Pregnant anorexics know they should be happy — but it’s hard. Really hard.
There are two things that you should know while reading this:
Next week, I will officially be nine-months pregnant and I am an anorexic.
Now, before you go all children-and-family-services on me, let me explain.
At this point in my life, I eat plenty. I take my prenatal vitamins, supplement twice daily with a liquid iron booster and eat my fair share of square meals and then some … and then some more.
At this point in my life, I am not starving myself or my unborn child.
But other pregnant anorexics will tell you that the disease is not solely about the actual food that you eat or any of the other actions that you take. It is a state of mind. For most anorexics, the disease marks a vicious cycle of mental abuse that is tough, if impossible, to ever completely kick.
I’ve been battling the eating disorder since around the age of 15. The worst years were my junior and senior years of high school. I careened in and out of the disease through my college and post-college years. I always viewed my actions as responsible weight control. I was about 24 when I first realized that I had a problem and actively tried to change nearly a decade of low self image and unhealthy eating habits. I never sought out therapy, preferring to handle my darkness alone. Looking back, I could have received professional help for bulimia and anorexia but I was ashamed.
When I was pregnant the first time at the age of 25, I was worried about what the changes in my body would do to my mentality. The pregnancy was unexpected (I had not had the time to first lose the 30 pounds that I was sure to gain) and I was going the single mom route. I confided in a friend at the time that I really needed her support.
Without actually using the words “pregnant anorexics” I hinted that I may have some body image issues that could turn dangerous if I was left to my own devices. She nodded in understanding but I knew that she did not understand. No one ever does. Not when you are “tiny” in the eyes of the rest of world, even pregnant. No one understands how it feels to do daily battle with your own thoughts.
Surprisingly, my disorder seemed to take a backseat as I got closer to welcoming my first child. This, despite the fact that I had a boss who told me regularly how big I was (in a conversational way that would have normally sent me into a tailspin of depression) and the fact that I passed my prescribed 30 pounds of weight gain around the six-month mark.
I felt good about my body and the little life that I was able to carry within it. At the time, I thought that maybe pregnancy would be the thing to finally cure my decade-plus long battle with food, body image distortion and general unhappiness with my appearance.
Once my daughter was out of my belly and into my arms, however, the haunting thoughts returned in earnest. I wanted to breastfeed my daughter for all of the wonderful reasons that doctors and attachment parents promote — increased immunity, better chance at maintaining a healthy weight throughout life and bonding time with mommy. These reasons were all well and good. But the real reason I wanted to breastfeed was to lose weight — and fast. I’ve since learned that many pregnant anorexics have had the same thoughts, and were depressed if it didn’t happen that way.
The combination of a very hungry child and me deciding it was time to scale back my calories (since I no longer had that “pregnancy” excuse) led to a very miserable breastfeeding experience that lasted just under two months. I had headaches. I had no energy. As soon as my daughter was done eating, I would lay her down and want nothing to do with her. I was too tired to enjoy her and my body was malnourished.
But I was already fitting back into my pre-pregnancy clothes. My first day back in the office, a co-worker gasped and commented how I did not even look like I had been pregnant. This was just over six weeks after giving birth. My weight was nearly back to pre-pregnancy. I quit breastfeeding two weeks later.
At that point, my battle with body image faded a bit. I was getting outside on daily walks with my little girl, feeling healthier as a result of keeping more calories to myself and after all, my pre-pregnancy clothes fit. I started to get back into running and channeling all of my negativity and control issues into something productive. I refused to keep track of my mileage or calories, as I knew what were common fitness practices for most were dangerous avenues for me.
I lived with a roommate who loved to prepare meals and her sister-in-law was a professional chef who often brought us home cooked gourmet deliciousness. I was surrounded by healthy eaters, had a strong support group at work to guide me through my first months as a new mom and was gaining confidence in my mommying abilities every day. I was asked to start writing for a popular blog at the newspaper where I worked. It was a good time for my mentality. I felt like I had every area of my life in control so there was no need to compensate with rigid control over my eating and body.
That all changed when I moved closer to my job. My daughter and I got our first apartment, just the two of us, and she was just under a year old. I enjoyed the independence but lost all accountability in the kitchen. I determined that there was “no point” in cooking meals just for myself so I ate cereal or an apple instead of a balanced dinner. I was dating a little bit but convinced myself that I would probably never find a husband. I could not afford to join a gym so I snuck in workouts where I could at the gym on-site at my job which was normally empty when I went.
