::: POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING :::
:: What is written in this post could potentially be triggering for those who have suffered from an eating disorder; so I ask if you do continue to read my story, please take care of yourself as you proceed. Stop when you need to and do what you need to keep yourself safe. :::
I’ve shared some of my experiences with my eating disorders and my journey through recovery a lot over the years. But, I haven’t actually written my story, really in its entirety. You may have heard me share my story at public events in college or graduate school, you may have heard my poem about my recovery in high school, you may have had a personal conversation with me or heard from someone else about my struggles. But, at 27 years old, I now recognize that there have been pieces of my story I’ve been missing all along. Pieces that were actually pretty crucial to the story, crucial to my recovery. I just didn’t fully understand where I’ve been and how it’s all affected me.
So, in the shortest, most condensed version with what I believe were all the factors in my eating disorder and my recovery, I’m going to share with you all for the first time my real, full story.
::: But, before I do that, I wanted to make mention that I DO NOT blame anyone in my life for my disorder. Everyone in my life was and has been doing what they thought was the best for me – or they just weren’t aware of what could have been triggering for my eating disorder. Those same people who may have accidentally triggered me, were also the ones who saved my life and am truly grateful for them all being in my life. :::
I really think it all started when I was REAL young, as young as five years old. My mom shared with me a conversation we had when I was that age that really struck her and older me. I was telling my mom about how I kissed a boy on the bus – in kindergarten, mind you, so that was a preeeeeeeeetty big deal. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:
Mom: ((Giggles)) Are you going to marry him?
Little Colleen: Nahhh, we’d probably just get “‘vorced.”
Mom: Do you mean divorced?
Little (kind of an ass hole) Colleen: No, mom… ‘VORCED. Like you and dad.
Mom: ((Shock/Confusion)) Colleen, mommy and daddy aren’t ‘vorced. We’re still married.
Little (still an ass hole) Colleen: No, mom, ‘vorced isn’t when you’re married, it’s when people don’t love each other anymore; and daddy sure doesn’t love you.
Mom: Why would you say that?
Little (such an ass hole…) Colleen: Maybe because you’re getting a little fat.
Just writing those last few sentences little me said to my wonderful mother hurts. It really truly hurts that I said those terrible things. If I could take back ANYTHING I’ve ever said to someone, it would be that very moment where I called my mom fat. But, I was so young and impressionable that just seemed like a reason someone would hate someone – at least what it some of the adults in my life made it seem like… What I heard and saw exhibited by the people in my life showed me that being fat is a moral, character flaw. That someone who may be labeled as “fat” does not deserve love.
I think I’ve carried that message with me through my childhood – more subconsciously.
Skipping ahead a few years…
My one grandmother would always emphasize how “little and cute” I was. How petite I was. That to me, at least at that age, gave people reason to love me; because of my body, I was petite, I was “loveable.”
In my eyes, at least that’s what many adults proved to me was this equation:
Skinny = Loveable, great person
FAT = unloveable, BAD
Again, not so much consciously. I stopped being “little ass hole” Colleen and turned that equation internally. I still loved my mom even though some other people in our lives would comment on her weight. She was still my mom and I thought/think she is BEAUTIFUL and an amazing person.
But, if I were to be fat, who would love me? Grandma might stop talking about me as much. People may stop loving me.
My parents got a divorce when I was six. It was hard on me and my younger (three year-old) sister, but what was harder was seeing them with other people; people who were not my parents.
Around that same year, I struggled in school. I was shy, super shy. I would ask my best friend since we were three years old, Therese, to ask the teacher if I could go to the bathroom. I would ask her to sharpen my pencil. I did not like attention, therefore if I was having troubles with homework or classwork, I would not ask for help. I think I missed a lot of days too, because I faked sick.
I had to retake first grade. Not because I was dumb, but because I was so behind with the days that I missed and how many assignments I probably failed because I didn’t want to ask for help. My teacher and mom decided that would be best for me to be held back. My dad didn’t like it, I didn’t like it.
The next year, I had to get glasses and they found out I had a lazy eye. Guess what I had to wear? An eye patch. I looked like a freakin’ miniature pirate with bifocals…
I bring up these experiences and setbacks, because I think they all might have contributed to my later diagnosis of an eating disorder. Along with being predisposed with a family history of an eating disorder and mental illness on both sides of my family.
At about the age of 10 or 11 (around the time I was in 5th grade), I started to take on the perfectionist persona. I was always ahead of assignments, received straight A’s. I was even tested for being gifted.
