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]
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 Cameron, wife and mum to two kids in Australia.