The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

An honest look at a misunderstood illness 

thumb PIKAL cereal WEBSome women chew ice; some drink vinegar. The more daring ones swallow cotton balls soaked in water or sniff nail polish remover — they say the fumes make them dizzy enough to forget their hunger. Some women throw up after every meal or take 20 laxatives each night.

The women I'm talking about are easy to spot in a crowd; walking ghosts with pale, translucent skin stretched over frail bones. They have chipped, sheer nails and veins that pop out like blue rivers. Feathered hair floats over spindly shoulders; it's too thin and likely to fall in big clumps when brushed in the morning. Sometimes, in the worst cases, you'll see strange, woolly hair on their arms — the body's last, desperate attempt to keep warm.

I'm not talking about the women who exercise five times a week or go to Jenny Craig, or the women who try to cut out white sugar and watch Jane Fonda exercise tapes.

I'm talking about the women who have been force-fed with a stomach tube. Women who count skipped periods as victories.

Every single one of these women I'm talking about has been held captive by an eating disorder. For some, the wake-up call happens before the hospital.

For others it doesn't.

Isabelle Caro, a 28-year-old Italian model, died in December 2010 of complications resulting from anorexia. At the worst of her eating disorder, Isabelle Caro weighed 55 pounds. She spent her last years involved in campaigns depicting the reality of anorexia. Caro told CBS, "I have lost teeth, I lost hair; I don't know if it will grow back, I don't know if I'll be able to have kids. I don't see anything beautiful about that."

The battle begins

Beauty was the last thing on my mind as my struggle began with anorexia nervosa.

I was 15. I was a perfectly normal weight, but I didn't see it. In my head, my body became distorted to the point where I wanted to change it until it became unrecognizable.

I just wanted to be thin. By the time I was 17, my nails were always chipped, my hair was limp and snapped easily, I had deep bags under my eyes and I wore layers of baggy clothes to hide my shrinking frame.

My thoughts were controlled by the cruel stitching on the back of my jeans that told me I was the wrong size. I reveled in the shrinking number and prayed for zero. I believed that once I whittled down to that size, I would finally be happy. I would stop hating my body.

I thought I could go back to eating normally anytime I wanted to. I just wanted to lose a little bit more weight. I would start eating again as soon as I lost 10 pounds. But I didn't.

The monster in my head

It's a mental illness. It warps your thinking. You become someone else.

I didn't take laxatives or exercise for three hours everyday. I didn't weigh myself obsessively on the scale. I just didn't eat.

Food became repulsive; taste lost all meaning to me. I measured food in teaspoons — breakfast was one teaspoon of dry cereal. Lunch was half a glass of orange juice. Dinner was a single spring roll. There were no thoughts about food groups, nutrients or vitamins.

The summer before Grade 12, I started to keep track of calories. I had a notebook of what I ate. I counted the calories in my toothpaste, in the gum I chewed to keep me from chewing food — every calorie counted. pikal GrapesWEBMy five-course meal. Sufferers of anorexia restrict food intake to the point where they barely eat at all; it becomes an obsession to eat as little as possible.

Photo illustration by: Silvia Pikal.

The hunger was overwhelming; but I ignored it. I felt a deep sense of satisfaction that I had managed to conquer it. I could ignore hunger; I was invincible. When I wanted to eat I would strip down to my underwear and look at myself in the mirror for a long time. The judgement kept me satisfied. It made me feel something.

I became a liar. I'd meet my friends after school and they'd want to grab a bite. My excuse was something like, "I ate a big lunch and I'm full." When I came home, my mom would ask me if I was hungry. I would reply with another lie, "I ate dinner with my friends." In the mornings before school, I'd tell my parents, "I'll buy lunch at school. A grilled cheese sandwich and poutine. It's what my friends always get."

But I didn't.

I became a master at feigning stomach pain so I could skip a meal. I learned to hide my food in my napkin, or move food around my plate to make it look like I had eaten enough. When people questioned me, I made some excuse or shrugged it off. I dodged enquiries, or snapped at them until they stopped. I stopped talking to my parents, would leave the room or scream at them when they suggested I had been losing weight.

I started to spend less time at home. I went to a friend's house where no one cared that I ate nothing but a handful of chips for dinner. I would sleep over and leave before breakfast, saying I'd eat breakfast at home. Once I got home, I would say, "I already ate." I kept most people far away from me so they couldn't bother me about my illness.

To keep my parents from bugging me about my weight, I wore the kind of shapeless, baggy clothing you'd find in the men's section. I wanted to hide. I wanted to disappear and melt away into the ground.

