By Delaney Novak
All year SMEDA has been documenting several people's recovery journeys on our Instagram, #RecoveryUncovered, we are also featuring recovery stories on our blog. Here is Delaney's story.
What if I told you you’ll never be perfect?
Some shrewd, insightful human beings may shrug their shoulders, say something about how perfection is overrated and extremely uninteresting: “How pedestrian of you!” one of these levelheaded individuals might scoff as they go on their merry way.
Well I’m here to tell you that those individuals do not have eating disorders.
What does that mean?
That means that half of you reading this are not those people, and the other half: you’re reading this because you know someone who is not those people.
Because if one has an eating disorder, they may very likely be a perfectionist.
My name’s Delaney and I am a perfectionist (the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, right?).
I’ve been plagued with the need to be perfect for as long as I can remember. Don’t believe me? I brought proof (what can I say, I’m a perfectionist!).
When I was in kindergarten, our class had to make Mother’s Day cards with cut-outs of our traced feet that had flowers growing out of them (the inside of the card said, “I love you from the top of my head to the tip of my toes!” How cute).
The flowers were all different sizes and we could arrange them however we chose; I, being Delaney the 5-year-old perfectionist, placed them on the card the “proper” way (aka the rigid, rule-oriented, perfectionist way). My identical twin (who we’ll use as the 5-year-old normal kid), on the other hand, placed them free-spiritedly (we perfectionists like to call that “incorrectly”).
I think you can decide which card is Delaney the 5-year-old perfectionist’s and which card is the 5-year-old normal person’s. (I’d also like to mention- my twin has never had to contend with any agitation, perturbation or panic towards any food in her life).
When I look at these cards, I will say, mine conjures up anxiety. Why?
The one thing that has driven me bonkers every time I’ve passed it on my mom’s door for all these years: the fact that I drew the stem for the smallest flower too low. Delaney the 5-year-old perfectionist: how dare you let the word perfection slip off your imperfect lips! You make me sick.
As you can tell, I’m a perfectionist, but what does perfectionism have to do with eating disorders?
You probably already know that eating disorders aren’t about food or weight- at first anyway. Eating disorders develop out of a need of control and order; as a way to cope with and mask underlying anxiety, depression and OCD/OCPD-tendencies (aka the many struggles of many perfectionists).
I developed anorexia nervosa, orthorexia nervosa and anorexia athletica around one and a half years ago, after I recovered from severe dermatillomania/excoriation disorder (another body focused mental disorder).
I had used dermatillomania as way to deal with my compulsions and need for control, but with that gone, I needed a new coping mechanism- it was only a matter of time before my eating disorders reared their ugly heads.
During my battle with dermatillomania (and the lasting scars that come with it), I had developed depression, lost my appetite and, unfortunately, my weight.
That, and a clear genetic predisposition, opened the floodgates to my eating disorders.
Slowly, I began noticing my thinning legs (and the comments I’d get on them) and my declining weight (and the comments I’d get on it). I liked it, I wanted more of it.
This started around the spring of 2015 and went into the spring of 2016.
At that point, I had stopped picking at my face almost completely and was having laser treatments for the scarring (which I still have to this day because I want my skin to be perfect and can’t wrap my head around the fact that a scar is a scar), so I figured I’d look up ways to heal skin quickly.
There, I was bombarded with tips for clear skin: cut out this food, add that food, don’t eat too much of this nutrient, eat more of this nutrient, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Long story short, when I met my dietitian for the first time, she was shocked by how much information I knew, even suggesting that I become a dietitian one day (which I definitely wanted to do at one point, but I suspect that was due to my eating disorders (and I also suspect I’m not the only one with an eating disorder who has considered it)).
By researching all this information, I came across the knowledge I wouldn’t impart onto my worst enemy: calories.
While slowly cutting out (almost) all food groups, I was quickly cutting out calories.
When I learned what a calorie was, I ultimately figured out how much I “needed” to be eating and how much I was eating (which was way less than what I “needed” to be eating and even lesser than what I actually needed to be eating).
I decided that I needed to be eating even less.
With that, the anorexia athletica (in layman’s terms: purging calories through extreme, excessive exercise) appeared almost simultaneously.
