Recovering from an eating disorder is an arduous journey all on its own. Today’s guest columnist, Jess Mann, had to do it in the midst of another life-changing event. Her story reminds me of just how complicated life can become, throwing joy and terror and hard work at us all at once. But she also reminds me that we can survive it.
It was three days before my birthday. My sister told me she was bringing an ice cream cake, and without even thinking about it, I knew I was going to skip dinner so I could have a piece without feeling guilty. It wouldn’t matter if I was hungry. Hunger rarely factored into my decision-making about food in the fifteen odd years I struggled with anorexia and binge-eating disorder. It was never about whether I was too hungry (good) or too full (bad). It was always about whether I deserved to eat something — if I had earned it. I hung up the phone with my sister and started planning for the day of the party. I would not eat at work, I decided. I would wait until two hours before the party and eat something healthy (read: boring bowl of salad), then I could have a glass of wine and a slice of cake guiltlessly. Even this far ahead, I knew I was creating a recipe for disaster. If this birthday was like any other, I would probably end up in front of the fridge at 2 a.m., shovelling leftover cake into my mouth and feeling like an absolute failure. But for now, I put that thought aside and turned my attention to another nagging issue. I went home and peed on a stick. Two lines appeared. A few years prior, my husband and I decided we were ready to have a baby. I had just turned thirty, and had been struggling with my eating disorder for over a decade. In preparation for becoming a parent, I sought out help from a counsellor and began to make real progress toward feeling normal around food again. About a year into recovery, I had a miscarriage. This was the opportunity my eating disorder had been waiting for. One of the million things nobody tells you about miscarriage is that no matter how many doctors or friends tell you it wasn’t your fault, you still wonder what you did wrong. My self-worth plummeted and my disordered behaviour began to take hold again. It was easier to control food than to control how I felt. Each time, my attempts at restriction failed and I’d face-plant into a vat of peanut butter, telling myself I didn’t have a reason to get better. I didn’t deserve to. I clung to the disorder like a security blanket, and I was good at hiding it. Because I remained at what most would consider a “healthy” weight, nobody suspected I had a problem. No one even thought to look. Now I was pregnant again. Upon seeing the results, I felt relieved and excited, and then immediately anxious. My eating disorder had become the constant, controlling voice in my head. I was going to have to stop restricting and bingeing and start taking care of myself again — but how? With pregnancy, eating is very important. There are hundreds of books and blogs telling you how, what, and when to eat. I eagerly read up, looking for my new guidelines, the new set of food rules I could insert into my life. I still wanted to feel like I was “doing it right,” but I was prepared to approach food from a completely new standpoint. Then the nausea came. You know how in the movies, the pregnant character is always in the middle of doing something when, out of nowhere, she gets this look of shock on her face and rushes to the bathroom? That’s not what it’s like. It’s not, “Hey! Surprise! You’re going to be sick now!” *Pukes* “All better!” I never vomited, but every day, around noon, the nausea would arrive. It would intensify as the afternoon progressed, until I crawled to the floor of my living room and lay there, willing the room to stop swaying. I gave up sometimes as early as 6:30 p.m., and went to bed. Miserable as I was, this was also the dream of anyone with a history of disordered eating: forced, continuous appetite suppression. At the first check up of my second trimester, the midwife looked at the scale and frowned. “You’ve lost ten pounds in a month,” she said gravely. My husband shot me a worried look. “Are you vomiting? Can you keep anything down?” the midwife asked. I shook my head. “I’ve never been a puker,” I said slowly. “But it’s so bad in the afternoons, I can barely eat anything.” “Saltines? Yogurt? Smoothies?” I nodded. “I can do those. A little. I just feel so sick all the time. I’d rather just sleep.” She glanced at the chart again. “Well, try eating a little bit every few hours, because I need to see this stop,” she said, raising her eyebrows at me. “Next appointment, you need to have gained weight or we’re going to have to prescribe you something.” I nodded again, wondering what they prescribed for weight-gain during pregnancy. The all-cheese diet? In the car on the way home, my husband patted my hand. He said some encouraging stuff too, but I couldn’t hear him over my eating disorder. It told me I was going to be one of those pregnant ladies that didn’t look pregnant from behind; that I would be the woman who turned down a slice of cake at her own baby shower, and that everyone would be so impressed. I was so conditioned to be ashamed of any weight gain and proud of every loss, that even then, in that critical moment, it was all I could think of. Back at home, I sat in my bathroom. I thought about how just three months earlier I had seen those two lines, and knew my life was going to change. Then I remembered sitting there a year earlier, when I’d lost that first pregnancy. It was time to learn to trust my body, for good this time. I had listened to my eating disorder lie to me for too long. Now, I had to rely on my body’s own voice, reminding me that the most important part of pregnancy is taking care of yourself — real care, loving your body because it’s doing the best it can for you. No matter how you’ve abused, starved, or beaten it, all your body ever wants from you is to be taken care of. I couldn’t know what was going to happen with this pregnancy, but I knew that I had put my body through enough. Sitting in my bathroom, I said, “I forgive you,” and then I cried a whole bunch. Pregnant or not, if I was ready to be a mother, I deserved to stop measuring my success by what I didn’t allow myself. My baby deserved a mother who would show him not only a healthy example of eating, but also an example of self-care and love. For both of us, I vowed to seek the support I needed now, and ask for professional help if and whenever I needed it again in the future. I never wanted him to go through the kind of pain I put myself through every day. When I came out of the bathroom, my husband gave me a hug. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Yeah,” I replied, and I took a deep breath. “I’m hungry.” If you think you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, visit the National Centre For Eating Disorders to find help. Jess Mann is a writer and teacher living in Northern Massachusetts. Read more of her work on her blog, Manngez Tout.