Written by Ashley Law
This post was written to contribute to the topic of Personal/Real Talk for the What Lola Likes blog by Ashley Law. All facts, opinions, and professional tips are Ashley’s.
How many times have you gone on a diet or “watched what you ate” before a special event or holiday party to slim up or “look good” in your dress? I can tell you that I’ve fallen guilty to this behavior far too many times and it was too late before I realized I had done significant damage to my body after the fact.
I have found myself in this frustrating cycle year after year, losing weight, gaining it back, and in a vicious cycle with loving and hating my body (mostly the later). I never planned to have an eating disorder, it was kind of just the perfect storm of worries, obsessions & genetic tendencies that wrapped up into one dysfunctional lifestyle I didn’t know how to escape. Before I get into the details of having a full-blown eating disorder, let me explain that someone can live with an eating disorder in a semi- “normal” life without much disturbance for some time before it spins out of control. Restricting foods, exercising a certain number of minutes/hours per day, cutting out complete food groups all together, or potentially bingeing/purging food. This person may also have very black and white ways of thinking such as labeling foods and thoughts that are “good” or “bad”, displaying drastic mood swings, showing signs of depression or isolation from others, the list goes on. I should also mention that talking about dieting and eating disorders does not have to be a negative conversation, it should be discussed as we all want to be the best version of ourselves. Knowledge about these types of topics help us to be a better person, possibly shift our mindset, help a friend or family member who may be suffering, or even catch red flags in our children at-risk for eating disorders. This is why I share my story.
Someone with an eating disorder is typically pre-disposed to traits such as having a Type “A” personality, seeks approval and validation from others, can be codependent on specific relationships, OCD tendencies, and may have a family history of addiction (even if it is not an eating disorder). Growing up, I met all these criteria and found myself in a competitive sport with an elevated risk for eating disorders, dancing. I was competing at the age of 7 and wore crop tops and bike shorts to dance class multiple times a week, a place many young girls may find themselves uncomfortable in once they hit puberty and their body begins to shift and develop. Let me tell you, I was no exception to that rule. I felt uncomfortable in my skin and didn’t know how to ask for help or express my emotions so I began manipulating my food intake, leaving food on my plate at mealtime even when I was hungry, and I sought out validation through words of affirmation and praise from others even at an elementary school age.
This behavior continued through junior high and high school as I began to take my sport of choice more seriously. My need for validation and approval from others only grew stronger as I disliked the way I looked and felt incompetent to explain the way I was feeling in my own skin. I resorted to eating foods that were low in calories and fat, counting my caloric intake and exercising excessively with an emphasis on cardio work multiple hours a day. I had been an athlete my entire life and found myself in a mindset of “training” even when it did not pertain to my daily routine or my responsibilities anymore. Turning 18, I auditioned for an NFL cheer team and made the squad. This is where I first developed a love-hate relationship with the scale. I would weigh myself first thing in the morning and tried to keep that number consistent all day long, no matter my intake which is basically impossible. I lost my period and began to work out multiple hours a day at the gym to keep this effort up. My goal was to burn more calories at the gym than I ate each day, without realizing that would eventually end my life. Once my bulimia started, I started to feel uneasy, however I felt like I “could” stop if I wanted to or when I was “ready” to give it up. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This decision had me hooked like a drug before I even knew it and I was completely out of control. I was engaging in my bulimia sometimes 10 times per day. When I wasn’t exercising, I was thinking about when I could work out next, and what I needed to alter about my appearance.
All the things I had cared about previously were now lost in time. I was manipulating others to satisfy my eating disorder; I was flaking on my friends to exercise or in fear of being seen in public when I didn’t look thin enough and developed a major anxiety disorder. In addition, I became clinically depressed and now was unable to get out of bed, unable to show up for work, school, or any social events. My therapist told me she could no longer treat me in an outpatient facility, and I needed to seek inpatient treatment at a hospital.
