When I mention my history with anorexia and bulimia to my mother, she cuts me off mid-sentence–“Natalie, you never had an eating disorder.”
The topic, eight years later, remains a point of relative contention. I try to reason with her; after all, I am publishing a memoir that documents, in part, my struggle with eating disorders.
“Natalie, you were never 90lbs. You never had a feeding tube shoved down your throat.”
That is, more often than not, the end of a conversation I am sick of having with her. A conversation we rarely have for this reason. I no longer feel I need to justify my experience. Here is the reality: you do not need to be severely underweight to struggle with anorexia, many people maintain a lower than average weight, but do not look emaciated enough to be “sick.” Those who struggle with bulimia are often of average, or slightly over average, weight. Eating disorders, or disordered eating–a milder form, do not claim victims based exclusively on weight, no, eating disorders are defined by fear—Confusion. By feelings. The numbers and the food are just symptoms of the pain the person afflicted is trying to hide.
I am twenty-six years old as I write these words, and the numbers on the scale, the food in my fridge, no longer frightens me. But they did. They defined the darkest parts of my life. This is my story—but the story of many people—and I hope that giving a voice to the experience can help others who may still struggle.
When I was fourteen-years-old, struggling with severe depression, I decided that I would restrict what I ate. It made sense at the time: I wanted to focus on something other than the pain and blackness of depression.
I write in my journal of this time:
“Today I woke up at eight thirty a.m. and gave myself permission to have a coffee. I thought it over and decided it was okay to put a little bit of skim milk and two packages of artificial sweetener in it. It was a reward for not giving into my craving yesterday and only eating eighty calories, which I over-calculated anyway. So I made the coffee with exactly four calories of sweetener, but I got nervous because I didn’t know how much was in that skim milk. Trying my best to figure it out, I poured the portion of milk I thought I had into a measuring cup and compared it to the line that says one cup, which is ninety-three calories.”
This, at the time, was my absolute reality. I could not see past the scale. I would examine the spaces between my legs; if the space did not seem large enough, I would eat less. It is important to point out that while I was underweight, I was not emaciated. My body fought me, tooth and nail, to remain at a functioning weight. Despite this, I would wake up at night in piercing pain: my limbs would not move because my body was starting to eat away at my muscle tissue. It is a pain I cannot explain. It was frightening—unable to move. Eating disorders held me hostage. I was terrified because I wanted to be well, to feel healthy, but could not stop thinking about food. Food seemed complicated, scary, and too much for me to handle.
I struggled with restricting my intake and exercising until my muscles ached and my vision was blurry, until the age of seventeen, when bulimia because a fast friend. A best friend; my only friend. Eating disorders isolate you.
Many people who struggle with eating disorders, struggle with more than one, often moving back and forth between restriction and excessive exercise, binging, starving, and purging.
Bulimia was more frightening than anorexia; it crept up on me slowly and then whisked me away before I had time to think, to stop the cycle that would define my life for years. My journal at the time depicts the experience. And while the writing is graphic I feel it is important to include:
“FOOD IS THE ENEMY: FOOD= FAT. I woke up and ate three pieces of raisin bread, two bowls of cereal with chocolate milk and a granola bar—toilet time within thirty minutes of waking up. Terrified I did not get it all up. My throat bleeds. I can’t stop…I purged my dinner from the restaurant today. I worked out AN HOUR AND FORTY-FIVE-MINUTES and then ate more and purged. I’ll never be able to stop…I just ate another piece of bread. I must lose weight. Fast…My god I can’t stop the Bulimia! And I need to! I really do! I always thought I could when I wanted to…but I can’t. It’s killing me. It’s killing me in a slow and subtle way. Why can’t I stop? I flush the food away, away, but I am left weeping…I feel so unclean because I just ate cheese. Yes, goddamn cheese. I feel like it’s travelling through my digestive system just waiting to add pounds to my disgusting and fat body. I must become thin. I wish my mother would go to sleep so I could pray to my porcelain god again…I feel so FAT and UGLY. When I look in the mirror everything is wrong! I want the fat gone. Peeled off; layer by layer. I look at my face—my cheeks looks wider. I look at my breasts. I HATE my breasts more than anything. They swing and bounce and intrude and extrude. They lay flat on my otherwise sacred chest. They are useless pieces of fat. My hips, so curvy and seductive; I wish for the straight curve of a little girl, unmarked by puberty and anger. FAT is a feeling, a feeling I cannot rid myself of. It Lingers. Forever.”
Before I became well I lapsed into alcoholism and addiction. But the disordered eating lingered. I was referred to an eating disorders clinic. It was an outpatient clinic and the goal was to inform those who suffered to learn how to eat; to view food as fuel as opposed to the enemy. I recall my first meeting: I walked in and was certain the girls waiting in the same room would be much thinner than me. I was certain that they would think I was fat. Just as I did. But most of the woman were of average weight and all of them looked as nervous as I felt.
The dietician was a lovely woman who explained, slowly, that I needed food in order to survive. It’s a basic concept, an obvious one, and it can be hard for people to understand how frightening it can be. My process to wellness was slow. It was painful.
I would stare at my body, nude, in the full length mirror and work to understand that I was a woman. Women were curvy and beautiful and that is what makes us unique. My particular curves are unique to me. I am lucky in that I did not require in-patient treatment, but the road to recovery was rocky, to say the least.
Years later I still struggle, as most women do. Society demands that we be thin, lithe, like the woman in the magazines that line shelves. I hate those magazines. They make me question my self-worth and I am certain many woman, and men, feel this pressure.
I have no secret for recovery: my journey is as different, as unique, as the body I have learned to appreciate. Teaching myself that food is necessary; learning to eat when I feel under the weather, when I struggle with the chronic depression that has plagued me through life, has been a process. Just as addiction never leaves you—it trails behind you—disordered eating is something I need to be conscious of. It is in this way that I have been able to become well.
I urge people to take of themselves; to work to understand that the women, the men, in the magazines are not real—you are.
Photo Credit: JustJasmine
Natalie Jeanne Champagne is the author of The Third Sunrise. At the age of twenty-six, after many years struggling with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder at the age of twelve, addictions and disordered eating, she walked the road less travelled and somehow found her way home. Natalie regularly contributes to mental health and addictions publications and is an advocate for mental health. She currently lives in British Columbia, Canada. The Third Sunrise is her first book.