Reality: Every organ in my body was failing, and my parents were told to plan my funeral, as anorexia finally seemed to be winning when my weight dropped to 56 pounds.
Me: I’m fine! I’m fat! I hate myself! I’m a worthless person. I don’t deserve help or to be happy. This is my fault.
Reality: Only 1 ½ years later, I stared down at a scale that flashed 221 pounds. Binge eating disorder took the place of anorexia as I numbed out each day in the company of empty food wrappers.
Me: I hate myself! I’m hopeless! I don’t even recognize myself anymore. I don’t deserve help or to be happy. This is my fault.
Reality: Bulimia slowly found its way into my life as I desperately tried to lose the weight. Caught in a binge – laxative – restrict cycle; I hit rock bottom when I swallowed 100 laxatives at once.
Me: I’m fine! This will be the last time I swear! I hate myself! I don’t deserve help or to be happy. This is my fault.
My name is Brittany Burgunder, but I have spent the majority of my life running from myself. For over a decade I battled with an eating disorder, the mental illness that has the highest mortality rate in the world. I grew up with loving parents, I was a nationally ranked tennis player, a straight ‘A’ student, and a talented horseback rider. I painted on a smile of perfection — a smile that portrayed a seemingly normal life with a bright future, but one that camouflaged the troubled soul that lay underneath.
The reality was that I was painfully shy, constantly teased and rejected by my peers, which led to terrible anxiety, depression and OCD. I didn’t understand why I didn’t fit in like everyone else and why life was so hard. What I did know was that there must be something wrong with me and that I must not be good enough.
Anorexia entered my life when I was 13 years old. I had no idea what an eating disorder was, just that I became weird about food and developed strange new rituals related to calories, my body and exercise. My anxiety calmed down as my illness found a new way to distract me from a life I didn’t want to live.
My parents intervened quickly and sent me to my first treatment center thinking I would come home cured. I defiantly went, oblivious to the fact that I even had a problem. I was shocked that there were other people just like me, and for once I didn’t feel so alone and made friends. Although I came back home in a state of good physical health, my mind had certainly not improved and I returned armed with a host of new tricks.
I became an exercise addict. I had three different gym memberships just so the same people wouldn’t observe my odd behavior of excessively working out. While most people my age were going to the prom, I was in a hospital bed with a heart rate in the 20’s. I once had the potential to play Division 1 college tennis, but now was too weak to even hit with my dad for fun. My horse, which once was my greatest joy, was sold, as I sunk deeper and deeper into a world of delusion.
The only witness to my truth — my actual thoughts and true conflict — was a journal and pen. I wrote every day in intense detail. Besides my eating disorder, this was the only other company I had. Writing in my diaries helped to unload some of the turmoil in my head, but I made sure to keep my journals hidden to preserve my secrets.
I was accepted into the University of California, Davis. My parents agreed to let me go, hoping it might be the fresh start I needed, but they were mistaken. I tried to socialize with my classmates, but clearly I wasn’t like them and I had an excuse to turn down every invitation to go out: What if there was food or alcohol? What if it interfered with my exercise schedule? What if?
My life quickly became just me with my eating disorder. As much as I loved my professors, my time at UC Davis soon turned into a haunting existence.
It was not long before I was admitted to a specialized eating disorder stabilization program. I lost all mobility, my hair fell out, and I faced near liver failure. My weight hit a low of 56 pounds and my parents were told to make funeral arrangements. This was all unreal to me however. I was fat. I was fine. I was worthless. What’s the big deal? The doctors fought for my life, but I fought back against them.
Miraculously though, I survived and stabilized enough to return home. But I was still nowhere near healthy, either physically or mentally. I had never felt more traumatized and afraid of my eating disorder – yet simultaneously trapped and protective of it.
At home I wanted so badly to be normal, but there was no way. I needed my eating disorder behaviors to cope, so that I didn’t have to feel the pain of my deepest wounds. My behaviors, such as restricting and exercising, gave me temporary relief from my torturous thoughts. Yet, once I built up a tolerance to that “high,” I had to escalate my behaviors to preserve that high. If you think reaching a certain weight will bring you happiness – be prepared to enter a black hole. Weight has nothing to do with it. So, when my eating disorder morphed from anorexia to binge eating disorder, it wasn’t so surprising.
Binge Eating Disorder
In August 2009, I had my first binge. It’s a night I will never forget as I inhaled all my favorite foods I had forbidden myself from tasting for over seven years. But I couldn’t stop. Just as anorexia served as a way to cope – albeit negatively – binging did too.
