Stories, skills, and positivity- to anxiety sufferers from anxiety sufferers.
It was in my dorm room at Queen’s that I experienced my first panic attacks. We are talking hyperventilating; vomiting, sobbing, dizzying panic attacks. Bad winter weather, which previously just made me more cautious, was suddenly keeping me up all night in worry. I didn’t recognize myself anymore – I had never felt so uneasy or unhappy. I even spent one night repeatedly punching my arm until it was black and blue in an attempt to stay home after Christmas break. By the end of the year, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – something I would see several professionals about over the following years.
Now, as a side note, I should explain that Anorexia and myself go way back. In grade 6, after being called “whale” for years, my type A personality kicked into hyper drive and I went from 127 to 80 pounds in 3 months. I was eating about 300 calories a day, thinking that meant I was working “hard”. But when you are 11, recovery is out of your hands. You get to feel upset and terrified, but your parents and the hospital team are still authority figures and can “make you” to a certain extent. I was weight restored by the end of grade 7 and maintained a healthy and positive relationship with food, and my body, throughout high school.
Then came second year. My anxieties were taking over my life and I felt COMPLETELY out of control. I couldn’t control the weather. I couldn’t keep my family back at home safe. But, now that I was in a house and away from residence, I could control my food and cook for myself. I began planning my meals and snacks weeks in advance. Not in order to lose weight, but just to feel like at least one aspect of my life was taken care of. I began to feel “better”. I was worrying less about the weather and etc. by diverting my attention into my food. And hey, if I also counted my calories for every meal plan, I felt even more settled. Suddenly ALL of my attention and focus went into food. I would eat out of tablespoon measures and I would only eat at certain times, using certain utensils. I started staying home from housemate outings because food would be involved. So yeah, great, I was feeling better about my daily struggles. But, ALL of my anxieties were now food related. If I had to give up my schedule or habits, I was a mess for days. My body image also went to shit. If my pants weren’t falling off of my body, they were too tight. If I couldn’t feel all the parts of the hipbone I was studying in Anatomy, I was too large.
On top of the physical symptoms I began to experience, my biggest problem was my relationship with my housemates – my four best friends and four of the most supportive women I have had the pleasure to meet. They were well aware of my struggles, and offered to help in any way they could. But, I was terrified to accept the help. That would mean breaking my habits, and in my mind that meant weight gain. I isolated myself. I lied. I came up with excuse after excuse to not order takeout, to keep using the baby spoon, to keep measuring my cereal in the morning. I missed out on so many jokes and stories, all in order to make myself sicker and sicker. They watched me slowly killing myself, and I will never understand how truly terrifying and infuriating that must have been. To make matters worse, I was now turning to social media. I would write long statuses, openly discussing my struggles. But I would always write about them as if they were somehow behind me, and would always end them on a positive note about the joys of recovery. It was bullshit. They knew it, I knew it.
I came home from second year at 100 pounds. I immediately started an outpatient program, one that would require me to come home every week throughout 3rd year for weigh-ins. Now, as a 20 year old in recovery, no one could MAKE me do anything. They could encourage me, and support me, but I had to do the work. I couldn’t tell myself that I HAD to eat the ice cream or burger, because no one could force me to. To my disordered brain, I was actively choosing to make myself fat, to clog my arteries, and to lose control of my life again.
My mental illness then made a leap in third year from interfering with my friendships, to interfering with other relationships. I began dating a wonderful guy – a guy I was attracted to emotionally, intellectually, and physically. But here is the problem: despite that attraction, research has shown that anorexia is associated with decreased sexual desire and increased sexual anxiety. I.e. I had little to no sex drive. Whenever we were intimate, 90% of my brain was on high alert, waiting for the moment he would recoil in horror at my nakedness – a roll or a flabby arm. My eating disorder convinced me that every inch of my body was just another inch for someone to be disgusted by. Having a boyfriend also meant sharing my schedule with someone else. I couldn’t stick to my set meals or times– and that was TERRIFYING. I began to feel so uncomfortable and embarrassed that I put up walls, backed away, and eventually the relationship ended.
I have a ton of issues, and I won’t blame my love life on my mental health alone. BUT, when you are truly repulsed by yourself, romantic relationships can get messed up really fast. Slowly but surely though, I did regain the weight and some sensibility in second semester.
So it was to everyone’s disappointment that 4th year was more of the same. I had worked so hard for the past 2 years to get to around 118 pounds and a better mental state. Yet, as soon as I got back to school, I began to restrict my food intake and increase my gym attendance. Complete relapse. My eating schedule became so rigid and unusual that I hardly ate with the girls at home. I was sleeping in until 1:00pm, having breakfast at 2:30, lunch at 6, dinner at 10, and a snack at 1:30am. I was losing weight on that schedule and therefore to abandon it, even for a day, would mean gaining. I finished the school year back down at 102 pounds. My blood pressure was around 65/50 (VERY low), my hair was falling out, I lost my period (increasing the risk of fertility issues), and was completely emotionally unstable.
This summer I, again, was in weight gain mode. In order to begin my Masters, I had to reach a minimum of 115 pounds. That number is still way below a healthy weight for my height, but it is a start. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t spend a lot of the summer telling myself “Don’t worry, you can always lose it when you are living on your own again”. Eventually though, I will have to learn to love my body and to value who I am as a human being above all else. I will have to learn to deal with my anxieties in a way that is not detrimental to my health. I CAN find a way to live with GAD - I can practice coping mechanisms and mindfulness. I CAN’T live with Anorexia. My friends and family shouldn’t have to live it with it either.
The average anorexic relapses 7 times. I have only relapsed twice. I don’t have another 5 in me.
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Katie McLean holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, and bases her anxiety aid in personal experience, as well as techniques that have been passed on to her by counsellors, friends, and fellow anxiety sufferers.