My daughter and I got out to parks and on some play dates, but I could feel myself retreating further and further into isolation. I had no reason to lose weight but felt the grip of anorexia gradually suffocating me. I battled my overwhelming feelings of food aversion and managed to stay in a relatively healthy state physically but it was mentally exhausting.
When I moved to Chicago for work I found new resolve in exercise and tried to get to the bustling gym at work every day. I got outside on the weekends, even the very cold ones. I started to date my now-husband long distance and for the first time, I did not feel pressure to try to lose five or ten pounds for the sake of a new boyfriend. For one thing, he lived pretty far away and I did not get the chance to see him all that often. For another thing, he is my soul mate. Maybe I did not know that immediately but I was always comfortable being myself around him.
In the midst of one of our deep conversations about our former selves (pre-each other), I found myself admitting my body image issues. Once I had said the word “anorexic” the rest of the confession just sort of flowed out of me. It was the first time I had admitted my problem out loud to anyone. I cried. He did not try to reassure me, or dismiss my fears as “silly.” He just listened. And from that day, he has watched me a little bit closer and held me accountable when I use derogatory terms about myself or my appearance. He is the accountability that I need.
Pregnant anorexics, the second time around
So I’ll skip ahead to the present. I’m pregnant for the second time, married to the above mentioned wonderful man, and have a four-year-old daughter who wants to be exactly like mommy. I have great relationships with my family on both sides, fantastic friends/blogging colleagues and a freelance writing business that seems to be growing exponentially by the week. Despite having three kids (almost four) that have not even reached school age, my life is in control. This pregnancy was not “planned” in the sense that we were trying, but we had already decided on “just one more” before we tied the knot. I was ready for this pregnancy.
Imagine my surprise when early on in the pregnancy I started to be disgusted with my appearance. I did not feel the “glow” of my first pregnancy and despite having a supportive partner, I started to feel very alone and trapped in my growing body. I have no resentment towards my unborn daughter but often daydream about the day that she will be safely out of my body and I can stop feeling so bad about myself. I do not like to be naked around my husband and he has to coerce me out of clothing. I have normal conversations with people about my pregnancy. They say nice things and all I hear is self-perceived judgement.
They say: Oh you will lose the weight in no time!
I hear: You better work out really hard and lose the weight quickly.
They say: Breastfeeding helps with losing weight.
I hear: Make sure that you breastfeed or you can forget about losing any weight.
They say: Different body types gain different amounts of weight. You were so small to being with — of course you have gained more!
I hear: You were tiny. Now…. not so much.
They say: Wow — look at how big your boobs are!
I hear: Well, if your boobs, composed of all fat, are so big — imagine what the rest of you looks like.
They say: Remember how big Heidi Klum looked on that one season of Project Runway? And she lost it all.
I hear: If supermodels can lose all the weight, you better do it too.
My brother and his long-time girlfriend announced that they will be getting married in July. My second thought was “Yay! How exciting!” My first thought?
“That’s six weeks after my due date. Ugh. I’m going to look so terrible in pictures.”
These are not healthy reactions. I know this. Other pregnant anorexics know it. No one cares what I am going to look like six weeks after giving birth, or six years after, except for me. I’ve forced myself to take several “belly pics” to post on Facebook because it is good for me. I try not to look at the actual pictures, of course, as I read through the kind comments. I’ve also been avoiding mirrors. My only saving grace is that I am within five weeks from meeting my little girl and that has calmed my “getting huge” anxieties. I know that the end is in sight.
I feel guilty about being so petty. Being pregnant is such a gift and don’t think for a second that any pregnant anorexics don’t recognize it! In quiet moments when I sit with my hand on my belly and feel my baby squirming, I count my blessings. I just do not do any of this while looking in a mirror. Any other pregnant anorexics feel my pain?
My point in this post is two-fold: to face my angst head-on by writing about it and to tell a story that may sound familiar to other women who are pregnant anorexics.
I’ve given up on ever being able to free myself completely of the anorexic mindset; but as with any disorder, I’m going to keep fighting the good fight to keep myself healthy, for myself and my family. I hope that by telling my story, other pregnant anorexics will find some solace — and some professional help if they need it.
**Update: Since this post went live, Katie gave birth to her healthy daughter Erinn on May 8, 2012. Katie is still losing her pregnancy weight at a healthy pace. She was invited to be a guest panelist on HuffPost Live to talk about the struggles of an eating disorder and pregnancy. You can see that interview with Nancy Redd here.**
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Tags: anorexia nervosa