It was then too that I started to develop; earlier than my friends. My chest was getting bigger, and I didn’t like it. I LOVED physical education class! Especially climbing the rope and push ups – I was a beast at them both. I also played recreational soccer. What I didn’t like was having extra bounce on my chest. I didn’t like that feeling of having something larger on my body. I also didn’t like the attention it would ensue.
In one of my journal entries (I’ve kept about 15 – 20 journals throughout my childhood into adolescence), I found an entry where I said I needed to “start watching my girlish figure.” Probably something I heard in a movie or TV show. What child thinks of this stuff? So, I decided to start cutting down on how much I ate. I was very active and had a big appetite/high metabolism, so I would eat a lot.
Cutting down on food started off with eliminating snacks. Then to making my meals much smaller. A couple months later, after cutting down on lots of calories, I was only eating one meal per day, dinner. Dinner seemed like the only one I really couldn’t get away with. I would just take something to school with me for breakfast and not eat it. I started hiding the brown bag lunches with the little notes on the napkin my mom wrote for me under my bed… At dinner eventually I started only eating one item. .
Sloppy Joe’s and chocolate milk seemed to make up my diet in those days.
Then my mom started to notice some scary things going on with me…
- The stench in my room from the old lunches under my bed and eventually seeing the graveyard of uneaten food I would fall asleep on every night.
- The fruity smell in my breath: Ketoacidosis, which is often a sign of type 1 diabetes that can lead to coma or death.
- How I would report the exact number of items of food I would eat. Such as how many chips I ate.
- My significant loss in weight.
- The peach fuzz-like hairs growing on my face. This is called lanugo, which is usually found on babies in the womb. The goal of lanugo is insulation. Healthy adults/adolescents do not need lanugo to insulate their bodies and so it is a telltale sign of Anorexia Nervosa.
So, my mom was smart and consulted with medical professionals. My pediatrician was also concerned about how low my BMI was. His daughter had Anorexia, so he was quick to recognize the signs. With frequent visits to my pediatrician and eating disorder psychologist and psychiatrist, I was getting the treatment I needed – and thankfully early on in my disorder.
It wasn’t an easy road by any means. My eating disorder counselor often talked about the “voices” in my head. Not like auditory hallucinations, but more of those thoughts I would have stemming from my disordered brain. She would ask whose voice I was hearing. There were no real voices I was hearing, so I got confused and made up what the voices sounded like. I thought that if I told her I didn’t hear voices that she would say there’s nothing wrong with me and that I’m just a lost cause… That everything that was going on with me was not legit.
My psychiatrist took that feedback from my counselor and myself as though I was actually hearing voices. He took it as though I was experiencing psychosis with auditory hallucinations. Therefore, I was put on medication for just that… I do not recall any of this, it’s information I received from my parents. But, I acted psychotic on these meds. I was violent with my mom. I was, as she explained to me, a demon child. Thankfully, I was taken off those meds, my psychiatrist did A LOT of apologizing, and I was eventually put on the right type and dosage of medication to manage my symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Also while going through treatment, PE class and soccer were taken away from me. That was extremely hard for me. I would sit in the gym while other kids were having fun… I felt resistant because of this important part of my day and my favorite sport were taken away from me. I started shoveling the driveway… Not of snow, which sometimes I would do, but of gravel in the grass. I would do anything to be active and burn off calories that I was forced to consume.
I had suicidal thoughts. In my journal I drew pictures of my gravestone engraved with “the girl who would not eat.” I had my plan. I knew when, where and how I would attempt at one time. I was getting ready to make that attempt, crying wishing so hard that someone would bust open the door and save me. I don’t know what stopped me, besides fear and not really wanting to die, but I did… Just like a vast majority of people who think about and attempt suicide, I did NOT want to die, I just wanted the pain to end. I didn’t want to have to go through the millions of hurdles I had to everyday.
Also, being an adolescent, even a week seemed like a century. So not having that immediate release of emotional and mental anguish was intense. I also wanted to stop being a burden to my family. I didn’t think I’d EVER get through it. I just wanted all the pain and struggle to end. Luckily, I was able to get through that pain and make it through recovery.
During my treatment, I had stopped eating. For three days. I would lie about how much and what I ate to my parents. The only thing I consumed in three days was three 8-OZ cups of chocolate milk. When I couldn’t get the energy to go to school, let alone get off the couch, my mom took me to the ER and I was checked in at UH Rainbow’s Children Hospital for a little under a week.
When I wouldn’t eat, the doctors and nurses would threaten to force feed me through a Nasogastic (or NG) tube. Basically put a tube up my nose and down my throat that would pump fluid with the calories I desperately needed into my helpless body. That not only sounded extremely painful, but like they were taking my power away.
