In the spring semester of my freshman year in college, I came down with the nastiest bug I ever had in my life. I had skipped my annual flu shot — ah, sweet freedom to make choices, even bad ones — and I caught that year’s version.
Despite feeling like death-warmed-over, I refused to skip classes. My type-A personality didn’t want to mess up my straight-A record, plus I had to maintain my scholarship. I even continued to go on my daily run — my desire to stay in shape kept me pushing, even as the sickness wore on my body.
Long story short? My mild case of flu burgeoned into full-fledged pneumonia, knocking me flat for over a month. While I eventually recovered from my physical illness, it came with devastating side effects.
I Liked the Thin New Me
During my lengthy illness, eating was the last thing I wanted to do. Making it to the bathroom required a Herculean effort, as was fixing a can of soup. As a result, I lost a lot of weight very quickly. I wasn’t overweight in the first place, but this loss took me closer to the lowest end of the “normal” weight range I’d ever experienced.
Eventually, I began to rejoin the land of the living. However, I loved the way I could now slide on my formerly tight jeans without unbuttoning them. Many of my clothes didn’t even fit anymore. When they did, I believed they looked so much better on me now than they ever did before.
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Even though I could return to normal eating patterns, my body and mind began resisting doing so. I didn’t know then that malnutrition can change your way of thinking due to neurochemical imbalances in the brain.
The act of going without food for extended periods makes it more challenging to re-establish healthy patterns.
All I knew was I loved the way I looked. Since I already consumed less, why not stay small? I justified my behavior — staying thin was better for me than yo-yo dieting, I thought.
I didn’t realize that I was on the way to meeting the criteria for a full-fledged eating disorder. I severely restricted my caloric intake, and I measured everything. These behaviors didn’t do much to make me feel better about myself, though. More than anything, I felt trapped concerning my food choices. I felt like I had no freedom to eat what I wanted.
Even though I continued a stringent diet, I pushed myself to return to my former exercise program. I soon found that my daily run proved exhausting. My body lacked the essential nutrition to propel me through a tough workout. Though my body fit my ideal on the outside, it wasn’t faring so well internally. The external issues followed.
Over time, I began developing other symptoms. I had an extreme sensitivity to the cold, and I would shiver under heavy blankets while my roommate sweltered. In an attempt to keep me warm, my body developed lanugo, a fine, downy coat of hair. In contrast, the hair on my head began falling out. During a routine physical, the campus nurse asked me when I had last menstruated — I couldn’t remember. She suggested it was time to seek help.
Returning to Normalcy
I knew I had to begin eating normally again, but I was terrified of gaining weight. Fortunately, my parents connected me with a qualified cognitive-behavioral therapist, who helped me examine my thoughts surrounding food. I began to counter negative ideas with healthier ones. For example, “eating makes me fat” became “eating is necessary to give my muscles the energy they need to perform.”
I also began seeing a registered dietitian, who helped me make rational food choices. I learned how to enjoy food again without religiously counting my caloric intake. Getting in my fruits and veggies was no longer a tornado of nutrition labels. My dietitian provided me with tremendous help, which I’m grateful for. Indulging in my favorite foods doesn’t fill me with guilt the way it used to.
Recovery was a long road. Today, I continue to combat adverse thought patterns regularly. However, I’ve learned to recognize what I call “stinking thinking,” when the part of my brain that craves model-slimness whispers insanity. I then employ the techniques I learned in therapy to counteract those ideas.
Don’t Let Your Physical Illness Become a Mental One
You can’t help it if you get sick. However, you can take proactive steps to avoid letting your experience parallel mine. As soon as you recognize disordered eating patterns in yourself, seek help. The sooner you do, the more quickly you can return to full mental and physical health.