Pregnancy After An Eating Disorder

by Birth Without Fear on July 8, 2013

I have tried to write this at least a dozen times. It never turns out the way I want. In the beginning I tried to approach it like an informative article, a place people could go to find facts, research and information… but I get caught up in my own experience, and it ends up a jumbled mess… No, I can’t write an informative article. Not yet. Not until I tell my story…

So here it is. I had anorexia for over 7 years. ‘Had’ anorexia is the right way to write it, but the reality is that it had me…

I was 13 when it ‘started’. It was slow; an incessant nag in the back of my mind, slowly wearing me down, like the way a constant water drip smashes into concrete, slowly working a hole through… you’re not good enough, that’s not good enough, you’re not good enough, do it better… like a drip, these thoughts came, slowly, until they wore me down. Eventually I was swimming in them. Or more accurately, drowning in them. Everything was so out of my control, I had no idea where these thoughts were coming from, but they were inside me and they would not stop. Food became the thing I could control. While everything seemed crazy, and out of my control, I could control food. And my weight. Except, of course, that I had lost all control. I was completely and utterly powerless against this disorder.

[2003 - 17 years old: after I was discharged from a hospital stay, and when I graduated from high school]

teenage anorexia

At my worst, I was 39kg (85lbs), and at 156cm (5’2”), and this was a devastating weight to be. I couldn’t see it though. Even at 39kg, I could see extra weight; bulges and bumps that I needed to lose to be better. I lived with other anorexic girls on my many hospital admissions, and felt obese compared to their emaciated figures. Eating disorders are bizarre like that; I never could see myself for what I truly was. I saw these girls and I thought I was not controlling my food enough. Even though at one point I existed on a handful of oats soaked in water (but never cooked, because I wanted my body to burn my energy digesting them) and drinking iced water (because I wanted my body to burn more energy to warm it back up to body temperature). I wondered why my parents worried so much, I was frustrated and angry at people trying to ‘help’, and every single time I walked into the ‘Eating Disorders Clinic’ I felt like a fraud.

Thankfully, after years of suffering, I was given the help I needed and eventually I was ‘weight restored’ to 54kg, and ‘recovered’. Which is a misleading word which just means that you aren’t drowning in self-hatred – but it doesn’t mean that the drip isn’t there, or even the occasional downpour or flash flood of thoughts. My experience with  recovery from anorexia is similar to an alcoholics experience with recovery – we can triumph over it, but never let our guards down and we must always be aware of triggers. I have many triggers, but my biggest trigger was yet to come… but it wasn’t pregnancy.

I met my partner in 2006, and began trying to start a family in 2007. I always wanted to have children, and was excited about being pregnant. But I was nervous. My body was going to grow, in a way that I had absolutely no control over. I would have to surrender control, but keep control. I could not allow myself to be swept away in a flood of thoughts. I could not skip meals. I could not run until my muscles were burning. I had to look after myself, and I had to look after my baby. Could I do it? I was strong, but was I that strong? I was recovered, but… was I *that* recovered? Was I ready? Would I ever be ready?

I was lucky that physically, the years of disordered eating and being malnourished did not affect my fertility or my ability to sustain a pregnancy, although that isn’t the case for everyone.

My first pregnancy came with a wonderful sense of ease; in relation to the eating disorder at least. This was surprising, as I was always acutely self-conscious and self-critical pre-pregnancy, but my growing belly was something I cherished. For once my body was meant to be growing, and I let it grow. I was relaxed. I loved the life and energy flowing from me. I loved that eating was ‘for the baby’, and I could argue with the thoughts in my head. “I must eat”, I would think, “I must eat, for the baby”. And I did. I gained a lot of weight, and I didn’t let myself worry about it. I knew that if I acknowledged the amount of weight I had gained, it would rain-pour-flood, and I would drown. And I could not let that happen. I gained a lot of weight – over 20kg (44lb). Part of this weight gain was because I couldn’t restrict what I ate – if I did, it would just begin a barrage of thoughts that I might not have been able to fight. Another part of this weight gain was like me saying a big f**k you to the thoughts – kind of like, “you’ve controlled me for long enough, look what I am doing now”.

