The Eating Disorder and Chronic Illness that Changed My Life Forever
**This is an extremely personal story that I hope will resonate with you if you’ve ever dealt with disordered eating, gut issues, or the conventional medical system failing you. I must warn that some of these descriptions may be triggering if you are still dealing with an eating disorder, so proceed with wisdom.**
Most people who grow up in Small Town Texas, America don’t naturally follow a path of pursuing an alternative medicine degree. No, we’re raised with an occasional pediatrician visit, popping antibiotics like vitamins when we don’t feel well, eating Gushers and Goldfish like they’re a food group. We don’t think about food much, except maybe how much we love pie at Thanksgiving or snacks after school. Our brains are preoccupied with much more interesting things like playing pretend with the neighbor kid or watching the latest on Disney Channel. That is, until we wake up one post-pubescent day and realize our jeans are a little tighter and we look different than we always have. Suddenly we begin to correlate what we eat in the context of how we look. Plagued with disordered eating advice from peers and magazines, if we learn anything about food’s nutrition, it’s that calories are bad and less is good. Or, maybe we equate food with comfort and we drench our angsty teen feelings in fat and flavor. And then we spend the rest of our lives navigating the love-hate relationship with food that dictates our self-worth, our social status, our spending habits and eventually, our medical bills.
This was me – another teenage girl with an eating disorder, born out of a desire to fit in, on the trajectory to spending the next several decades of my life enslaved to calorie-counting, riding the binge-guilt-restrict roller-coaster, completely isolated, and eventually ending up with chronic disease because I viewed food as the enemy and the number on the scale as the determinate of self-acceptance. Spiritually speaking, I idolized my body. All the while being praised and admired for my disciplined pursuit of “health” by my peers.
That is until ironically, by the grace of God, I got sick.
It began slowly in my late high school years as a way to remain “healthy” (aka, not gain weight) after quitting team sports. What started as learning that “whole wheat pasta is healthier than refined white flour pasta” eventually led to an awareness of the calorie content of every single food I ate. As I started to see my body get smaller and the attention from peers grow larger, I was consumed with making sure I never ate more than 1200 calories per day, all while intensely exercising to increase calorie burn. I would look at recipes and watch cooking shows constantly, but never actually cook or eat any of that food. Or if I did, it was only because it was low-calorie. At this point in my career, I know that I was realistically in a 1,000+ calorie deficit every day, stunting my development and growth into a mature woman, and doing irreversible damage to my organs. My period had completely stopped (which ended up lasting for 4 years, mind you), my hip bones hurt when I laid in bed, and I never wanted to eat outside of my home where I could control every calorie that touched my plate. But all I cared about is I could wear whatever I wanted, and people referred to me as “skinny” for the first time in my life (though I was not overweight before).
After hitting a whopping 98-pound point with a 5’5” frame in my senior year, I began my freshman year of college still immersed in orthorexia (an unofficial eating disorder defined as the fear of “unhealthy” food) while navigating the fact that I was confined in my dorm room without access to a kitchen and scared to eat anything covered in oil in the dining hall. So while I did have to give up some control of what I ate, I desperately clung to certain foods that I deemed “safe.” This meant eating alone most of the time, missing out on the communal “caf” experience, which perpetuated the isolation piece of my eating disorder. I choose salad for lunch and dinner, and maybe some raw fruits and vegetables that I could stash in my dorm mini fridge. I managed to cook a few things in the microwave, but for the most part, I was eating like an actual rabbit. All raw, all the time.
In general, I’d say there’s nothing wrong with eating a lot of salads. It’s a great way to get a high intake of fiber and greens. But we know that too much of a good thing isn’t always good, and that’s exactly what happened. While this hasn’t been confirmed medically, I do believe that the amount of raw food I was forcing my stomach to digest constantly, mixed with the inadequate calorie intake disrupting my gut and hormones, was the catalyst of what happened next.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I was on a family trip when I suddenly came down with a high fever after a long day of intense hiking. It lasted a few days, rising in the evenings, breaking overnight, and staying down in the mornings. We decided to go to the one medical clinic in the tiny mountain town to get some help. Perplexed, they prescribed an antibiotic in hopes that it would take a broad-sweeping swing at whatever was ailing me. Sure enough, the fever subsided after a few more days.
A week or two passed, and the fever came back in the same pattern. Another medical visit later, I was on a different antibiotic along with an antifungal thinking I may have picked up something strange in the woods. Again the fevers subsided.
Another couple weeks, another round of fevers. This time, it began to climb up to 105, and we knew this was getting serious (RIP to the brain cells I lost). A trip to the ER turned into a 5-night stay in the hospital, complete with all the amenities – endoscopy, colonoscopy, stool testing for parasites, and of course, more antibiotics. All the while experiencing high fevers at night accompanied by full-body shaking and weakness.
My body was crying out for help, and finally the doctors had a hunch.
