I was with my best friend when I experienced my first anxiety attack in a restaurant. My body shut down completely, words failed me, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking, and it felt as though an elephant was making a permanent home on my chest. Anxiety had been something I always dealt with, generally resulting in a bit of shakiness during an interview or a first date. I mean, everyone deals with anxieties. It was something I was always able to push past without thinking twice about. But this was different. I had lost complete control of my motor skills. My brain was on fire and my body was responding appropriately.
Losing 60 pounds in only a few months was potentially the easiest thing I had ever done. The difference was noticeable, and I received messages from a bunch of different women, asking me how I managed to lose all of the weight. It’s not a secret that women want to lose weight. Thin girls, fat girls, confident girls, self-conscious girls. We all want to lose weight. We’re conditioned to believe we need to achieve a certain body type and weight to be happy because of the way media and society represent women and beauty, so when I received these messages, I understood. It took me a while to even notice that there had been any changes to my body and it took me even longer to realize I was stepping on the scale before each meal, trying to decide if I could afford to eat lunch or dinner that day. When I responded to these messages, I gave them very general diet tips. I blatantly lied to these women, telling them I had cut out red meat, cut back on bread, ate more vegetables, and went for walks and exercised. But the truth is, I wasn’t eating. Not really, anyway.
Skipping meals led to immediate results, and I ignored the fact that my hair was falling out and thinning. I ignored the fact that I was damaging my brain. I ignored the fact that my entire life was revolving around food, or rather, the lack thereof. In the very middle of it all, when I was at my lowest weight (115 lbs) I remember taking a lot of selfies, feeling incredibly confident with my body and wanting as many people as possible to view it. I wanted people to see that I had accomplished something, that I was the thinnest girl in the room. I took pride in my body for the wrong reasons. My appearance quickly became the only thing I worried about. I was so consumed with what my body looked like and what I put in it, that I even gave up on business. There were so many months when I couldn’t even look at my inbox, and god forbid if I picked up my camera. I had conditioned myself. I reached a weight that I thought I would be happy with, my “goal weight,” but the mentality didn’t go away. Food was now the enemy.
It took me far too long to realize what was going on with me. When I was in a restaurant with one of the people I feel most comfortable with, completely shutting down didn’t make sense to me. I should be able to do this, I thought. Pick up the fucking fork and take a bite, Chelsea. But my brain had gone too far. When it registered that I was in front of a plate of food, my brain shut everything down. I had associated food with essentially poison. If I took a bite, it could ruin everything I had worked so hard for. But I couldn’t see this. I remember telling my friends my symptoms, the shutting down and the shaking, and it just didn’t make sense to anyone. Somehow I had kept my extreme diet pretty under wraps, so the connection couldn’t be made that I was having anxiety attacks literally over food.
After realizing what was happening to me, I was too afraid to admit it. When you hear the words “eating disorder” you immediately think the worst. The connotation alone is enough to keep it a secret. “But you can just eat something.” My brain was literally rewired. It definitely wasn’t my choice that night with my friend in the restaurant to be unable to pick up a fork, and unable to even speak to her. To this day, I still haven’t really been open about this. I didn’t want people to worry about me, because I was fine. I could handle myself. What grown independent woman struggles with being able to get the required nourishment to survive? It wasn’t going to be me. But the truth is, I could have used someone who was worried about me. If I had just been honest in the first place, perhaps it wouldn’t have taken me so long to regain my health.
I’ve gotten better, I really have. I don’t have one explanation for how I managed to turn it around, but I surrounded myself with people who genuinely cared for my well-being and would be concerned if it looked as though I was intentionally skipping a meal. I almost feel as though I started eating again out of embarrassment of anyone knowing that I struggled with it in the first place. I started trying new things, too. It definitely wasn’t like a light switch, like one day I was just better and able to eat three meals a day.
I’d find myself eating a decent amount of food in a day, but still checking calories and putting fat content and carbs into an app on my phone, making sure my meals were within budget. To maintain 130 lbs, I’d have to consume less than 1,200 calories a day. To lose 15 lbs, it’d have to be less than 1,000. Etc. Etc. I was still counting, which meant I was still worried about the size and weight of my body. The weight of my skin, my organs, my bones. But at least I was eating again.
It’s been a year since I was at my lowest weight, and I’ll admit that I still have those days when I look in the mirror and my thighs feel a little too big, or the look of my belly starts to overwhelm me. It’s still extremely difficult for me to eat in front of people because my brain has a faint memory of what it once knew so well. It’s something that I’m working on and very well may need to work on forever. I take self portraits in my underwear to show myself that I can be sexy and attractive at this size, and I’ve noticed that it’s been a huge help and a push in the right direction. I look in the mirror and I tell myself the things I am grateful for, whether that’s my hair or my eyes or even my sense of humor. I go out by myself and indulge in the things I love most. It’s an uphill battle, but I only believe in moving forward.
When I originally started writing this, I didn’t have a sense of direction. I had absolutely no idea if my words would be accepted, or dismissed, or if people would roll their eyes at the girl who created her own problem by being so self-involved and in her own head. But then I remembered I am not alone. Last year I had felt so alone, and felt as though no one would care or worry and I didn’t know anyone personally who struggled with eating a piece of toast in the morning or going out to eat with friends. I want this piece of writing to create empathy. I want women to know they are never alone. I realized I shouldn’t be bottling this up simply because it might make people uncomfortable or make me appear weak. Because hiding this part of me would be selfish.
It is okay to admit that you might be dealing with something, and it is okay to ask for help and it’s definitely nothing to be ashamed of. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, and I am in no way trying to imply that every woman who cares about her diet and her figure has an eating disorder, but if you are worried, don’t be afraid to say something. It could save your life.