Unfortunately, throughout my first pregnancy I suffered with antenatal depression that extended into postnatal depression and anxiety, mixed in with some PTSD. I was lucky that they eating disorder did not take hold in a negative way. I know that many women react to pregnancy differently – the changes in hormones and body shape can be a huge trigger for eating disordered thoughts and behaviours – and even after recovery they have trouble keeping the thoughts and behaviours at bay. Women need to be aware of their strengths and their limitations when it comes to their recovery, always inform care providers and try to let people know or ask for help when they are struggling.

I birthed my daughter via cesarean in August 2008. It was an emergency cesarean; very unplanned, and very unwanted. Because I had gained so much weight, I did not just ‘bounce back’ to my pre-pregnancy weight. Well, I don’t think many women do just ‘bounce back’, but regardless, I was devastated. My belly is covered in stretch marks, my stomach shrunk down after the cesarean my skin crumpled in a sea of raw pink lines and I had a ‘hang’ on one side of the scar. I was carrying extra weight across my whole body, and I felt like a disgusting puffy crumpled-up mess. Breastfeeding did NOT help me lose weight, despite the belief that it does, and I was wearing maternity clothes for some months while I struggled with whether I would ever get to wear my pre-pregnancy clothes again.

[2009]

mother and daughter after eating disorder

I develop severe postnatal depression and anxiety. Even though I had dealt with depression and anxiety for years, I couldn’t recognise how much I needed help. I struggled, and I had a baby who existed on 2 hour blocks of sleep (if I was lucky!) and constant feeding. I was a mess, and some days were so dark I could barely see a way out. I dealt with it for years, and I fought so hard for the first two years to not relapse or go back into disordered eating. The thoughts were there, and they were strong , and I believed each and every thought that entered my head: they would be better off without you, they don’t need you, you’re nothing, you’re nothing, you’re a bad mother and your daughter knows it… For two years I fought those thoughts, but eventually I was worn.

[August 2010]

mother and baby recovery from anorexia

It was around the end of 2010 when it started again. I don’t really remember it well, but it was a tough time for us all. A multitude of things tumbled together and crashed into me and knocked me off my feet…  I lost all the weight I was carrying, and was back down to me pre-pregnancy weight. I pushed myself to my limits, all the while believing that it was never enough, I was never enough, I could do enough, be good enough, smart enough, strong enough… People told me I was losing weight but I couldn’t see it of course. Each morning I would get up, and cry as I made my coffee, then sob as I said goodbye to my daughter. I’d cry as I drove to work. On the drive to work, I’d pass cars and powerpoles, I’d drive over bridges, I’d take careless risks through roundabouts and traffic lights, wondering if I could just accelerate, lose control, drive into or drive off at the right moment, and it would all be over. I didn’t, of course, and it was probably because I knew I didn’t want to die, but I told myself I wasn’t strong enough, I was too weak, and for being too weak I deserved to keep living in hell. I usually held it together at work, and I’d come home and be angry, and cry myself to sleep.

My partner would be there, sometimes frustrated and angry, sometimes caring, but always there. Despite that, I felt alone. And so powerless and weak. And ashamed that I had let it take me again. And hopeless. She watched as I fell into a pit of despair. I pushed her away, but she stayed anyway. There was one night when she sat down next to me, with a look I’ll never forget, it was fear, she looked at me with fear. She asked me if I was going to be ok, and it broke my heart. She sobbed, and we cried together. She said I needed help. She wanted to help. She didn’t want to lose me. I told her I was strong. I could do this.

I fought and gained some control back. It was hard, but we did it together, my partner and I. She reached in and helped me out again.

[January 2012]

mother and daughter

I was pregnant with our second daughter early 2012.

This pregnancy was difficult. The first 14-15 weeks were full of vomiting and constant nausea. It was difficult to force myself to eat when I knew I would be bringing it back up in half an hour. I couldn’t work for almost 6 weeks. Things quietened down in second trimester, except for a few scares that left me in the birth suite with a fluid leak and infection.

At 28 weeks I was diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes and that was hard. I almost lost it. It was hard for me to keep hold of the eating disorder when I had to engage in the very behaviours that I were so disastrous to me for years. I had to keep track of my food, grams of carbohydrates, balance my meals, and religiously test and keep track of my blood sugar levels and weight. I had to keep it all in check. The obsessive part of me broke out, and I counted carbs to a key. I got to a point where I was 34 weeks pregnant, 62kg (136lb) and I wasn’t gaining weight and it was difficult. In my first pregnancy I found it easy to let my body gain the weight, I let myself eat, and I didn’t let myself think about it. This time, I was surrounded by triggers, and I couldn’t just ignore it, I couldn’t just eat, like in my first pregnancy. I had an acute awareness of my food, the nutritional value of my food, my weight… 

The hardest part was admitting it. I don’t like admitting when there’s something out of my control, I like being able to just take care of myself, and I won’t ask for help. Even when asked, I won’t admit I’m struggling. So telling my partner was tough. She already knew, of course. She knows my triggers, she knew what was happening in my head. We worked through it together, with a lot of support from her. I had a VBAC in November 2012, and with it, I gained a new sense of worth, achievement, and power. 

