It is important to note that I am not a certified nutritionist nor dietitian who upholds the qualifications that determine, aid, or guide disorder eating. This is simply my personal experience and any medical advice that was given to me should not directly translate to your condition. This is my story, and any negative or unsolicited opinions are not welcome. Thank you.
Eating disorders are as much physical battles as they are mental. I could not be here where I am today without the unwavering support and love of my boyfriend, Jack, my sister Emily, my mom, my college friends & the entire Eating Disorder team at Michigan State University. Your love and consistent encouragement kept me going. I'm forever indebted to you - with everything I have, I thank you.
This was written in March of 2021. I've been recovered from my eating disorder for almost 2 years now. Most days, it feels like it's a thing of the past - but some days are harder than others; my body image isn't always positive and sometimes I eat more junk than what I want to. But - that's life. The days fly by and honestly, what you eat is the least interesting thing about you. Not all meals are supposed to be the BEST, and each meal fuels your body differently. I never take recovery for granted, nor does the small progress outweigh any journey that lies ahead. This is my story. It's raw, heartbreaking, tremendous, and silly all at the same time. Here it is...
Context: I'm the oldest of four. Our parents raised us to fill our bodies with whole, nutritious food. I was never forced to finish food at the table if I was full and I never once heard my mother speak of a diet, food rules, or anything of that matter. The more I look back and remember it, it truly was the epitome of intuitive eating. My disordered eating and views of body image came from the media and how other women talked about themselves and diets.
High School: the first time I started dieting
I was a sophomore in high school; and my friends always joked about how I could literally eat anything without gaining any weight. I wore it like a ribbon of pride. I ate whatever, and whenever. I had no idea what food rules were.
I played high school varsity sports: basketball and soccer. During one season, I played club season at the other. Point being: I was active.
Sounds cliche to say 'one day' but really - one day, I looked at the mirror and noticed my body looked different. I didn't like it. I pinched my stomach and looked at my body in my bathroom mirror. From what I recall, I decided I would diet. I wanted to 'be toned' again and I was going to be. Whatever I needed to do to get there - I would. I downloaded 'Daily Ab Workouts for Free' from the Apple store and started doing them for 10 minutes each night. I also downloaded the legs, arms, and full body one so I could complete those after soccer & basketball practice. And each day, I would stare at myself in that pink shell of a bathroom until my body looked different.
I started to make food rules. *cue sigh...yes, I gave rules to certain foods* I looked up what was good and bad for metabolism on Pinterest, I turned to MyFitnessPal to start tracking calories, and was ready to 'get back where I used to be' aka 'The Girl who could eat anything' and still look like that.
I didn't realize it at the time but I developed incredibly disordered thoughts towards food. My calorie tracker calculated 1,400 calories total per day - based off my current weight, goal weight, and daily activity level. I ditched the sugary cereal I was consuming 3-4 bowls of before school and swapped it for a banana with 1 packet of apple cinnamon Quaker oats (according to Pinterest, oatmeal and bananas were good for metabolism). I told my dad to start making me salads instead of his infamous, gourmet sandwiches for lunch. *Note: I grew up eating incredible sandwiches for school lunch - I'm talking turkey, brie, granny smith apple, red pepper jelly, greens, and mayo all on toasted sourdough. It was NOT a typical school lunch. My dad loved to get creative with our lunches and we loved it* I cringe writing that because I genuinely loved eating my dad's gourmet lunches. Instead, I ate carrots and snap peas, apple and peanut butter, and a small number of pretzels with each lunch. That was it. Nothing more, nothing less. Dinner was usually whatever my parents were making and relatively healthy. I logged daily, and found it was pretty simple for a while...
Until, well, it wasn't. How was I supposed to track the local pizza place's homemade garlic knots at a soccer team pasta party? Or would I not lose any weight if I went 11 calories over my total caloric intake for the day with a handful of almonds? What happened when my dad made homemade banana bread pancakes before a big test, and instead of eating them, I screamed and told him 'I wasn't hungry, and that I was sticking with the oatmeal' !!
The answer to those questions:
- I stopped eating anything I couldn't track. It needed a nutrition label, a barcode, something that would tell me how many calories it had. At soccer pasta parties I would have a plate full of garden salad with no dressing and a small spoonful of pasta or grilled chicken breast, for you know, satiety.
