The Physical Side of Eating Disorders
I consider myself a mental health blogger. Given the nature of my illness, and the content I write about, I find labelling my work as such is quite accurate. Eating disorders ARE mental illnesses, and there is a lot of advocacy currently being done to help the public see beyond physical appearance when talking about all forms of EDs.
You do not need to be underweight to be suffering from an eating disorder.
I know this message is being put forth a lot right now, but it doesn't hurt to repeat it. The sad truth is that because one may not be classified as underweight, that person may not seek the help they need. It's almost as if we believe that being at a "healthy" weight, or being overweight, removes all validity of the suffering that accompanies eating disorders.
The focus of my blog is to share my story so that readers will hopefully not feel so alone. But I also aim to educate the public as well. Some of you may not know anything about eating disorders - and that's perfectly fine! But in reading my blog, I wish to provide you with accurate and truthful information that dispels some of the current talk going on out there in the world.
I've spoken a lot on this blog about my mental health. My anxiety, my body image issues, my stays in treatment, and my eating disorder in general. Something I haven't really touched upon yet are the physical consequences of EDs.
Eating disorders can bring on a whole slew of physical complications, and it's important not to dismiss these. If you are dealing with an eating disorder but do not experience physical symptoms - that does NOT discount the reality of your struggle. Just like you do not have to be underweight to be suffering, you do not need to have physical symptoms to be suffering, either. I was free from physical complications for a long time. People were always amazed at how "functional" I was; working full-time or attending school full-time with an incredibly heavy course load, while battling a nasty illness simultaneously.
But this week, I really came to terms with the fact that I'm not 18 anymore. Next week, I turn 30, and it's almost as if my body knows it and is yelling at me to slow down. Just like I can't drink and party and go to work on 2 hours of sleep like I used to, I am starting to realize that I need to be taking better care of my body.
Before I get into my personal situation, I want to give you all a sense of some of the physical symptoms that people who suffer from eating disorders may have to deal with throughout the course of their illness.
- Inability to regulate body temperature (always cold)
- Lack of concentration
- Growth of fine hair on the body (lanugo)
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Low blood pressure
- Low heart rate
- Digestive issues
- Loss of menstruation
- Decrease in sex drive
- Bone loss (osteopenia/osteoperosis)
- Dry skin
- Hair loss
This list is not a complete one, in that people may experience other symptoms, and at the same time, some may not experience any of the physical consequences on this list. Regardless, the take home is that eating disorders are serious, both in terms of mental and physical health.
Due to physical complications, recovery from an eating disorder is a long process. While proper nutrition is a must, so is having TRUST in our bodies. We have to constantly remind ourselves that eating sufficient amounts of food may result in weight gain, but more importantly, food will be the driving force in making bodily "repairs".
My favourite word in the English language? "Resilient". And you know what - that's just what our bodies are. Resilient. My body has bounced back from deathly low weights and severe physical symptoms thanks to food and water. For real!
The thing that worries me, though, is that I have put my body through HELL for a decade now. And while I'm still considered "young" (you're turning 30, Meghan, not 90...), I fear sometimes that my body has had enough strain for my lifetime, and won't bounce back so readily in the future.
So, the physical consequence of a decade-long battle with anorexia that I am choosing to take care of now is my low iron levels. My iron (ferritin, to be specific) has been low for quite some time, but I never took it too seriously. I suspect that my low levels come from a lack of iron in my diet (which makes sense, after restricting my food intake on and off for 10 years). Upon discharge from a treatment centre in NYC last September, my team recommended that I get a full iron workup done at my next blood tests. I did just that, and since my return home, my iron levels have continued to drop. Now, I have too little in my system for the labs to measure. I started taking iron supplements, but this was a struggle for a couple of reasons:
1) I have trouble treating myself kindly and taking action to make myself feel better. I know it sounds weird, but sometimes I get in a negative headspace where I quite literally don't want to "help myself". That and, I forget just how important prioritizing myself is.
2) Once I put that aside, and started taking the iron, it really played with my head. I had trouble digesting the pills, and the lack of "regularity" in my digestive processes had negative ties to the amount of food I was eating.
Last week, I had an appointment with a hematologist who decided the best course of action for me would be intravenous administration of iron. 5 doses, 5 different appointments, and then blood tests at the end to see if my levels are improving. I'm a little nervous - I don't do well in hospitals. But the thing is, without being dramatic, I don't think I can last too much longer like this.
I often say "I'm tired", and tired has become my norm. I forget what it is like to have energy. I forget what it feels like to go on a morning walk in the fresh air. To ski down a mountain. To go on an afternoon-long shopping spree. Why? Because I don't do those things anymore. I quite literally don't have the energy to do so. My life, at the moment, involves me psyching myself up to perform tasks like bringing my garbage down to the basement because I know the two flight of stairs back up to my apartment is enough to take my breath away. Again, I'm turning 30, not 90.
It saddens me that my birthday weekend will kick off with me in the hospital for a couple of hours. I'm getting pretty down on myself for that. I'm trying to "reframe" this thought and view the situation as starting a new decade of my life on a positive note - by taking care of my health. But it's still hard.
What do I want you to know?
- Eating disorders, while classified as mental illnesses, may have very serious physical complications as well.
- It's never too early (or too late) to be taking care of your body (and mind).
So my friends, there you have it. Going into my last week as a twenty-something-year-old, I will be taking one major step in the direction of improving my health. How are you taking care of your body or mind this week? Let me know in the comments. (Who knows, you might inspire others to do the same!),