Orthorexia – An Eating Disorder With Good Intentions

You weigh more than I do.

Those words coming from my Oncologist were what flipped the switch in my 229 pound brain that I was officially fat. A six-foot something man, who was as big as a twig, was telling 5’7″ me as kindly as possible the life I was living was unhealthy. In hindsight, it was reflective of the life before the cancer, minus any activity I did. It was the second annual visit to make sure the caner hadn’t come back. I was around the age of 16 or 17, I’m not quite sure. I don’t remember much else, but it was that day I knew I had to start losing weight. I didn’t care about being a particular size, I didn’t care about how I looked.

All I knew was being obese, being inactive, and not giving a fuck what food I ate increased the odds of my cancer coming back.

That pretty much sums up orthorexia: eating and exercising in a particular way based on fear. It’s known as a fixation on righteous eating: some it’s a moral reason, others (like myself) life (or lives) being at risk, or wanting to be the healthiest you can be. Who knew that it can quickly spiral into a full blown eating disorder. What’s even more difficult is that it’s no longer recognized by the DSM, and not many people know how to treat.

It started out pretty innocently. I knew pop was terrible for me, and I was drinking roughly eight cans of regular ginger ale a day. I stopped, and lost 20 pounds rather quickly. It was around this point where my parents saw how a minor change created a change in me, which started their (admittedly unhealthy) tracks back into the land of Weight Watchers. Since I had to eat the same food, I followed along. This led to me losing another 29 pounds.

This began my obsession with the points system. I could easily do the math in my head what food equaled what. When you read the material and see some foods were triple your daily allowance, you never want to eat them again. I dropped another 10 pounds. This is when the compliments began, and the esteem boost followed. I was asked for advice. I figured since people were coming to me, I should do more homework on diets, fads, healthy eating lifestyles, and effective workouts/exercises. It was around this time I also found the world of thinspiration. I never participated in communities, but some of my thoughts resonated with what they said. My thoughts also recognized how unhealthy they were. Never would I be an eating disorder. Boy how things can change.

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From the movie Mean Girls

After working for a few years and completing some university, I decided to travel abroad for two months. While there, I was on my own and had a terrible time. I wasn’t paying attention to my weight, I was more interested in what felt like surviving. When I returned, I ballooned back up to 200 pounds. Home was never a place of solace, and it seemed to be getting worse. Compound the fact that my mental illness was starting to develop, I felt no control. I knew the one area I could gain some of that back: my weight.

Time passed, more stress compiled, my health was deteriorating, and I dropped down to around 160 pounds. I didn’t think much of it, but reflecting back, people did wonder how I did lose the weight. First you had the negative and positive reinforcement. Strangers it was positive, family (who are unhealthy) it was negative. Are you going to eat that? Has your ass gotten bigger? You need to work on your thighs. I tracked everything that went into my mouth. I deemed certain foods as forbidden. Exercise 1 hour every day, no exceptions. Monitor more than just the scales: measurements matter too. Never, ever, ever use things like laxatives. Don’t skip meals, eat lightly instead. Never go over X amount of calories a day. Go down to X calories a day when you could only fit in 30 minutes of exercise. The rules kept piling on. Whenever I looked in the mirror, all I saw was 229 pound me.

You look great!
You should do modeling.
I wish I was a thin as you.
You’re beautiful!
Hey, what do you do? I have 10 pounds to lose.

giphy

If the people who made these comments at the time only knew the personal hell I was going through to look the way I did. Things were far from normal.

At this point, scar tissue caused by my cancer surgery (and full obstruction) wrapped around my small intestine, causing a new partial block. If it was irritated, I was instructed to go on a liquid diet and eat low residue foods. The problem with bowel obstructions caused by scar tissue is that they’re paradoxical: if you go in to remove them, you cause more scar tissue to develop. This leads to more obstructions. My stomach was sensitive, and I had such pain in my upper right side under my chest close to where the partial obstruction was located. Certain foods would trigger IBS-like symptoms. Food became what I thought was the cause of every single hospital visit. I stopped eating foods that caused any discomfort. Some foods lost all taste. More and more rules about food came into my routine. If I felt any pains after eating, I would force myself to throw up some as I thought I was pushing too hard on the obstruction.

During this time, I had a car accident and lost the ability to lift my legs temporarily. This pushed my reserve that exercise every day is the only way for me to get back to normal. Exercise became a two-hour every day ritual, eventually leading to several relapses from the years of recovery in physiotherapy.

I started to only eat local as I was concerned what my food consumption was doing to the environment. I would watch hours upon hours of videos of the morbidly obese trying to remind myself I never wanted to be that person. I would find any excuse to move: it helped the pain both in my stomach, and my injuries. The irony with chronic pain is both no and too much movement causes that to become worse.

When I dropped down to 118-120 pounds and could see too many bones, I knew I had a problem.

I needed help, so I asked my psychologist at the time to refer me to the outpatient eating disorder clinic. This was disastrous and a blow to my self-esteem. It’s a story in itself, the Eating Disorders Clinic here in Halifax. It’s always a reminder that you do have choice: if you don’t agree with clinicians, speak up. Other patients were cordial with me, but it was very isolating. I wasn’t an anorexic, I wasn’t one of them. They made that very clear.

It was at this time that I was in and out of hospital, and it was decided that my gallbladder had to come out. The team at the clinic said I should wait to come back until after my surgery. I had the surgery, and it did what I feared: two more partial bowel obstructions. I was in and out of hospital, sometimes for a few days on a liquid-only meal plan. The hospital only sent a nutritionist once, and suggested adding a liquid meal supplement (something I was already doing) while in hospital. It ended up I couldn’t drink it: I’m lactose intolerant. This was the constant with the public system: a panacea approach to eating disorders. I was done.

Once I was well enough and out of hospital, I started my search for private help. A few costly tries almost made me end my search, but then with the assistance of one of the PhD’s at the ED clinic (who saw I was serious about getting better), I was able to find a private psychologist who specialized in eating disorders at the kids hospital, and help me come to understand what I had: orthorexia. With time and the private psychologist, I was able to get this under some control. I now bounce between 140-150 pounds, I don’t do almost all of the destructive behaviors I’ve listed (still working on a few), and I don’t believe irrational thoughts about foods.

It’s still a struggle today, yet no longer life-threatening. The irony of orthorexia: you wish to be healthy to the point that you’re willing to die for your goal. If you suffer from an eating disorder, don’t give up. You will find your balance.

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