Eating Disorders and Pregnancy: Julie's Story

Growing up I was always petite. I can’t tell you how many times I heard phrases such as “you’re so cute and tiny!” or “what I wouldn't give to be so thin!” I learned from a very early age that small equals cute, and thin is desirable. These are the things that matter. I found a lot of my identity in being the smallest one around. It’s hard for me to remember a time before I thought this way. It just grew up with me from a very young age, I suppose.

When I was 10 years old, my dad had a massive heart attack and emergency triple bypass surgery. During the same period of time, my mom had major surgery for possible cancer. Combine these stressors with my desire to be small and thin; anorexia began to take root. My dad came home from the hospital with a new, rather restrictive diet, and I learned to read nutrition labels like a pro. In an attempt to find some control in the chaos, I started taking on my dad’s diet. I thought that meant I was eating healthy. Turns out, a 40 year old heart patient’s nutritional needs vary a bit from the needs of a 10 year old girl.  I don’t blame my parents or their health for the development of my eating disorder. I remember a doctor explaining to my family that often, heredity loads the gun of eating disorders and other addictions, and environment pulls the trigger. Just because these particular events pulled the trigger at this particular time doesn't mean it wouldn't have happened some other time, from some other stressful event.

At any rate, I continued to obsess over what I considered to be healthy eating, as well as maintaining a small size. I was what some would call a “functioning anorexic” for many years. I had yet to cross over the line into serious and severe illness. My eating was restrictive enough to maintain my illusion of control without raising too many red flags. I also became an expert manipulator during this time. I was secretive and I lied frequently in order to protect my need to restrict my intake. 
            
When I went away to college, I began a fast downward spiral and abandoned the word “functional” altogether. Nearly immediately after my parents dropped me off at my dorm room, my life became entirely consumed by anorexia, bulimia, and over-exercise. My weight plummeted. Two months into my freshman year, after my third visit to the emergency room in one month, The university I was attending informed me that I was being withdrawn from my classes, and my parents were on a flight to come and get me. I was humiliated, scared, and angry. 

We returned to Oklahoma, where I checked into a treatment facility. This would be my first of two treatment centers. These facilities and the tools I learned there saved my life. However, throughout the bulk of my twenties I continued to struggle, dipping in and out of recovery, “functioning anorexia,” and full-blown disorder. I became isolated, unhappy, anxious, and fearful. 

At the age of 24, I met my husband. I was in the middle of another downward spiral, working hard to keep everyone at arms length and out of my business. But here was this patient, loving, persistent man. My walls were no match for him, and he just kept coming around. I turned him down for three months before I let him take me on a date. As we got to know each other, I felt something I hadn’t felt in such a long time: connection. Belonging. These are the powers that are big enough to shine a light on painful and lonely isolation. These are the powers that led me to truly desire real, solid recovery. I worked hard. I went out to eat with him. I shared my dreams and fears and desires with him. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I fell hard for him. Surely, I thought, this love will be enough. Enough to keep me within the boundaries of true recovery finally, after so many years. 

The truth is, that answer is a little too simple. Shortly after we were married, we ran a half marathon together. I found it much more difficult for me to run than in the past, and much more painful. Finally at his suggestion, I began to see a counselor and a doctor; an eating disorder specialist. I was reluctant because I truly thought I was healthy now. At the first appointment with this doctor, however, I learned that my heart rate was very slow, and my heart was beginning to atrophy. She ordered a few other tests, and within the weeks that followed, I received more and more bad news. My hips and portions of my spine had severe osteopenia; one point away from osteoporosis on the scale. 

Throughout my struggle with anorexia, many health professionals tried to tell me that this disorder may very likely prevent me from having children. That never sunk in, never seemed like a real possible consequence until now. I was married, 26 years old, and starting to think more seriously about a family. The specialist predicted that I may be able to get pregnant, but that it would likely not be easy. I hadn’t been having periods for some time.

Even with all this scary stuff looming over me, recovery was elusive. I remember going to the grocery store with my husband in an attempt to buy a greater variety of foods that I could start eating. I nearly had a panic attack in the aisle, obsessively reading label after label. I cried over a box of granola bars, agonizing over which brand to purchase based on a painstaking comparison of ingredients and calorie contents. 

Over the course of a few weeks, a shift took place in my thinking. I finally realized that I was sacrificing the mealtime, the time of fellowship and togetherness and relationship. What’s more, I finally realized that I wasn't willing to make that sacrifice anymore. We get to know and love each other over meals. I was ready to reprioritize. My people over my food.

After I gained a little initial weight, I started doing crossfit. I know that may seem like an intense workout choice for a recovering anorexic, but it became a very healing piece of the puzzle for me. I got to see my body in a new light. I could be strong! I could move heavy things! I could climb a rope all the way to the ceiling! This body that I had so hated and abused could do such amazing things! 

As I delved deeper into the world of crossfit and oly-lifting, I also started eating real foods. Previously, the concept of eating something that wasn’t “light” or “diet” was terrifying to me. But now that my body was getting stronger, I recognized the need to fuel that growth. I switched to whole milk and real butter. I started putting half and half in the coffee I had been drinking black since I was 14. I watched the number on the scale go up, but I also watched in awe as my body lifted more and more weight, or learned to do a pull-up.

When my husband and I started talking about growing our family, I knew we would likely face difficulty. I suggested that we adopt. Being adopted myself, I have a heart for adoption, and I believe it is something we may pursue later. At that time, I suggested it in part because I felt led to adopt, but also in part because I was scared to try to get pregnant. What if we really couldn’t? I knew my heart wasn’t ready for that struggle. So we began the paperwork and process to adopt an older child. 

As we continued through the adoption process, we started talking about trying to get pregnant. We decided to put the adoption on hold, and also stop preventing pregnancy. I wasn’t ready to truly try to get pregnant. Our plan was to revisit the topic in a year and either adopt or pursue fertility help. Two weeks later, we saw two lines on a pregnancy test. We were shocked! I cancelled our home visit with the adoption caseworker and scheduled an appointment with an OB instead. 

 I know we were lucky. I know the story doesn’t always go this way. I can’t help but notice the common thread of whole, real foods in Kelsey’s, Monet’s, and my experience. Real food shifted me from the fear of food, to the enjoyment of it. It began the healing process of not only my body, but in my mind and my spirit as well. 

These days, my body is a bit softer than I’m used to. My tummy is pudgier, my thighs what I like to call “gelatinous.” And my body nourishes my sweet son. It holds him late into the night. It carried him for 34 weeks of pregnancy. It stands to bounce him when he’s fussy; sits to cuddle him as he sleeps. I’m learning how to be gentler with myself and my body. It’s not perfect; sometimes I want to cry over the fact that the only things that fit me right now are yoga pants and sweats. But overall, I’m so in awe of what this softer body can do, and what I can do when I’m a bit softer as well.