Only 1½ years after the time that my weight was 56 pounds, my self-destructive relationship with binge eating disorder became so severe that when I stepped on a scale in 2010, it showed that I weighed 221 pounds.
I spent almost every day locked in my house alone while binging, and would only leave to buy more food. Desperate to fix myself externally, when I needed internal help, I went to a live-in fat camp. It felt all too familiar at first, as the program’s days were filled with excessive exercise and minimal calories. I was a professional at this! But it did more harm than good. Yes, I was now obese, but losing weight was exactly how I almost lost my life. The trauma soon took over and I returned home with a new sinister predicament.
Unable to understand the meaning of balance, bulimia took the place of binge eating disorder. My bulimia took the form of restricting calories, binging on an average of 10,000 calories and then taking up to 100 stimulant laxatives. This cycle seemed never-ending.
Yet, as my weight got closer to a normal range, I began to make occasional public appearances. I got back into tennis and started going to the gym. I put on that fake smile once again and had everyone believing that I was healthy and recovered. But they didn’t see the other 23 hours of my day. I was extremely ashamed of my mental health problems and continued to struggle in silence. Of course, there was also a large part of me that didn’t want to recover because that would mean confronting the pain that terrified me more than anything – facing myself. Everyone says they want to recover until they actually have to do it.
I Publish My Unedited Journals Into A Memoir
I felt I had lost everything in my life. My dreams with tennis, with horses, with school, with friends, and with ever being a normal person were surely shattered. What I did have though, were hundreds of journals secretly hidden away that contained a decade of the madness and horror that I experienced while consumed by mental illness. I decided to type them up, which proved to be an enormously painful, but also therapeutic experience. The fake mask I wore began to slip off. I slowly started sharing my story on Instagram and was overwhelmed by the positive feedback I received. Maybe, if nothing else, my story could help another person and that would make everything I had gone through worth it. I gathered up every ounce of courage I had and I published, “Safety in Numbers: From 56 to 221 Pounds, My Battle with Eating Disorders –A Memoir.”
I chose to publish Safety in Numbers almost entirely in an uncensored format composed of almost all my diary entries. I realized that my story wouldn’t be for everyone, but it was important for me to shed light and awareness on the reality of mental illness. And most importantly, that there is hope to recover and get better.
I didn’t realize that recovery is so much harder than staying in the disease. Unlike with addictions, you can’t abstain from food – you have to learn to form a healthy, rather than an abusive, relationship with it multiple times a day.
Eating disorders can only survive on secrecy, silence and lies. The only way I was able to finally start recovering – and the only way anyone can – was to be honest, speak up and trust in the truth of professionals and a better life.
I found a therapist, psychiatrist and dietician who I trusted, and who believed in me. I committed to listening to their voices and not the relentless, harassment voice of my eating disorder. One of the hardest barriers for those struggling with an eating disorder is the false emphasis that weight is a measurement of how sick you are, or if you deserve help.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. I was just as sick and miserable at my lowest weight, highest weight and when I was at a normal weight.
Society is quick to comfort you and offer support when you break your arm, or to say it’s not your choice that you have cancer, but they are not so forgiving with mental health.
Eating disorders do not discriminate when it comes to gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic group, sexual orientation, or age. Although sometimes your weight may fluctuate due to your behaviors, an eating disorder is an internal struggle of your mind. So many beautiful people share my same struggles and so many people share my same victories. I do have three gripping transformation photos, but I use them to catch people’s attention so that I can share messages that truly matter.
There is no such thing as recovering while keeping parts of your eating disorder. I thought for the longest time I could have both a normal life and keep my eating disorder in case things got too scary. But recovery means giving up your eating disorder entirely. I can’t properly put to words the grief, anger, confusion and panic I felt as I came to terms with this. However, I also knew all too well the doors my eating disorder would continue to close.
I had to face what I feared most – myself. I had to rip off my Band-Aid and expose my wounds. And they bled and it hurt. But through the discomfort, I realized that nothing catastrophic happened. In fact, my wounds started to heal. Over and over I had to challenge the lies and messages I thought about myself.
Over and over I had to face the parts of myself that scared me the most – the parts I had learned to hate – until I became my own best friend and learned to love myself instead. Over and over I had to learn how to live in a brand new way until I realized I was good enough and worthy of happiness. I can’t think of anything more courageous or inspiring than putting yourself first and taking back your life. I am no longer running from myself, and I’m falling in love with the company of my own voice.
Some helpful Eating Disorder Resources.