My Body and Me: How Depression, Anxiety, and Eating Influence Each Other
by Amanda Wolf
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
The year was 1997. I was two years old and I had to be pulled out of preschool because I was crying every day and even decided that I was going to stop eating. This continued until I reached my mid-twenties. There is not a time in my life I can remember when I wasn’t battling some symptom of anxiety. At age four or five, I started getting stomach aches, biting my nails, and picking at the skin around my fingers. I used to experience these moments of panicked thoughts, but did not have the vocabulary to articulate how I was feeling, so I called them “bad thoughts.” At some point I learned that I could not control how I was feeling but the thing I could control was the amount of food I was eating.
When I was 16, I was officially given a diagnosis of depression and anxiety. I was in therapy and I thought it was working until I stopped trusting in my ability to be alone out of fear that I might hurt myself. When I first got admitted, it was the first time someone brought up my weight and how thin I was in a concerned way. I was given meal replacement shakes in between my meals in order to help me put some weight on. My weight was one of the things they monitored while I was there, but it took a back seat to my other issues. That was the last time that someone would mention my weight for many years. I was tiny, and my entire life I did not know any better. Every time I went to the doctor, they would comment on my being low on the weight chart, especially when I was young, but it was more of an offhand comment than anything else. I honestly believe nobody thought it was an actual problem.
When I was released, I attempted to take better care of myself, I started to put some weight on. I was suddenly living in a body I was not familiar with nor comfortable in. I had expressed my disdain for my body to my therapist at the time, but she brushed it off. I remember being told that when I got older, I could get plastic surgery or physically alter my body if I thought that’s what I needed to do, but that it would not actually help. However, I was never given advice nor given the chance to talk through the issues with my body to the extent that I needed. That’s when I decided not to bring it up again.
I went through the rest of my high school career hiding my body. I wore oversized jeans and t-shirts every day because it hid more. Around this time, my depression and anxiety were ramping back up. I was leaving class because I was having panic attacks and couldn’t get it under control. I had quit color guard, the flag and weapon section of the marching band, because I was not in a headspace to practice or perform. That meant I had lost my only source of exercise and socialization. At this time my friends were starting to pull away because they did not know how to deal with me and we had just lost the one thing we did together. I don’t believe that they were equipped to handle what I was dealing with. We are all sixteen years old and their friend had just contemplated suicide and been committed. I was not the person I was in years prior. I was dealing with burdens they didn’t understand. I was the one lashing out and relying on them to be there for me and to support me in ways they weren’t capable of. This is where I believe my relationship with food changed.
I think I knew that the way I was eating was not okay. I knew it was not normal to “forget” to eat or to stop eating before I knew I was full. But I also didn’t know how to communicate that. Nobody else was concerned so why should I be? In my senior year of high school, I was starting to have stomach issues. I was in pain every time I ate and was in worse pain when I did not. I was also experiencing what I now know was heartburn. Unfortunately, for me that felt very similar to the chest pain I had when I got panic attacks. My doctor at the time ran a laundry list of tests and had this to offer me: “You were recently diagnosed with anxiety. That is your issue. Go learn coping skills.” I lived my life for many years thinking that the pain I’d felt was solely anxiety.
When I went to college, I was still in a messy headspace. I would go to class, then walk home and go back to bed. I almost got kicked out of school after my freshman year because I was failing almost every class—I was too depressed to actually try. Along with battling my depression, I was waiting until I began physically shaking to actually eat. I could hardly stand.
In my later years of college, I developed a new strategy. I’d sit in bed with food beside me, but instead of eating it, I forced myself to finish whatever I was doing before I could eat. If I was not satisfied with the paper I was working on, if I did not get the answer to a math problem right, or if I was not at the end of a chapter of a book, I wasn’t allowed to eat. I was still struggling with my body image but instead of hiding, I tried to make myself look good with hopes that I could trick myself into thinking everything was okay. In reality, I was disconnected, lonely, and hungry. I lived with seven different people throughout college and not one of them ever expressed any concern for my mood, or my poor eating habits. I went on about my life but I was not sleeping, I could not concentrate, I was foggy, I was irritable, and I was incredibly anxious. This lasted until I was 25.
