by Morgan Bickenbach-Davies
When I was a kid, I was always active, always involved in sports. Ever since I can remember, my Mum had me in different activities, club sports, camps or lessons. I’m really thankful that both my parents encouraged me to go out and be active.
Having said that, I was always a chubby kid and I got teased for it from the time I was 5 to when I was about 13 years old. I got my fair share of bullying, heartless comments and even the odd snide remark from doctors, teachers, and even family members. Despite all that negativity—which I seriously internalized over the years—I never lost my love of sports, physical activity, and the outdoors. What can I say? Those endorphins are some good sh*t!
As I got older, I began to lean out and started to look like a healthy, active young teen. But I didn’t see myself that way. All those years of being “the fat kid” had made their mark on my identity and by the time I hit middle school I still saw myself as that tubby little kid getting picked on at recess.
Maybe not surprisingly, I started dieting in 8th grade. And, I mean; why not? We are constantly being bombarded with messaging and marketing telling us it’s what we’re supposed to be doing for one reason or another throughout the year. It’s like a “coming of age” ritual.
Initially, I told myself I just wanted to lose that last few pounds but it didn’t take long until it turned into an obsession. My parents started noticing and before I knew what was happening, I was being chaperoned to psychiatry appointments after school. I was eventually told I had something called Anorexia Nervosa. At that point in my life I had only heard those words once before in a health class film we were shown in an attempt to scare us out of…something…I’m still not sure what. Mental illness maybe? I guess they didn’t really get the whole involuntary part of mental health. It’s not like it’s a question of will power after all.
So there it was. I had had a been slapped with a bi-nominal label and no idea what to make of this new identity. I didn’t feel like an anorexic, I thought. As a teenager with a major case of perfectionism, providing me with this new term was probably the worst thing they could have done to help me. From the moment I was diagnosed, all I could think about was how to be the “best”, the more perfect anorexic I could be. I continued to spiral down and I was eventually admitted to a local inpatient program for adolescents.I was in there for a month and, yes, it did suck.
On the ward, there were a couple other girls with anorexia. The only difference was that they looked like seasoned pros compared to me.They were emaciated, pale and gaunt and both were sporting nasogastric tubes coming out of their noses. These tubes provide liquid nutrition and are common in hospitals for patients who have trouble eating on their own (for a variety of reasons). While in hospital with them, I picked up a lot of dieting tips and tricks of the anorexic trade. Ironically, I was more anorexic leaving the hospital than when I was first admitted.
I struggled with maintaining my weight for the rest of high school and ended up being readmitted to hospital 3 more times before I graduated. After that, I moved to the United Kingdom to attend medical school. Unfortunately, by the end of my first year there, the stress of school, homesickness, loneliness, and the lack of supervision collectively built up and I had deteriorated once again. Not that the number should matter, but I probably lost about 20 pounds in that first year. I was not in good shape; routinely experiencing panic attacks and obsessively doing sit-ups whenever I could to keep my inner dæmons from reaching glass-shattering volume level.
I knew something had to give so I decided to differ the next year and regain my health before moving forward with my degree. However, by then I still wasn’t really any better. I was isolated and severely depressed. I was barely leaving the house and had continued losing weight. I decided to come back to Canada and get a Biology degree at the University in my hometown where I would have better medical and psychiatric support as well as family nearby.
For the next 6 years I struggled to keep my weight up but when my dog died in 2012, I finally relapsed and, boy, did I relapsed hard this time.
I’m not going to talk about weight numbers here or how many calories I was (or wasn’t) eating at the time because I would never want any of my words to trigger anyone else out there who might be struggling. All I will say is that I was in critical condition and could easily have died.
It’s hard to explain, but when you get down that low, your brain stops working normally, you don’t recognize danger signs and you don’t care if you live or die. I felt completely numb while everyone around me was panicking. Although indifferent as to whether I lived or died, I was so also angry at myself for not being able to feel scared for myself or to fight for myself. I wanted to feel scared or shocked or something, anything that would wake me up the reality of my situation.
For me, I think the hardest part of turning things around was having to dig really deep, down into the darkest parts of myself before finally finding a reason, a feeling, an excitement or anything that would spark me back into top gear. I knew that the only way I could save myself would be to first find something that was worth it enough to me. I had to ask myself: “What is worth facing your deepest fears for?” In other words, I needed to find something that I cared enough about to be willing to live for.
At the time of that last relapse, my spark was fitness. At my lowest point—my “rock bottom” if you will—I was so emaciated I had barely had any leg muscle left and I couldn’t even use my legs to climb a set of stairs without having to stop for breaks. I hated the feeling of not being able to use my body to do the things I wanted to do. I missed being active, I missed the feeling of having done a really good workout and being satisfied with my performance. I missed going for long runs. I missed those doses of endorphins. I missed feeling alive and all the things that make being a human being so amazing.
I felt like a ghost of my former self and I realized that, if I were ever going to get any of those things back, I would have to change. I would have to eat, even if I wasn’t hungry. Every bite of food proved stressful, anxiety provoking and painful. But I did it anyway because I knew that, if I ever wanted to reach my full potential, I needed 2 things:
- I needed a functional mind and body
- I needed to be alive
Both of these things required fuel, so I ate. I fueled myself with the goal in mind of regaining my functionality. I was gaining back my humanity. I had a lot of goals and I found that it helped to write them down and have them handy to re-read whenever I lost my nerve. I likened food to chemotherapy: I had to do it if I wanted another chance at life, but it was going to hurt and I wasn’t going to like it.
It’s been four and a half years since I first stabilized my medical markers and I have been maintaining by and large ever since. But this road will never end for me. My anorexia is a form of addiction that will always need to be managed one day at a time all the while keeping my goals in front of mind.
Before I sign off, I want to leave you with some homework:
I would like you to close your eyes and think about the most important thing in your life. The thing that makes you light up inside, the thing that makes you want to keep breathing (it can be more than one thing if you want). Whatever it is, this is your light, your passion, your reason to keep going.
There will always be hurdles in life, so, anytime you find yourself struggling, with anything (it doesn’t have to be an eating disorder) I want you to remember your reason. Use this light to fight through whatever you are facing.
If you take anything away from this post I hope that you remember that, in order fulfill your inner driving light you will first need:
- To forgive and respect yourself
- To stay alive (literally and figuratively)
We all need to stop striving for perfection. Instead, strive to be the best human being you know how.