I lived at Rosewood Center for Eating Disorders for 3 months. Initially, I thought if I just ate all my food and didn’t purge after my meals, I’d be cured. I was so far off in this idea. Inpatient treatment taught me that my eating disorder stemmed from my familial background, my genetic makeup, the lived experiences I had growing up until this point, and traumatic experiences I’d been though. I had to learn to identify my emotions instead of hiding them and pretending I was always happy and carefree (I hated when others knew I was angry or sad, it felt like a sign of weakness and I feared I wouldn’t be liked if I shared this side of myself). I was taught to express my emotions and talk things out when a disagreement came up. I had to identify what it felt like to be happy and angry (something I was very uncomfortable admitting) because it felt like I was out of control when I admitted I was upset. I also had to learn to confront someone in a challenging situation or disagreement which is when I would completely shut down in the past. Everyday while living in inpatient treatment, I had a day scheduled similar to a school day, classes back to back including group therapy, nutrition/meal planning, 1-1 therapy, art therapy, trauma work, health and wellness, appointments with a psychiatrist who helped me manage the depression and anxiety I was dealing with, and so much more. I learned to eat meals in an appropriate timeframe and not to talk about food while I was eating. We stopped labeling foods as “good”, “bad” or“healthy”, etc. and learned that everything in moderation is key. Food is food. Why do we label it? I also stopped labeling others as fat, skinny, curvy, and so forth, we are all human and that kind of thought process and label was harmful to my own self-esteem.
Once I was discharged from treatment, I spent another 2.5 years in intensive outpatient therapy where I attended 5 days a week. This was key in helping me continue these practices I had learned in inpatient treatment. Not only did I shift my thoughts about food and people’s appearances, I had to change the way I viewed “good” and “bad” emotions. I stopped using phrases like, “I feel fat” or “I feel ugly” because I learned those are not actual emotions and those thoughts do not define me. I cannot tell you how freeing these shifts have been to me in my life these past 8 years living without my eating disorder! In fact, I even encourage my friends and family members who do not have eating disorders to adapt this thought process because it really does make a difference in attitude and outlook personally and relationally.
Without incorporating these drastic changes in my life, I do not believe I’d be living today. I know this sounds dramatic, but I was on such a fast path to end my life and had no place intervening and didn’t know where to begin as to change my downward spiral thoughts. I needed serious help. The scary part is that before this got out of control, I really was just watching my weight, exercising responsibly and making “good” choices until my bulimia started. That’s when I knew I had a problem. I think we all have tendencies to get out of hand with our habits and lose sight of why we started eating well-balanced (see how I’m not using the word healthy here) and started exercising to feel good and not to burn off my dessert from yesterday or burn the stress away after a long day- I’ve adapted other coping mechanisms that allow me to connect with my emotions now. These behaviors allow me to feel energized and strong enough to care for myself and my family. I share my story because I know I’m not the only one who has these thoughts or has struggled with insecurities.
Now, I am an expecting first-time mom and cannot wait to have a family of my own. The thing I am most grateful for going through this journey to recovery and self-love is that I have learned to care for myself without bounds. It does not matter what my weight is on a scale, I don’t care if I had 2 helpings of dessert last night and I certainly don’t feel guilty about it when I do. I can now exercise without looking at the “calories burned” or counting the calories in my food because I don’t look at calories. I also have peace of mind knowing that I will not pass down my habits to my children someday. I cannot speak for genetics; however, I know my mind is in the right place and I have done everything I can to be in a great place for my own kiddos.
If you or someone you know needs help, reach out and ask how they are doing. Start with nationaleatingdisorders.org to learn more and call you insurance provider to ask about what is covered under your plan for therapy. I encourage you to try to adapt some of these small shifts in your mindset as we gear up for the holiday season with parties, events and special treats at our fingertips. Be kind to yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
Ashley Law is a public speaker who got her start sharing her recovery story from anorexia and bulimia in hospitals. Since recovering from her eating disorder, Ashley has become passionate about educating herself and empowering women to speak their truth while learning to ask for help when it is needed. She chartered an all-female Toastmasters club in Phoenix in the fall of 2016 which has quickly become a highly decorated and one of the most recognized Toastmasters clubs in the state of Arizona. Ashley has served as the keynote speaker at various universities around the country helping elite athletes learn the dangers of eating disorders and red flags to look for in their self talk and the language they use around food and exercise. Ashley has been sponsored to speak at the U.S. Senate to lobby for eating disorder awareness and remains passionate about supporting women and body positivity 8 years into her recovery. The underlying message she hopes to drive home is to empower women to speak their truth, stop striving for perfection and ask for help when they recognize it’s needed.
VISIT HER PAGE.