My 15 Year Battle
by: Wendy Hughes
Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Wendy, I am 37 years old and I am in my fifth year of recovery from my ED. I am the happiest and healthiest I have ever been in my life, and I am the proud mother of a beautiful four year old boy. That said, until five years ago the idea of living free from my ED felt about as foreign and out of reach for me as the idea of travelling to space. The thought of becoming a parent seemed even more unlikely. I hope after reading my story you will realize that no goal is out of reach, and that recovery is possible for everyone who wants it badly enough.
I started experimenting with disordered eating when I was about 12 years old. I learned at a very young age how much emphasis was put on weight and shape when it comes to many people’s perception of beauty. I also learned that shape and size were closely related to success, power and control. The ideals portrayed by the media in magazines, on film and on TV were extremely unrealistic and highly unattainable for most people. These images portray women who appear to be perfect, flawless and healthy. In reality however, many of these images have been altered and/or airbrushed and the women in them have more often than not used extreme measures to meet the unreasonable demands of their acting or modelling careers.
I was not overweight as a child or as a prepubescent teen, nor do I remember feeling this way prior to the onset of my ED. What I do remember is a lot of changes happening all around me which made me very uncomfortable, and which I had no control over. My body began to change at the same time that many environmental changes occurred, and I was resistant to this change. I quickly realized that although I may not be able to control anything else, I was able to control my food intake and exercise routine and I embraced this. Some may say this desire for control stems from split families, trauma or abuse. I cannot even today identify what triggered me to start manipulating my diet and to develop habits of disordered eating. I do not remember being traumatized by my parents’ separation, and I was not a victim of abuse. I do believe that three years of disordered eating was a gradual introduction into a full blown eating disorder.
When I was 15 years old, I did suffer a significant trauma. This incident left me feeling remorseful, guilty and extremely depressed. I did not share this experience with the people I loved and who loved me because of the negative feelings I had associated with it. Within weeks my disordered eating habits had progressed to an eating disorder that was completely out of control. For the next 15 years, I suffered from both Bulimia and Anorexia, and I suffered in silence because that is what an ED demands.
Outwardly I appeared to be strong, successful and accomplished. I graduated from College and University, and held both a part-time and full-time job right up until the time I sought treatment for my ED. Over the years, my eating disorder became my best friend, my confident, my number one support system and my identity. I was a slave to my eating disorder; I wasn’t controlling it, it was controlling me. I often compare my relationship with my ED to that of an abusive boyfriend. My ED sucked me in by first embracing me, making me feel great about myself and giving me a false sense of control. It made me feel strong, proud, beautiful and happy. Before long though, the relationship changed. Once my ED had control, it made me feel weak, lonely, ugly and ashamed. My ED isolated me from the people in my life who mattered, stripped me of any relationship other than the one I had with my ED. My ED not only dictated to me what I could and couldn’t eat, but also what I could wear, where I could go and who I could see. My ED took complete and total control of my life. I got to the point where even when I challenged the ED and put myself in social situations I could not engage the people I was with because my ED thoughts were so obsessive. ED was all consuming. I dealt with this by surrounding myself with people who cared less about me, and more about having a good time at the bar. I drank away the sorrows that ED created, and built relationships that could be nurtured with minimal effort. I created an environment in which my ED could flourish, and it did for 15 years.
About three years into my ED I realized how serious it had become, and for the next 11 years I tried time and time again to break free from my ED, always believing that I could do it on my own. Finally, when I was 29 years old I accepted the fact that I was never to going to break free of my ED without professional help. The thought of seeking help for my ED was almost as terrifying as the thought of living with it for the rest of my life. Seeking help meant breaking my silence, announcing to the world that I was not the person everyone thought I was, and I believed letting everyone down. Seeking help and opening up about my ED also meant something equally as terrifying; giving up my ED. By sharing my struggles with my friends and family and seeking medical help, I would be stepping outside of the comfort and safety of my ED. Opening up about my ED stripped me of the environment I had fought so hard to build, it removed the best weapon an ED has for survival; secrecy. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this but I took the chance.
I was overwhelmed by the reactions I got from my friends and family. Instead of being made to feel like I had let them down, I received praise for my strength in coming out about my struggles. I had people telling me they were proud of me, and that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to including overcoming an ED. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by such great people, and often attribute my commitment to recovery to the outpouring of support I was blessed with.
