For as long as I can remember, I always had a ‘nervous’ stomach. As a child, when I would spend the night at a new friend’s house or travel on vacation with my parents, I would get a stomach ache. Experiencing butterflies in my stomach on the first day of school was also very common for me.
When I was 18 and left home to attend college, the butterflies transitioned into full blown panic and, not surprisingly, I was diagnosed with two anxiety disorders. My stomach aches turned into much more severe symptoms and I lost a lot of weight. Along with seeing many doctors, I began to see a therapist to help me work with the daily anxiety I was experiencing.
Any major form of life transition — a big move or a breakup — would spur on some form of anxious bout in which eating would be difficult. It would last for months. Maintaining a healthy weight was difficult and there were many times where protein shakes were a regular part of my diet.
About seven years after being diagnosed with anxiety I experienced an even bigger unexpected weight loss and was then diagnosed with Candida, a serious form of bacterial infection in my intestines. During this time in my life, I dropped down to the lowest weight I have ever weighed. I was so sick and was put on a very strict diet to try and heal my gut.
Two years later I was still in the process of healing when I entered the most physically and emotionally unsafe environment I have ever worked in. I was almost fired for standing up for two openly gay students who were being bullied and targeted. Never in my life have I felt so vulnerable and persecuted, and my anxiety was through the roof.
Prior to this time in my life, I could hardly eat when I was feeling anxious. Thankfully, the way in which my anxiety manifested switched and I began to overeat. I can remember sitting in my cubicle, shoveling handfuls of dried yogurt covered fruit in my mouth because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. In the span of a year, I gained fifty pounds.
This was one of the most difficult years and, looking back, honestly it was a complete blur. To compound the already stressful situation, I sustained a serious work injury at the same time of which required surgery on my right wrist. The recovery was extensive and I could only wear sweat pants for months because I could not use my right hand at all.
Once I regained the ability to use my right hand I realized I needed to buy new pants. Sitting in that changing room was eye-opening, because I had to try on sizes I had never even been close to wearing before. The person that I saw in my mind was now vastly different than the person I saw looking back in the mirror.
I have been carrying the weight for the past three years and admittedly it has been both a physical and mental struggle for me. As much as I hate to admit, I fell into the ‘thigh gap’ trap and took pride in the littlest numbered jeans I had ever worn. I immediately felt sexy and confident because I was the skinniest I had ever been, even if I wasn’t healthy.
Then one day I was looking back on pictures of myself and looking at my cheeks I saw how sunken in they were. Was being skinny worth being that sick? Was my physical health less important than the size of jeans I could fit into?
Had it been ten years ago I would have continued to lose weight when I was already underweight. In the US, we’re inundated with messages about obesity and the risks it has for our health, but outside of the context of eating disorders there isn’t the same conversation about being underweight. Sure I still experience days of feeling uncomfortable but I have to remind myself that my weight gain actually saved my life.