Overcoming an Eating Disorder During the Pandemic Uncovers Deeper Wound

Overcoming an Eating Disorder During the Pandemic Uncovers Deeper Wounds

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Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:

It all began innocently enough. As my thoughts became clouded with the suggestions, questions, and comments from my mom about my evident skin issues:

“You should eliminate dairy.”

“What happened to your face?”

“Are you using this specific eczema cream? Maybe that’s the problem.”

I felt called out for something that I couldn’t understand. I was determined to do whatever it took to stop the comments and make the confrontation go away. What’s more, I wanted to do it all by myself in order to feel proud and capable that it was my willpower and discipline that got the job done.

I had just finished middle school, had the entire summer off, and could do anything my heart desired by taking on any new challenges. Shortly after eliminating sugar and dairy from my diet in hopes to clear my skin, I noticed positive progress and felt in control of my body in a way I’d never experienced. I believe that undergoing the process almost in spite of proving others wrong and thinking food was the only solution was the first warning. Inevitably, on the days when I would have breakouts or feel uncomfortable in my body, I’d blame myself.

I just needed to eat cleaner, I thought to myself.

Going into my first year of high school was already tough. I was plagued by my middle school insecurities and fueled by guys who treated me poorly or objectified me. Playing sports was a confidence-booster, at times, but I constantly felt like my accomplishments were all consuming growing up without real bonding/connection. At home, I felt like I had to withhold a Miss Perfect persona with comments of comparison to teammates, friends, or my younger self.

As the only conversations at home were at dinner or in the car, they became minute, mundane, and surface-level, I desired an accomplishment that I could have to myself without needing to be downplayed. Due to the rush from sport to sport and never really spending much alone time with my family, I never questioned, “How do I actually feel?”

My first experience with this was a night after two sports practices back to back. I started crying in the car. My body hurt and I knew it was too much for me. I was unable to continue to perform at a high level in multiple sports because I was feeling burned out and below my teammates in both sports. Until then, I was able to mask all my worries in sports and not have to deal with the emotions that I soon found out were at home.

I believed screaming and yelling about chores and everything while I was around was normal because kids always do something wrong, right? I felt dismissed and unable to voice a word due to being afraid I’d get yelled at. Voicing my feelings in other aspects of life: boys, friends, school, struggles, etc., were nonexistent because I didn’t want to give up my record of doing everything right.

Going into my freshman year, I had looked up workout routines and how to eat like a volleyball player in order to be at my best for the year. I began “eating clean” to aid my desire of making the varsity volleyball team. Family members, friends, and teammates labeled me as the “healthy one.” I saw it as a confirmation that I was on the right track. Other’s comments simply confirmed what I believed my value was. When I finally look like x, I will be good enough. But I never was. I never questioned my sense of self-worth or emotional reactions to my parents because you know what they say, parents are always right.

I was the only one of my friends who made the freshman team as opposed to the JV team. Soon after the season ended, I had a scare one morning when I was on my period. I got out of bed a few hours later than usual and hadn’t eaten anything yet. I hopped into a very hot shower right away and saw stars before everything went black and I fainted in the bathtub.

The next thing I know, the paramedics are with me at the top of the stairs along with my parents while I sit half-conscious in a towel. They checked my vitals and my mom drove me to the hospital. The doctors didn’t ever find anything wrong with me, not even (surprisingly) low iron levels! I had only been maybe ten pounds below what I was five months earlier. I never knew what happened besides the likely trifecta of being on my period, not eating, and taking a hot shower.

My school and sports life was going well as I moved into swimming in the winter. Then, in March of 2020, the world shuts down. School, sports, stores, restaurants. Everything, life gets real…

I saw the pandemic as an opportunity to be my version of the healthiest and most beautiful. I was stuck at home with only my dad as my mom was a healthcare worker and my brother was at college. I learned soon into the pandemic that my dad had anger issues and more that aren’t diagnosed. They were beyond the typical screaming about chores or attitude problems. He went on and on about the uncertainty of the world, wishes to be at work, and talked to himself. My words were swiftly run over like a bulldozer in which we didn’t do anything together. Not even eating, as I made my own meals, and lost things in common without a sports barrier. I became acutely familiar with adult topics like money, politics, and decisions that he’d say out loud for no one in particular. As the only one present, who else would he be talking to?

