoria; it was malnutrition.
I maintained, even once my weight dropped to under 120lbs, that I was fine. Everyone at work, at school, told me I looked great. And I did: I was fit, trim and confident. For a time I was more energetic and outgoing, and though I wouldn’t drink alcohol (again, calories), I was participating in social events at school and work.
But there is a very thin line between control and chaos, and though I’m not sure when exactly I crossed it, in November I was no longer able to regularly perform my daily responsibilities. I was obsessing about what I was eating, what was in my food and how much exercise I would need to do to run off that piece of cake. Not that I ate cake.
I was so cold. I wore my parka at work; I was rude to the customers and ignored my start times. A customer told me off and I crumpled to the floor, weeping. My muscles were beginning to atrophy and my legs were 100 pound weights dragging behind me. My poetry assignments were all to do with food, fantastic recreations of the meals I wouldn’t let myself eat. I refused to go out for meals, uncertain what kinds of spices they were putting on my plain-no-oil-no-sauces-no-rice-no-anything salmon. I once entered a restaurant’s kitchen to supervise the making of my filet. When the restaurant manager returned me to the table like a wayward toddler, I tried to pass it off as a joke, but I felt so intensely anxious that I spent the entire meal with my eyes closed.
I stopped eating anything with refined sugars. Soon afterwards I stopped eating anything with natural sugars. I wouldn’t touch fruit or sugar-dense vegetables. By mid-December I was subsisting on roasted vegetables and the occasional piece of chicken, cooked by me or my mother under strict supervision. I stopped drinking milk, even in coffee; I refused to put oil on anything, even salad. By January I was eating fewer than 500 calories a day.
It was towards the end of 2006, a few days before New Years, that I was home alone. I was always hungry, my stomach groaning like the shrill whine of an eardrum. I couldn’t concentrate: I would sit at home, my wasted body barely filling the outlines of child-sized pajamas, watching show after show on The Food Network. The hosts were my only friends – I had stopped answering calls, and then friends stopped calling – and they were ebullient, lively, healthy. I was obsessed with food that I would never allow myself to eat.
That night, I was chopping a cauliflower – I would eat an entire one, uncooked, because it was low in calories and high in volume – and sliced severely into my thumb. It took a moment to register what had happened as by then my brain was out of sync with what was left of my body. Shortly, I woke up, cauliflower florets strewn about, stained red. In my fall I had knocked over a basket of apples and in a moment of clarity bit into one, understanding that the sugar would give me strength. Immediately my head cleared, limbs loosened and mind sharpened. I stood up, cleaned the floor and returned to starving myself. The apple, despite its life-saving properties, was thrown away.
Another time, in a moment of crazed determination, I decided to make a pot of tomato soup. The recipe was from one of those Italian Food Network shows, and involved roasting and macerating several dozen tomatoes in a food processor. By then I could barely walk, my atrophied muscles begging for sustenance. I struggled to climb the stairs to my room; I barely had enough energy to keep my foot on the gas on the way to the grocery store.
In the car, on my way to purchase tomatoes (a fruit that barely made it on the quickly-diminishing list of “good foods”), I dozed off for a moment and ran onto the sidewalk. The streets were empty and no one saw it, but when I came to, my car was leaning against a fence and was slowly toppling over the boards. As I reversed, I realized that I was endangering my life and others’, but was determined to buy those tomatoes and that was that.
The second half of this post will appear on the blog tomorrow
The second half of this post will appear on the blog tomorrow