At age 15, I was diagnosed with orthorexia. In a world where rumors spread like wildfires and essentially everything can be misconstrued, I have decided to take it into my own hands to explain my story. I hope with this blog, I can encourage others who are struggling to reach out for help and start their own journey towards recovery.
As a gymnast since the age of 2, I was devoted to the sport. So, when I developed a back problem freshman year, I was determined to do anything in my power to continue the sport I love. My mom and I visited many doctors, with treatment options ranging from doing squats to having back surgery. Finally, May of my freshman year, we found a doctor who had the answers. He treated my back with a steroid injection and upon leaving, his parting words were, “If you want to stay in gymnastics, you need to eat healthy and keep your back strong”. My mind twisted and turned the definition of “eating healthy” and “staying strong”.
With this new goal of “health”, I started to go to the gym outside of my long hours of gymnastics practices. Using messages I received from social media, gymnastics, and my family, I started to change my diet to include only foods that I thought were healthy. I cut out carbs; I ate fruit and salads, with dessert earned only after I had completed the fitness mandates I put upon myself. Slowly, my meal portions became smaller and smaller, convinced this was what was required for a “healthy” lifestyle. This lifestyle left my nutrient-deprived brain fixated on food. My body told me I was starving myself; however, I felt ignoring those messages meant I was achieving my ultimate goal of growing stronger.
It started to become a game for me: How long could I go without eating? However, this was a game I could never win. The hours between meals were never long enough, and I continued to push them out even more. This resulted in weight loss at an even faster rate. My clothes started to become baggy on me; my hair started to fall out in strands as I brushed it.
Initially, my weight loss did not bring up concern from those around me. I was congratulated for my new body by my friends — some girls even asked me what I was doing so they could try it as well. I received compliments by my gymnastics coach, convincing me my unhealthy body was required in order to improve in gymnastics. I was praised for my newfound “diligence”, admired for my ability to not have dessert. Little did anyone know, this “diligence” left me in fear. I was afraid of the foods I once enjoyed. I was afraid what it would mean to have a brownie. Would I gain weight? Would it keep me from becoming stronger? Would it make me look fat? These were just some of the constant mind battles that were raging inside my brain.
December of my sophomore year, my insufficient diet started to result in symptoms. I was so cold; no number of layers could warm me up. I was thoroughly exhausted all of the time from not eating enough to live a daily life, let alone endure gymnastic practices. My malnutritioned mind hindered my ability to concentrate, making learning in class difficult and socializing with friends challenging.
On December 15, 2016 — having lost a substantial amount of weight and with a dangerously low heart rate of 36 — I was diagnosed with orthorexia. Driven to the hospital, with tears streaming down my face, I tried to take in the news. Me with an eating disorder? How could that be? I was always the eater of the family — wasn’t I? I have always enjoyed food — haven’t I? Once hospitalized, mandatory bed rest made me feel like a passenger on a life-long flight with the seatbelt sign glued, “ON”. Too many hands with needles rushed in to take my blood; nurses carried plates of food that were my medicine, but to me, looked like death itself.
Recovering from an eating disorder is not a one way ticket. As I have experienced, there are times that you have to fall back before you can move forward. However, there are also times that you are not ready to move forward. Coming home from the hospital, I wasn’t ready to start recovery. The 2-week hospitalization, my weight loss, and my low heart rate were not enough to convince me that I had a problem.
Weekly doctor appointments continuously bearing bad news was my life for the year and a half after I was diagnosed. As the focus was making sure I was getting enough calories and maintaining weight, my eating disorder took on a new shape. It moved away from my original goal of becoming strong and started focusing on calories and weight, however not in the way my doctor had intended. My eating disorder started to make me irrationally think about what those calories meant, making me believe that any number of calories above a given amount would make me gain more weight. Gaining weight in such a small amount of time in the hospital made it difficult for me to be comfortable with my new body. As a result, I was not willing to accept treatment because I did not want to be stuck in a body that I thought was big. My eating disorder made me act sneakily around food. I began taking actions to make it look like I was eating more, all to convince those around me that I didn’t have a problem.
The summer after junior year, I was supposed to go to Israel for a month, a trip that meant the world to me. However, my doctor would not sign the medical release forms to let me go. To top it all off, I was forced to see a therapist who told me straight up: “Hailey, you are sick and you need help”. Her warnings of death and life-long consequences stuck in my mind.
The combination of losing my Israel trip and the therapist’s frank statements started to awaken the logical side of me. I began to understand that I had a problem and I knew I did not want to live my life like this. Agreeing to enter a residential treatment facility, I started to obtain the necessary skills to overcome my illness. Actively working with therapists and nutritionists, I proceeded to understand what inhibited my eating and learned that the nutrition rules I was following previously were incorrect. Taking these lessons to heart, I left the residential facility with a new mindset, determined to achieve a full recovery.
The process of recovering from an eating disorder has paralleled a roller coaster. At times, I was completely free of the harmful voice in my head, and other times that chatter was so loud I was sure those around me could hear it. Coming home from residential this fall and entering school was a challenge. I had to keep up with the demands of the full IB program at my school, missing half the school day for the first 3 weeks of the year, all the while working with my treatment team on my recovery. In this challenge, I have had slips (meaning my weight and heart rate were lower than the doctor considered healthy). However, I have begun to understand that slips do not mean you are going backwards. Recovery is about balance — this meal plan didn’t work, so let’s try something else. In accepting the slips, I forgave myself when the results were not what I had hoped for. I reminded myself that sometimes I need to take steps backwards in order to ultimately move forward.
My recovery has forced me to question the messages people of all ages receive via social media. Our society has this unspoken rule of how women’s and men’s bodies are supposed to be shaped. These impossible demands set upon us are often met with failure, resulting in depression or, in my case, eating disorders. Our culture’s constant diet mentality forces eating disorder patients to limit the amount of calories they consume; lost is the fact that the food we ingest provides the necessary building blocks for our bodies to function. The resultant malnutrition deprives our brains of energy, resulting in an inability to make rational decisions. This makes it even more difficult to decipher the harmfulness of the messages society advertises. Furthermore, I have learned that what is enough food for one person may not be enough for another, or even too much for someone else. Clearly, it is impossible to create a universal diet that is “healthy” for everyone.
Through my recovery, I have also experienced the negative stigma that is associated with this disease and other mental illnesses. When I was first diagnosed, I was too embarrassed about my disorder to open up to my friends. I was ashamed of having such an illness, afraid what people would think of me if they found out. However, I have learned that eating disorders are more common than one would think, and that in order to truly recover, I needed to break down the brick wall of shame I started building around myself and open up.
Recovery has taught me insights about myself and the world around me, making me a whole and complete person. I have strengthened my inner voice and have worked on becoming confident with who I am and where I need to go. In writing this, I hope to support others who are struggling and help them understand that they are not alone in the struggle. I wish to encourage people to challenge the diet mentality and unrealistic body demands we receive via media sources and understand the harmful effects these advertisements can have.