- I took my anger of not eating on people who graciously were offering me delicious food, completely blindsiding to them that I was battling anything internally.
- I vividly recall being on the phone with Jack - standing in the middle of my pantry looking up, asking him if I should eat the 8 almonds "because that's the only thing that fits in my calories I have left for the day" or I could eat a granola bar or something else. Spoiler: I went for the almonds 'to be good' (gahh, how I've come to hate that phrase)
After a few months, I realized that my body 'was back'. I was tinier than I was before and it reinforced that if I could just eliminate foods for a certain amount of time, it would be fine. Oh, if I could speak to my younger self about this...
My high school experience pretty much yo-yoed between restriction to be skinny (before spring breaks and when I thought I “looked bad”) to eating without any limitation on things. Looking back, that's pretty hard to do when you go from 0 to 100 and back to 0. It only can go so well before it doesn't.
Courtney goes to college
I'm not sure what calendar year will take away the phrase, "the freshman 15" but I would happily sign as many petitions needed to eliminate the phrase.
When I think of this now, I realize how skewed those ideals are in society. Women's bodies change. We're not supposed to be a one size fit all our entire life. We experience different stages of hormones and our bodies settle. It is so normal to see changes in our body throughout all stages of our life - especially college.
I was fearful of gaining weight. yet longed for the true college experience: frat parties, sugary drinks, late night stumble home Cottage Inn Pizza...it was the experience I craved and wanted to remember.
I recall I wasn't sure how to workout. I played sports my entire life, yet when I went to the gym it was cardio & a 10-minute ab circuit. Every. Single. Day. Freshman year I did my best to enjoy dorm food, while maintaining a healthy relationship with working out (I think I did 3-4x/week). I couldn't track my food because dorm food didn't provide a barcode. I stuck with patterns of eating that I enjoyed in high school and just tried to do my best. In hindsight, I had a pretty healthy relationship with food / exercise / and the college lifestyle my freshman year.
Sophomore year: living in a sorority...with 50 other women
I lived in my sorority house my sophomore year of college. 1 year. I entered feeling good about my workout regime and I left with a 3 months supply of fat burning and diet pills. Let's break it down...
The house had a chef. One who didn't prioritize healthy or fresh ingredients. We had grilled cheese Friday's and served dessert almost every night (think a homemade brownie / cake / dessert with local Michigan ice cream). If you lived in, you had to pay for the meal plan. Even if it wasn't *exactly* what I wanted, I ate it. I also had a bin of food up in my room for extra snacks - late night or just staples throughout the day. Ladies shared food and you almost never ate alone.
One day, I was talking to our house mom about recipe development / ideas on how to incorporate better meals for the residents. I caught a glimpse of the magnet on the fridge in the corner of my eye: "Fat kids don't get kidnapped" I walked out flush in the face. You're kidding me right? Who the hell buys something like that? I wanted to scream. The past four years I was terrified to feel fat; here I was living in this house that was essentially feeding me fat. (note: I know that the term fat is subjective and that any body is able. This was a mental battle for me against societal standards that I felt I grew up with and adhered to)
To this day I remember that experience. If you know my story personally, I'm sure I've told you about it too. My nutritionist laughed out loud in disgust when I told her.
Here's how the rest of the year spent in the sorority played out: I gained weight. I went out a lot with my friends and had a high drinking tolerance. We ordered late night food or we would eat until we were stuffed and uncomfortable. I had an 'oh shit moment' a week before spring break. I felt guilty for not ‘getting my body in shape’ prior. I decided "I was going to be good" and decided a 3-day smoothie cleanse would take off any and all excess bodyweight I added. I pre-made 3 smoothies for each day at home the weekend before, then froze them and kept them in the basement freezer at the sorority. I choked down smoothies without any issue on the first day of the cleanse (other than the fact that I didn't totally blend the spinach very well so I was gulping down clumps of spinach covered in acai and cayanne pepper (Pinterest claimed it was great for digestion!!!) Are you gagging just reading this? And why was I still believing everything I read on the internet *hand palm to face* ANYWAY, I still have taste aversion. The second day after dinner (another smoothie), my best friend brought some homemade brownies her mom made for us. The fudgey kind that cracked on the top - you know, the best kind. I spent about an hour internally debating if I wanted the brownies. I knew I wanted them; but I was trying to decide if I wanted to cheat on my 3-day miracle working, smoothie cleanse (100% sarcasm). My willpower eventually caved and I ate basically ⅔ of the pan of brownies. I woke up disappointed and felt angry at myself for not having stronger willpower. **What I know now: it wasn't my willpower that needed to be stronger; it was the fact that I was depriving myself of anything except a smoothie and in pure fight or flight mode of hunger. The brownies were delicious. I also binged on them because of the deprivation. It was bound to happen. Restriction opens the doors to all kinds of other things. For me, it was binging, excessive exercise, and mental challenges.