So there I was, in June 2016, completely consumed by my eating disorders.
I enjoyed being underweight: I liked my protruding bones, the feeling of an empty stomach, the control I had over how much and what I ate, the feeling of accomplishment when I was able to eat X amount of calories a day and exercise for X amount of time (pushing myself further and further each day, never satisfied).
Most of all, I enjoyed the complete and utter numbness I felt; the lack of anxiety and emotion.
I didn’t like Delaney- Delaney wasn’t perfect- so I turned her into an obedient, walking pile of bones and flesh. It was my way of disciplining her.
Pretty soon, Delaney ceased to exist.
I won’t go into detail about my fear foods (in the depths of my darkest days, I had about three foods I wasn’t afraid of), my ways of tracking calories and portions, and my extreme exercise regime (I wouldn’t even be able to follow that routine now with my healthy body).
I will, however, give you a summary of some of the physical effects I experienced/continue to experience (many of the physical effects have subsided, however some are much longer lasting) due to slowly starving to death. Here’s what turning yourself into a skeleton gets you:
- extreme sensitivity to cold (I wore turtlenecks in late August),
- chronic exhaustion (I’m talking dosing at the wheel),
- insomnia (didn’t help my dosing at the wheel situation),
- severely dry skin (my knuckles were constantly cracked and bleeding- I still have some leftover hyperpigmentation from it),
- bright orange skin (from carotenemia),
- extreme dehydration (in spite of chugging more than a gallon of water a day because drinking more water than any human needs in a day turns you into a hydrated mermaid-goddess-hipster: wrong! It will turn you into the toilet’s best friend though. Tres chic!),
- excessive hair loss (I’m talking drain-clogging clumps every day),
- bruises all over the body (I couldn’t sit for longer than a couple minutes before being in horrible pain from my protruding bones),
- constant seizure episodes (they stopped once I became weight restored),
- debilitating constipation (it was the worst constipation I’d experienced at that point- once I began recovery the constipation got ten times worse),
- extreme sluggishness (I could barely move, yet somehow forced myself to exercise for hours on end),
- chronic shin splints (which I still have to this day, due to overexertion through exercise and slowed wound healing),
- and amenorrhea (I didn’t have my period for over a year and had it for the first time in June 2017 and, so far, only once more in August, despite being weight restored).
That was only the physical effects of starvation; I haven’t even mentioned the constant obsession over food (I’m talking habitually scrolling through images of any food while frothing at the mouth), the severe anxiety, the constant mood swings (I’d be sobbing one second, then in a heated rage the next), the brain fog and forgetfulness (I only managed to continue maintaining straight A’s because of the little thing we know as perfectionism), and the weird personality changes (by changes in personality, I really mean lack thereof; I’m only now figuring myself out again).
Okay, so you know I was starving, spiraling out of control (ironic because the one thing I wanted most in my life was control) and on the way to my death bed, so how did I get to be here writing this? My mom.
Thankfully, my mom is a very observant, well-read human being (who happens to have a mother who was anorexic as a teenager and bulimic throughout adulthood) and soon began suspecting I had an eating disorder (I remember one time, towards the start of my eating disorders, she cut out an article in the newspaper about orthorexia, suggested I had it- I laughed at her. Eating “healthy” is not disordered you undisciplined, unhealthy pig!).
After around six months of the self-loathing misery of my eating disorders, my mom weighed me (we have one scale in our house, but my mom has always kept it hidden from us) and immediately took me in to see my pediatrician.
I had anorexia (orthorexia is not yet recognized by the DSM) and I needed to eat more; just add in an extra ____ a day and you’ll be golden!
Unfortunately, my pediatrician is not the least bit educated about eating disorders (she recently apologizing for how misinformed she is) and was very blase about my life-threatening illness. Fortunately, she did verify for my mom that I had anorexia and needed to gain weight.
I was supposed to have gained X amount (very small amount) by the next week when I was weighed again.
At that time, I genuinely did not believe there was anything wrong with me (I- or my eating disorder brain- was proud of my weight loss and “healthy” eating and exercise routine. They just want to make you fat and unhealthy; don’t listen to them!). I was also not at all planning on changing anything up within my routine. However, my mom threatened to hospitalize me if I lost any more weight, so I decided I’d add an extra ____ every couple days (if I recall correctly, I did occasionally an an extra ____ once in awhile).
