Emily Articulated: Life after an eating disorder

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

I remember the first time I made myself throw up as clearly as if it were yesterday. My neck cricked as I lowered my head, stopping as it paralleled the rim of the toilet bowl. The lid was lifted, and I let my eyes focus on the grime that crusted the hard-to-reach spaces between the screws and the porcelain. I inhaled deeply in an attempt to focus my thoughts, and my swollen belly ached, protesting against the uncomfortable strain. I’d eaten a near-gallon of ice cream prior to entering the bathroom, and as I’d dedicated the previous year to diligently shrinking my stomach, I was almost in tears at the pressure of the dairy against the walls of my gut.

In fact, I was almost in tears for a lot of reasons.

Emily Erickson.

I was a junior in high school and a highly-competitive long-distance runner. I had a perfect GPA, was class president, involved in nearly every club available to me, and was already being recruited to attend colleges across the state. I was in control of every aspect of my life that was mine to control. Especially my weight.

For over a year it had been my ritual, as concretely as the sun rising to greet the sky, that I’d weigh myself in the morning. I’d wait only until after I went to the bathroom, because I’d read that the first hour of being awake was the time at which the human body weighs the least, not having to account for a day’s worth of undigested food and stored water.

I knew all sorts of facts like these. Like that there are exactly 215 calories in a Snickers bar or that I could eat a whole carton of strawberries for 120 calories, which I could make last longer by cutting into small pieces and eating them with chopsticks.

Because of facts like these that I carried in a mental rolodex, it didn’t take me long to calculate as I stared at the dirt around the screw holding the toilet seat to its lid. I had consumed over 2000 calories in one sitting, nearly four times the amount I’d typically allow myself to eat without exercise in single a day.

Picturing how the numbers on the scale would reflect my gluttony the next morning, despite my 102 pounds clinging to an emaciated 5’8” frame, my head started to rush and my cheeks grew hot. Revulsion and self-loathing bubbled up into my chest, spreading outward like lava into my hands and my feet. Everything of which I was in control was teetering on the edge of disaster because I had lost control of my eating. 

Allowing myself to steal one quick glance back at the door I’d locked and at the faucet I’d turned on in hopes of covering the impending noise, I braced myself for what I was about to do. I pushed aside flashes of the rotting gums and damaged teeth I’d seen on posters in my health class and my doctor’s repeated instructions to “eat more,” and replaced them with feelings of failure and remorse. 

Replaying the images of the previous hour like horror tapes in my mind, I watched myself scoop spoon after spoon of the smooth, cold ice cream into my mouth, even as my stomach ached in protest. Tears began to pour out of my eyes, and in an instant, I did it. I painfully jabbed two fingers from my left hand into my throat, pushing as far back as they’d reach, unaware of how that moment would change my life forever.

I spent the next four years battling with alternating bouts of anorexia and bulimia, deepening my phobia of food and perpetually skewing my self worth, as my confidence was inexorably tied to how “well” I was controlling my consumption. I struggled through a failing running career, I repeatedly damaged relationships and friendships, and was inevitably forced to redefine who I was and what I cared about. 

The trouble is, disordered eating is a quiet companion, a voice in your head, a shape-shifter and wearer of many masks. Even after years of avoiding social situations that revolved around food, exercising for eight hours straight because I indulged in a tub of popcorn at a movie theater, eating well past mere discomfort and into physical pain, and making myself purge until I tasted blood, I didn’t consider myself a person with an eating disorder.

Instead, it took gradually dealing with the multitude of issues I was facing outside of eating, finding other ways besides weight to define my self-worth and learning to understand food as medicine and fuel. Only then was I able to truthfully reflect on that time in my life, properly defining it for what it was.  

That quiet, unrecognizable nature is why over 30 million people in the United States have eating disorder stories like mine. They are illnesses that have implications well after a person has “recovered,” and that many struggle to acknowledge within themselves.

Disorders often begin when a person starts using outside things to fix inside problems. This applies to all sorts of self-medication, but can be understood as it relates to disordered eating when the consumption or withholding of food is used to deal with problems that have nothing to do with hunger or sustenance.

For me, these outside problems were a volatile home life, a (then) perfectionist personality, low self-esteem and a misconception that to be a better runner, I had to achieve the typical “runner body type.” Other common reasons people engage in disordered eating patterns are stress, clinical depression, anxiety disorders or obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Regular feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy are also a factor. 

And although many people engage in disordered eating, breaking into a Doritos bag to get them through a deadline, or restricting their calories while going through a bad breakup, these patterns become an eating disorder when they cease to be a choice.  

A common misconception of eating disorders is that they are character flaws or repeated decisions to engage in a certain type of food-consumption-related behavior. But rather, like many illnesses, eating disorders stem from a combination of physical, mental and environmental factors. 

A person’s genetics, the presence of specific chromosomes, and their family history interacts with their biochemistry, like having elevated levels of serotonin or cortisol, creating predispositions. These predispositions are activated when in conjunction with environmental factors such as stress, an unstable homelife, volatile relationships, a history of sexual abuse, engaging in regular high pressure activities or being the victim of bullying.

Understanding eating disorders as illnesses, or symptoms of other multifaceted issues, is the first step in helping yourself or someone you love on a path to recovery.

When trying to provide support for a loved one, avoid trying to simply fix the symptom of the disorder instead of the problems themselves. Just as you wouldn’t tell a person with diabetes to “produce more insulin,” you shouldn’t tell a person battling an eating disorder to “eat more,” or “eat less,” because what they are going through is far more complicated.

Instead, talk with them about what’s going on in their lives and connect them to professional resources to deal with the “big picture” issues they are facing. Be their advocate and their unconditional support system, avoiding shaming and guilt. 

If you are concerned for yourself regarding your relationship to food and eating, begin by doing more research on what is considered “disordered eating,” and by reaching out to the people in your life that love you. Talk with a counselor and work to figure out the parts of your life that are triggering your behaviors and develop strategies for better navigating those situations. 

Life after an eating disorder doesn’t just move on. For me, that means still having days when I can’t shut off the calorie counter in my mind or when I have to fight back tears because my body in the mirror appears three times larger than the numbers on scale represent. It means continuing to struggle with portion control and working everyday to recognize hunger as separate from my environmental triggers.

But, for the most part, I’m better. I have repaired my self-worth for reasons that have nothing to do with how much I weigh, I’ve discerned which strategies work best for me when I need to de-escalate, and I’ve adopted a diet that allows me to eat without restriction. My life is as back to “normal” as it will probably ever get.

It’s my hope that by sharing my story, I can help someone else feel a little less alone in their journey to wellness.

If you or your loved might be struggling with an eating disorder, visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org or call the National Eating Disorders Helpline at (800) 931- 2237.

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