For me, the hardest part of this whole journey through pregnancy after eating disorders is relinquishing control. Through the years I lived with anorexia, I tried to control, I wanted control. Even through recovery, I hold on to the fact that I am controlling the eating disorder, I am in control of myself. But there’s an element to pregnancy and birth and postpartum that is uncontrollable. It is about trust and faith, it is about letting go and embracing the chaos. It is a fine balance between letting go and riding the wave, but knowing when to hold on again so I don’t start drowning. Even now, I struggle with knowing when I need to be in control and when I need to let go. Having a good support team around me to remind me to hold on or let go is essential.

It was also hard to get used to my new body. Things changed. A lot. Even being back to pre-pregnancy weight I am not the same as I once was. I’m softer and squishier, and I never expected that. And oh the stretch marks, so many stretch marks everywhere. No one told me my thighs would get stretchmarks, and yet as my hips widened, they did! My breasts are marked as well. And as my body shrunk back down my skin did not follow, and there is loose skin and dimples and crinkles… And I am one of the ones who don’t lose weight while breastfeeding, so that was a little disappointing as well!


post partum belly

I am 4 months postpartum now, and things seem clearer second time around. I am more confident, and I like my body. Some days I love my body. I know it deserves to be loved all the time, and I do my best. I am happier. Brighter. I still struggle with control – hold on, let go, hold on, let go…? The thoughts are there, although I wish I could say they weren’t, and they get to me sometimes. I can’t see this as something I will ever ‘get over’. Every now and then the thoughts get quieter and I live more freely, and sometimes they are deafening, and every minute is a struggle. I have to be aware of my triggers. We don’t own scales, and I don’t think there will ever be a time where I can have a set of scales in the house full-time – I can barely walk past scales on the shelf at a department store without wanting to stand on it. I can say with confidence that I will never be able to ‘diet’ or engage in any kind of radical detox program without having to fights the thoughts to take “one step further”, which is the path the leads to disordered eating. Exercise is difficult – I love running but have a tendency to push myself too far. I joined a gym once, a few months into an attempt at recovery, in an attempt to exercise in moderate and be ‘healthy’, but that didn’t end well.

But right now I am strong, and I am ok.

Written by Alisia, wife and mum to two kids in Australia.

post partum belly and baby

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah K July 9, 2013 at 12:06 am

G-d bless you! You are an amazing powerful warrior and a real inspiration. (And you look amazing!) I’m struggling with my post partum body now but this has totally helped me so much. If you can overcome that monster so can I! Keep it up Mama!

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Pinky July 9, 2013 at 1:35 am

Thankyou for sharing your story so bravely and beautifully. You are a brave warrior woman, your partner is loving and strong and your babies are a beautiful testament to the strength and love you share as a family – you ARE enough, just the way you are!

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Melissa July 9, 2013 at 2:09 pm

You are beautiful!!

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Jenny July 9, 2013 at 2:27 pm

You basically just told my story. With my first baby I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes though and that’s when my worse relapse occurred. I was losing one or two pounds a week for my third trimester and working out over 6 hours a day. Controlling the sugar numbers was just like controlling calories back in my anorexic peak (in high school). I also tried to join the gym once too and ended up almost losing my job so I could work out more than three times a day. Right now the only thing that keeps me from relapse is letting myself eat whatever I want and never working out. Doctors don’t understand that “exercising for 30 minutes a day” is a slippery slope that always ends in me falling. It’s like telling an alcoholic that they need to drink a glass of red wine every evening with dinner. Sure everything starts out fine but how long does it last before relapse? A week? Three months? A year?

I do have a question in all this though. How do you find the balance? I let myself eat anything and am therefore overweight/unhealthy. I don’t workout for fear of things getting out of control (while I of course feel the most in control). Where is the middle ground?

Thank you again for telling your story. It was nice to have someone write my story for me.