The following week, I was terrified that I’d be hospitalized; I hadn’t been eating more and knew I hadn’t gained weight. “Thankfully” I- or my eating disorder brain- figured out a few tricks to making it seem like I had gained weight, and wouldn’t you know it, I “gained” weight! See mom, I don’t have any eating disorders; I gained this tiny amount of “weight!” I’m fine.
Pretty soon after that, my mom took me to a dietitian and I obstinately argued with her about how much and what I needed to be eating (my family has always called me “the stubborn mule” so that didn’t help my poor dietitian). She came up with a very vague meal plan for me- I think at that point she didn’t care what I was eating, she just wanted me to be eating any amount more than I currently was.
That was the first and last time I looked at my meal plan (I have since tried to follow another meal plan, but became so obsessive about it, it turned unhealthy).
Because of all the talk of eating disorders, I began reading about and researching them, soon realizing that I did have eating disorders (I remember crying reading all of the symptoms of anorexia nervosa and athletica and orthorexia nervosa; how do all these symptoms fit me to a T?).
This realization was monumental for me: finally, I recognized and admitted that I, Delaney, had three eating disorders (the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, right?).
Slowly but surely, I began eating more. It was very slow, very stressful and one of the worst times of my life (my dermatillomania days are under there too).
This was around December 2016 (right around my seventeenth birthday). I was still eating well under the amount of calories a normal person (one who has never had an eating disorder) needs, and I was still obsessively exercising off a certain amount of the calories.
Regardless of the low intake, for me, it was a lot more than my body was used to. Hence, this important decision to eat more brought on the worst physical discomfort of my life: my digestion issues.
When one starves him or herself, their body will slow down in order to save itself. That’s what happened to me.
Because my body needed energy when I was starving, but was not getting it from any outside sources, it utilized the only source it did have- its own self.
My body used up all my life-saving fat and ate away at all my muscles. It also slowed my metabolic rate immensely so that it would burn through as little energy as possible.
Because of this, my digestion slowed way down.
Once I started eating more in December, my body literally couldn’t handle the small amount of food coming in; I was already chronically constipated and got even more constipated, but I also got extremely bloated (I genuinely looked like as though I was pregnant 24/7) and had horrendous, chronic flatulence.
The excruciating pain, discomfort and smell was something I cannot put into words (not to mention what looking six months pregnant lead my eating disorder voice to say). The amount of sobbing I have done in my recovery just because of my digestion issues is insane (I’m not even talking about the sobbing due to emotional duress). The cliff notes version of this is that I spent months and months trying different prescription medications and treatments to try and alleviate the constipation- you name it, I tried it. Unfortunately, that came to no avail.
After three ER visits (in December 2016, March 2017 and May 2017), I finally figured out the one thing that worked for me was milk and molasses enemas (not comfortable, not glamorous, slightly embarrassing, but highly effective), and I still, unfortunately, use them every month or so.
I’d also like to mention that even though I was chronically constipated and in pain, I continued to gain weight: no matter how miserable this time was for me, I literally ate through it. Digestive issues may be detrimental to one’s health, but staying underweight is ten times worse.
Thankfully though, I am ten times better than I was from December 2016 through June 2017 because of one thing: fiber.
Now, when I said fiber, you probably assumed I’d say something about how I wasn’t eating enough fiber and that I just had to add in some flaxseeds and chia seeds and I was passing stools like it was my job.
Ha! How horribly, horribly, horribly wrong you are.
Since I have orthorexia, many of the foods I found safe to eat happened to be plant foods (and as you know, only plants contain fiber), so I ate a lot of those foods, thus eating a lot of fiber (some days I’d eat three or four times the recommended daily value).
My mom told my gastroenterologist this and he, naturally, said to cut back on the fiber- an easy thing to do for someone without an eating disorder.
It’s important to note that even though extreme amounts of fiber were wreaking havoc on my gastrointestinal tract, it had absolutely zero bearing on my weight- I continued to gradually gain weight throughout the entire six to seven months of torture (that should always be the number one goal for anyone in recovery).
