Updated: Oct 3
My journey in ED recovery has not been linear. As I scrolled through my camera roll looking for pictures I wanted to print out to hang up in my college dorm for my sophomore year a nd I found myself in tears.
I had scrolled all the way back to some of the earliest memories in my camera roll on my phone; from my freshman and sophomore years of high school. There were laughing moments at football games in the school band section. There were goofy team photos with my volleyball friends.
There were smiling selfies with my dog when she was a puppy. In all of these photos I noticed how my face had this “glow” to it; it was as if I was radiating with joy. As I slowly continued scrolling, that glow started to fade.
I can remember how I felt as a sophomore in high school when these photos were taken. Instead of noticing how happy I was in these photos, I only noticed my flaws and insecurities. In pictures with my band friends at the football games I hated the way my braces made me look awkward. In volleyball team photos, I remember comparing my body to the other girls’ on my team- how my legs and stomach looked bigger than some of theirs. In selfies with my puppy, I remember feeling self conscious that my face looked “too” round. As a 15-year-old, it was these thoughts that began creating my eating disorder.
Even though my eating disorder succeeded in making my body smaller, it never made me feel any better about the way I felt when I looked at myself in the mirror. I STILL found ways to hate my body; and in the process I lost the glowy smile I once had. Instead my face looked pale, my eyes sunken in, and I felt chronically exhausted. Although I smiled in photos, it wasn’t the same. I looked less like myself- less like Abby.
I started recovery when I was a senior in high school and began nourishing my body again. I spent more time going out to get food with my friends again, I felt stronger, and slowly began to feel more like myself. I was starting to glow a little bit again; but still not as bright as before my eating disorder.
In the summer after I graduated high school, I had a weight check with my doctor before heading back to school. She made me feel like I was doing great and that I didn’t need to check-in with her as much anymore. I felt confused. I knew I’d gained some weight since starting recovery, I was eating more than before, and I felt less anxious around food. But I still didn’t feel like I was fully recovered yet; the thoughts were still there.
I continued struggling again while I was away at college. I still felt like I “shouldn’t” eat certain foods and I felt guilty sometimes when I’d eaten more than usual. In addition to struggling still with food, I struggled more with anxiety. Even though my body was a little more healthy physically since beginning recovery, I still wasn’t healed from the psychological piece of anorexia- and because my doctor told me I was “OK” I believed her.
Going to college brought along a whole new set of challenges. Instead of having 24/7 access to food at home, I relied on food from the dining hall and snacks that could be kept in the dorm easily. Some dining halls aren’t open before 10am on the weekends and have limited options later at night. In addition to a somewhat limited access to food, I found it hard to adjust to the eating habits of those around me. There were so many instances where people around me skipped meals or waited until afternoon before eating since they knew they’d be going out and binge-drinking later. This made it hard for me to validate how much I needed to eat in order to restore weight, even though I know what their body needs may be different than what mine does. Eating to restore weight while surrounded by girls who eat to “stay skinny” is incredibly difficult.
The idea of gaining weight carries such a negative connotation, especially for teenagers/college aged students. If you gain weight you are “unhealthy”; people think you’ve lost control of yourself. But this is not true. In fact, all throughout adolescence, ages 13-26, weight gain is completely normal and healthy. Many young people who develop anorexia end up losing a drastic amount of weight during a time in development where their weight should really be increasing. Diet culture has normalized the concept that once you reach your full height your weight should stay the same; but that’s not true either! Even for adults, it's completely normal for body weight to fluctuate slightly.
In addition, for those in eating disorder recovery, restoring the lost weight is important even for those who may already be in the “healthy BMI range”. It’s still possible to be weight-suppressed, or below their healthy body’s weight, and be in the healthy BMI range.
There are so many negative impacts that long-term weight suppression has on the body both physically and mentally. Some of these include GI issues, fatigue, sensitivity to the cold, and dizziness. For young girls, weight suppression can cause functional hypothalamic amenorrhea which is a condition when a girl no longer menstruates due to having low body fat percentage and low energy. At this state, the body is basically in “survival mode”, only directing energy to the organs needed to stay alive. Levels of anxiety tend to increase in people who have been weight suppressed, especially young adults. During adolescence, teens may stop growing physically, but their brains are still rapidly developing! If an adolescent remains weight suppressed during this time, it means their bodies are constantly in an energy deficit, which makes it difficult for the brain to continue developing at the rate it should be. This makes these adolescents more prone to anxiety disorders.
The common misconception about weight suppression is that these negative effects only apply to people who are or were underweight according to BMI charts, but that is NOT true. Weight suppression can occur at any weight and can be just as dangerous to someone’s overall health.
Understanding this has completely changed my mindset in recovery. When my recovery journey began my doctor never explained to me that the goal of weight restoration in recovery was to get back to a healthy weight for MY body; not necessarily according to the BMI chart.
Being back at school for my sophomore year feels completely different already. Even though the eating habits of people around me haven’t changed and I still have disordered thoughts around food sometimes, my motivation to regain my “glow” is SO much stronger. I know that there will still be challenges ahead of me in recovery, but I also now know how important weight restoration is for me to truly live my life. I commit to full recovery.