Doctors, Diet Pills, and Fear of Food: The Teenage Years
In yesterday's post, I wrote about how constant messages tying body size to worth had seeped into my mind by the ripe old age of three or four years old, and how food became something that I punished myself with. In honor of #NEDAwareness, I'm continuing this blog series by diving into how my eating disorder evolved as a teenager into a pattern of restriction and, eventually, doing whatever it took to lose weight.
Growing up in my household, it wasn't unusual to hear a family member criticize some celebrity on TV for a recent weight gain, or put herself down for the size or shape of her body. I know that these are not particularly strange occurrences in a lot of homes. Not surprisingly, diets were a part of daily conversations.
Adolescence introduced me to the ways of diet culture. Everyone from classmates, teachers, and family members took it upon themselves to educate me on ways to lose weight, and I was more than willing to take their advice.
One in particular that I tried out in the summer between sixth and seventh grade "worked:" Zero sugar, snacks, or junk food of any kind Monday to Friday, and I would allow myself to have a couple of meals that I loved on the weekends only. That summer, I walked every day as much as I could. I lost 30 lbs. in three months. Everyone told me how great I looked.
But then school started again. The healthiest meal I could buy at school was a chicken sandwich, so that was what I allowed myself during the week. No snacks or sides. Whenever I could get my homework done before dark, I'd walk on the track at my middle school in an attempt to keep off all I'd lost.
By the end of seventh grade, I'd gained back all the weight and then some. I punished myself by having one meal a day and exercising more. I constantly thought about how no one would ever love me unless I was thin, and if I couldn't learn to be disciplined enough to be thin, then I might as well just kill myself.
All of my dreams and hopes for myself were tied into the image in my head of how I thought I was supposed to look. I cried myself to sleep after school, exhausted from being humiliated and belittled - sometimes by others, but more so by myself. I'd heard about self-harm, and a classmate told me it gave her a release from the feelings she couldn't stand to feel anymore. Many nights, while lying awake in bed and thinking about how I just wasn't disciplined enough to be thin, I'd take a lighter to a silver pendant before pressing it into the skin of my thighs.
Food was my enemy, and constantly putting my body into starvation mode made me crave sugar more than ever. Some days, I drank soda after soda, telling myself it would be the last time I'd ever have drink it. Other days, I ate nothing, which filled me with pride.
By the time I was in high school, the Atkins diet was all the rage. I would stick to it for a couple of weeks, and then would go off it when I felt like I was losing my mind. But during my junior year, everything changed.
My high school had a unique class schedule, where we would attend the same four classes every day, meaning we would finish in one semester a class that was typically year-long, and nine weeks for those electives that were usually just a semester. I had P.E. for my first term. We had to create a plan and have a log of our workouts, which included choosing if we wanted to do more reps with less weight, or less reps with greater weight. Naturally, I chose the first choice since I was told that it would make me lose weight.
Three times per week, we had to do a physically vigorous activity for thirty minutes at the beginning of class. Tuesdays and Thursdays allowed us time to play around a bit. Not me. I made sure I did at least 30 minutes of a cardiovascular workout the whole five days, often carrying this through into the weekend. I (again) cut out sugar and kept my carb intake to whole grains and fruits.
None of this filled me with joy. None of it was fun. I had completely disconnected from my body, because my body betrayed me. I did what I was told, but it would not obey.
At the end of the nine weeks, when it came time to weigh and measure ourselves to see how our bodies had improved with our daily workouts, I was stunned.
I'd lost two lbs.
I cried. I mean, I cried right there on the scale, in school, in front of everyone.
Then I cried some more when I got home.
My mom took me to the doctor for something unrelated not long after. He eyed me with a frown on his face, a hint of disgust he tried to hide with concern when he said, "You need to lose weight. Look at all this on your arms," pinching the fat that hung above my elbows. "You must start exercising, for your health."
I lost it.
Trying my best to not yell, I told him everything I had just done for the past nine weeks; how I was exercising every day and followed the diet recommendations given at school. I begged him to run tests to see if there was something wrong with me that prevented me from losing weight. He looked at me with pursed lips, slightly rolling his eyes before agreeing to run some tests. He made no secret that he didn't believe me about my diet and exercise habits.
When the results came back, he said, "Well, you have no diabetes or cholesterol problems; everything looks very good."
"But What about my thyroid?"
"We didn't run any tests on that."
He'd been so certain by looking at me that I would have all these other issues, that he didn't bother to run the tests I'd actually requested. This was just the first of many times a doctor would completely disregard my words and what I wanted.
I felt desperate. I'd hung my hopes on maybe having some thyroid issue that could be treated with a pill, and had daydreamed that taking it would make my body appear consistent with my efforts. I needed other people to know my weight wasn't my fault.
There were a ton of weight loss pills on the market at that time. I had a part-time job at the mall, and was eager to put my money towards what I thought was the most important goal I had: losing weight.
The one I'd found had all these studies showing how healthy it was. I didn't hesitate to start taking it. Soon after starting, my mom, a former nurse, looked at the bottle.
"It has ephedrine in it."
Ephedrine had been in the news a lot around that time. Several teenaged athletes had died from heart attacks while taking diet pills with ephedrine. There were people trying to get the government to ban its use.
"I'm only taking it the way the directions say. I bet a lot of those people who died were doing other stuff or taking too much."
My mom looked worried. "I don't think you should be taking this." But as someone who had also questioned her worth because of her size, she understood how the need to be thin overrides all instincts and logic. And she knew I was going to take it, regardless of whatever she said. So we didn't talk much more about it.
"If you ever feel funny after taking it, no matter how small it seems, then you have to stop."
"Yeah, of course."
Within a couple of months, people at school started noticing I was losing weight, and fast.
I hadn't changed much of anything as far as my habits go, but I was no longer able to workout quite as much as when I had P.E. every day. Yet the compliments didn't stop.
"Whoa, you're looking great!"
"Keep up the good work!"
There were many other positive comments. One part of me relished them; the other part of me was pissed off.
Here I was, getting constant praise for losing weight, all thanks to some diet pills that may have caused healthy kids my age to die. I didn't get constant praise all the times I ate "right," or exercised consistently, because doing those things did not make me thin.
The diet pills did.
I'd been on them for at least six months and lost around 70 lbs. when one night, I was sitting in a rocking chair and suddenly got heart palpitations. I'd never experienced a feeling like that before. I thought for a moment my heart would suddenly give out. I was 17.
I listened to my mom and stopped taking them, certain I could just increase my exercise a bit to maintain my results. Boy, was I wrong.
I immediately started gaining back the weight. I started doing liquid fasts at least once a week to help stop the weight gain. I'd lose a lot, gain a lot, and repeat. Despite the heart palpitations scaring the crap out of me, I wanted to start taking them again. But the horrid news had just come out: ephedrine was officially banned.
I cried and cried. How would I lose weight now?
The only answer that seemed to work was not eating at all.
I spent the next six years alternately fasting and dieting. Now, I look back on that time wishing that I could tell my younger self that I never needed to be thin to be happy, loved, or worthy of my dreams. But I know that I probably wouldn't have listened anyway. I'm just grateful that I did finally learn how to stop fighting my body. More on that this week.
For information or help with an eating disorder, please check out the links below from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA):
NEDA’s Confidential Screening Tool: nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening
Body Acceptance Challenge: nationaleatingdisorders.org/bodychallenge
NEDA Helpline & Click to Chat: nedawareness.org/get-help/helpline