Joanne is a dietitian living in Illinois. She began restricting her food intake and vomiting while in high school, but she believes the roots of her eating disorder date back much further. In college, she tried to stop on her own. Once she recognized that she needed help, she sought treatment for anorexia and bulimia. Today, at age 25, she has fully recovered.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
I first showed signs of anorexia in 1991, when I was a sophomore in high school. I began limiting food. I was a synchronized swimmer and wanted to lose weight to look better in a bathing suit. Rather than eating lunch, I'd study or talk to friends. I stayed late at school and skipped dinner. I exercised compulsively, sometimes working out all night. I didn't want to sleep, because I wouldn't be burning any calories. Keeping up the self-starvation became more difficult when I started going to Sweet 16 parties. I'd eat a salad or soup, a binge for me at that time. To compensate, I began purging and taking pills—laxatives, diet pills, water pills—25 or 30 a day.
I lost weight. I always felt cold and often lightheaded. I fainted. I was very moody and temperamental. Toward the end, I developed fine baby hair on my tummy (a symptom of anorexia). The enamel on my teeth eroded from the stomach acid coming back up when I vomited. I needed many fillings. I still suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease. All the throwing up I did caused my lower esophageal sphincter to loosen.
When I went to college, at a school far from home, I thought of it as starting fresh. No one knew about my eating disorder. I behaved like a normal freshman and gained 15 pounds. I didn't like the added weight. My clothes didn't fit. I thought I was ugly and fat. By winter break, I knew I had to do something to shed the pounds, so I began writing down everything I ate, taking pills, and removing myself from social activities.
What was the whole diagnosis experience like?
Going to my pediatrician was not an option. She had started me dieting in third grade and sent me to Weight Watchers in fifth, planting the seed that I was fat.
My turning point came at the end of my freshman year. I called home and told my mom that I wanted to see someone about my eating disorder. She made an appointment for me with a psychiatrist. He wanted me to enter a day-treatment program, but they didn't allow participants to be vegetarian (which I was). I knew it wasn't for me. I found another psychiatrist who was easy to talk with.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?
I knew I had an eating disorder. My recovery was quicker and more permanent than others because I made the decision that I didn't want to do it anymore. I didn't want to live the life of an anorexic or bulimic. Thinking about your body 98% of the time and feeling horrible is a waste of time. I knew I needed to do something to feel good about myself. I'd never resort back to restricting or purging. It's not worth it.
How was your disease treated?
The psychiatrist started me on a high dose of an SSRI antidepressant, then weaned me down. We decided on a Weight Watchers food plan, which includes eating a healthy amount of calories and weighing in weekly. My mother went with me. I learned to eat healthy and lost 15 pounds, without going to extremes. I returned to college and followed up with a psychiatrist.
Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to your illness?
I eat balanced meals with things from all food groups, even meat. I had stopped exercising, because I was obsessed with it and I was scared to start again. Now I walk on a treadmill, swim, and work out in moderation.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
Just seeing the psychiatrist. My friends were wonderful throughout my recovery.
Did/does your condition have any impact on your family?
My family was very supportive, but we didn't sit and talk about it. My parents and I have a great relationship.
What advice would you give to anyone living with this disease?
There are so many better things on the other side of the rainbow. It may be hard to get there, but once you're there, you'll never want to go back. Call the ANAD hotline at 847-831-3438 for information about eating disorders and professionally run support groups, and referrals to treatment centers and therapists around the world.
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.
As told to Debra Wood, RN