I didn't want anyone looking at me and judging me. I felt that every time I looked at myself in a mirror.

No one else could see that I was fat; but I could. It was clear as day, and I wouldn't let anyone stop me until I got down to zero. It didn't matter that you could count my ribs. It didn't matter that you could wrap both hands around my thigh and they would overlap. I wasn't skinny enough. PIKAL cereal WEBA spoonful of dry cereal was a routine breakfast when I was struggling with anorexia.

Photo illustration by: Silvia Pikal.

"Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels," Kate Moss said in an interview with Women's Wear Daily.

But I didn't feel good. I felt fatigued all hours of the day. As soon as I got home from school, I would sleep until it was time for dinner. I was eventually diagnosed with anemia.

Getting help

It's tough to talk about it with your friends or family — I felt ashamed and didn't want to tell anyone.

You hate your fear and self-loathing and hunger, but it's tough to quit.

It took me four years, but now, at 21, I finally see food as fuel and not the enemy.

First, being told I was anemic by my doctor was the push I needed to remind me what I had somehow forgotten — you can't keep going like this. I tried to eat more but the idea of gaining weight terrified me.

Second, an acquaintance I didn't really get along with had approached me and told me about her struggles with bulimia. Prompted by her honesty, I confided to her that I had been starving myself, and she said, "I know. I could tell something was wrong."

She had seen a therapist and been in rehab for her eating disorder. Being able to talk to someone who understood what I was going through was therapeutic, and she encouraged me to seek help. Now she is a close friend and is always there if I need to talk.

Third, another friend asked me if I wanted to join the swim team later that year. I quickly signed up, reasoning that all the exercise would burn off the excess calories. It turned out that I loved swimming and I ended up joining a club outside of school.

I swam six days a week for months and in that time I started eating proper meals. After a while I stopped counting calories. And I slowly gained the weight back.

But I wasn't obsessing over it because I was proud of my body and how far it could take me in a race. I learned to eat when I was hungry, and I eventually accepted I was never going to be a size zero and bought the right size jeans.

I did not actually give away my "anorexic" jeans until this year. I tried them on, but there was no way they were going over my thighs, sculpted from swimming and other sports.

I had held on to a sick thought that I'll be that skinny again someday.

But I don't want to be that skinny anymore.

Aftermath

The truth is that the monster in my head that tormented me about my weight will never truly leave me. It's a battle every single day to keep from counting calories or restricting portions more than I should.

The facts around eating disorders

At any given time in Canada, 70 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men are dieting. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, with 10 to 20 per cent eventually dying from complications.

There is no single cause of an eating disorder. Psychological factors include low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy or lack of control, depression, anger or loneliness. Some studies have found a link between lower amounts of serotonin in the brain and anorexia.

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by severe weight loss due to extreme food reduction.

Bulimia nervosa results in frequent fluctuations in weight, due to periods of un-controllable binge eating, followed by purging.

Binge-eating disorder, or compulsive eating, is often triggered by chronic diet-ing and involves periods of overeating, often in secret and carried out as a means of deriving comfort.

Treatment for eating disorders

Treatment is achieved most successfully thorough medical assessment, nutri-tional guidance, support, medical follow-up, individual, group and family therapy.

(Canadian Mental Health Association)

You try to eat those six small meals because you don't want to go back to counting the calories in toothpaste. You don't want to go back to checking the nutrition label on a bottle of water.

You want to be able to finish the meal in front of you, and be able to look in the mirror without hating every inch of your body and wishing you could make it disappear.

There are victories, like taking a second helping of dessert without mentally punishing yourself; going for a run because you enjoy it, not because you want to lose weight and listening to your body when it's hungry.

My changing relationship with food

Two summers ago I went to Croatia where I was treated to giant, organic, juicy tomatoes and lettuce fresh from my cousin's backyard. I learned to appreciate the delicate flavours found in whole foods and once back home, I started experimenting with food for the first time. I stopped eating everything from a bag or a box, putting it in the microwave and then gulping it down without a thought for nutrition or taste.

Now, instead of scarfing down a pack of soup crackers and calling it lunch, I enjoy my food. I stand over the stove with sauce drizzling down my chin, relish the flavours found in whole wheat pizza with homemade pesto, stacked with mushrooms and zucchini or thick, creamy potato soup with a grilled panini on the side, filled with eggplant, caramelized onions, lettuce and tomato.

I don't think about calories or how my jeans will fit. I eat until I'm full.

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