“An eating disorder is a monster of an illness,
which convinces many suffers that they ‘aren’t event that sick’”
Eating disorders are serious illnesses, claiming the lives of many. According to the Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders (ANRED) website, more than 8 million people have an eating disorder. Read that again. Before you shake your head and think that an eating disorder is strictly a choice made from vanity, think again. Low weight and restrictive eating patterns biologically alter an individual’s psychological functioning which makes recovery much more difficult then you may think. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
How do I know this and why am I talking about it? Because I almost didn’t make it here, to tell my story. I am one of the lucky survivors, because of my parents who never gave up on me and now my husband who has helped me realize that I am more then just a number.
Being a 15-year-old female is hard enough. Trying to navigate life, discovering who you are and learning to accept that person can be a tricky task, easily influenced by social pressures. My identity has always been tightly woven into athletics. At my core, I have always been an athlete. At age 15, I was a competitive fighter, soccer and hockey player. I trained regularly at a gym with a personal trainer to build strength to be better at sports. I took competing very seriously and always tried to ensure a healthy diet to compliment training.
My life was full. I had a wonderful family and very close friends. I was very happy. And then the other shoe dropped. One of our very close friends, who was only 15, was killed and a few months later the side by side machine I was driving flipped, completely crushing my hand. It took many surgeries to have a semi functional hand again. Life as I knew it ended there. PTSD has many sneaky ways of showing up.
When I lost control of everything in my life, I found a way to control the only thing that I felt I could, eating.
I am not even sure how it happened, or the thought process behind my choices. It just sort of happened and before I knew it, I was in so far over my head I almost didn’t make it out.
The beginning was simple, I stopped eating what my family cooked for fear of hidden oils. I stopped eating any kind of junk food and I fiercely avoided fats of any kind. It didn’t take long for me to learn which foods to avoid, googling nutrition facts about every food item I consumed.
I began running, at the track and on a treadmill. I would run for hours and track my steps daily. Always aiming for a minimum of at least 30,000 steps. I began walking anywhere I could, no matter how far, just to get those steps in.
At first, everyone commended me for being so disciplined. In a time of fad diets, quick weight loss propaganda, etc. people were blind to the fact that there may actually be an issue. Little did they know I was progressively climbing deeper down the rabbit hole. Weeks would go by where I would have just an apple per day, and unlimited amounts of green tea. I hid food at the dinner table or waited until heads were turned to bury something in a napkin. I took containers of food to school and either gave it to friends or dumped it.
Having lost an ability to handle cold well (and living in Newfoundland where cold, damp temperatures are normal), I would take hot baths after school each day. At first this was enjoyable, something I looked forward to, but as the months crept by baths would make me so dizzy and disoriented. Walking up a staircase began to do the same. On top of that, I began to lose my hair and develop a layer of peach fuzz on my body (luango). I was too weak for sports and had to take a break. My parents began trying to force me to eat, they were panicked and very worried. My athletic frame had easily lost 50 pounds and I knew I needed help.
I wanted to handle this myself, not ready to admit the fact that I had an eating disorder. Speaking with a dietitian made the most sense at the time. Being so obsessed with food, I looked for someone to ‘fan the flames’. I researched local dietitians near my school. It just so happened that the children’s hospital was across the street and there was a dietitian clinic taking new clients. I had no idea what to expect, but if I was just given a simple meal plan, I was sure I could follow it. I walked across the street for my appointment. A feeling of nervousness and relief flooded over me as I walked into the waiting room. A very gentle, sweet voice called my name and I follow Stacey back to her office. My first appointment with Stacey was critical in my journey to recovery. We began trying to eat based on a simple meal plan and we scheduled regular follow up appointments.
There were a few key things developing with Stacey that I didn’t realize at first. I was unaware that she was the head dietitian for the eating disorder program in St. John’s. When we first met, she knew how sick I was (you would think any health professional could recognize it, but at this time there was absolutely no education or awareness for eating disorders) but couldn’t do anything about it because of the health care system and the rules surrounding the intake process with an eating disorder clinic. Behind the scenes, Stacey rallied the Doctor in charge of the eating disorder program at the Children’s hospital to come meet me. Stacey hid her worry for me very well and became a shoulder to lean on.