I was on my own in this evolutionary journey and I was going to go all in even if I wasn’t seen for my dedication.

I was berated with anger and frustrations from my father about my choices and what I was able to do. I took each cussing conversation he had to heart. What I never realized was that any comment would fuel the fire. So, I did what I thought would save me from his outbursts; isolate more and never be around to witness the fallouts. My mom was always at work during this time and wouldn’t see this side of my father. In which it’s hard to do something about a problem you never witness. I felt broken, stuck, and like there was no way out. I was already having triggering thoughts daily about what I’d eat, exercising, and my body that every harsh comment about the food I’d want, money, or the dishes I’d created made me think I wasn’t accepted at home. I was no longer praised and rather seen as “too much”.

“Why didn’t I just do exactly what my parents did and eat exactly what they ate?”

I was engulfed in my feelings of wanting to change aesthetically, escape my father, and longed for connection.

 

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Before the pandemic, I’d never been much of a social media enthusiast as I wasn’t allowed to have Snapchat and didn’t have a great experience once I got it anyways. But I was mainly on YouTube. I recall deleting Instagram as a part of my New Year’s resolution that year. The more I spent time on YouTube looking for nutrition and exercise advice, the more I found claims to lose ten pounds in a week, lose belly, thigh, or arm fat. There were so many click-baitted claims and filtered/ photoshopped/ unrealistic expectations of models that flooded my thoughts to translate to:

You’re not good enough as you are. You need to change the way you look.

For a while, I’d do everything any of the influencers said by exercising for hours on end and eating as little as possible, which created so much family tension, mental stress, and a lack of energy. My life was: exercise to eat on repeat. I don’t want to go into too many details that could be triggering but the main points were that I was:

~very restrictive, overexercising, had no mental capacity for anything besides food & exercise,

and lost my period.

A little over a year into the sticky situation I got myself into, my mom reached out to a nutritionist. I saw her weekly, and I had to address my fear foods, create goals to incorporate those foods, and eat a meal that I hadn’t made; all the while stopping exercise completely. I was told that I could walk for five minutes a day and nothing else until I was at a certain weight because I was very underweight for my body. For someone who did around seven hours of yoga a day prior, this was disheartening, and I was forced to think about why I was doing what I was doing. The first session ended with a great deal of crying and emotions beyond food came into the picture, so I needed to see a therapist too.

My body was never the problem.

After a year of seeing a nutritionist and therapist, I had gained over thirty pounds back and was able to play the sports I once played before. My performance was continually improving, and I focused all my energy into volleyball. I even made a travel team above the levels of other travel teams I’d been on before. This meant more competition, struggle, time, and effort spent on volleyball. As I was feeling the high of making an elite team and constantly striving for more, I was taking on weightlifting to be the strongest I could be, as opposed to the skinniest.

My intentions were good in growing stronger. However, lifting at 5am in conjunction with late volleyball nights left me exhausted and, quite honestly, falling on the opposite end to where I thought I was doing the right thing by eating more and more. But, I was still exercising too much and constantly felt overwhelmed and tired. I had fallen in love with how going to the gym made me feel by being able to set goals, feel strong, and be free and independent. Whereas in that season of volleyball, I was starting to feel powerless through the yelling and screaming of my coach when deep down I’d be trying my best. In addition, I feel like I’d always had the background of thoughts surrounding my eating disorder and felt like I was still in the dark. I chose to stop my volleyball career in the middle of the season to take time for myself. I wouldn’t say that I rushed into volleyball too much, but I did still have the feeling that by getting the athletic accolades, in turn I would feel worthy which again I’d failed by quitting.

Honestly, when I started going to the gym to be stronger, I knew I’d found a place where I could grow and had a journey ahead of me. I wasn’t wanting to join back into sports until it was questioned and expected upon me. My parents instilled that “I couldn’t not do anything” which hit me right in my worthiness wound. In some sense, they were directing me as to what to do with my life (get a job), but the constant validation in work, sports, or academics made me always feel internally unlovable.

