To say that I was concerned with weight and my body from an early age is the understatement of the century. At 10 years old, I noticed that my body was “fuller” than the other girls in leotards at dance class, and decided to start dieting. I figured that if I dieted as a young girl, I would not have to worry about being overweight when I was older. I watched my mother struggle with diets (she was not obese, but wanting to take off “baby weight”), and I was determined to not have to do the same as an adult.
What started out as eliminating sweets and desserts eventually became restricting all of my food, and very anorexic-like behavior. By the time I was in seventh grade, I weighed 74 pounds, the same weight that I was in fifth grade. I was very proud of this fact. And, I felt that I finally could be proud of the body that was contained in my leotard. I remember one of my peers asking me in dance class, “Don’t you love your body? You’re so thin!” and feeling triumphant.
But, in many ways, my life was beginning to spiral downward emotionally. I was extremely moody and depressed behind closed doors. I cried often, and for no reason. Well, actually, there was a reason. I was starving myself. I remember cutting my peanut butter and jelly sandwich into bite-sized pieces and eating them slowly. I remember counting out 10 pieces of popcorn and letting that be my only snack. I remember how hungry I was, and how I relished that feeling of hunger, because I felt in control.
In high school, I weighed 96 pounds during my senior year. I was obsessed with diet and exercise, going to the gym for hours, and eating very little. Then, something life-altering happened: I was diagnosed as bipolar during my first semester at college. And, with this, extremes became the norm for my life, especially extremes around food and eating. I binged. I purged through exercise. Food still had a hold on me, but now, I was using extreme quantities to numb the intense emotions that bipolar brought out in me. I put on about 25 pounds, which horrified me, but I could not stop eating. Still, exercise was my friend, and I maintained my weight as a result of hours of exercise.
Fast forward. I graduated college and started working, and then went to graduate school. In graduate school, I ran about five miles as many times a week as possible, and also lifted weights. I also went on a strict diet and lost about 25 pounds. I loved my body again. But, it didn’t last. After graduate school, a combination of failed relationships, work stress, little time, and a back injury all curtailed my fitness routine, and I began bingeing again.
And then, the worst happened. Because I was so depressed, my doctor insisted that I go on a medication for bipolar known for weight gain. I gained 100 pounds in the space of about six months. It was horrible. To be a young, single woman of 5’3″ tipping the scales at 216 pounds was not fun. I seriously contemplated suicide and did not want to leave the house. I remember my students and other teachers at my school asking me if I was pregnant. One person even went as far as to ask me when the baby was due, and if I had a name for it yet. I hated seeing people that I hadn’t seen since I was thin. It was embarrassing and awful. I blamed myself, and hated how I looked. And I could not stop eating.
Weight gain associated with medications for mental illness is very common. It is one of the reasons why people with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than the rest of the population. I was becoming a statistic, and fast. My tests at the doctor, which had always been perfect, were now not-so-perfect. Higher cholesterol, pre-diabetes, and sleep apnea had become my new diagnoses.
I tried diet after diet, and nothing worked. I was always hungry and craving the most calorie-laden, fatty foods possible, and in large quantities. Food became my lover, my best friend, and certainly my drug of choice.
I knew that I was an addict, so I tried a 12-step program for food addiction, and was not successful with that either. I went to meetings, but I could not stick to the food plan. Finally, I gave up trying all together. And then, something shifted. I started to accept myself as I was. I started to try to look at my body lovingly, and take care of myself the best way I could. I went after my career dreams. I took my focus off of me, and really worked with others. I made my mission helping other people to overcome mental illness and the struggles associated with it. And, I became proud of who I was as a person.
Four months ago, I decided to go back to the 12-step program. I felt more ready to do what they were requiring of me: going off of sugar, flour, and wheat, writing to my sponsor, going to meetings, etc. And, while I certainly am not perfect at any of this, the weight is finally coming off. I’m letting go of resentments quickly so that I don’t eat over them. I’m batch cooking my meals so that I have healthy options to eat during my busy work week. I’m exercising again — yesterday I took a Zumba class, my first dance class in a few years. I had stopped because I hated looking at myself in the mirror. But, I did it, and I felt proud afterwards. I have a pedometer, which counts my steps and miles. Little by little, I have lost about 25 pounds so far, and am keeping it off.
The hardest part has been the self-esteem blow that gaining 100 pounds has given me. I am learning, slowly, to be kinder to myself, and not beat myself up. I was taking that medication in the hopes that I could become better. I was eating because I was in pain, and I was not exercising because I was injured. I wasn’t just being lazy or not taking care of myself.
The weight gain has also taught me a thing or two. First, you are not your body, you are your heart and soul. And, while having a healthy body is important, the most important thing is to be a good person and contribute to the world. I learned to love myself for who I was on the inside. I also learned not to judge people who are overweight or have gained weight. You never know the reason behind the weight gain, you never know another person’s story. Besides learning to be more compassionate to others, I learned that I could be proud of myself just for being me. I have found that the more I accept myself, the more I’m able to stick to my program and kick food addiction out of my life. I’m determined not to become a statistic. And, I’m determined to take my body back, one bite at a time.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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