Like every college freshman who adds the “freshman fifteen,” Bridget* began dieting and exercising her sophomore year. Before long the glamorous idea of getting healthy turned into an obsessive behavior. One that took over her life.
* Her real name, used with permission.
Despite reaching the goal of studying meteorology at her first choice college, loneliness and unhappiness crept in. A fixation on counting calories and an unrealistic fitness routine seemed like a reasonable coping strategy.
But it turned on her. Even began to control her.
Because she’s naturally a perfectionist, Bridget would punish herself if she ate too many calories or didn’t meet her rigid expectations for exercise or even didn’t do well on a test. Depression set in. “It was the perfect storm,” she remembers.
I asked Bridget to discuss what anorexia looks like/feels like/does to a person. She said, “At first, I thought the food restrictions and rigorous exercising were innocent and beneficial. I would tell myself I was just being healthy. But, I began forbidding myself to eat desserts, carbohydrates, and fats. I became terrified of anything that wasn’t a vegetable or lean meat.”
She goes on, “It became a fear. If I wasn’t religiously following that diet, I wasn’t doing well. It is an irrational disease. I would get a rush when I’d see my ribs sticking out when I looked at myself in the mirror. If I could resist a meal, I would feel accomplished, even superior to others. As if I’m above other people, because I can fight the temptation to eat and other people can’t.”
During her sophomore year, Bridget lived with three girls, but she chose to hide in her room. She didn’t want to socialize with them or let them see her thinning body.
Her parents suspected she was starving herself, but the real cause for concern came when she collapsed the day of her Physics final due to not having enough nutrition in her body.
Bridget packed her things and headed home for the summer with plans to pursue her passion of veterinary medicine at a different college in the fall. By this point, Bridget weighed a total of 80 pounds.
Going home, however, wasn’t the homecoming she anticipated; in fact, she remembers it being, “out of the frying pan into the fire.” Her battle with depression became fierce. “My world had no color, no joy, no warmth,” she remembers. She felt no one understood what she was going through.
The sight of food as she battled hunger triggered bouts of crying. If she did eat even the smallest portions, guilt would consume her. She remembers resigning herself to the belief she was destined to always be anorexic and suffer from depression.
Bridget begged to be admitted to the hospital to get nutrition in her body through a feeding tube, because she thought it would be easier than battling the guilt she felt when putting food in her mouth.
“I loved the feeling of being ill. I loved the feeling of being starved. Of living on the edge. The closer you live to the edge of death and don’t die, the more you enjoy it. It fulfills you,” she recalls. Essentially, she took on a victim mentality.
Her parents told her they were going to send her to a rehab center: “We don’t want you to die. If rehab is what it takes, we will do anything.”
Her parents’ words hurt, but they did serve as proof that she was really sick. “I knew if I went to rehab, I couldn’t continue my education to become a veterinarian. I decided rehab would be worth it to fulfill my dream,” she remembers.
Bridget’s mom, having struggled with and overcome anorexia herself, suggested an alternate approach to rehab.
She would quit working as a breast cancer nurse and move in with Bridget at college to coach her through adding nutrition and growing stronger. This option would allow Bridget to continue her education.
That summer she helped care for a sick kitten that refused to eat and soon died. “I was that kitten. I was so frail and close to death.” Bridget agreed to her mom’s suggestion, knowing what a huge sacrifice her mom was making for her.
Bridget, her mom, and their Yorkie poodle Bella moved into her college apartment and began her journey of overcoming anorexia.
“There were tears everyday as I faced my demon. My mom cooked healthy, nutritious meals and made smoothies in the Vitamix for me, which was a complete lifestyle change. Because I was too weak to walk to class, my mom drove me there and picked me up. Once I gained some strength, Mom and I began walking together again,” she shared.
This journey wasn’t an easy one, so Bridget began seeing a therapist. “She taught me anorexia doesn’t fade away. I had to fight my mind when it told me food was unhealthy. I knew anything could easily be a trigger and spiral me back into anorexia.”
To combat her sadness, Bridget wrote specific Bible verses on index cards and carried them with her so she could read and pray through them. “I began believing what the verses said. I didn’t see it then, but now I see how God turned my ashes into beauty.”
At Thanksgiving, Bridget faced a big challenge: a table full of holiday food. Having much to be thankful for, she decided to enjoy the food as her mom had been teaching her.
In the winter of her junior year, Bridget volunteered at a local food bank to fulfill required community service hours for one of her classes. “We packed bread for children that didn’t have food. And here I was choosing to starve when I didn’t have to. It was truly an eye opening experience.”
Afternoons after therapy were a great time to get out and enjoy the sunshine while sipping hot coffee with her mom. “I looked forward to those times with her. Slowly over time, I began seeing colors again and noticed the birds singing. I was tasting freedom.”
A few months before her mom moved back home, she and Bridget shared a loaf of bread from a local bakery. It became a teaching tool of sorts when her mom used it to illustrate how the carbohydrates in the bread are nutritious. “This time of healing with my mom led to my full recovery,” she shared.
Bridget’s mom moved back home in March, leaving her with tools to use to fight her anorexia. “I didn’t think I could do it without her, but I did,” she recalls. When her family dog Rascal died that same month, Bridget worried her anorexia would return as a result of her grief. But she fought hard and continued eating balanced, healthy meals.
In May, Bridget knew she completed her recovery when she was able to take care of her new dog Jewel. “It was the first thing I could take care of by myself after having someone take care of me for so long.”
Studying veterinary medicine became her new focus. As she became involved in school and an internship, Bridget discovered as she employed the tools she’d learned about eating healthily, she was strong enough for the hard work her internship demanded. Her newfound freedom from anorexia boosted her confidence.
After graduating in December of 2015, Bridget was accepted into veterinary medical school.
“I’ve learned true health doesn’t mean that one must be as skinny as possible. Our culture sends subliminal messages that it should be. I believe those messages cause people to believe the more you restrict yourself, the healthier you are. I’ve learned those are lies; true health is balance,” she shares.
Meal times. What was once a painful experience for Bridget has become a time to reconnect with friends and family. It’s become a relational activity, and she never wants to take for granted the beauty of sharing a meal and having great conversation with others.
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