What It’s Like to Live With An Eating Disorder: 10 Women Share Their Stories

In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness week, meet ten inspirational women who have battled eating disorders.
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Meet Jill Tarpey:

Jill Tarpey

“Dancing for 6 hours, working out for 2 hours, and eating 500 calories a day was my life.”

Jill Tarpey is a 28-year-old yoga instructor. Her eating disorder first started at the age of 18.

When did you first realize that you had an eating disorder?

I first realized I had an eating disorder when I went back to school after my sophomore semester break. I was a dance major at a prestigious dance conservatory in New York and had spent the break back home with my family in Texas. I knew that I was struggling with something but I didn’t think it was an eating disorder; I thought that it was just pressure from school and being a normal dancer concerned with her body. However, being back at home, seeing my families concern and worry for my health and happiness, and experiencing how hard it was to hide my behaviors and struggles made me realize that my problem was much bigger than I could have ever thought possible.

When it came time to return to school, I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to stay at home with my mom, close to her love and comforts. I had worked my whole life to become the dancer that I was and training was the only thing I knew. I had always been so excited to dance, but now all joy was stripped away by my eating disorder. I had no desire to dance, no desire to pursue my goals, no desire to reach for my dreams that I had since a little girl. Upon return to school, the faculty approached me and told me to stop losing weight. But at that point it was too late, I was already in a downward spiral. It was just two weeks later that the conservatory sent me home on medical leave. I packed up my bags and headed back to Texas, absolutely devastated.

I was suffering from anorexia nervosa and compulsive exercising. Dancing for 6 hours, working out for 2 hours, and eating 500 calories a day was my life.

How did it affect your body and emotional well-being?

All joy and life was stripped away from me while I was consumed with my eating disorder. Before I was ill, I was a joyful, kind, loving, and genuine person. Once ED took over I was mean, hateful, lost, broken, and depressed.

Physically I looked like I aged about 15 years. I was 19 years old at the time I started treatment, but looked like I was in my 30s. I lost a lot of hair, was wearing children’s size clothes, and experiencing the numerous medical complications that anorexics battle: extreme low heart rate of 25 and kidney failure. I was admitted to the cardiac unit of the hospital as they feared heart failure at any moment. My kidneys were also failing and I lost my menstrual cycle, something that I am still struggling to get back to normal.

Were you stigmatized or alienated for having an eating disorder? How did that feel?

A lot of people were really apprehensive about being around me. I can’t blame them, I wasn’t a pleasant person; I was too busy thinking about food, weight, calories, etc. I am from a small town, so when I was sent home from school a lot of rumors went around that I had cancer or some type of life threatening illness since I had lost so much weight and was facing so many medical complications.

In your opinion, how much did Photoshopped/airbrushed/stick thin images of women/men in the media shape your opinion of your body?

For me, my body image was based more on other dancers and the influence from my professors and mentors. The need to be thin was strongly encouraged and many girls were sent home from school because they thought they did not have an ideal dancer’s body. This is what originally sent me into a tailspin of unhealthy dieting that led to my ED. I was so fearful about being sent home and all my dreams being crushed, I was willing to do anything to keep my place there and to continue to move up in the company.

What was your breaking point?

I was at Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Florida for about 3 months. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but also the best. One day during a group session the speaker turned to me and asked me why I was rejecting the body that God gave me, the body that is my vehicle through life? I couldn’t answer because I was so ashamed. I knew that I was killing myself and I decided at that moment that I had the opportunity to fight my ED and change. After that, I began to put my trust back in God and in my faith that I deserved to be healthy and whole so that I could live the life that I was meant to live.

What was a common misconception others had of you?

That I was constantly lying. When you have an ED you lie a lot. You are hiding your feelings, emotions, body, and distortions, all with your ED. So, lying is a very common behavior among ED patients. When I started to speak my mind, feel healthy, gain strength, and begin to work through my issues it took a lot of time for my treatment team and family to trust me again.

Visit Jillian’s blog at jilliantarpey.blogspot.com.

Meet Michelle Leath:

Michelle Leath

“What I found as I started opening up was that almost everyone I told responded either, ‘me too’ or ‘I know someone.’ The shame has to stop somewhere, so I made a decision that it would stop with me.”

Michelle Leath is a 44-year-old personal coach and business owner. Her eating disorder first began at the age of 18.

What were your day to day struggles with your eating disorder like?

At the peak of my struggle from 18 to about 22, I was bingeing and purging up to five times a day. I lived with a constant fear of food and getting fat, from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed. Every time I ate, I worried about the food becoming fat on my body. I would start every day with a strict set of rules about what I felt was acceptable to eat, but as soon as I deviated from that I would go right into a binge. I lived with a multitude of rules around what foods were good and what foods were bad. I was constantly torn between my body’s desires and cravings for nourishment and my mind’s rules and restrictions. Fear, worry, self-criticism, self-judgment, and shame were the primary emotions in the background of my mind. I would often go to bed at night feeling weak and helpless and praying for the next day to be “good.”

Were you stigmatized or alienated for having an eating disorder?

I knew that other people knew about my problem and talked about me, and that was very painful. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I have always been a highly sensitive person (like many women who struggle with eating disorders) so the thought of others speaking unfavorably about me definitely hurt. There was so much pressure in my college community to be thin and fit. It was a very competitive environment, and I often felt that the other girls thought I was cheating by being bulimic. Little did they know that it sure didn’t feel like a choice and it came with a whole lot of pain, suffering and shame. I would have gratefully traded places with someone else.

What effect did your eating disorder have on your personal relationships?

It definitely disconnected me from meaningful friendships and social relationships. When it was really bad, I would opt out of social plans because I wanted to stay home and binge. Or if I did go, and there was food involved, I would be so obsessed and consumed with how much or how little I was eating that I couldn’t possibly enjoy myself or truly connect with anyone. Sometimes I would excuse myself early so I could go home and purge. It was a kind of self-chosen isolation.

It also affected my romantic relationships over the years. My body criticism prevented me from being able to truly open up and enjoy physical intimacy. And really, my bulimia was a symptom of an inability to speak my truth. I lacked the self-esteem to make self-honoring choices, and had a tendency toward bottling up what was important to me in order to avoid conflict or abandonment in relationships. This led to some poor relationship choices, and definitely impacted my marriage negatively.

How has your eating disorder changed your life?

There was a time that I thought my eating disorder was ruining my life. But now I see that my eating disorder was a gift in so many ways. It served as a coping mechanism to help keep me feeling safe at a time when I felt very unstable in life. It prompted me to look much deeper into who I am and what I had been believing about myself, in a way that allowed me to grow far more than I ever would have without it. It has given me great compassion for others who struggle with food and low self-esteem, and it gave me the life experience to be able to support others from a place of true understanding.

I actually wrote a thank-you letter to my bulimia last Thanksgiving, which is posted on my blog.

What did you wish more people knew about eating disorders?

That they are extremely painful for the people who experience them. That they are starting younger and younger and we all have a responsibility to create a healthier climate of self-acceptance beyond physical appearance for our girls and boys. That we all have the power to stop perpetuating the negative body talk in our social circles. That eating disorders are not a weakness, but a sign of very strong spirit longing to be recognized and honored.

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3 thoughts on “What It’s Like to Live With An Eating Disorder: 10 Women Share Their Stories

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