(photo credit: CUP photo)
(CUP) Olivia remembers feeling fat by age eight or nine. It marked for her the beginning of a long battle with bulimia and anorexia”?a battle that the 23-year-old has only recently begun to recover from. Her story is a long one and as universities across Canada are discovering, is shared by many students, particularly women. Disordered eating, in fact, is more prevalent on campus than off.
In the seventh grade, Olivia began taking diet pills. In the ninth grade, Olivia made herself sick for the first time with a friend who also “felt fat.”
“She and I had friends that felt pretty good about how they looked so we sort of confided in one another about how we always felt fat and were very angry with ourselves,” Olivia recalls. “She was particularly angry because she thought that I was thinner. Anyway, we had eaten a chocolate bar and we went to the washroom and I was able to make myself sick and she was not. She told me that I was lucky, so I really started to think about it in that way.”
For about a year and a half Olivia was making herself sick on a regular basis. Living in her parents’ house, she had to be very secretive about what she was doing.
“You just very quickly learn what bathroom you have to use and what meals to skip if you have to be there with mum and dad,” she recalls.
The purging continued “to the point where by the time I was 16, I was kind of scaring myself. I was really disturbing my stomach with the purging and there were a few times where I had just purged so much in one day that I just passed out. I would wake up in the morning and it was like some kind of hangover and I would just feel so bad and would then just not eat all day. And that’s what purging will do to you, the guilt will start a starving cycle whether you mean for it to or not just because you feel very disgusted with yourself that you could bring yourself to do this.”
The fear led Olivia to visit her school library in search of information that might help her figure out the reasons behind her purging. Reading through the various books on eating disorders available there, however, left her feeling even more lost.
” I remember looking up what it was to be bulimic and I didn’t really fit what they had in the book,” she says. “I wasn’t a binger, I didn’t have these really wide swings in weight:for me, that was a way to tell myself I didn’t have a problem. I nonetheless was very disgusted with myself but I remember, in a way, kind of feeling very sad because I wanted to open up a book and have someone tell me exactly who I was and what my problem was because I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing. I just knew that I hated how I looked.”
But in grade 12, something changed in Olivia’s life. She fell in love. She describes the time as an incredibly happy period in her life”?one when she was completely distracted by the relationship. Her mind was preoccupied and her weight was no longer a concern. The purging stopped completely and she learned to view and use her body in new ways. She became sexually active in her relationship and “discovered this new, wonderful capacity for [her] body that [she] hadn’t had before.”
Upon graduation, Olivia and her boyfriend made the joint decision to move from their hometown in Ontario to Vancouver to pursue studies at University of British Columbia. It was a time of great change in both of their lives and, ultimately, caused them to grow apart. The relationship ended shortly after the school year began, leaving Olivia very hurt, and very far away from home.
“I found myself all of a sudden, again, preoccupied with my body and how I looked,” Olivia remembers. “I was just very worried about how [my ex-boyfriend] perceived me, how anybody perceived me. I felt unattractive. I found myself going back into an age 15 way of thinking where if I don’t make the basketball team, it means I’m fat. If I don’t make a part in a play, it’s because I’m fat. If I fail a test, it’s because I’m fat. Even though he told me he was very attracted to me for a year and a half, I began to sort of edit my past and believe that really he had never found me attractive all along.”
“I just hated the person that I was,” she says. “And for the first time, I really lost my appetite. It was frightening, but it was like a godsend. I felt in control of everything. I liked the idea of simplifying my day into ‘I have an apple at this time, I have a bun at this time’. Everything was just too complicated with this break-up and new friends and being away from my family and being in my first year of university. There was something very satisfying about knowing at night when I went to bed what I would eat the next day, all day. I gained a strange satisfaction from it, knowing that that was taken care of and I could check it off my list.”
Olivia certainly wasn’t the only girl in residence who was struggling with disordered eating. She saw habits around food and exercise in other girls that were painfully familiar to her. Girls suffering from anorexia stood out especially, she says.
“I remember watching one girl who was so thin, I don’t know how she even functioned, and I saw her return string beans and accusing the cashier of telling her they were steamed, when really they had been cooked in oil. And she was livid. She was just absolutely furious and I remember thinking to myself that I had to remember to always ask them whether [my food] was steamed or cooked with oil, because I just thought to myself I don’t want to eat vegetables cooked with oil if this woman won’t.”