So, like I said, I was stuck in debilitating pain 24/7- until this past June.
Because I was in so much pain and discomfort, my gastroenterologist decided to do a colonoscopy and endoscopy to rule out anything anatomically wrong with my body.
If you’ve had a colonoscopy, you’d know that you have to do a colonoscopy prep to clear your bowels out. Part of that prep is a low to no fiber diet; I had to eat many fear foods that week (by the prep week though, I had just eaten my first fear food- which I’ll get into later- so it wasn’t too panic-inducing).
Halfway through that week, I realized something: I wasn’t gassy, bloated or constipated anymore!
Was a low fiber diet my digestion nightmare’s simple cure?
The colonoscopy and endoscopy results revealed I was in ship-shape (physically, at least) and that, basically, a low fiber diet was something I’d need to continue to follow if I didn’t want to suffer anymore (I have since tried eating the recommended DV for fiber, but that still is too much fiber for my body. I am also still constipated a lot of the time because I’m recovering from orthorexia and have difficulty staying away from “healthy” foods).
The takeaway from this long sidenote on my digestion struggles is that not everything is one size fits all. My gastroenterologist told me he doesn’t push fiber on patients anymore because everyone’s different and many people are better off without fiber bulking up and slowing down their stools.
I’m, unfortunately or fortunately- depending on how you look at it- one of them.
Just because something works for someone, doesn’t mean it will work for you.
So no, my problems were not fixed by adding flaxseeds and chia seeds into my diet. They were, however, fixed by dumping out my jars of those “healthy” (extremely unhealthy for me) little seeds.
Anyways, now that I explained to you all my digestive system fun, I’m going to jump back to increasing my calories.
By March 2017, I had gotten my calories up enough to the point that they weren’t terrifyingly low (I was still restricting and obsessively counting them though) and I was gaining back a lot of weight (because my metabolic rate was still so suppressed and my body was holding onto every calorie it could get). I was also still exercising off a certain amount of calories and, most importantly, still one hundred percent controlled by food and the fear of gaining “too much” weight.
Gaining weight is hard. It involves lots of body checking (I still do it), irrational fears of becoming overweight (I’m still afraid) and comparisons with those around you (having an identical twin doesn’t help).
This went on until June 7, 2017. At this point, I was well into the healthy BMI range, and extremely upset by how “big” my new, normal body looked.
That’s another thing I want to touch on: body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
Clearly, most people who have restrictive eating disorders are extremely underweight, but most are also exceedingly unaware of just how underweight they look- I was one of them.
That being said, when I started gaining weight and my body started growing, I was terrified: how do you expect someone who doesn’t see their emaciated body for what it is, to see their healthy body for what it is?
I’ve spent months and months constantly touching and staring at my body as it’s tried to grow and normalize itself (and I’m not going to lie, I’m still guilty of doing so). Watching your body get bigger (aka to its healthy weight and shape- something you cannot change) while continuing to eat food and not restrict it or using compensatory measures, is downright traumatic! But alas, it is something everyone in eating disorder recovery must do; or it wouldn’t be called recovery.
Okay back to the important day: June 7, 2017.
On this night, I was at a National Honor Society banquet. There were lots and lots of cookies, cakes and pastries (aka foods my eating disorders (specifically my orthorexia) were petrified of).
I remember being almost awestruck by how freely and carelessly everyone piled their plates with treats and ate them- while standing and engaged in conversation no less. Ew, that’s not eating mindfully!
We had so many leftovers that my friends and I, who were helping clean up, got to take them home. Of course I didn’t want anything to do with them, but my twin brought back a tray of brownies (my past self adored brownies).
So later that night, after an extensive workout, I was taking a shower and all I could think about were those brownies; my mouth was watering, my stomach was growling (and extremely bloated and gassy), I was in pain from exercising and extremely drained- mentally and physically.
After the shower, I walked into the kitchen: I was terrified, my heart was racing, but I was going to do it, I was going to eat one of those brownies.
Right after I took the first bite, I started sobbing.
I was happy.
At that point, it had been thirteen months of misery and sorrow.
I was proud.
It had been thirteen months of living a life dictated by fears and rules.
I was disgusted.