One morning a doctor came in and said I might have Crohn’s disease. I didn’t have the typical symptoms, and he suggested that it could be Crohn’s of the small bowel which explained the fevers and the bloating I had been experiencing. That meant I had autoimmunity. This meant I would likely have to take a pill for the rest of my life, and my immune system would be suppressed so I’d probably be sick a lot. Oh yeah, and who knows if I’d be able to have kids. That’s quite some news for anyone, but for someone who had just started their college journey with seemingly their whole life ahead, it was absolutely devastating.
Once I was dispatched from the hospital, the doctors had me run one more test to get a complete picture (pun intended) of the inflammation of my small intestine by swallowing a tiny camera that took photos of my intestines on its way through. Quite the tourist experience.
I was referred to a gastroenterologist who confirmed the inflammation and possibility of Crohn’s, and said the only way to confirm was to see if it was indeed chronic. He lined up a steroid pill that I was to take everyday and come back for periodic check-ups.
But before I went on my way, I asked a question that turned out to be one of the most impactful moments for me in all of this. I said “if I have inflammation in my digestive tract, should I be changing my diet or something? Like taking out gluten maybe?” At that point I had studied nutrition enough as a hobby to know that diet was probably a factor here. But instead, I was met with an answer I’ll never forget:
“don’t worry about changing your diet. Just take your pill.”
That alone will make you sick to your stomach.
So feeling hopeless and also helpless, I continued to take the pill and check in with the doctor knowing it wasn’t my best option but not knowing what was. After over a year of being on a medical steroid, a coworker mentioned an acupuncturist that her daughter’s family swore by. She said he’d helped them with a whole host of issues they’d dealt with from the kids to the parents. Admittedly, acupuncture sounded a little “woo-woo,” and I’m not exactly thrilled by the thought out needles. But I was assured that they were Christians, and I was desperate enough to give it a try.
I signed up for an appointment and within 5 minutes of walking in, getting a few pokes in my stomach and side (it’s the weirdest and coolest stuff you’ve ever experienced), the doctor looked at me as if he were calling out the color of my hair and said “you have leaky gut”. At one point in my internet self-diagnosis journey that everyone with chronic illness takes, I had read briefly about this vague-sounding concept, and from what I knew it didn’t sound too far off. It actually made a lot of sense.
The doctor went on to say that when the gut becomes chronically inflamed, the lining can actually begin to have small perforations and “leak” things out into your bloodstream that have no business being there. Things like undigested food particles or bacteria. This is what causes the body to mount an inflammatory response causing things like the fevers I was experiencing. Now, this is pretty commonly accepted, but in 2016, only mom-bloggers seemed to be talking about it.
And then in the most eloquent way, he simply explained “we’re going to remove some foods that could be contributing to the inflammation from your diet for a little while. Even some things that would normally be healthy, like tomatoes or brussels sprouts, but that aren’t good for a compromised gut. Once it heals, you should be able to eat all foods without any issues. Think of your body like a muddy stream. The mud has to be entering from some point upstream. When we go to the source and remove the mud, eventually the water will begin to run clear downstream.
Your body was created by God to heal itself, and sometimes all we need to do is quit doing harm and let it do its job.”
This, my friend, is what formed the foundation of my view of health.
And sure enough, after about 4 months on a strict anti-inflammatory therapeutic diet along with acupuncture treatment weekly to stimulate my immune system, I showed no more signs of leaky gut. I slowly started to reintroduce foods to the point where I could tolerate pretty much all foods, the bloating subsided, and I haven’t had those fevers since. I’ve even gone back for periodic check-ups with no sign of a leaky gut. My period naturally returned, a glorious sign of health after 4 years of amenorrhea.
Meanwhile, I realized that going out to have ice cream with friends was actually healthy. Not having to think about food constantly, to agonize about what I was going to eat next and how to push my hunger off until then, was SO freeing. I was able to be flexible, to not have the need to control everything. I could go on a week mission trip and eat what was put in front of me with gratitude and without beating myself up. I realized that the lowest point in my weight was the lowest point in my life, and that chasing my “dream” body left me completely empty, dissatisfied, and sick. Imagine that.
I thought back to that hospital room, thinking I may be doomed to relying on medication and tip-toeing around a compromised immune system for the rest of my life, all in the pursuit of vanity. And on the trajectory I was on, I very well could have been. I couldn’t thank God enough for providing healing, freedom, and a second chance at health, because I know that for many people this isn’t their story. They eat all the right foods and still find themselves battling illness. So hear me when I say this I didn’t find the magic formula that everyone can follow to cure chronic illness. I’m too chillingly aware of the complexities to claim that. For me, it was about teaching me that food is so much more than calories. The body is so much more than its weight. And what we eat has the power to either promote or prevent disease.
I had gained a new perspective, and amidst all of the doctor visits I had begun to see that “healthy” meant something very different than I thought. I had found freedom from being enslaved by food. It didn’t happen overnight, and it will never not be something I must fight against. But the difference is that I have realized that life is meant for things so much more important than meeting a number on a scale.
By the grace of God I have found peace in viewing food as a means by which I can feel well enough to do those more important things – like loving people, hearing their stories, and impacting their relationship with food and ability to find lasting health – physically, mentally, spiritually.
Maybe, I hope, to help someone like you.
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