I was really unhappy with how my body looked in the photos from spring break. I was desperate to try any diet. I could no longer rely on the 0 to 100 or 100 to 0 method that worked for me in high school. BUT, I was having a lot of fun (cue frat parties and late night food again) so I decided to capitalize on the fun and lose the weight after I went back home. I knew of some friends that bought a meal replacement shake, fat burning pills, and fast metabolism pills. I bought it in a heartbeat to start my diet after leaving the sorority house.
The Summer after the sorority house
I was living a slippery slope. I had the desire to shred every inch of body fat I accumulated over the year, yet I wanted to do it as quickly as possible. It was an unrealistic time frame, yet I was determined. In just over 4 weeks, I had dropped almost all of the weight I put on. I ate one meal a day for the most part (dinner), slugged down chocolate meal replacement shakes for breakfast and lunch, including taking a fat burning pill before each shake, and another pill after called the 'slim pill'. It saddens me to even write this now. I would hope that almost everyone would recognize this wasn't healthy, and by temporarily replacing a shake with an actual meal can only lead to long term effects. I was miserable. This is also the time I lost my menstrual cycle.
In addition to the pills and loss of horomones, I began to workout more frequently. My parents would go to the 5:15am workout classes at Lifetime Fitness. Because I was working in the summer, it made sense to me to get my workout in before work. I woke up around 4:45am almost every day Monday - Friday. Continuing with that regime of not eating, I was absolutely exhausted (and irritable) by 7:30/8pm. I was in bed by 9pm most nights and not that I had much of a social life anyway, but this schedule certainly did not comply with others my age.
One weekend morning, I sprung out of bed because I had to use the restroom. I was half way between my bed and the tile floor of the bathroom before the room went black and I collapsed on the floor. I couldn't see anything; my head was spinning and I just laid there. After about 5 minutes, my eyes refocused and I went to the bathroom. Initially, I thought I got up too quickly. But it doesn't take much to realize that my body was overworked, undernourished, and piece by piece failing. Reluctantly, I tucked the remaining diet pills and meal powder in the back of a cabinet and decided to slowly reintroduce meals. The rest of that summer feels blurry. It was a mix of worrying if food would make me gain weight and how much did I have to workout to keep it off. I longed for the 'quick fix' or something to prove that declared 'I was healthy'! An unhealthy addiction to my Fitbit started to brew. I was obsessed with hitting 10,000 steps daily. Towards the end of summer, one of my very best friends asked me if I wanted to run a ½ marathon with her. I eagerly said yes. And to myself, I secretly thought: this will be what makes me healthy!
A very proud photo of me after running my first ½ marathon!
Junior Year of college
I don't want to say I regret my Junior year of college...but if I had the opportunity, there certainly are some things I would go back and redo. Here's the high (and low) lights (because I think we both know this is longer that you wanted to read already):
- I ran a half marathon in the fall with my dad and my best friend! I made it in under 2 hours. Leading up to the race, you could find me and Molly running the grounds of Michigan State University for 10 weeks in fall semester - rain or shine, 75 and sunny or 12 degrees and sleet. She's one of my dearest friends and a true confidant in my life. We credit our friendship today to our irresistible love/bond of running.