Quietly, Olivia was descending into despair. As she starved herself, her depression manifested itself. Starving, she says, has an impact on the body that a lot of people don’t realize.
“The temporary high you get from feeling like you’re losing weight and you’re controlling your weight very well, the high you get from feeling hunger is always counteracted with a bitterness that comes from somewhere deep inside”?it’s your body being angry with you for being malnourished, especially if you’re pushing it to go to class and to still go out with your friends who you no longer want to go out with because you’re just so tired and all you do is think about food:everything else fades away.”
Her behaviour did not go unnoticed, however. Her friends in residence were becoming increasingly worried about her, noticing her weight loss and the change in her eating patterns. Instead of comforting her this only made her panic. She began to put what little energy she had into “acting” happy. But inside, Olivia’s life was caving in. A scholarship student who was accustomed to excellent grades, she received some disappointing grades on her second term mid-term exams.
“I couldn’t get anything done,” she recalls. “It took me five hours to do something that would normally take me one hour to do. My brain couldn’t work.”
Her poor mid-term grades made her very frustrated with herself and the need to do well in school became more important to her than losing weight. She started to eat again and her brain came to life. She tried hard to scare off any thought that she was unattractive and poured herself into her schoolwork and her friends. Things got better.
In second year, however, her eating disorder returned and was worse than ever. Olivia’s main motivation was no longer to be thin so she could meet an ideal of physical beauty-instead, she wanted to be thin so she could “melt away.” She had reached a frightening low.
“I took the idea of simplifying my diet to an extreme”?I just wanted to simplify my entire body. I wanted bones and skin, it was too complicated to have everything else, I hated it,” she says.
Olivia also found that her desire to eat had completely disappeared. No longer was she plagued with thoughts of food while she starved. She was terrified to eat, afraid that eating anything at all would cause her to immediately put on weight. The complete absence of any food craving at all scared her enough to seek therapy for the first time.
By this time, Olivia was almost 22 years old. It had been almost six years since she first began purging. Her body was tired. Her heart was tired. Hating herself and putting her body through such hell was becoming far too hard. For years she had been convincing herself that her weight was the cause of her unhappiness. But when she began being honest with herself, she realized that starving was the cause of her misery. And she was sick of starving.
But getting help proved to be the most difficult part of the eating disorder, especially telling her parents. She knew she couldn’t tell them that the problem began in university. She was tired of lying and she knew that lies weren’t going to help her get better.
“I knew that telling [my parents] meant telling them that for years I had been miserable under their roof and, for years, dinnertime, which was so nice for them, was so fantastically stressful for me.”
Her parents were shocked and confused. Olivia’s mother didn’t know what bulimia was, so she had to explain it. There’s a lot of shame around bulimia, Olivia says, because this type of disordered eating is “the ultimate in having your cake and eating it too. It’s greed, it’s everything that women are not supposed to be”?this is why it’s done in secret, this is why it’s done with purging as well, to punish yourself for all that you’ve eaten.”
“I had been very good at hiding this for a number of years,” she says. “That’s how I grew up in their house, that’s how I developed as an adult with them was hiding all of this. Telling them this was telling them I was a different person than they thought I was.”
Olivia’s recovery has been a long, trying process. It’s been over two years now that she has been seeking therapy, on and off, and she still isn’t comfortable with her body. She still doesn’t love herself in the way that she desperately longs to. But she is no longer purging.
Through the recovery process, she has been forced to look at her past in new ways, in an attempt to understand what led her down the path to disordered eating. She has become a firm believer that eating disorders are addictions-much like alcoholism, or drug addictions. They are all unhealthy ways of coping with stress, she says.
For Olivia, the key to her disordered eating might have been a childhood trauma. While there are other factors, this event in particular profoundly affected her self-image.
“I wanted control over this feeling that I was a bad person. It was easier for me to grow up thinking that if I was thin, I would be a good person,” she said.
“It was easier to do that than to fundamentally look at why I believed that I was a bad person. It became much easier to say you’re bad because you’re fat. It’s amazing how many women with disordered eating use that kind of language. I think that eating disorders are about control, but I think it’s often about controlling this feeling that there’s something wrong with us, but we don’t know how to pinpoint it. It’s very easy to cut it into either fat or thin.”