Over the next few years I battled some of the hardest days, weeks and months of my life. My first hospitalization was not successful and I relapsed immediately after being released. Part of me believes that this was not the right treatment approach for me, but a stronger part of me believes that even though I had started seeking treatment, I just wasn’t yet ready to let go of my ED. Giving up my ED meant giving up what was the biggest part of me at the time, and it was very difficult to do. I did not know who I was without having an ED. Not having any other effective coping mechanisms in place yet made letting go even more difficult, it felt like letting go of a life line and hoping for a safe landing.
The one thing that I did gain from my first treatment was some very valuable insight. If nothing else, this hospitalization forced me to realize that even though I did not believe it, I was suffering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I was so deep into my ED that I no longer saw accurate images of myself when looking in the mirror. I saw what my ED wanted me to see, what it needed me to see so that it could maintain control over me. This realization was both devastating and empowering. It was difficult to accept how sick I was, but it was like I was suddenly freed from the lies and could see the ED for what it really was.
In January of 2006 I was rushed into emergency surgery for a life threatening condition. I was suffering from a twisted bowel, which had started to perforate allowing toxic matter to be released into my system. Without prompt diagnosis and treatment, this condition would have been fatal. The doctors were unable to identify a cause for this condition; I strongly believe that it was the result of years of abuse my body suffered at the hands of my eating disorder.
After my hospitalization my weight was at an all-time low, and for the first time I realized that it did not feel as good as I thought it should. I was scared, and though it was a horrible experience, almost losing my life was the wakeup call I needed. I realized that if I was going to recover I was going to have to open myself up completely and commit myself to my recovery 100%. I entered another treatment program and I gave it 100%. I utilized a number of different strategies to enable myself to do this, but I found that setting small goals was one of the most helpful. By not expecting too much from myself, I was able to achieve my goals more consistently. Each time I met a goal I pushed a bit of my ED out and
welcomed in a sense of pride and accomplishment. The prouder and stronger I felt, the easier and easier it got to make each goal a reality. Please do not misunderstand me, it was not an easy road but with every passing day that I lived without my ED I started to experience life again. As far as dealing with the initial weight gain, I used a method called ‘radical acceptance’. Radical acceptance means challenging yourself to accept an idea that you really don’t like, and are not comfortable with. Although I still wanted no part of gaining weight, I knew that without that piece there would be no recovery. The other method I found to be very helpful was `fake it till you make it`. This meant not giving in to my ED in the moments I thought I had no choice, it meant instead convincing myself that I was not struggling…faking it. This bought time, and time was my greatest strength.
I successfully completed my second treatment program almost five years ago, and although I have had the odd slip I consider myself to be in full recovery. I am living every day to the fullest, I am enjoying the people in my life, I am able to appreciate things that once I could not. Being a mother, having fulfilling relationships and being able to find joy and happiness all around me has replaced the need for my ED. I still have struggles, but I manage them by confronting them head on. As soon as I feel like I may be at risk I talk to my friends and family, I utilize the supports and coping mechanisms I now have in place and I strip the ED of its strength before it has a chance.
I used to work in a psychiatric hospital, and one patient in particular will stay with me forever. A young woman came in because she was suffering from a very serious eating disorder. Without sharing my condition with her, I offered her support, understanding and courage that only a person who shared the experience could. I helped ease her fear of treatment, and stayed by her side until she was admitted. Weeks later, this woman came to me with a small pouch containing friendship beads. She gave them to me and told me that without my support on the day she presented at the hospital, she did not believe she would have followed through with the hospitalization. Years later, I saw her again in passing. She looked beautiful, healthy and was full of energy. She was about to graduate from University, and was rocking her recovery. I am hopeful that through EDOYR I will be able to offer the same support to others as they embark upon their own unique journey towards recovery. I cannot stress enough that the road to recovery is long and hard, there will be many downs and many brutal days. What I also can stress though is that the longer you commit to the fight, the brutal days will become less and less and farther and farther apart. Recovery is possible, and it is within the reach of every person who wants in badly enough. There is a great big world out there just waiting for you to join it!
Click here to read about Stages of Recovery with interviews with Flora and Wendy.