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Clare July 9, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Thanks for sharing your story. I developed a binge-eating disorder when I was seven, and now, at twenty-two, I’m over 350 pounds. I was in recovery for a couple years and got to a healthy weight, then relapsed. I know I’ll have to address my physical and mental health before I’m ready to have kids. I definitely relate to your story and appreciate it.

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Megan July 9, 2013 at 4:11 pm

You are beautiful and amazing! What a powerful journey <3

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Mel July 9, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Thank you for sharing your story. Thankyou for speaking out so honestly. I hope many women in your situation read your story and know that they too can survive

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Brandi July 9, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Thank you for sharing your story. These stories open doors for others to share theirs.
You’re beautiful and strong and a wonderful mother. Never forget that!
~B

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Jadeh July 9, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Thank You So Much for this Article! I cried reading it, because it is exactly what I’ve gone through/ and still going through. It’s been even harder because I too, do not lose weight while nursing. I find myself eating a handful of almonds late at night (only food I’ve eaten for the day). I drink water constantly to keep hydrated. I WANT To Breastfeed. I WANT It SO Much! My milk is drying up as it has with my three other children at 7 months postpartum. I just don’t know how to eat. I gain weight while nursing even if I barely eat, the thought of eating a meals and small snacks to keep my milk up depresses me and makes me feel like a blob. I eat the same size portion of a meal as my little children, (mainly because I don’t want them to become this way). I hope to be able to over come that voice inside of me as you have. Thank You for your inspiration.

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Kristina July 9, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your story. I am three years into my recovery from anorexia and terrified as to how my body and mind will handle pregnancy. I have a lot of support and the prospect of our future children fuels me to fight for complete recovery every day. Thank you again. If you need support ever feel free to contact me.

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Kristi July 9, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Oh, God, thank you. I’m starting to think that my husband and I could try for a baby next year–I’m an abuse survivor and “recovering” from an eating disorder. I am absolutely, utterly terrified of pregnancy, of changes in my body, of having a baby (all the physical ramifications), of never being the same… I don’t own a scale either. And I don’t think I can ever own one again. I just can’t. I have panic attacks at the doctor’s and had to bargain with them that they can only weigh me at yearly GYN appts because I can’t sleep for days before I go, even though I make sure that I never, ever see the numbers. I don’t know how to do this, and I’m scared, and I’m thankful that someone else felt the same.

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Pinky July 9, 2013 at 11:56 pm

I, too, cried reading your story. So much of what you said I can relate to, as I suffered from bulimia for four years and have just given birth to my first child (also by emergency c-section) six weeks ago. Thank you for sharing your story – there is some comfort in knowing that other woman have similar experiences and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

When I’m having a bad day, this helps gets me through: “Sometimes the decisions which seem the hardest to make, are the ones that will eventually make us the happiest.”

Kia kaha, stay strong =)

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Amanda July 10, 2013 at 6:02 am

Beautiful! Pictures and story, just beautiful.

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Cj July 10, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Thanks for sharing! You are Doing great.

I can relate. My mom struggled with bulimia and anorexia for years, then my older sister was hospitalized. I did the reverse and comfort ate. Then I accidentally lost nearly 30lbs when my husband went off on tour for 2 1:2 months. After that I became obsessed. Badly, counting and everything.
I got pregnant a few yrs later and thankfully let go. Now postpartum for the second time I struggle. I’m an ok weight, but everyone around me is dieting and into super fitness. A part of me wants to, but fears I’d revert. :(

Good luck on your journey. :)

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Kiya July 16, 2013 at 7:25 am

I’ve struggled with anorexia for 10 years. And this is my first pregnancy. I am constantly worried I’m just going to lose it one day and stop eating. Thank you for posting this. It was reassuring to know that I can get through this. And I can keep fighting. Good luck and stay strong.

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Lara July 24, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Holywow! This is me, this is my story of constant anxieties and fears, and relapses, and never-good-enough’s! I’m pregnant with my fifth child, 4th VBAC as it would seem that women that are abuse survivors are also prone to eating disorders, and thus birthing the first time is a very scary thing, so most of us end up with a C-section the first time around. I can’t tell you thank you enough times to warrant the validation I felt when I read this. My husband has never had a child before, so this is his first time around, and he really doesn’t seem to understand why I struggle so much with my body image and weight right now. Or when other people (oddly, mostly women) say something about how enormous my belly is. I am fighting with this demon on a moment-to-moment basis some days, and it’s so good to know I’m not alone. I am going to have him sit down and read your story so he can begin to maybe have an inkling of what I struggle with. Thanks so much for sharing.