Upon reflection, Olivia sees the many stresses of her university career as being particularly detrimental in the progression of her eating disorder. It makes sense.
Recent figures show that many university students, most of them women, are impacted by eating disorders. More disturbing is that the numbers on campus are higher than the national average.
Dr. Kathryn Pedersen, a counselor at University of British Columbia’s Counseling Services, says the high levels of stress many students experience at university put them at greater risk for a wide variety of negative coping mechanisms, like alcohol and drug abuse, disordered eating and over-exercising. “People experience feelings, women experience feelings, and it’s a way to cope with stresses, with the way that society is viewing young women, with really traumatic experiences:there is no relationship between disordered eating and intelligence.”
Pedersen says that studies indicated that 25 per cent of university women in Canada suffer from disordered eating of some sort, and a study done recently at UBC shows similar figures.
“I think the biggest [factors are] age and the life tasks that [these women] are facing,” Pedersen adds. “In our society, women are taught that we’re supposed to be thin, to be attractive:The media associate looks with relationships when really there isn’t any kind of a correlation between what a person looks like and the quality of the relationship they end up in.”
Pedersen both stress that disordered eating has to be seen as a continuum”?that one needn’t meet clinical definitions of eating disorders to, in fact, have a problem with disordered eating.
“You might have somebody who’s just weight preoccupied on one end of the continuum and somebody who’s about to die from anorexia on the other end. [We] have found that almost all eating disorders do start with a diet,” Pedersen says.
“When you are so worried about being a good friend, a good daughter, a good girlfriend, you shouldn’t have to worry about being a good anorexic or a good bulimic.” Too many definitions box people out, only letting you recognize your problem as disordered eating if you meet certain criteria, she adds.
Dr. Deborah Schwartz, a psychiatrist at University of British Columbia’s Student Health Services, says that current classification systems often mean that people fall through the cracks.
“One of my biggest pet peeves is having a young woman come through my door and tell me they saw a dietitian or they went to a counselor and the counselor said ‘don’t worry there’s nothing wrong with you’ and meanwhile this person is starving to death.”
Like Olivia, Schwartz is a firm believer in an addictions model when treating disordered eating.
“The alcoholic can’t stop drinking, but when the alcoholic gets the right treatment, they can abstain from drinking alcohol and learn to live a really happy life. Food is much more of a complex addiction than that because you have to eat. What is the right amount? The right types of foods?”
Looking at it from that view, the incredible frustration felt by people trying to recover is apparent”?while recovering from any addiction is more than difficult, people trying to recover from eating disorders can’t rid themselves of food. In fact, that’s the whole problem.
There are many causes behind disordered eating. The common perception that eating disorders are fueled simply by the desire to look a certain way, or meet a certain ideal, just skims the surface.
Pedersen adds that the normalization of dieting makes it easy for disordered eating patterns to continue.
“Disordered eating is socially sanctioned in most environments [in North America]. A lot of people could be on a continual diet, if you could call it that, and think that’s normal:Another thing is how healthy is exercise when its whole reason is to burn off so many calories:rather than to experience life a little fuller, to work your body, to be healthy? It’s about something else.”
Pedersen and Schwartz all agree that group therapy is the most effective form of treatment for those seeking recovery from disordered eating. Pedersen says these groups can help break down the barriers created by shame during recovery.
“I think sitting in a group you realize there’s a lot of shame, first of all, behind disordered eating, especially binging and purging…and you’re sitting in a room with other people who feel the same way, who’ve done the same things:[and] you think, I’m probably like that too and I’m doing this to myself. So there’s this empathy that people get for themselves and for other women going for the same thing.”
Both Pedersen and Schwartz, who run the two support groups for disordered eating at the University of British Columbia, are extremely passionate about their work. And it’s good to see. Working with an issue that is so complex, and so varied in each individual, can be extremely frustrating. But Pedersen says she never loses hope.
“I never let hopelessness get the better of me”?I wouldn’t be in this position if I did. And in the women who come to the support groups, I see a tremendous amount of hope. Once women realize how disordered eating is impacting their lives and they start to take steps away from it, it’s amazing what those women can do.”