Jason: “I was literally killing myself with the hope of living longer” (Orthorexia Nervosa)
The views and opinions expressed in the following story are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Mental Health Colorado.
By: Jason Wood
In July of 2020, I came to the realization that I had long been battling disordered eating; however, I didn’t understand exactly what or who the enemy was. I spoke with my primary care physician, who diagnosed me with an unspecified eating disorder, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Following this diagnosis, I started searching for the tools and resources to overcome the condition that had held me hostage for more than twenty years. Identifying a suitable professional proved a major challenge. I saw first-hand, the shortfalls in our nation’s mental health services. Nobody seemed to address my specific concerns or situation, especially as a male. Nonetheless, I was fortunate to connect with an amazing counselor who helped me work through my anxiety and OCD.
Before I get ahead of myself, I would love to share my story with you. I battled obesity throughout my childhood before joining Weight Watchers during high school. My perfectionist nature thrived under the challenge of counting points and watching what I ate, which led to impressive results. My childhood shame and embarrassment transformed into pride and accomplishment. For years, I allowed this event to define who I was. I felt accomplished and valued, unaware of the fuse that had been lit.
I turned to controlled eating in the aftermath of my parent’s deaths during my teenage years. My family fell apart and I shouldered the blame and guilt for many years. A heavy load for a 19-year-old. I desperately sought control amid the chaos of estate battles, stolen legacies and tarnished memories. Scared, lonely and flailing about in my new “adult” status, I viewed control as refuge. I needed to overachieve again, as is my nature, and what better than to return to the scene of the crime, my weight/diet.
I spent the majority of my early twenties facing eviction, losing my license and struggling to survive emotionally and financially. All the while, I found solace in a growing set of rules around food. My weekday meals usually consisted of the same “safe” foods but the weekends were my time to binge. Pizza, cake, beer, it was all fair game come Friday night. Meanwhile, the embers were beginning to glow. The unidentified thief slowly lured my life away from me.
Turning the page to 2015, I was 29 and preparing for a colonoscopy. Yes, that old person’s procedure. Several concerning symptoms and a receptive doctor led me to a startling discovery: several large, aggressive precancerous polyps. Suddenly, I realized I was walking in my father’s footsteps but not in the way I planned. He died of colon cancer twenty years earlier. Now, I found myself high-risk for the same fate. I faced my own mortality and my control-freak nature went to work. I couldn’t die young, I had so much to live for. I believe it was at this point that I started dying to live, literally. The flames erupted as foods were becoming “good” and “bad” but not just for weight loss. Now, my health hung in the balance.
In 2018, my wonderful now-husband popped the question. I was starting to feel that intimate love and immediate family sensation again but the food rules continued intensifying. With a wedding on the horizon and a slowing metabolism my previous game-changing diet of strict weekdays and weekend binges no longer proved effective. My weight crept up and the negative, self-critical thoughts returned with a vengeance. It was like having Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsey in my head day and night. Here I was again on the brink of having everything but preparing to lose it all. I often turned to alcohol to douse the rising flames but to no avail, I still felt like an imperfect failure by my unrealistic high standards.
The wedding diet, oh the wedding diet. I signed up with a personal trainer, cut out the carbs and immediately started doing what I do best, losing weight and controlling intake. The list of bad foods grew exponentially. Wheat bread, peanut butter, and brown rice, once safe, quickly became no-no’s. During this phase, I started looking down on others for their diets. How dare they invite me to their fatty, carb-loaded feast at the work potluck! The flames raged. I passed up invitations to join others for fear of coming face to face with bad foods. I remember leaving a friend’s birthday party early because the food was not on my good list. The vegetables were sprinkled with parmesan cheese and I couldn’t have that! I couldn’t find an alternative option to eat on the way home so I just went to bed hungry. It was the only way to ensure a quiet night from the judges inside my head.
I was skinny, looking back now, too skinny. I worked out obsessively but failed to compensate with enough food. Friends and family voiced concerns but my sick mind took pride in my frail appearance. Inside, I was elated to hear the comments about my new skin and bones look. I could easily defend myself since I still ate food and after all it was healthy food. I saw no wrong in that. No way I could have an eating disorder I thought, I’m don’t have anorexia because I still eat and I’m not purging. I gloated about my new low carb, high protein diet and pushed it on everyone and anyone. Man, I was annoying!
Looking back I can’t help but laugh a little bit. Here I was thinking I was in total control but this unidentified thief actually controlled me. Food, health and weight controlled my every waking moment. I needed to plan meals far in advance to avoid guilt, remorse and that dreaded heavy feeling. This caused stress on my relationships, even with my husband. We couldn’t be spontaneous with food or weekend plans because I needed to know when and where we were going to eat days in advance. Then I could analyze the menu and make the healthiest choice possible, while still compensating with smaller meals or longer workouts. I must have been a blast to take a trip with! Even on my own wedding day, I felt guilt after eating a mini cupcake that I had prepared weeks and months in advance to eat.