::: My psychiatrist also diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder along with Anorexia, which is actually quite common. I needed to have my regime, I needed to have control over my body. I needed control in my life. And that was part of my OCD. I lacked control when my parents got divorced and they were seeing other people; I had no control when I got held back in first grade; and I had no control when my parents and doctors made me go to school looking like a damn pirate. :::
Now, back to my hospital story…
I ate. I had to eat everything on my plate… I probably hadn’t eaten that much at that point between three to six months. So that food, to me, was A LOT. I remember my stomach being so full. And feeling like that was the worst feeling ever. Having my body being nourished and satisfied was worse to me at that point than starving myself and denying my young, growing body what it needed.
I was there for at least three days, eating three meals a day with snacks. I remember family coming to see me. I remember some friends coming to see me. I remember my 5th-grade boyfriend coming to see me and bringing me flowers. I remember wearing my Rugrats night gown and walking through the halls (my time-limited form of exercise) with my family. I remember a friend in my class who came with her mom to see me. They all lived in Streetsboro and had their parents drive them to Cleveland to come see me. That’s what I remember most of my experience at the hospital; the people who truly cared about my health and well-being, especially my peers.
Here’s something else I remember about my peers after and/or before my stay at the hospital… My mom told me that my 5th grade teacher told my classmates where I was and a little about what was going on with me (I really never knew what she said to my classmates). In my elementary school, 5th graders would eat in their classrooms with their classmates. I remember the feeling of being cared for, not only by my lovely teacher and administrators, but by my peers. I remember my fellow students offering their food to me when they saw I wasn’t eating. I remember the genuine kindness and concern of my peers. Those 5th graders did everything in their power to look out for and care for me.
Maybe some or most of them don’t remember 5th grade and what I was going through or even the kind gestures they made to me – but I do. And I really, truly think those 5th grade students made a big impact on my recovery and where I am today. Having a class of peers show their love and support really meant and still means the world to me. So, if you were in my 5th grade class (or were one of my dear friends who helped me as best as you could as a child) and reading this – THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart. ❤
After getting out of the hospital, my parents did their very best in making sure I ate. And I really truly tried. My dad would sit with my at breakfast (a meal I was notorious for skipping) to make sure I ate. And I did.
My mom would leave work to come to my classroom to eat lunch with me and my classmates.
Gah, my parents are amazing. They truly saved my life…
More things I remember…
- The feeling of success and accomplishment of hearing my stomach growl;
- Imagining delicious deserts like cupckaes and pizza floating above my head every night and fantasizing about eating them;
- The globs of hair that would fall from my frail body to the drain in the shower;
- The struggle my parents had been going through with my disorder;
- The fights, the tears;
I started menstruating at the age of 12; my frail body was really resilient through all the terrible things I put it through… I started eating better and more.
Between the ages of 13 – 14, I relapsed.
I stopped menstruating for about six months. Amenorrhea is the clinical term for that. My wonderful pediatrician said something very profound to me and my mom during one of my appointments that put everything into perspective, even broke me down to years. He said something along the lines of this:
“If you don’t start taking care of your body now and giving it the nutrition that it needs, you will NEVER be able to reproduce. You will never be able to have children.”
Even at a young age, I knew I wanted children one day. But, what was most impactful was knowing that what I was doing to my body would affect the choices I would make later on, how it will affect my life in adulthood.That was the most compelling reason for me to 100% invest in my recovery. I was no longer ambivalent.
I recovered from Anorexia. With lots of help from clinical professionals, my friends and family. My mom especially is my savior. Getting treatment early on in a mental illness is a big indicator for recovery.
Another HUGE indicator of recovery is having a support system, especially family. When I talk about eating disorders, or really any mental illness, in presentations I do as part of my profession, I really hone into the part of having family/friends that are supportive in the individual’s recovery. As that is a HUGE factor in people’s recovery from any mental illness. And it truly played a HUGE role in mine.
I truly thought I was recovered from an eating disorder all throughout high school and even college. Little did I know, at the time, that I had just switched out my eating disorder to another. Though not yet in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the book clinical professionals have used to diagnose people with mental illnesses since the 1950’s; ORTHOREXIA is the disorder I had switched to. This is pretty common for people with mental illnesses or substance use disorders to do; to switch form one disorder to another.
To explain what Orthorexia is, I’d like to add this description from the National Eating Disorders Association.
“Those who have an ‘unhealthy obsession’ with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from ‘orthorexia nervosa,’ a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but ‘orthorexics’ become fixated on food quality and purity. They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with ‘slip-ups.’ An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style. Every day is a chance to eat right, be ‘good,’ rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise). Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.
Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating. Eventually, the obsession with healthy eating can crowd out other activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous.” – National Eating Disorders Association
This is the best description of what Orthorexia is and what I went through. It may seem harmless and some may think it’s a great thing in a society that’s obsessed with weight and “healthy eating,” but like the last paragraph mentions, that rigid lifestyle can actually cause health problems. For me too, my obsession with my regimented “lifestyle” got in the way of other activities, interests and especially impaired my relationships…
I would skip out on birthday parties or other events in my friends’ lives to keep up with my regime… There are some great friends that I had, best friends, that I think my lack of being there for them during important nights of their lives truly ruined some of those friendships.
It’s sad how much of an impact my disorder has had on my life and relationships. There’s been plenty of times where I refused to go to 21st birthday parties because drinking is “bad” – I also didn’t want to consume those extra calories. I couldn’t just BE THERE for those friends and not drink, I had to continue with my night-time and everyday regimented routine. That’s how strong of a hold Orthorexia had on me. It cost my some of the most important relationships I had. .
Now taking a couple step back to high school… My friends noticed how strict I was with my diet and they did a great thing for me: they did not commend me for my ability to resist sweets and other “bad” foods, like may adults did. They attempted to get me to eat those foods. I remember my best friends trying to get me to eat ONE M&M almost everyday. I couldn’t do it. I felt a sort of superiority and sense of pride each time I refused “bad” food. But, my friends gently insisted. I say “gently insisted,” because when they started a another daily cycle at lunch or dinner, they were not pushy, they gently offered the piece of food I dare not eat and when I would say no, they might ask some questions and might pry me to eat it a little more, but they stopped. They’d still ask just about every day, but were always gentle with me…
The regimented lifestyle continued and got worse in college. I didn’t have those friends with me at college who knew my history nor were my parents or boyfriend there all the time. Instead of gaining the freshmen 15, I lost nearly 15 lbs from even more restricted eating and EXCESSIVE exercise. I would often still exercise on a sprained ankle or pulled muscle, because I couldn’t miss a day.
I discovered what Orthorexia was and diagnosed myself. This wasn’t until probably my junior or senior year of college. And I had tried to overcome it myself. My family really helped me through this. They really helped me try to eat what I deemed “bad” foods. It really wasn’t until my last year in graduate school that I could claim myself recovered from Orthorexia. That was when I fully understood my disorder and finally didn’t feel shame when eating what I once called “bad” foods.
Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd then, almost a year ago, I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease… Where I have to again restrict my eating… But, I’m able to do so in a healthy, safe way. If interested, read more about my diagnosis,, my reaction to it, and how I’m doing with a gluten-free life by clicking here to read my past posts about it. This post is already the longest I’ve posted – don’t want to make it any longer!
So, that’s my story. As most of those who know me in the work I do now, I do a lot with raising awareness and educating people on mental illnesses (like eating disorders) within the community. I also sometimes facilitate trainings on eating disorders and body image, mainly on college campuses. So, I’m pretty open about my experiences and feel the duty to educate others on topics that most don’t understand or are really aware of because mental health issues are seen as a taboo. I make it my mission to eradicate stigma, to help make people comfortable in talking to others about mental illness (just as if it were a physical condition), and most importantly, to give people HOPE. Hope that people can and do recover.
The quote below is something I came across on Facebook and feel it’s fitting. I would add though that I don’t want it to simply be because of something I did or said to them that helped them not give up. And I don’t think that’s EVER the case. Not giving up comes from the strength of the individual (not me) – I just want to help people find that strength within themselves, find their voice, to give them HOPE.
Parts of this story were hard for me to type, for me to share with the world. There are pieces in here that I have not told anyone, but had it either between me and my parents or within myself. So, though I’m an open book, there are pages, even chapters of my journey that I wasn’t aware of or too ashamed of to share. But, I feel it necessary, not only in raising awareness and educating others, but in my own personal recovery as well.
So, again, thank you to those who were there for me during my struggles. Whether it was in 5th grade or junior year of high school. I am grateful for all those people who have left a positive impact of my life. Especially my family: my mom, my dad, my sister and others in my family who helped me through it.
Lastly, I’d like to share a picture of my finished tattoo that I got to symbolize my recovery, my freedom from my eating disorders. I got it done 5-years ago to symbolize just that, but recently added the colors and words (that I believe represent what it took for me to recover).
Being fully recovered from both my eating disorders and shortly after finishing my tattoo, symbolizes a lot to me personally. The blue symbol in the wing is the National Eating Disorders Association symbol. Though I am recovered and am free of my eating disorders, they have left an impact on my life. And I will never forget what it took for me to recover. And of course everyone who joined and stuck with me on my path to a healthy, happy life. ❤