i developed anorexia as an adult
January 15, 2016
When I was 29 I had my second child, and never lost the weight. I thought, "That's it, I'm doing something about this." So I started a crash diet. Within a year I was full-blown anorexic.
I found the diet on a pamphlet that came with a bottle of diet pills, and my results were quick and incredibly reinforcing. I got lots of compliments and became addicted to outdoing myself each week, and eventually, each day. It was a vicious cycle; the more I restricted, the less I felt I was allowed to eat. I kept setting the bar higher and higher—or lower and lower, depending on how you look at it—until I was barely subsisting on 500 calories a day. I was so afraid I'd lose control over what I ate that I refused to touch anything but bland, tasteless food that wouldn't tempt me to binge. If I didn't exercise for an hour every day, I felt like a failure. My husband would beg me to take a night off, and I'd wait until he went to sleep before going downstairs and turning on the workout video.
As a teenager I was healthy, active, and had a decent body image. So I was completely caught off guard by my behavior. But maybe I shouldn't have been. (Want to pick up some healthier habits? Sign up to get daily healthy living tips and more delivered straight to your inbox.)
There were lots of stressors in my life then: My son was sick with asthma and required several hospitalizations, money was short, and there were never enough hours in the day. My kids were young, I was working as a teacher, and I was feeling the pressure to be the "perfect" wife, mother, daughter, employee, friend, and neighbor. That all left me feeling inundated by demands, none of which I felt I could control. I didn't have the skills to make boundaries, set limits, and engage in good self-care. So my life centered around controlling the one thing I could—food and exercise.
After about a year of this, a friend confronted me and said I needed to get help. And more or less to shut her up—because at this point I thought I was just super-healthy—I went to the doctor. He flat-out told me that I had anorexia, and referred me to a psychiatrist, talk therapy, nutrition therapy, and scheduled weekly weigh-ins. Even then it was still several months before I came to terms with the fact that I had a problem. When it became clear from my weekly weight checks that I was continuing to lose weight, my doctor recommended hospitalization.
That was the first of around 10 hospital stays of various lengths. For almost every one of them, I had to go out of state, and for the last few I was still about 31/2 hours from home. Most often I'd be away for 4 to 8 weeks.
I have an awesome husband, though. If I didn't, I'm not sure I would have survived. He and my parents tag-teamed to make sure the kids were well taken care of. Not only was my husband completely supportive of my receiving treatment, he understood early on that I needed to work on myself, he needed to work on himself, and we needed to work on ourselves as a couple. He went to individual therapy, we went to couples therapy, and he came to group therapy when possible, even when it was at a treatment center out of state.
Even now if I'm feeling at all shaky, he's the first person I call to get some perspective. Still, I know how hard this process has been for our family. He had to shoulder so much responsibility when I was physically absent, and compensate when I was emotionally absent.
When the brain is malnourished, you literally can't think straight, so for me it was almost like a blackout situation. About 2 years into my quest to get better, I went to an inpatient treatment facility. I was there over a month, and when I left I called my husband in a panic from the parking lot. I'd driven there, but couldn't find my car. He said, "It's big and gray; you can't miss it." Turns out, I had traded in my white sports car for a gray SUV before the program started, and I was so severely malnourished at the time that I didn't remember it.
I missed so many events in my children's lives. That was the real eye opener—I didn't want to miss anything more. One time when I came home from a long hospitalization, my young daughter burst into tears that went on forever. She had seemed to handle things so well, but obviously my absence hit her harder than I'd realized. That was a big moment for me and helped me turn a corner in my recovery.
Honestly, I was very ambivalent about getting healthy at first. I thought, "These people are telling me that this is something I need to do, but I'm not quite sure if I believe it." But by 2005, when I was 40, things started to shift. Early in my treatment I was gathering tools—like relaxation techniques, journaling, and communication skills—that I really had no idea how to use in my day-to-day life. At first my attempts felt pretty futile. But the tools I'd acquired slowly became more and more effective, and eventually were completely adequate to keep me in recovery. The time between relapses became much longer, and my actual desire to get better was much stronger. My therapist and psychiatrist often told me they'd "hold on to my hope" for me until I could hold it for myself. And my hope got so much stronger during the process; by the end, the relapses were few and far between, and eventually non-existent.
My last intensive outpatient hospitalization was in 2010. After that, I continued with therapy until about 6 months ago. My therapist and I agreed that she's always there if I need her, but I really consider myself to be extremely strongly in recovery right now. But it took every bit of that time to get here.
Having anorexia as an adult, I got a lot of reactions like, "Grow up; quit this adolescent behavior." It was very shaming, and I don't think teenagers face that same sort of stigma. It was horrible that I had to spend so much of my life putting myself back together, and it did detract from my children, my husband, and my job. But on the other hand, it gave me the impetus to say to my kids, "This is not a place I ever want you to go; this is how you need to take care of yourself."
I've had women tell me that they can't get help because they have children to take care of. But that's exactly the reason they should be getting help. You can't help anybody until you help yourself. When I first started treatment in the '90s, there were only two of us in the facility's program for people ages 30 and over. Since then the program has grown exponentially. There's been a big uptick in people realizing that they can get help at any age.
I'd strongly encourage anybody who is getting treatment to enlist the support of an entire team. For me it took the therapist, the nutrition counselor, the family doctor, the psychiatrist—it took that whole team to put me back together. But it also takes enlisting the help of your family and friends to support you, which removes some of that shame and makes it possible to incorporate the things that you learned in treatment back into your actual life.
This is a disease, not a vanity issue. This isn't some frivolous "I'm going on a diet" thing; anorexia kills people. And even if it doesn't kill you, as long as you have anorexia, you're not really living.