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Everything came to a head in 2020 when I found out that the pain and discomfort I had been feeling for years were gallstones, tiny pebbles that are usually made up of calcium or bile which build up in your gallbladder and block the bile ducts. They are very painful. I was told that my gallbladder needed to be removed as soon as possible. I went through my surgery and recovery, then found myself pain-free for the first time in a long time. I could eat normally without having to stop before I was full because it no longer felt like I was being stabbed or nauseated. However, there was still the issue of my not having a good relationship with food. I was deep into diet culture; I was getting toxic messages about food from the people around me as well as through the media I consumed, whether that was TikTok, Youtube, the movies or TV shows I was watching. And at the end of the day, I still hated my body.
I was a young child in the age of glorified skinny people. Think Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, The Olsen Twins, etc. As I grew up, the messages changed a little bit. Suddenly skin and bones were not cute, only people with curves were considered actual women. Nobody wanted bones. Still, In the last few years I’ve seen quite a few fad diets. The keto diet says carbs are going to kill you. You shouldn’t eat eggs, bacon, fruit, sweets, etc. because it will kill you. You should fast for x-amount of hours because that will allow you to lose the greatest amount of weight. If you are bloated, try this tea or that powder. It was easy to get lost in all of it.
In January 2021, I found myself back in my dietitian’s office. At that point, I was hardly eating and what I was eating was not fueling my body at all. I was starving myself, but this time it was an intentional choice that I was making. I was watching the number on the scale drop and my clothes grow baggier and I did not care. The dietician had expressed her concerns about how I was not eating and the actual amount I’d consume when I did decide to eat, but I was simply worried about the number on the scale. I had been in pain for so long that I did not know how to function without the pain. For the first time I was actually sitting across from someone who was concerned about the way I was eating. It took me a long time to realize that I had created a world where I could not eat without feeling guilt or shame. I was still using food as a reward and would only allow myself to eat once I accomplished something. I was pushing myself to a level of hunger that left me lightheaded and dizzy, always sure I was going to faint.
At the beginning of 2022, I got Covid. Battling the illness destroyed my digestive system, so I was back to where I’d been in high school and college. I was in and out of the doctor’s office, getting tests done, while also working with my dietitian to figure out my trigger foods and how to navigate this illness in spite of my progress. Once again, I was back in limbo not knowing what exactly was wrong with me. I was tracking everything I ate and how it made me feel afterward. Through trial and error, we finally discovered that I’m lactose intolerant and that I have GERD, an acid reflux disorder. I’ve had to learn to adjust and adapt and be careful not to get back into a restrictive mindset.
I have been tirelessly working on my relationship with my body and food for two years. I can say there are times I still struggle but I am doing much better. I do not see food as the enemy or something that needs to be earned. I joined a recovery-focused support group and met my best friend and current roommate there. It helps to have people around who also know what it’s like to struggle with food and your body image. I have changed the types of content I consume and the messages and comments I give my time to. I have started following people on social media who talk about recovery, I follow mental health organizations who advocate for recovery of all kinds, I follow dietitians and trainers who only practice food freedom and intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is learning to listen to your body and the cues it is giving you. There are ten principles used in intuitive eating: reject diet mentality, honor your hunger, make peace with food, challenge the food police, discover the satisfaction factor, feel your fullness, cope with your emotions with kindness, respect your body, movement, and gentle nutrition. Throughout this process I have kept a separate journal specifically for this journey. I write about what I am learning, how it makes me feel, and I take notes if I watch anything related to healing my relationship with food. I am actively practicing how to be one with my body.
For the first time in a long time, I am not scared to eat nor do I have my meals with a side of guilt or shame. Body positivity is not the goal for me, but body neutrality is. The difference between these two is not loving my body unconditionally, but learning to accept that this is the body I’m in right now. It is learning to see everything my body does for me as opposed to how my body looks. We are born with the natural cues that tell us when we are hungry, tired, bored, etc. We only start to lose that when we stop trusting ourselves and our bodies and start listening to the opinions of other people. That is a hard lesson I have had to learn over the last few years. I am learning how to reconnect with myself and how to trust myself again. In my twenty eighth year I am finally getting to a point where I am living life to the fullest; mentally, physically, and nutritionally.
If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.