It had been thirteen months of perfect order and “health,” and I had just thrown it all away for a brownie.
I had another.
I cried some more.
The next morning, I thought I was dying.
I felt horribly nauseous, my heart was racing and I was lightheaded. I had three hours at school that day, and the whole time I thought for sure I was going to throw up.
My heart? I was certain that at any minute it would explode because of how fast it was beating.
Coincidentally, that day I had an appointment with a brilliant MD who specializes in treating eating disorders (that appointment was three hours of helpful information).
I told her how I’d eaten sugar (and everything else that was good and pure in the brownies) for the first time in forever the night before, how I most certainly was having a reaction to it and how I was definitely right about how horrible that deadly sugarcane plant is.
She checked my heart rate.
It was normal.
She checked everything.
It was all normal.
I was having a panic attack though.
Later that night, I felt fine- I felt great actually.
I felt almost… free?
I made a pact with myself: I would stop exercising and restricting, and start eating whatever the hell I wanted.
I wanted an ice cream cone.
For a few weeks, I did just that: I stopped all exercise and I started eating whatever I wanted (this occurred during and after my colonoscopy prep).
Slowly though, I started walking- for “mental health!” I started swimming for hours a day- it’s only because I love swimming! (My family’s place is up in Suttons Bay: there’s no loving that fifty degree Lake Michigan water (for that long at least)).
Then I started adding some of my old safe foods in- it’s only because I love eating the same thing everyday!
However, a week or two after that, I got tired of constantly waking up to exercise (and I couldn’t stand my shin splints) and tired of freezing everyday in the icy water (and I had a horrible phlegm-y cough from swimming so much), so I stopped pushing myself to “be active”.
I also wanted pancakes, pizza, ice cream and whatever else, so that’s what I ate.
The anxiety and fear that was there on June 7th, when I ate my first brownie and truly started recovering, wasn’t there this time.
However, after a few more weeks, I started pushing myself to do this exercise and that exercise, to eat this food instead of that food.
A week or two after that though, I stopped.
A few weeks after that, I started again.
And so on.
Since June 7th, 2017 I have had good weeks and I have had bad weeks.
It’s October 2017, and I still have good and bad weeks.
Recovery is not linear.
Some weeks are better than others, some days are better than others, but all days are better than the others: the days I spent as a slave to my eating disorders; a real-life zombie searching for my own brain.
That’s the catch with eating disorder recovery. Just because one is recovering, doesn’t mean everything from there on out will be sunshine and daisies.
If you think it will be- newsflash- it won’t.
I’m a perfectionist. I’ll always be a perfectionist and I’ll probably always have to be mindful of my eating disorders, keeping track of what’s triggering and what’s helpful.
The trouble with eating disorders- or my eating disorders at least- is that they’re caused by a need for control and perfection- you can’t squelch that overnight (or over weeks or months).
It takes practice, patience and maybe even a few lapses.
Recovery is like a rollercoaster: there are going to be highs and lows, dips and turns and ups and downs… but that’s okay!
That doesn’t mean you’re “failing” at recovery; it means you’re one step closer to finally getting your freedom (and your life) back.
What does freedom mean to me?
Freedom means not giving foods moral values. There is no “good” or “bad” food- food is food.
It means not restricting any foods. If you “recover” by going vegan, vegetarian, gluten free (unless you have celiac disease), paleo, et cetera- for whatever reason- you’re not recovering.
It also means only exercising because I want to. I think, unless you’re truly mentally recovered, deciphering between “want to” and “have to” is impossible (and turning over-exercise into an obsession with yoga or weightlifting because you “love how it makes you feel” is just trading one compulsion for another).
So, after going through everything that I have, do I believe being a perfectionist is a bad thing?
Not all the time.
Do I want to stop being a perfectionist?
Not all the time.
Is that only because I’m a perfectionist?
Yes. It’s a double-edged sword and I’ve learned that the hard way.
Eating disorder recovery is not easy- it’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. There are days when I most certainly want to give up, to throw in the towel and succumb to the illness, but I don’t.
I keep moving forward.
And everyone in recovery needs to keep moving forward.
But in that moving forward, you must remember one important thing...
Always continue in the right direction: away from perfection.