The pandemic poured gasoline onto the situation. An unprecedented time combined with my personality traits and emotional baggage led to a level of control never seen before. We were at full-blown wildfire stage now. I could no longer enjoy items I once loved like pizza, doughnuts and ice cream. Not even a small bite or the guilt drown me for days. My caloric intake was far too low, composed mostly of safe fruits and vegetables. Yes, even some fruits were restricted due to high sugar amounts. Melons became an enemy as did many other perfectly healthy foods. Like on Halloween when good people don scary masks, harmless foods now terrified me. Nutrition labels became my new Bible. I studied each one endlessly as the inner debate between “good” and “bad” took full hold. It required all my strength to pick up a bowl of oatmeal because of the fear of carbs. But hey, I still ate food and didn’t throw anything up. I didn’t even care about my weight. It was all about my health, so how could there be anything wrong with that?
The search for healthy alternatives intensified, which led to some kitchen disasters. Just ask my poor husband about all the “healthy” flour and sugar alternatives I tried to find. I needed to be the healthiest I could be to feel successful, no matter how bad it tasted. I was bottoming out just as Dr. Bratman alluded to in Health Food Junkies but somehow I felt like I was summiting.
On July 4th, the fire alarms finally sounded. Ironically, Independence Day was the day I started down the road to my own independence from obsessive thoughts about food and diet. We took a short weekend trip out of town. After endless debate about where to eat, a familiar occurrence, my husband and I found a “safe” restaurant in Cheyenne that looked to meet my stamp of approval. However, I refused to eat anything after learning I couldn’t substitute the pita on the hummus plate for raw vegetables. How dare they expect me to eat something with flour in it!
My husband expressed his concerns and in this moment of weakness something awoke within me. He opened my eyes to the pain and hurt in my childhood, teen years and the damage I was doing to myself now. The following Monday, I called my doctor and started my road to recovery. I began working through personal issues with my therapist, who helped me better understand my anxious and OCD thoughts, thus enabling me to address my disordered eating. Note the wording here disordered eating. I remained blind to the fact I had an actual eating disorder that could kill me. I did not fit the bill for anorexia or bulimia, so all I had to do was fix this unhealthy relationship with food. I didn’t have that serious of a problem or so I thought.
In August, I began working with an RDN, who developed a nutrition program to help build back muscle and fat. I should note that in July I reached my lowest and unhealthiest point. I learned I was at high risk for a sudden cardiac event. My body constantly hurt, I was always cold, so cold, and lacked energy. Yet, it was still so hard to eat those “bad” foods. I was standing amid the scorched earth of my eating disorder and still refusing to accept the water. Thanks to my therapy sessions, my resilient nature eventually returned. I realized I needed to at least trust the process and trust my support team. I might not agree with it or feel comfortable but I needed to blindly trust.
It worked! My body is being restored but I now know the number on the scale is just a number and not a complete measure of health. My therapist and RDN are valuable tools in my recovery process but I’ve been frustrated to see just how little they know about the thief I am battling, orthorexia nervosa.
It wasn’t until I started reading books on eating disorders, that I identified the mysterious force I’ve been fighting for half my life. While reading Goodbye Ed, Hello Me by Jenni Shaefer and Thom Rutledge I stumbled across the term orthorexia. Having no idea what it was, I did the natural thing and googled the term. Bingo! That’s it! That’s what I am battling! With its true identity revealed, I could now extinguish the flames that engulfed my life. This label was more valuable to me than any nutrition label because I finally understood the gravity of the situation.
My symptoms and habits align closely with the descriptions Dr. Bratman provided in Health Food Junkies. My recovery is still ongoing but I am getting stronger with each day. I study as much material as I can about ON from research studies to personal accounts. The more I understand about the disease, the better equipped I am to win. I no longer obsess about eating the cleanest diet out there or what the scale says. In fact, we threw the scale out. I strive to be an intuitive eater; a life free of stress around food and body image. The life I was deprived of for so long. I have my good and bad days but I am happy to report the good versus bad food debate is diminishing with each passing meal.
I’ve kept a journal by my side to save quotes, write down thoughts and reflect upon this journey. Inside the cover, I wrote, “Trust the process, embrace the process and enjoy the process.” When I started down the path to recovery, I constantly reminded myself to trust my support team and the strategies they shared with me. Over time, I embraced the process and started to incorporate it in my daily life. I am now starting to enjoy it. It’s okay not to be perfect. It’s okay to treat myself. Most notably, I’m starting to accept that heavy feeling after a tasty meal and tighter fitting clothes as my body rebounds from years of abuse. After all, I’m human, might as well feel and look like it! I let go of the self-criticism and found that I’ve accomplished a hell of a lot more than just my significant weight loss twenty years ago. More importantly, I came to the stark realization that I was literally killing myself with the hope of living longer.
My story and my experiences are a start but I must use my voice to raise awareness and provide support to those experiencing the same pain I faced. I am ready to serve as a fire extinguisher to others who find themselves engulfed with the flames of health food obsession.