Eating

Anorexia and PTSD

Olivia Epley

Founder of Millennial Girl, Interrupted, a senior in a small Connecticut high school. I've been through many treatments and recoveries and am eager to share the lessons I've learned!

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    This week, the 25th of February through the 2nd of March, is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. It’s also the last week during which I won’t be glued to my phone, hungering for college acceptance emails, but for the purposes of this site I’m going to stick to writing about eating disorders instead of fretting about the SAT math score I wish I’d gotten.

    I’m having my own little eating struggle this week. My empty tooth socket became infected post-surgery (yum, I know), and I’ve been subsisting on liquids for well over a week. I’m having to be very intentional about what I’m putting in my body and what I can withstand as a result of my limited intake. Anorexia recovery is ongoing.

    I thought I’d do some work for you all in tying together two disorders that aren’t always thought to be connected: PTSD and anorexia (or any eating disorder, it’s just that anorexia is mine). OCD and anorexia are often partners, Borderline Personality and bulimia frequently go hand in hand, but there isn’t a clear link between PTSD and anorexia, necessarily. For me, however, there was, and inextricably. Hopefully in my highlighting their connection, you will come to understand the disorders a bit better.

    I saw anorexia as an alternate reality into which I could place myself in order to avoid the world I was actually stuck in. Had I not developed the disorder, I would have been forced to immediately reckon with trauma that was too terrible to even fully conceptualize, at the time. My body couldn’t handle it, and therein lies the primary connection between my PTSD and anorexia; they are both stored largely in the body. Trauma is a physical experience first, though its long lasting consequence- PTSD- is psychiatric. Anorexia isn’t really about one’s body fat percentage, either, but it’s lived through it.

    I was able to put off dealing with my trauma because I had something else physical to focus my attention on. I could focus, instead, on making my body disappear.

    And what a time occupant it was! When I woke up, I had to reckon with the one thing I’d put in my mouth all day: a cup of tea. Gulping that down was an emotional chore, and I’d do it on my van ride to school. Once I was at school, I’d spend the day writhing in the body I wished would vanish, pinching at my real and/or perceived fat deposits, pressing my knees together, wrapping my fingers around my wrist. I’d frequent online resources for starvation (more on those another time…) and refresh my ice water bottle in the middle of every class, maximizing the amount of walking I’d do in a day by making one trip to the freezer per class period.

    Once I got home, I’d cancel the alarm I’d always have set for 4:30 that said “don’t eat, bitch!” and I’d set off into the primary physical distractor, and what was my main coping mechanism for months of my most acute PTSD period: my run.

    I’ve talked about it before, here. I liked to spend two, three, four, sometimes five hours out on my local trails, pushing my body to obscene limits. My leg musculature is still well developed from that time period, very many months later. I don’t remember it being hard, though. Of course it was; I wasn’t in great shape when I first started doing it. The runs were grueling. But my body was in such agony every day while dealing with trauma, twitching and writhing and jumping and recoiling, that vigorous, repetitive motion in the familiar solitude of the snowy wood was heaven-sent.

    Rap music would be blasting. Rappers love themselves. They love their lives, their hardships, their triumphs, their relationships, and their music is a celebration of it all (unless we consider the nouveau realm of depression rap, which I’d rather not). It was everything I wasn’t, and it was perfect to play while turning myself into a non-feeling, singularly functional running machine.

    This was my body.

    My hair was in a ponytail, pulled back enough to stay out of my face but still covering my ears, for I didn’t like wearing hats even in near zero temperatures.

    My ears ached during the midnight hours from the blasting volume that pierced through them at the sunset hours.

    My neck and shoulders ached from the flexing and writhing I would do throughout the day, every day. It was my body reliving trauma.

    My collar bones were covered in my fingerprints. I’d touch them all the time; it was called body checking.

    My tummy bore the vaguely visible word “fat.” I’d carved it on the first night I starved myself and I never stagnated or gained even a fraction of a pound after it.

    My wrists, too, ached from the writhing I’d do, my wrist bones also fingerprint-laden. Check!

    My fingertips themselves spent much of their time inputting weights into MyFitnessPal.

    My pelvic bones complained at all hours. They were the most sensitive, still are. They felt the osteoporosis first.

    My thighs were covered in faint bruises. These were from inadequate blood flow.

    My knees and calves were covered in prominent bruises and a few scrapes. These were from tumbles and trips I’d take on the icy trail and its slippery creeks.

    My feet were reliably placed upon my scale, once every morning and once every night.

    All of this- every bruise, ache, jolt, scrape, fingerprint- was better, to me, than facing what had happened to me. I didn’t even understand that I was replacing one with another, but I was doing so with such clamoring fervor that I lost a terrifying amount of weight in a terrifying amount of time, giving those around me little time to catch their bearings enough to understand what was happening. The physical extremity of my trauma was dealt with by pushing my body to different, but still extreme, limits with eating and exercise.

    It all crashed down on me, as it must have, eventually. I told adults what happened to me. I went to a nutritionist. I entered into a bad relationship that effectively replaced the old, abusive one. Maladaptive coping mechanisms all crash down, eventually. They are unsustainable by their nature. The crashing can be done via professionals or it can be done via a dirt-covered casket. They’re both common outcomes and there isn’t a third option.

    Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. One in ten sufferers will die by their disorder. PTSD also has a high mortality rate, compared to the baseline suicide rate (anorexia sufferers both die by suicide and bodily health complications). Combine them, and I was at real fatal risk.

    I’m lucky to have come out the other side like I have, and in honor of NEDAwareness Week, I want you to take some time to de-trivialize restrictive behaviors. Let yourself have that extra slice. Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re adequately full. Pop a handful of M&M’s. They’re delicious. Have a salad, and don’t be afraid to throw some croutons on. Placing rules upon your eating habits may seem innocuous, but it can lead to something very serious and sinister.

    As you fall asleep tonight, I want you to take stock of what you’re storing in your body. Are your shoulders hunched? Your brow furrowed? Let your toes fall to the outer sides of your body. Take a deep breath, in and out. Our mind and our body work in tandem in a number of funny little ways, and we house more of our psyche in our physical body than we suspect. Nurture your body in small ways, like de-compressing at night, and in big ways, like eating intuitively, staying active, and maintaining good hygiene. The goal is to nurture the mind and the body each in their own respective ways.

    Check out the link in the right-hand sidebar if you need more ED information. I’ll be here all week, too!

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    One thought on “Anorexia and PTSD

    1. Thank you for writing about this! It makes sense to distract from physical pain / trauma with other physical pain. I definitely do that too, in other ways. I’m glad you came out on the other side.

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