- It was my first semester of being in the Interior Design Program at Michigan State and studio hours were long. I spent my free time with my 3 roommates, attending sorority life events, sitting on executive board for my sorority (I was the new member educator which meant I was in charge of 60+ freshman girls), training for a half marathon, decided to start teaching workout classes at the local gym off campus, was struggling internally with body image, and balancing mine + Jack's relationship. Moral of this bullet point: I bit off WAY more than I could chew. I was stressed all the time and constantly in a state of how to do it all without appearing to look anymore frantic than I already felt. Because I was used to running so much and walking around Michigan State's large campus I was averaging 20,000 steps per day. The competitive nature that I have, I started to see if I could beat each of the previous day's numbers. Ohh..*this Courtney was not fun to live with* I found a local fitness studio comparable to Orange Theory Fitness. Each morning I'd go to their 5:30am workout class. Then I'd come back and run said number of miles with Molly. Then I would get ready for class on campus for the day. Come back before dinner just to head off to the local gym and teach the fitness classes. I also was working part time at a local design firm. I landed the job as a freshman and it brought me so much joy . But as everything started to accumulate, It. Was. Insane. Do you see a theme here? It only can go so well until it doesn't anymore. And wow, did I crumble.
- Memories that have resurfaced while writing this blog post:
- going out to eat was incredibly traumatizing for me. I can't count how many times look up the restaurant menu before to make sure there was 'something I could eat'. If Jack was with me and there were other people, I would squeeze his leg under the table in efforts not to cry. He knew - he'd try to redirect the conversation or get me an out. Just sitting at a table out to eat sent me spiraling. Again, it makes me sad that something that is so joyful - going out to eat with friends - left me in tears. I was fearful of food. The thought of food in my body and seeing that food ON my body's frame. I thought one meal would 'ruin' my dietary regime at the time
- I disconnected from social activities and events. I blamed the fact that I was young and didn't have a fake ID when asked to go out to the bars. Secretly, I was terrified of gaining weight from alcohol. If I did drink my junior year of college, I chased with water and I blacked out almost immediately from lack of nourishment.
- I would call my sister, Em, and my mom during panic attack episodes (shaking, hysterically crying, hyperventilating). My roommate Lex also opened her room to me more times than I can count just to be there. They'd console me through as I wrapped myself in their love. I wrote about it once on an Instagram post - They're incredibly difficult to explain; yet too familiar if you've ever experienced. The panic attacks stayed with me until I eventually went to therapy.
- Winter after the holidays (2018): this would be when I tell you that my orthorexia/binge eating disorder developed. How it started: I have a hereditary skin disease (Psoriasis) and in Michigan winters, it doesn't do well. I found myself at a few doctor appointments early in January for said skin issues. Each nurse took my weight, would ask me a few questions, take my blood pressure / heart rate, and then wait for the doctor to get in. Every single doctor commented on my heart rate, which was relatively 35-45bpm. When I was sleeping it was lower 30s and when I was running it was around 90bpm. Similar to 'beating my previous step count', I tried to get my heart rate lower and lower each time. According to my Fitbit app that sent me weekly results, it just kept going down. I thought that was good. I never once considered that my heart rate was what was keeping me alive. My heart had to slow itself down for the mere speed in which I was running it at. There was a common theme at each of these doctor appointments: they encouraged me to see someone regarding my emotional stress / anxiety of body image & orthorexia. At this point, I hadn't had my period for almost a year. Eventually, it would be 3 years without it. A CLEAR sign that my body wasn't functioning properly.
- At a breaking point, I researched Michigan State University's Nutritionist and counseling resources. There was a Dietitian for undergrad students and one for graduate students. For the sake of her privacy, we're going to call her Victoria. I made an appointment at her availability - 6 weeks out. I think my experience with a RD (registered dietitian), therapist, and eventually a psychiatrist will be it's own blog post. That in itself is an adventure. In short, I was a weekly patient, I tried to recover twice (after nightly binging on peanut butter, cereal or cake), and finally found peace with my body and food freedom right before I graduated college.
**A sequel to this blog post will be written discussing the therapy / nutritionist journey. It will be linked here once it's published.
Finding the light / Junior year summer
This is the part of my story that I'm the most proud of - but also the hardest to write because of how I think others will interpret it. I spent one *long* semester in therapy (eventually would be 2 years), with a nutritionist learning how to stop binge eating. Feeling defeated, in late June (prior to senior year), I took a chance on a new workout program and nutrition regime (some may call this a relapse - but it's what comes next that makes me think differently).
