The More I Opened Up, The Less I Struggled: My Experience With Disordered Eating
It’s difficult to think back to where my eating disorder started. If I had to pinpoint a time, it was the summer going into my junior year of high school. I worked a lifeguarding job that consumed my life, I was training for sports in what little free time I had + I was under eating due to how busy I was. This brought a lot of changes to my body that I didn’t particularly notice because of how busy I was. I thinned out, had a nice tan + when I want back to school in the fall, people noticed. This led me to want to be thinner, look better + try harder because people were finally noticing me now that I had lost some weight.
Growing up, I was bullied about my weight by classmates and my older brother’s friends. This led me to start researching how to lose weight. I would spend hours on Pinterest looking up things like healthy meals, fat burning workouts, low calorie snacks … the list goes on + on. I was a three sport athlete in high school, but I still had a gym membership + I would regularly do cardio or lift before a two-hour practice. This was around the time I got my first fitness watch. I HAD to get X amount of steps. I HAD to burn X amount of calories. I HAD to track my calorie intake to make sure it was below what I had burned that day.
These habits became so obsessive to me, but little did I know how much of a problem I really had. I tried becoming vegetarian to lose weight, I tried becoming vegan to lose weight, I made ridiculous New Year’s resolutions around restricting certain foods to see if it would help me lose weight. One year I gave up pop, one year I gave up pizza, ranch + chocolate. I had given up these foods for about nine months because I thought they were so bad until one day that fall, I saw all my friends eating those foods,enjoying them + not caring AT ALL about what they were consuming. I cracked. I was so fed up with how “hard” I was working out without seeing the results I was hoping for. I longed to be thin, to be liked, to look like everyone else. Nine months of restricting myself from eating foods I could have enjoyed led to overeating, which I later learned was coined binge eating. I remember going to the store and buying a huge bag of M&Ms + pretzels, eating them until my stomach hurt, then I would go to the gym to try + burn off those calories, which I later learned was coined a “purge.”
This went on for months when I was in high school. I kept everything bottled up and never opened up to anyone about what I was going through, mostly because I probably had no idea the severity of what I was doing to myself. These binge cycles were difficult on me for so many reasons, but mostly because I always was so fixated on counting calories + these binges made me feel out of control, disappointed in myself + like I had lost all “progress” I made. I would weigh myself first thing in the morning and sometimes throughout the day + get so upset if I wasn’t making any progress — which most of the time I wasn’t. These habits stuck with me when I got to college.
Fast forward to freshman year of college…
On top of all the changes, the new environment, the lack of friends, the peer pressure, no one mentions the fear of a dining hall. I was still very consumed by my habits so being around endless amounts of food was scary for me. It brought back my fears of being out of control, the fear of judgement from others based on what I was eating, and the fear of getting consumed by a binge cycle again. Sophomore year of college was the worst year for my eating disorder. I learned it became accompanied with stress + fear — I was a stress eater + it’s like I needed food as a security blanket to get through tough situations. My sophomore year was my hardest year academically, I had roommate drama, I was gaining more leadership roles + it seemed like my life went from 0 to 100.
THEN CAME CHAARG
During the summer of 2017, I participated in CHAARG Bootycamp — CHAARG’s Summer FitPlan. I was an Event Coordinator for Ohio University CHAARG at the time + for this FitPlan, we had the option to be paired up with a *Bolt Babe* from a different university. I opted to do this because 1] I love meeting new people + 2] who doesn’t want encouragement throughout those five weeks of workouts!?
I was paired up with one of Pitt CHAARG’s Event Coordinators, Ashleigh Bowling, + we instantly clicked. Ashleigh + I texted every single day throughout Bootycamp ++ we really learned a lot about each other — especially that we both struggled with an eating disorder. However, when I met Ashleigh, I still wasn’t aware that my habits were disordered or could be labeled. Ashleigh was one of the first people I opened up to about my habits, my calorie counting, my obsessive behaviors + she basically straight up told me none of that was normal or healthy… ++ I was like what?!
I always figured my actions probably weren’t normal, but I figured others were going through it too so it was okay. Ashleigh really opened up my eyes to what I was putting myself through because she had been through something similar [Read her ED story, here!]. This summer + with the help of Ashleigh, was when I truly realized I had Binge Eating Disorder. Later on in college [last fall, honestly], I realized that I actually had Bulimia. Bulimia is the cycle of binging [for me, it was eating large amounts of food until I was sick], then purging [my method of purging was through exercise]. Many times after I ate more than my body could handle, I would go to the gym to burn off what I had just consumed. Not only did Ashleigh open up my perspective to what I was struggling with, she opened up my perspective to ask for help. I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder nor did I ever seek out counseling for it [my biggest regret — but it’s never too late]. However, I did start talking about my story more with others who also had an awful relationship with food. The more I talked about what I struggled with, the less I struggled. I’ve always been a pretty open person because I hope that my experiences can help others learn + grow. My binge cycles still occurred every so often throughout my junior year of college, maybe every 2 months or so depending on what was happening in my life. The less I thought about counting calories or macros, what I was eating or how I looked, the easier it was for me to not fall into a binge cycle.
The first time I publicly opened up about my eating disorder was at the CHAARG Leadership retreat in 2018. During these retreats, we all spend time sharing a little bit of our CHAARG journey. Hearing what some of these leaders had to say is so inspiring + always pushes me to be stronger, be more vulnerable + speak up. Once it was my turn to share my story, I first cried, then opened up to 60+ other women I hardly knew about how difficult it has to struggle with an eating disorder in general, let alone while being a leader of CHAARG + a nutrition major — something I’ve also struggled with since I started college. I wanted to be vulnerable about what I was going through because I know how much it can help others, just like others opening up helped me speak up. After I was finished with my story, the girl after me got up + said, “I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing this if it wasn’t for Leah being brave enough to open up + share her story.” That right there, is where I think recovery set in.
RECOVERY IS NOT LINEAR
It gets easier, as much as you may not think so. I still fall into binge cycles, but I haven’t purged by exercising in a few years. When I lose control of my eating habits + my emotions take over, I try to embrace what my body is feeling + try to understand why I want to binge. What has helped me overcome my eating disorder the most has been:
- Practicing intuitive eating
- Practicing body positivity + body kindness
- Not restricting myself
In high school, when I would give up certain foods or when I went vegan // vegetarian, I was doing nothing good for my body. I was simply restricting foods because I didn’t think they ‘fit’ into my diet or I didn’t think I could be healthy + happy if I was consuming foods like pizza, chocolate, ice cream, chicken, etc. Restricting food does nothing but make us want it more, which was a hard lesson to learn, but ultimately the most important one. If your body wants ice cream, give it ice cream!! I know it’s not as easy as it sounds, but learning to honor your hunger + honor your body will play a great deal in the recovery process. One thing to always remember is that recovery is not linear. For so long, my eating disorder defined me + once I broke away from that, I felt liberating.
Of course I still struggle, but there’s a difference between YOU controlling your life + food or your ED controlling your life.
— Leah Maxey [@healthtothemaxey], #OUCHAARG