My journey with my hormones has been up and down to say the least. I started my period at age 12 with no major celebration.. my mum explained what to expect and how to use pads and tampons and that was that for a few years. I don’t really remember much from that time but I think my cycles were pretty “normal” coming each month with some pain and emotional ups and downs but it was no big deal. I was a happy, active kid. I played hockey in school and had competed in judo competitions since I was 10 years old.
I don’t remember ever being a fussy eater as a child but once I got to my final years of high school, I became pretty self conscious (like many teenage girls do) and started to manipulate my diet in the quest of “the perfect body”. It started off pretty innocently with me trying to eat more healthy foods and cut down on snacks (especially the buttery doorstop toast we used to have daily in the school canteen- yum!). But over time things spiralled and I became obsessive with my eating habits, trying to eat as little calories as possible and joining a gym to burn off anything I did eat. This carried on for a couple of years, all through my final exams and the summer before college. I some weight but I was still in the normal BMI range so no one was too worried.
Looking back there were a few personal issues that most likely played a big part in me falling into this black hole of anorexia. At the time I wouldn’t have even called it anorexia as I was eating, just not a lot. But the official definition of anorexia is “an emotional disorder characterised by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat” which is exactly what I was doing. I was so focused on dieting and weight loss and it never even crossed my mind that what I was doing could be impacting my hormones. Then at age 16 I decided to go on the birth control pill and that set off a cascade of events for the next decade.
I was having a regular period but I didn’t realise at the time but the periods you have on the birth control pill are not real, they are simply a reaction to the drop in synthetic hormones when you take a week break from the pill each month. I didn’t react well to the pill – like many women it made me anxious and emotional so after a year I decided to come off it. And that’s when my periods went MIA. I saw a doctor after 6 months and was told that my body just needed to rebalance after the pill and that it would take a while for my body to settle out. But 12 months later.. still no period.
Back in the doctors’s office, after asking some questions and finding out that I was very active I was diagnosed with the “female athlete triad”. I was told that losing your menstrual cycle is common amongst women who exercise a lot and that it was nothing to worry about if I wasn’t trying to get pregnant. I felt something in my gut right there, my intuition telling me that is WAS something to worry about. I hadn’t been totally honest about my restrictive eating but I was in denial so I ignored the voice inside, accepted the doctor’s advice and carried on with my life. I tried to keep up my diet and exercise regime but after a while my body started to fight back with EXTREME HUNGER.
I still had my goal in mind though so I carried on working out and restricting my calories. But I would keep having these full on crazy binge eating episodes. I didn’t understand what was going on. Seriously I felt like something was invading my mind and forcing me to eat everything in sight! Then afterwards I would feel panicked and confused, guilty about everything I had eating and would vow to eat less and exercise more the next day. Always frustrated, angry at my body for not conforming to the size and shape I had decided it should be. Every time I binged I thought there was something wrong with me and I worked hard to make my body pay for its mistake. I spent hours researching how to stop binge eating, trying all sorts of tips to distracting myself from taking a shower or painting my nails to going for a walk or calling a friend but none of them could help me past the strong compulsion to eat when it came.
So my weight would fluctuate by up to 20lbs as I yo-yo dieted and the cycle continued until I was about 22..
Don’t get me wrong I had some amazing times whilst all of this was going on. I made amazing friends, travelled Europe, volunteered in South America, got a job as a waitress, joined the university cheerleading team, had boyfriends, worked a year in industry and was on track to get a first in my engineering degree. But there was this underlying current of worry and anxiety and I was hiding the anorexia part of my brain leading me to go through periods of isolating myself from my friends and leaving me stuck in these mental patterns of criticising my body and myself, never believing I was good enough. I did seek help a couple of times with support from my mum but because I could go through periods of feeling ok again and because part of me was still in denial, I would discharge myself from therapy.
By my final year at university, my over-exercising and under-eating had spiralled into some pretty disordered eating patterns. I had been battling this whilst studying for my final exams and keeping up an active social life and eventually my body crashed hard. I was still in denial that I had a problem, believing that I “wasn’t sick enough” to need help (which I now know is a common symptom in disordered eating). So I carried on dieting and exercising until I was hit with chronic gastritis. This totally wiped me out and I wasn’t able to work out at all other than walking and some yoga. I put on some weight and funnily enough I got a period! It was only light and lasted a couple of days but after nothing for 5 years I was over the moon.
I graduated from university and went travelling in South Eat Asia for 6 weeks before I started my new graduate job. Things were looking pretty good, I was exercising again but much more relaxed around food. I was maintaining a slightly higher weight that my body seemed happy with. But the story didn’t end there…
To be continued