Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dieting and Eating Disorders

I first remember feeling ashamed of my body when I was in my early teens.  Although before that point, I was well aware i was fat, I'd never felt it as a real problem until secondry school.  At the age of 14, when my body was just maturing, and with my weight at10st7lb (a healthy weight even by BMI) I first decided to 'do something about my weight'.

This was also around the time that I started to experience problems with my mental health.  Initially, my main symptoms were my panic attacks, and my panic attacks came in the form of attacks of vomiting.  My desire to lose weight therefore corresponded to a time when I felt sick alot of the time, and when I added intentional weight loss to the inevitable symptoms of my illness I lost alot of weight, very quickly.

On the one hand, I was suddenly receiving compliments even from the popular kids, I felt I could wear anything I wanted, I was proud of my self-control, and my ability to reshape my body.  On the other hand, my physical and mental health was suffering - my starvation was fuelling my panic attacks which were fuelling my starvation.  I had developed what I recognised as anorexic behavior - I avoided food, grouped food into 'safe' and 'banned' categories, weighed myself daily, and obsessed over everything I did eat.  By the age of 16 I was 7st, drinking heavily, and self-harming.  A pattern that continued for many years.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I got my first mental illness diagnosis (agoraphobia) and my first course of medication (anafranil).  The reduction in, and eventual cessassion of, my panic attacks as well as (I believe) my increased reliance on drinking and SH as methods of control, led to the gradual reduction in food restriction.  By the time I left university at 21 I'd gained back all the weight I lost through starvation, and more.

A change in medication to Prozac put paid to the drinking (thankfully) as I couldn't drink more than one drink without feeling ill whilst I was taking it.  The break from it taught me the art of sensible drinking.

I was able to free myself from SH by philosophy - I came to view it as an acceptable action, something with no sense of moral wrong in and of itself.  I gave myself permission to hurt myself if I really needed too, on the proviso that I wait at least an hour after the urge caught me.  In an hour I'd reassess - should I wait another hour?  I found the urge, for the most part, passed.  And if it didn't that was ok too.

So I'd gained weight - in fact, I was now a UK size 16 - bigger than my previous highest weight.  Which I still thought was too high.  Sure, I'd gone about losing the weight in the wrong way, but I still felt losing weight at that point was right.  This time it'd be different.

A succession of failed diets over the next 8 years.  I blamed my history of disordered eating on their failure.  Every diet marked the return of the eating disordered behaviour.  Not able to be sick on demand anymore, I made myself sick.  My weight shot up and down so many times my stomach and thighs are layered with stretchmarks.  Every time I gain weight, I end up at a higher high weight.

I have lived the last 15 years with eating disordered behaviour.  I blamed my failure to lose weight on psychological weakness.  My mental health made me too fragile to diet, it was my thoughts that were at fault. 

I now realise that one reason that dieting sparked mental health problems was that I wasn't eating enough food.  The return of ED behaviours was due to them being written into the fabric of dieting:  When you diet your supposed to obess over every calorie, your supposed to categorise foods into 'safe' and 'forbidden' categories.  Dieting encourages you to punish yourself for being 'bad'. 

When I draw parallells between pro-anorexia message boards and dieting ones it's because I've been a member of both.  They're the same.  They encourage the self-same behaviours.  Their message is the same 'deny yourself and you will be beautiful'.

Dieting is the socially acceptable face of eating disorders.  It encourages you to think in ways that are inherantly unhealthy, to demonise foods that are 'fatty' vs. foods that are 'slimming' regardless of nutritional value. 

My relationship with food needs mending.  I need to remember that no food is 'bad' and that I can eat anything I wish.  Fruit and vegetables don't lose their vitamins and antioxidents by association the apples in an apple crumble are still apples, the vegetables on the top of a pizza are still vegetables.  A diet of Special K is neither healthy or balanced. I need to remember that it's ok to not eat if I'm not hungry; something I'm actually having more problems with, as I'm so used to avoiding hunger - because in the past I have only felt it when I've been starving. 

It's time for me to complete my healing.  I've learned to manage my mental health problems over the years by learning to take care of me and acknowledge my own needs.  My most recent major episode of depression came as a result of a diet - my meds made me gain weight, so I stopped taking them.  I'm much happier now, unmedicated again, but with a nice full box available if necessary - and I've got more in my life than I ever believed I'd ever be able to have.  

I'm learning that taking care of my body is the key to looking after my mind, 
and I'm finding the freedom to do so in learning to like my body

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