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Early Intervention Could Have Rewritten My Eating Disorder Story

By Joanna Kay--We know that early medical interventions save lives. Cancer that is caught at stage 1 has a better prognosis than a cancer that isn’t discovered until stage 4. Treating a localized infection is much simpler than chasing it through the body after it has spread to the bloodstream.

Eating disorders are no different.

Trigger warning: Descriptions of eating disordered behavior.

The signs and symptoms of an eating disorder start quietly in the form of disordered thinking and troubling behaviors, and gradually these consume every facet of a sufferer’s mind, body and spirit. Left unchecked, these thoughts and behaviors can turn into a full-blown disorder. And just as a growing cancer might not declare itself until its later stages, eating disorders often remain invisible until they’ve become severe.

One of the biggest misconceptions about eating disorders is that you can look at someone and tell whether they are sick. In fact, the illness begins long before someone’s weight, electrolytes or other medical markers reach dangerous territories. Conversely, one may never become medically unstable or dangerously underweight yet they can still have an eating disorder. The outside rarely tells the full story.

Eating Disorders Don’t Go Away On Their Own

I was 14 when the early signs of anorexia nervosa manifested. It was slow-moving and mild at first: some restriction, moderate weight loss, a growing fixation on my body. It surfaced in the context of my parents’ divorce and then receded once the dust began to settle. By 16, I was eating normally and maintaining a healthy weight.

Anorexia hadn’t gone away, however. It was not a phase that I outgrew. It was merely dormant.

The next time I faced a major life stressor—graduating high school and preparing to move away to college—the eating disorder came back with a vengeance, picking up right where it had left off. This time, my caloric restriction became extreme and I began to over-exercise. The result was severe weight loss and full-blown anorexia.

I still didn’t receive treatment, though. Somehow, I made it to college and poured my anxious perfectionism and obsessiveness into schoolwork rather than weight loss. The eating disorder receded again.

Unlike the last time, I never returned to a healthy weight or totally normal eating habits. Too much damage had been done to my brain. The neural pathways that had come to associate weight loss with reward were well-trodden, and now I was conditioned to want and need my eating disorder to survive (psychologically, at least).

For the next six years I oscillated between remission and relapse. Each relapse was a little worse. By the time I finally sought treatment at age 25, I was dangerously underweight and I had developed bulimia and a substance use disorder as additional ways of coping with the hell that is life as an anorexic.

My body, mind and spirit were depleted. A therapist told me that she feared I would die, and I couldn’t even muster the energy to feel alarmed.

A Long Road Into Disorder, A Long Road to Recovery

Today, I am 27 and I have been in recovery for two years. The process has not been easy. I’ve done three stints of treatment at every level of care, and still I've relapsed twice. The problem is that anorexia had more than a decade to carve deep pathways in my brain. I’ve literally had to relearn how to nourish myself and regulate my emotions in healthy ways.

This does not have to be the case with all eating disorders. The eating disorder field has proven that early intervention both shortens the duration of the illness and decreases its severity. I share my own story so that people know that eating disorders, if left untreated, do not go away. In fact, they often worsen.

I don’t think it’s too late for me. I still believe it is possible for me—and for everyone who has struggled with an eating disorder, no matter for how long—to achieve full recovery. However, I also believe that I could have been spared years of suffering if only I’d gotten help at 14. Perhaps my eating disorder could have been a paragraph in my story rather than a chapter.

Regardless, I’m determined not to let it be the whole story.

Struggling with food or exercise issues? Take our free, confidential online eating disorders screening

For recovery resources and treatment options, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 800-931-2237.

About the blogger: Joanna Kay is a New York City writer in recovery from anorexia nervosa. She has written for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), and other mental health sites. She is also the author of The Middle Ground, a blog that deals with issues facing people who are midway through eating disorder recovery. Find Joanna on Twitter and on her blog.

For more on recovery, check out:

Undiagnosed but Not Without a Voice

Fighting for Recovery

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Proud2Bme is an online community created by and for teens. We cover everything from fashion and beauty to news, culture, and entertainment—all with the goal of promoting positive body image and encouraging healthy attitudes about food and weight.

This site was developed in partnership with Riverduinen and made possible by generous contributions from JPMorgan Chase, Globant, the University of Delaware, and The Hilda & Preston Davis Foundation.

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