It’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week… and I am coming out
Writing this post is one of the hardest things I have done in recent memory. But it’s also one of the most freeing.
I spent almost fifteen years of my life wrestling with anorexia nervosa. This month marks seven years from when I finally entered my journey with recovery.
I was inspired last year by Bowinn Ma and her brave decision to come out as a person who has struggled with an eating disorder. To see someone so successful and whom I admire reveal that she has struggled from the same life-consuming disease. Then, later last year when Supreme Court of Canada Justice Gascon retired early, and became an outspoken advocate for lawyers’ mental health, I knew I had to share my story.
So to begin, I want to thank Bowinn Ma and Justice Gascon for having the courage to come out and share what it’s like to struggle with a mental illness.
My eating disorder began in high school, but there were markers of it throughout my whole life. I consider it to be something I was born with, and something that was and is always a part of me. When stressed or overwhelmed, I would restrict food. I developed strategies to get rid of food, so that it would look like I had eaten when I had not.
By the time I moved to Vancouver for University, I was fully engulfed by the disorder. I may have been the only person who lost weight in their first year of university. I had a basic meal plan, and had almost $800 left over at the end of the year, due to how little food I ate. What money I did spend mostly went to diet iced tea and pop.
I reached a particular low point around the end of my studies, which culminated in the loss of several important relationships. I was too hungry to sleep, so I would stay up all night and participate in online discussion groups for people struggling with eating disorders.
In law school, my weight fluctuated like a yo-yo. Food was a challenge for me. I restricted so many food groups there was almost nothing left to eat. I had rules about when I could eat, what I could eat, and what colour foods I was allowed to eat, and by the time I graduated from law school things were worse.
I made some feeble attempts at recovery while in law school. However, the programming at the time in the province for eating disorders was (and remains) woefully inadequate. By the time you are an adult, many of the options available are completely gone. I participated in some group therapy at St. Paul’s Hospital, which I found unhelpful. I was scheduled for an inpatient bed but quit the program before I could go.
To this day, I remain unsure about whether I quit because it wasn’t right for me, or whether I quit because I wasn’t ready to give up on my disorder.
Once I entered PLTC (the bar exam prep course), I was completely able to restrict my food intake. My partner and friends were working. Our PLTC class finished early enough most days that there was no need for a lunch break. I would drive home and find excuses not to eat for the rest of the day.
Working in law helped too. Look, if you want a job that keeps you from eating, become a lawyer. Between court appearances and work in the office there was always a reason to skip breakfast and skip lunch. And if I worked late enough, I could skip dinner too.
By the time I was halfway though my first year as a lawyer, I was at a low point for my weight. I had never been that thin. I was so thin, I was approached on the street and offered on-the-spot modelling contracts. This just fuelled my desire to lose more weight.
But I was also miserable.
Being sick meant that I never had to deal with any emotional turmoil. The reason I lost so much weight in my articling year and first year as a lawyer was because of significant emotional stress at work. Without getting into too much detail, there was a lawyer at our office who, unbeknownst to anyone, was bullying and tormenting me on a near-daily basis. I could not control this person’s behaviour, but I could control what I ate. And the less I ate, the less I felt the sting of what they were doing to me.
Eventually, I lost so much weight that my body had eaten all my stored fat. There was nothing to keep me going, and somehow this contributed to me having an emotional break down. There is a sick point in self-starvation where you flip the switch from feeling powerful and in control, to helpless and out of control. That was me by my low point.
I confided in Paul, both about the bullying and about the eating disorder. I was at my wit’s end. I couldn’t lose any more weight and continue to survive, but I also couldn’t survive any longer in the conditions I was in.
While I give myself a lot of credit for taking the steps necessary to get treatment, I also give Paul a lot of credit for getting me there. He searched high and low and found a residential treatment program at Westwind Eating Disorder Recovery Centre in Brandon, Manitoba. He paid for me to attend the program, bought me plane tickets to Manitoba, and within less than a week from when he found the place I was on a bus from the airport to Brandon to attend the centre.
I spent two weeks there. That’s all I could afford out of work. And I worked harder than I ever had in my life to build a base for recovery that I could take back home. On February 18, 2013, I was discharged from Westwind and returned home to try to stay on track with recovery.
And I did it.
I’m not going to say there weren’t hiccups or bumps along the way. But here I am, seven years later. And if it weren’t for Westwind and for Paul… and the work I put in… I wouldn’t be here today at all. My eating disorder very nearly killed me, but in the end I killed it.
For eating disorder awareness week, I hope I that by sharing my story I can let someone else out there who is struggling know that it’s okay to be sick, and it’s okay to get help. Recovery is possible. And life in recovery is way better than life with an eating disorder.
Please, if you’re struggling, reach out to me. I will happily take the time to talk to you, hear your story, and help you find a resource that works for you.