In short, I found a love with my body and nutrition by counting macros and finding a workout app that I genuinely LOVE to do. After 3 years, I still am loving it each day. Sure, you might point your finger at me and say you're not recovered or you can't be happy if you're still 'restricting' or 'counting macros is still a diet!' (*insert anything else people comment*)
Here's what I have to say to that...
Fine, you can believe that. I'll be the first to tell you why I signed up for Madeline Moves workout app. I saw what workouts she was doing & creating, I admired what she looked like, and I thought, if I work hard, I can look like that too. So, I learned how to count macronutrients with her. I weighed and logged food for a few weeks and shortly, my body composition completely changed. Now, I no longer count macros (I have the foundational understanding of them) and my body has evolved in strength and mobility.
Here is what I couldn't say a few years ago that I do now: I LOVE my body. I love working out. And I love to eat. Counting macros was a baseline for me. It was a little bit of stability I needed after so many years of yo-yo dieting. After I counted for a little while, I realized how I wanted to eat and what benefitted my body physically. I can say pretty confidently that today I have zero restriction - I don't binge, I don't over idolize certain foods, and I never cry at restaurant menus anymore. The emotional attachment to food no longer exists. I haven't had a panic attack since junior year of college and one of my greatest joys is to create sustainable and enjoyable recipes. I ditched the 3 workouts a day for less than an hour of a really great one (Madeline Moves, you know this, but you've changed my life for the better. Thank you will never be enough).
My body supports my lifestyle everyday. Sure, there are days that I finish a big bag of kettle chips *because I love them* and times where the healthy recipe just doesn't compare to the one that's filled with full fat, full sugar. Balance is a pretty relative term in this instance, but after 3 years of loosely tracking / understanding macros AND finding a workout program that continually pushes me each day, I've never felt better on where I am. I'm proud of myself and it's SO enjoyable to live life.
Living in recovering & truly living senior year of college
I went into my senior year with so much optimism - and it never failed me. It continued the entire year. I felt better in my body - and I didn't skip out on ANY college experiences (yes, that means I was a local at ½ off drinks on Wednesday nights and indulged on more Cottage Inn Barbecue Chicken pizza than I care to share). I stuck to my Madeline Moves workouts, didn't track macros (though I still ate macro minded), and I freaking LIVED. Oh, it was one of the best college years I had. It was one of the freest years of my life.
I can't tell you what my life would be like now if I didn't have these experiences today. They shaped me in who I am; but also taught me a lot more about my worth and value as a person who is proud to take up space. Earlier, I mentioned something about if I could get those years back. It's a sharp reality to me that understands how much of each day is a gift. How much life there is to live that has absolutely nothing to do with what your body looks like and what you eat. In these years, there were hundreds of people who supported me in ways that I will never forget...you know who you are - thank you.
My boyfriend and soulmate, Jack. Truly the foundation of our love comes from two strong individuals. Thank you for everything you did for me, and for us.
To my sister and best friend, Emily. Your humor, love, and spirit kept me going. Confidence radiated from you. You taught me that it really doesn't matter what your body looks like - it's the personality that shines through.
To my mom, who never once asked questions but always provided suggestions and alternative ways of thinking and support. Thank you for being a confidant.
To Molly, Katrina, Alexia, Alexa, Molly, Lauren S, Lisa, Blake, Lexi, Meghan, Lily, and the Paige’s instagram community - and all my other incredible friends who were a shoulder to lean on, a buddy to run with, and a friend to love. Thank you.
More thoughts and conversations continued here...
Over the past few years, I've shared a lot of personal experiences on Instagram...
- Social: eating out with others while suffering an eating disorder
- Neda Awareness Week: a tribute to National Eating Disorder Association and my personal story
- Body Image: Make up doesn't cover up your eating disorder
- Body Image: living with a hereditary skin disease
- Food: eventually there were rules & how I lived in compliance of those rules
- Food: life is too short to live by self-inflicted food rules
- Food: my relationship with Peanut Butter
- Recovery: Better is not a linear term; after the holiday season in 2019
- Food / Social / Recovery: a mental state full of memories
- Resource: How to be an ally to others who are battling an eating disorder
- Mental Health: awareness and advocation for it
- Mental Health: awareness tribute to 2018
- New Years Resolution: or lack there of
- 2020: Where I am today