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I wish I could go back and just give my 13-year old self a hug

Jenna Dower, Teacher, Austin, TX, USA

I think eating disorders are completely different from disordered eating. I know a lot of friends who struggle with poor body image or crash diet occasionally. This is a really sad and common thing. However, it’s totally different than the life threatening, obsessive eating disorder.

The other thing… I will not talk numbers. It is super triggering for people to read and it’s meaningless. Saying I went down to X pounds, or that I ate X calories serves no purpose! Also, it is my nightmare that talking about my experience would encourage someone to develop an eating disorder so although I’m definitely the person I am today because of my experiences, and I am awesome, I would never wish the experience on anyone else!

My eating disorder bounced around from being anorexic to being bulimic so I was diagnosed with “anorexia binge purge type,” which basically means that I would starve myself until I couldn’t take it… then I would eat whatever I wanted and vomit it back up.

My obsessive thoughts started when I was 11 and it was two years later that the OCD manifested itself in an eating disorder.

I had two major triggers that I think combined together formed my eating disorder. When I was in sixth grade, a girl I was friendly with died by suicide. I had seen her only a few days prior to her death and had immense survivor’s guilt. I became obsessed with dates and counting how many days younger I was than her and how much more “life” I was getting than she got once I surpassed the age she was when she died. She died on the fifth and was born on the fifth, so it was really easy to calculate.

When I was 13, I was sexually assaulted at a friend’s sleepover and I hated my body. I felt that all the parts of me that made me look womanly were gross and I also knew that the smaller and younger I looked, the less likely I would be to be blamed for the assault. Unfortunately, I read a statement that one of my parents had written that listed my height and weight. The weight was less than accurate, and I felt it meant that if I weighed more, it meant the assault was my fault. It hurts my heart to write that. I wish I could go back and just give my 13-year old self a hug and explain it.

There were a lot of signs that I was struggling with an eating disorder, but also those are signs of normal adolescence. I mean, looking back my parents could see that my weight fluctuated. My mom heard me throw up once. I was constantly missing meals because I was out with friends. Of course, I told those friends I had already eaten. I had acid reflux caused by throwing up frequently although no one knew that. I had blood sugar issues and was constantly hypoglycemic. My friends knew I was “weird about food” but we were kids and my sometimes refusing to eat was sort of like “Oh, Jenna’s being attention-seeking again.”

I’m so thankful that I was a teenager before social media was a huge deal. I didn’t do a lot of pro-ana website surfing because the family computer was in the living room so I couldn’t really get away with it! I think comparing our bodies to the manipulated images we see is super dangerous. I follow a lot of body positive influencers and those are actually really helpful to me. So, I don’t believe Instagram is evil, I think that it’s all about what mental state we’re in. I would not recommend someone newly in recovery, or still struggling with their ED follow anyone except close friends they know in real life, and pro body positive people.

It makes me cry to think of how my relationships were altered by my eating disorder. My eating disorder was absolutely my best friend. I clung to it like a life raft. I hated myself so it was hard to believe that anyone could love me. I mean, I seemed totally normal and healthy. My family and friends were great, and I went out a lot. But there were also numerous times that I wouldn’t go to an event because I couldn’t bear for my body to be seen. Or because there was food and I didn’t want to be around it. Sleepovers were so hard because of all the junk food. I was never fully present for anything because 50% of my brain was just thinking about the food.

My relationship with my body was definitely abusive. I remember in treatment one of the exercises we had to do was imagine saying the things we said to our bodies to a friend. I sobbed because I couldn’t imagine saying things like “You are disgusting. You deserve to starve. You are so weak that you ate and now I’m forcing you to vomit until you pass out. No one will ever love you because of all the fat in your arms and your stomach.” Now I treat my body as this precious vessel that holds my soul. Before, it was the enemy that caused me to be molested.

The story of how I went to treatment is one of my favorites. I have a framed photo in my condo of the weekend my friends confronted me. It was the first semester of sophomore year of college. Jessica and I were in the same Bible class. Our professor, Bob Strader, was talking about a student of his who died from bulimia. Jessica turned to me with horror. Jess and I have been friends since fourth grade. She’s a friend who sort of knew that I had issues with food, but it was like part of who I was and not a huge deal. Sophomore year though, my eating disorder got worse and I had started to throw up blood. I asked Jess about it because her mom was a nurse. The weekend after that class we all went on a trip to Dallas. I didn’t eat much, and when I did eat … I threw up afterwards. I was in the bathroom stall vomiting at a restaurant when a bunch of the girls came in. I remember Vanessa begging me to stop and me actually wanting to, but I couldn’t.

They all told me “You have to tell your parents, or we will.” They even gave me a deadline. So that night I called my parents crying and told them I had a problem. I drove home right away and they took me to a doctor. The first doctor I saw said that my eating disorder was too advanced and she sent me to a specialist. Dr. Tyson saw me and he knew all the things to look for. My blood pressure was all off, my heart had shrunken and shifted. I was actually dying. He told me I had two options- a treatment center or a hospital. I picked treatment center.

I sat down with my parents and the brochures for the recommended places and I picked one. A couple days later I was on the airplane with my dad. The whole thing from girls’ trip to treatment center was about a week. It happened really fast and I was in a complete daze. My parents were distraught, and I was just . . . there.

I remember telling Dr. Tyson that I threw up water sometimes just to vomit because I was so addicted to the feeling. I was a very sick person.The place I went to, Puente De Vida, was a residential treatment center. There were only six patients at a time. It was located in a big house and we had 24-hour nurses. Our schedule was INTENSE. I still have it memorized.