“My worthiness isn’t defined by my academic or athletic achievements.”

During winter break of my senior year, I was alone at home and stumbled upon the first meditation that was ironically by the yoga teacher whom I’d practiced for seven hours a day which is both traumatizing and healing. That week was the first time that I’d begun to notice how my internal dialogue affected how I carried out actions in my life. I realized I was just at the beginning of healing inner wounds. The euphoric feelings I got after meditating boosted my confidence one hundred-fold and helped me create boundaries to not be dragged into unhealthy or negative phrases I’d hear or see around me. In addition, I learned to calm my nervous system which helped me cope during my parents’ reactive states and heal my skin.

My aha moments as to

~why I reacted a certain way

~what’s holding me back from following my desires

~identifying the beliefs that I’d instilled

I have come in the practice of stillness (meditation), journaling, or simply taking a step away from the problem. Humans are so used to being comfortable and acting out of the same belief pattern over time. In stillness, I’d stop to realize the power I had to change my belief over a situation and not succumb to others’ negative patterns. I was taught to take the safe route, follow a cookie cutter approach, and that everything in life came with hard work. Growing up and witnessing my parents have their own struggles and not doing anything to change their next choices and blaming outside sources helped me look inward. I knew I didn’t have the most skills or had a plan mapped out for life, but I prioritized becoming mentally tough and being accountable to myself. If I said I was going to do something, I would follow through. And when I mess up, I don’t BLAME others or myself, but use what I learned to push me in a new directions and just keep trying.

Whether it’s a few minutes right as I wake up, during a triggering moment, or before bed, being aware of how I’m talking to myself is important. When I close my eyes, take a deep breath and realize that I can’t control past or future events, I show up in the present moment in a calmer state. The more I take into account how I feel, I notice what I can do to better serve me.

“Is this the right decision or should I change paths?”

Sometimes discomfort arises as not every situation feels easy breezy, but knowing that I will be okay isn’t dependent on an external circumstance, rather the thoughts and beliefs I have about myself and the circumstances. In addition, social media used to consume my mind as though I could live through other people’s successes or feel like I always needed to be striving for something someone else had. I had deleted TikTok early in high school due to getting very distracted. My approach to Instagram and YouTube is to go on when I have something in mind I want to look up or become inspired for. Also, I set aside time whether it’s fifteen or thirty minutes to search and look for a particular subject or influencer of interest rather than opening the app willy-nilly. Personally, I only follow about forty people who add positivity and abundance to my knowledge. When someone has shared their struggles, challenges, or more to their lives than what a picture shows, then I’m interested in how that can apply to me. Sometimes you follow someone for a small reason and someone else for another. In this case, you can mold things to harness your goals, but not feel like you have to fit into a label or box that society has created.

This past fall started my college journey and was a major transition for me like it is for everyone. I would say I’ve had moments where I stress ate after a class when I was overwhelmed. I don’t let one overindulgence or something I view as “a mistake” make my head spin because meals I eat or workouts I do are tools to learn how to better get to know and understand my body’s needs. For example, the types and amounts of food that make me feel good in order to move forward with a non-perfectionist while including variety/ spontaneity within my mental, physical, and emotional health journey. I have been striving to perform best in all areas of my health by fueling for performance, recovery, and the ability to get stronger day after day. No matter the circumstance in life, the attitude towards your capabilities is the strongest force you have to persevere through anything to build resilience.

​EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman

 

 

Kaley Neal is a freshman in college at High Point University in North Carolina. She is pursuing a double major of Exercise Science and Health and Wellness with a minor in Psychology. Learning the science of what supports human health and performance is fascinating in order to help those who suffer from mental and physical ailments. She hopes to promote the advances in women's health and advocate for vulnerability around mental health. Kaley focuses on an intuitive approach that is in-sync with the natural cycle of a female body. In addition, Kaley loves to spend time in nature and practices feel-good movement like pilates and yoga as well as reading realistic fiction. You can follow her on IG @kalefitmind.