I was in my early 20s when my obsession with being thin began.
At my lowest, I was 112 pounds. On my 5-foot-2-inch frame, that wasn’t considered underweight. In fact, people complimented me on my size, saying I looked healthy and fit. I believed them. I had always been curvy, with large breasts, but maybe I was actually meant to be skinny. Maybe I’d just never exercised enough, eaten healthy enough. Maybe the size 0 jeans, which I fit into for the first time in my life, were my destiny all along.
But what no one knew is that I didn’t eat breakfast or lunch anymore. I exercised first thing in the morning — I was terrified of skipping it — and then I tried my damndest not to eat anything until 2 p.m., when all I ate was a high-protein/low-carb muffin from the health food store. It was doughy and round, but “healthy,” and the protein staved off my hunger until dinner, when I would eat whatever I pleased as long as it was low-carb/high-protein, mostly vegetables, and fit on one plate.
What no one knew was that I frequently felt dizzy and weak and that a couple of times I’d almost passed out. I was totally preoccupied and obsessed with food (this happens when you’re starving yourself), fantasizing all day about what I was going to eat when I finally ate, and freaking out if I didn’t get to eat what I wanted, where I wanted, and how I wanted.
One day, after being under the weather for a few days, I actually did pass out. I was walking back from the bathroom, and my husband heard a loud thud. I’d blacked out and fallen, and although I came to and was okay, it was a wake-up call for me that I had taken things too far — my body was weak and undernourished. I needed to cut the crap and just eat.
I didn’t tell anyone any of this. But I did what I needed to do and started to eat more regular meals, feeling depressed as the numbers on the scale crept up to my “curvier” weight. And even when I was healthier, I still ate and exercised in a rigid, obsessive way for a few years to com until my fixation on thinness gradually dissolved.
I understand that I was lucky in many respects. All it took was a fainting episode to get myself together. And beyond weakness and obsessive thoughts, my life was never truly in danger, as is the case for many who battle eating disorders. Although I was in therapy at the time, I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder — just an anxiety disorder.
It is only now, almost 20 years later, that I see how close to the edge I was. Over the past decade of motherhood, I have been able to find some peace with my body and with eating. And I can I see how unwell I was back then — that my fixation with food was emotionally unhealthy — and if I had taken it further, would have had real impacts on my physical health.
Although I never got a formal diagnosis, after a bit of research I recently stumbled on a diagnosis that would have fit a person like me — someone who was never underweight and who did not exhibit classical signs of well-known eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, but who had some symptoms of anorexia as well as obsessive thoughts surrounding food.
It’s a disorder called “other specified feeding eating disorder” (OSFED), which the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) defines as “a feeding or eating disorder that causes significant distress or impairment, but does not meet the criteria for another feeding or eating disorder.” According to NEDA, someone with OSFED can have some characteristics of anorexia or bulimia, but not enough characteristics of the disorders to be diagnosed with them.
To be diagnosed with OSFED, you don’t have to be underweight. You can be a perfectly normal weight, in fact.
And it turns out that a disorder like OSFED is much more common than you might think. As BuzzFeed reports, at least 1 in 20 people exhibit signs of the disorder. This is even higher than the number of people who are diagnosed with anorexia, which is 1 in 200, according to BuzzFeed.
Like me, many sufferers of an eating disorder like OSFED go undiagnosed because they are not underweight and because their symptoms are milder than someone who is in the throes of a major eating disorder. However, as Jennifer J. Thomas, PhD., co-director of The Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital explains to BuzzFeed, people who have OSFED suffer just as intensely. “Regardless of diagnosis, the level of pain and distress is the same,” says Thomas, “and help is available regardless of the number on the scale.”
Yes, help is available. Even though I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, I truly believe that if it hadn’t been for the therapy I was receiving at the time for my anxiety disorder, my bout with an eating disorder would have turned out much worse.
I will tell you this: If you even have an inkling that you have an unhealthy relationship with food or eating — if you are obsessed with your weight or can’t relax around the issues of food or eating — please seek help. Don’t let the number on the scale blind you to the fact that your relationship with food is out of hand; if you search within your heart, you will probably know the answer.
And I will tell you something else: On the other side of disordered eating is something truly magical: the ability to eat what you want without guilt, shame, or second-guessing. It’s the ability to feel comfortable in your skin, to feel nourished, truly nourished, inside and out. And it is something everyone should get to experience.
If you are concerned that you might have an eating disorder, please reach out by contacting the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) helpline. NEDA also has additional resources listed for local help.