6:00 am wake up

7:00 am breakfast

8:30 group therapy

10:15 snack

11:00 meditation

12:00 lunch

1:00 group therapy

3:30 snack

4:00 phone time

6:00 dinner

7:00 group therapy

8:30 snack

10:00 bed

There were no books, cell phone, TV, internet… nothing to distract us from the reason we were there. Phone calls were ten minutes and monitored. If we spoke about anything that could be triggering we were told to get off the phone. I remember talking to a friend about another friend’s hair and I said, “Did she dye it?” and the nurse made me get off the phone because she thought I said “diet.”  There were 3 levels of independence in residential. Level one meant that someone had to be in the bathroom with you. Level 2 meant you left the door open, but no one was right there. Level 3 meant door shut.

Those were the days of forced recovery. If you didn’t eat your meal, you had to drink an Ensure. There was no way to purge. My first night there I laid awake in my bed trying to figure out a place that I could vomit and hide it. But there’s a nurse in the hallway and bathrooms were locked.

This time is critical because for a lot of people, we came in malnourished and we needed to be nutritionally restored before we could begin figuring out how to live life without an eating disorder.

I was inpatient for a long time and then when I stepped down, I relapsed almost immediately. This happens a lot and is why people bounce in and out of centers for years; insurance kicks people out before they’re ready. When I relapsed, I went back to inpatient and that’s when I actually genuinely started to heal instead of just pretending so I could leave and go back to my BFF- eating disorder.

There were a few guys in treatment. One of them has passed away. One of them is still a best friend of mine today. He helped me overcome my fears of eating in front of guys. I have several people that I keep in touch with constantly even though it’s been a decade since we were in treatment together. The bonds that we made were just so intense. No one will ever understand me the way those people do. Telling them my innermost secrets and having them nod and say “me too” was just so powerful.

One of my closest friends from treatment died several years ago and the pain of losing her will always be with me. She believed in me and my recovery so much and I could never disrespect her by going back to my eating disorder. Whenever I am triggered, I remember Kristina and I say hell no to my eating disorder.

The reason I recovered fully when so many people don’t is because I got the level of care that I needed for the amount of time that I needed it. I was away for a year. Twelve months. But I had my eating disorder for six years before I went to treatment and that’s how long it took for me to not need it any more. When I came back, I stepped into regular life slowly. I didn’t jump back into school. I stayed with my structure of sleeping and eating times, even when I wanted to sleep in and go out late. I prioritized my recovery over EVERYTHING. If it would jeopardize my recovery in any way, the answer was no.

I had the support of my friends and family. They were totally on board with whatever I needed during that time, and also not afraid to call me out if I was slipping.

I used to be terrified of my eating disorder coming back. I had to get my tonsils out and I remember being so scared because it meant eating would be really challenging. I made Ensure ice cream to eat. Now that it’s been so many years of recovery, I still hold it in my hand all the time. I don’t ever let it go. I know that it’s a lifelong choice for me.I am in recovery every day because I chose to be. I use everything I learned in treatment daily. Like, if my brain says, “you look fat.” I say, “what other feelings am I feeling to cause me to want to focus on my body?” and then I deal with those feelings rather than entertain the eating disorder thoughts.

I protect myself by voicing things. I text my friends when I feel triggered. I talk about it when I feel anxious about my body. If I skip a meal, I mention it. If I find myself comparing to other people . . .I say it! I believe eating disorders and addictions in general, live in secrets. As soon as I let the secret out, I kill it.

I wasn’t open at first, I was really embarrassed about being “crazy.” It was maybe a year later that I realized that I’m a badass that has overcome something really hard. I’m encouraged to keep being open because so frequently I get messages asking for advice. There are so many people who have loved ones with eating disordered behaviors! I am so humbled that people come to me with questions. And being a role model of recovery is super important to me. Kristina, my friend who passed away, used to tell me that I made her believe that recovery was possible.That is so powerful.I carry that with me.

Eating disorder deceptions on TV and movies drive me nuts. It’s always so triggering. They show some tiny skin and bones person, which is so dumb. Plenty of the people in my treatment center had typical or high BMI’s and were still dying. They glamorize eating disorders by giving them to the “pretty girl” and make it seem like eating disorders and popularity go hand in hand. People overcome eating disorders in a single episode without therapy or treatment. People get better because someone tells them, “I love you.”

My eating disorder was the thing that kept me alive for a long time, as it was killing me. It was my coping mechanism and my reason for getting up in the morning. Every day was a new opportunity to lose weight. Having that taken away from me was horrible. It felt like removing a huge piece of who I was. I felt like my eating disorder was inside every cell of my body and it was agonizing trying to get it out. That said, I am so glad I got the help I needed. My reason for waking up in the morning now is to enjoy life and help the people around me.

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  1. Alex

    Thank you for sharing your powerful story. I especially was struck by this line: I believe eating disorders and addictions in general, live in secrets. As soon as I let the secret out, I kill it.

  2. KLynn

    In my never ending quest to understand, comprehend, & absorb as much information on eating disorders from as many angles as possible, your candid and vivid account of the experiences you went through struck me to my core. Thank you. I want to share this with my daughter.. who’s currently in PHP.. but I am not sure she’s ready to receive it. I want to show her that recovery is possible, and we are here to support her.. but I may need to wait until she’s ready. Thank you for being so vulnerable and sharing your story with us. Am grateful you chose the path to recovery.

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