After a few weeks of even more weight loss, Stacey recommended that I see a family doctor to have my vitals checked. At the time I was unaware that without a referral from a family doctor you cannot get an appointment at the eating disorder clinic. Stacey was hoping that a family doctor would see me, check my vitals and right away, send me to the hospital. Spoiler alert, that didn’t happen. I didn’t have a family doctor, so Stacey found a person taking new patients. My Mom took me to the appointment, also hoping for some answers. Instead, we were told to celebrate the fact that I was so health conscious and skinny because most people dreamed of being that small. Stacey and Mom were in absolute shock.
For Christmas that year, my parents booked a Summer trip for me to visit my brother in Alberta. I departed for the West on August 01. My parents were terrified, and second guessing allowing me to go. The look on my brother’s face when he saw me was a look that I will never forget. He was shocked. I had a wonderful 2 weeks with him, biking everywhere, with no one looking over my shoulder expecting me to eat. I vowed to begin eating and get myself together as soon as I got home. I wanted to show Stacey that I could recover on my own, and gain weight before my next appointment the first week of September. Which of course, didn’t happen.
The morning of my appointment with Stacey, my first stop was school. It was my first week of Grade 11. My locked was on the second floor. As I walked up the stairs, I fainted in the stairwell. That was a pivotal moment where I knew that this could not continue. I walked over to my appointment early and told Stacey. She left the room and went to speak with Dr. Dominic, the head of the eating disorder program. Without a referral of any kind, I was able to get an appointment with Dr. Dominic the very next morning. At the appointment I learned that Dr Dominic knew everything about my situation, she expressed how disgusted she was with the family doctor who commended me on my weight loss and informed me that she was going to ensure that never happened again to anyone else.
Dr. Dominic took my vitals and left the room. 20 minutes later she came back. Her words left me in complete shock; ‘Morgan, I cannot let you leave, we are admitting you into the hospital because you are so sick’. My heart dropped, and I did too. Tears pouring down my face, completely defeated, knowing I needed to surrender because my life was in jeopardy. Stacey joined us, and Dr Dominic explained the severity of the situation. She also alerted me that she had called Mom to ask her to come to the hospital (Dad was currently working in another country). I was absolutely terrified of Mom finding out, but of course there was no choice. My heart broke at the thought of her hurting because of something I did. I got myself in this situation and there was no one to blame but myself. Stacey and I went into her office while Dr Dominic waited to tell Mom.
When you are admitted for an eating disorder, there is a very strict policy in place;
- You are only allowed to have ensure for a solid week before food, but because I had been working with Stacey for so long, they allowed me to start on solid food.
- You must eat pre planned meals only. Absolutely no outside food.
- You must have a nurse with you for every meal, even snacks and for 30 minutes post meal.
- You are not allowed to go to the bathroom without a nurse. There was never a moment of privacy.
- I was in a room with massive glass windows for monitoring and I had to wear a heart rate monitor 24/7 for an entire week.
- Every morning for two weeks I had blood drawn for labs.
- I was weighed at the same time every morning.
- I had to be taken everywhere in a wheelchair, even to the bathroom due to my low my blood pressure and heart rate.
As I learned more about the road ahead, I could hear Dr Dominic speaking to Mom. I could hear her crying. Soon, the door to Stacey’s office opened and Mom, tears running down her face, came to hug me. As any mother would, she just wanted me to get better. Together we learned about all the tests I would have to undergo; ECG, EKG, MRI, Blood Work, Bone Density, Etc. Mom helped me settle into my hospital room before going home to pack my things. I would be there a minimum of 4 weeks. The moment I laid in the hospital bed and surrendered to the circumstances at hand, it seemed like my body completely gave out. I never realized how weak and burnt out I was feeling until I stopped to realize. I had become accustomed to pushing through it. 24 hours after being informed that I was being admitted, my Dad walked into my hospital room, I was happy to have him, but even happier that he was there to support Mom.
Through the testing performed, we learned that I was in the beginning stages of Osteoporosis, my liver had turned 50% to fat, my body was not producing any hormones, my heart was very weak, etc. It was a slow and very difficult process. I had to work very hard to reverse the damage that I had done to my body, and there are aspects such as liver damage and hormonal health that may never be the same again. The physical process was straight forward, what I didn’t realize though, was how many years it would take to make strides mentally. The most critical part of the process was learning that I was worth more. I was lucky enough to have a support team surrounding me, routing for my recovery.
I can only imagine the struggle those without support are enduring. If you know anyone struggling, please don’t give up on them. The support your provide may mean more than you realize.