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Nikki August 3, 2013 at 7:38 pm

I can relate to this post a lot and it’s nice to see the issue written about open and honestly.

I’m just getting into my first pregnancy. My clothes are slowly growing a little bit tighter and it’s a little upsetting sometimes (I was under the impression that I at least had a couple months before my body started to change it’s shape).
I’ve been “recovered” for about 4 or 5 years, not all that long and I definitely don’t consider myself recovered. I’ve still in recent years, even in the weeks leading up to discovering my pregnancy, had the thoughts and the minor relapses. The intentionally minute meals and the compulsive exercising. As soon as I found out I was pregnant though, things became real and they were no longer about me. I naturally do not eat very much (not healthy, but largely just because I sometimes feel too lazy to get up and find food) and now with the nausea it’s hard to convince myself to eat, even though I know that once I start eating consistently I feel so much better. I’ve been carefully making sure that I’m eating well and eating plenty and taking my prenatal vitamins, and until today I hadn’t had much thought about the weight I would gain.
I’ve been looking at pictures online and reading about women’s bodies after having a baby and I’m a little terrified. I don’t know what to expect as far as my mental health goes, but no matter what, I’m confident that I will do what’s right for my baby.

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Shannon August 5, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Great essay! You are one brave mama!

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Sam Coote December 6, 2013 at 3:01 pm

You are a true inspiration.
I suffered anorexia for 8 years. Very similar story.
Ima newly wed and have recently changed my mind or admitted at least that I do want a baby. My husband is amazing and knows everything about my history. Im now quite athletic shaped and mostly like or appreciate my body.in lucky to be alive. But im so scared of the effect pregnancy will have on my body. Im even more scared that anorexia is gonna rule my life once again and stop me from making my perfect marriage into a little family.
You give people like me hope.
All the best in everything you do. X

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TERRI BURTON January 23, 2014 at 10:18 am

Hi
Thank you for sharing your incredible journey.
I am a midwife in Perth, Western Australia and I am interviewing women who have been pregnant and have an eating disorder.
Would you like to be included in my research?
Kindest regards
Terri

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Aimee February 3, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Thank you so much for your story!
I am 18 weeks along with my first child, and like you I have struggled with an eating disorder for a long time (about 18 years now), and being pregnant has certainly triggered and brought up a lot of old emotions and behaviors. I have had trouble finding any kind of support, both online and in person. It’s basically just “get over it”. Thank you for helping me see that it is possible and that I shouldn’t hate myself in the process.

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julie May 5, 2014 at 10:25 am

Thank you for sharing your story. I have a 4 week old baby…and I gained over 50 pounds during pregnancy because I just let myself be and did not restrict myself. Now my partner is pressuring me to lose weight…and I am trying to help him understand why I can’t start counting calories and restricting my intake. I have to look at it as trying to be healthier. ..With weight lose being a bonus of living healthier. I may have home read your post…i think it is really hard for someone who had not had an eating disorder to understand. Thanks again.

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Renee June 7, 2014 at 3:41 pm

This was very helpful to read. I’m going through the same thing at 22 weeks pregnant with the body changes (the thigh stretch marks took me by surprise too!) and I’m very nervous about the increase in ED thoughts and triggers. I will bookmark this page and look back when it gets overwhelming. Thank you.

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Kat June 9, 2014 at 10:38 pm

I like that you described eating disorder recovery as being like an alcoholic, that’s exactly the way I described it… even though its been 3 years since I began recovery, I know that I’m always going to be recovering. The thoughts will always be in the back of my mind. Thank you for sharing your story, and great job on your recovery.

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Liz June 9, 2014 at 11:09 pm

Thank you for sharing your story. Like you I am a ‘recovered’ anorexic mother of two, giving birth to my second baby just over four months ago. The thoughts and feelings for me have come back strongly but as I am feeding, I have tried to push through these and enjoy time with my daughter reasoning that I need to continue eating well for her. It was lovely to hear others experiences and know that I am not alone.

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Alex August 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Wow, you are inspirational, and so strong. Congratulations on your two beautiful babies, and for every day that you win your battle with the eating disorder! xxx

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Stephanie August 5, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Thank you for sharing your story! You are a beautiful person, wife and Mom!!!

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