For me, there is no talking about mental health without talking about body image. I remember feeling the pervasive desire for thinness, the necessity of dieting, and seeing food as either “bad” or “good” from as young as 6 years old. Blame fat-free food marketing of the 90s, or blame my vast collection of Barbie dolls, but somehow my body has consistently been a target for negativity. On the heels of Canada’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I thought it appropriate to share how my relationship with my body and food became my first outlet for my mental health issues.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, and as I’m sure you can relate, we all have our coping mechanisms for managing our mental health, and these strategies sit on a spectrum of things that can be healthy for us, or not so much. You’ll recall that in my early 20s, I used work, my social life and a shocking amount of cocktails to avoid confronting depressive feelings. However, as an adolescent, these coping mechanisms weren’t available to me, and my world was much smaller and contained.
I developed an eating disorder in high school in response to an unstable and stressful home environment. At a time in my household when I had no control over what went on and could never predict what I was walking into on a given day, what I ate and managing my weight became the outlet where I channeled all of my energy, stress and negative emotions. While I was busy obsessively reading food labels and writing lists of calories I had consumed that day, I was distracted from what was going on at home.
Living with this disorder was an exhausting experience, defined by cycles of guilt and joy that were completely dependent on the number on that scale. My unrelenting inner critic kept me laser focused on my goal: to be smaller, to take up less room in the world. Thoughts of how I could require less food consumed my day, so there was not an ounce of room left in my mind to feel the full impact of life at home.
And like many coping mechanisms, it worked for a time. Losing weight and eating very little felt like an accomplishment to me, at a time when my home life was not a source of confidence or security. At the very least, I would think to myself, I had this under control.
Only my oldest childhood friend and boyfriend ever called me out on my bullshit, asking me where my lunch was, or not believing that I had “already eaten”. At the time, I felt attacked – how dare they challenge me? Now I see their confrontations as the sincerest act of love and as much as they could do as teenagers themselves.
As my home life improved and I moved away to university, the pull of the disorder had quieted and I found myself able to loosen the reigns on such restrictive eating patterns. I was happier, and not merely surviving.
Some residual effects of the illness remain, mostly in the form of emotional self-harm. This is how I describe the repeating soundtrack of negativity that I will sometimes allow to play over and over in my mind. This can range from remembering all of my most embarrassing moments in quick and vivid succession, to beating myself up for drinking too much, to finding myself in a social media black hole comparing myself to strangers on the Internet – all of which certainly fall under the “not-so-good-for-you” category.
There is no physical harm, but I have to be careful – emotional self-harm becomes reminiscent of the pervasive thought patterns of my disorder that kept me safe for a time, but nonetheless controlled my thoughts and behaviours for too long.
I also have this weird aversion to bagels. Someone had told me once, at a clearly impressionable time, that bagels have as many calories as 5 pieces of bread. I can imagine that frightened me to no end and thus, I have not eaten a bagel since 2005. There’s a fleet of new flavours at Tim Hortons that I have never tried, and I’m finding myself a little curious…
Avoiding bagels was one of many coping mechanisms that worked for me for a time and so I have to respect them. They served their purpose. Now, I have better tools, stronger relationships, and more love to give myself, so maybe I don’t need that one anymore.