The Young and the Disorder-ly

When you think of the words “Eating Disorder,” what comes to mind? That skeletally thin  girl at your local gym who spends two hours on the elliptical every morning? The sensationalist photos of thin celebrities in bikinis under the headline “Eat a Hamburger!” in your grocery store’s tabloids? The scene in every movie about ballet ever, which takes place in the dance school’s bathroom? The generic (and overused) tracking shot of obese-people-from-behind in your local news station’s inevitable human interest story on diabesity?

I find it interesting that, in the last few days, several people from my past have reached out to me and said (or written) that they had no idea I had suffered from an eating disorder. Well, what if I told you that, according to the DSM-IV (short for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), I technically didn’t? And, in fact, if you looked at my medical records up to this point in the story, you wouldn’t see anything that might tip you off *. I was underweight, sure, but I wasn’t a skeleton. I was purging my calories, but I was doing so on the Stairmaster and not in the bathroom. I was impossibly skinny, but I still ate three meals a day.

What I haven’t told you yet is that my ED actually introduced himself to me on that fateful July 4th 11 years ago as EDNOS, short for “Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.” The DSM-IV only takes the time to define two types of eating disorders: Anorexia and Bulimia. For everything else, there’s EDNOS. The problem with this is that women (and men) who might be suffering from everything from obsessive exercise to extreme (but non-fatal) calorie restriction, body dysmorphic disorder to orthorexia**, might not even realize that they need help. Or, perhaps they do, but no one will help them because they’re “not really sick.”

And when people don’t get help, these problems can wreak havoc on a person’s body–and psyche. And I didn’t get help.

So when my EDNOS met Lysander, things took a turn for the worse.

Now, I don’t know if he had an eating disorder, but his obsession with healthy eating (*cough* orthorexia *cough*) and exercise exacerbated my once-again-latent ED. I could compare our 4:45 am wake ups for oatmeal before the gym, or his insistence on eating the Men’s Health ordained “8 Foods You Should Eat Every Day” every day, to poking at a hornet’s nest with a branch.

Here’s what happened:

I moved in with him. And though I reasoned with my parents that it was really just so I could save on gas money, I moved in with him because I honestly believed that I was in love. I had never felt that way about another human being before, and I was, after only a few weeks of knowing him, honestly ready to change every plan I had made for my life in order to be with him. I think (I hope) he felt the same way about me.

He was a military veteran, recently sprung from active duty overseas, and he was very, very concerned with health and fitness. I was a veteran of a year teaching community high school, and I was very, very concerned with doing cardio and not getting fat.

He would go to the gym three days per week, alternating squat and deadlift days. In between there was a day for sprints around his neighborhood and a day for a long run. That left Sunday for rest.

I would go to the gym 7 days a week and do 50 minutes on the Stepmill. Rest days were non-existent–or, if I were convinced to stay home, I would become angry and  impossible to be around. I needed my cardio. After much cajoling from Lysander, I reluctantly started adding in leg extensions/curls and a couple of the other resistance machines at the end of each cardio session.

He ate oatmeal for two meals per day, and would finish the day with something he called “slop” (which consisted of most of the other 8-foods-you-should-eat-every-day). With the exclusion of the swap of oatmeal for my regular cereal breakfast, I ate the same regimen of meals (including cereal after rehearsals and before bed) that I had followed while teaching. (Most days, at noon, you could find me standing at the counter, lingering over the last few licks of peanut butter from my knife as I tried to eke out as much nutrition as I could before the long stretch between lunch and dinner…)

One of the pitfalls of dating, however, was the inclusion of dates into my routine. Dates often happened at places that served food. And when food was put in front of me, I ate it. All of it.

My poor metabolism had spent years convinced that I was stranded on an island without regular access to food, and so when I presented my body with big, restaurant-sized portions of pad thai and baked ziti, my body responded by blocking the hormones related to satiety and let me go to town. And then my metabolism, chugging away slowly, left the door wide open for the storage of most of that food energy as fat. Just in case I ended up starving on that island again.

The pattern of binging and restricting continued throughout the summer, and though I exercised more than my Lysander, I somehow seemed to be the only one gaining weight…


* For some of my ED, I was not technically underweight–I managed to sit right at the borderline of “healthy” for things like BMI. I also maintained a regular period (ish, though I’ll get into the medical fallout stuff later).

**Technically, orthorexia is a made-up term describing individuals who are obsessed with eating healthily. This might not seem like a serious issue, but it is. I can point you to a number of blogs written by individuals in the health and fitness world (specifically in bodybuilding/figure) who are now suffering from hypothyroidism, adrenal fatigue, and other major disorders caused by years of “healthy” eating. Orthorexia can also lead to self-imposed social exclusion and later on to depression. I’ve been there, and it’s a real thing.

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