Wednesday, August 24, 2011

From Normal, to Anorexic

I finally finished the book Gaining. It was, for lack of a better word, amazing. Rather than give a review of the book, which is kind of....boring, I thought I'd discuss what I learned from the book and from the stories of others with histories of eating disorders. Before you read this post please take a look at my introductory post about the book, as well as all of your amazing comments in the comment section.

When I started reading Gaining I thought I already knew why I had become anorexic back in high school. I thought it had to do with a combination of my mom always dieting as I was growing up, my domineering and controlling personality, and my eagerness to "be someone" in high school. Simple, right? Not so much. After reading this book I still believe those all played a role, but I no longer believe those were the main reasons for my bout with anorexia. And in fact I want to make it clear to everyone that my mother was, and still is, an amazing women. Sure she talked about weight in front of me, and dieting, but never to the extreme that some of the women in this book described. In fact, I would say her weight talk was pretty typical of how many women talk, and it was interspersed with plenty of "healthy talk", which is actually what inspired me to become a dietitian. So, I wouldn't dare blame my mother for my eating disorder. She has helped build my self-confidence more than I could have ever have imagined. It's just those small comments (usually negative comments, about herself), throughout my life that probably affected me more than she (or I) realized.

Anyway, I digress......the book taught me a lot about the true reasons I developed an eating disorder. A study was discussed in the book that showed there are three distinct temperamental groups into which people with anorexia and/or bulimia tend to fall. Here is a very brief description of the three groups;

1) Overcontrolled; tend to avoid social contact; tightly control their appetites for sex and food; limit their pleasures and withdraw from excitement , sensation and risk

2) Perfectionistic; Worry about the details. Aim to please, excel, and conform.

3) Undercontrolled; intense emotions and impulsive behaviors. They tend to fly into rages rather than expressing their anger passively. They also try to find relationships to soothe themselves.

I fell (and in some ways still fall) into a little bit of each of these groups (which is what the researchers indicated as being normal), but mainly number two. Growing up I didn't really worry much about details, but I always aimed to please, freaked out whenever I'd get in trouble or do something wrong, and always worked so hard in school that my friends would often ask me, "why do you work so hard?!". I always figured it was my ADD that created the "need" to work so hard. It took me twice as long to do things because I would always space out halfway in, but in reality I was so rigidly focused that I took simple assignments and made them twice as difficult. I was never able to finish books on time because it took me twice as long to read them. I'd read one paragraph and then have to re-read it because I'd realize I had been thinking about something else as I read the words, therefore not even paying attention to what the author had written. I was always doing something else in my mind, focusing on anything other than what was in front of me, and mainly that focus was on planning. I was, and still have tendencies to be, an obsessive planner. I may not have been a perfectionist in the sense that I had to make everything look perfect or sound perfect, but when it came to planning assignments, studying for exams, even planning what clothes to wear the next day, I was....perfect.

As I continued to read this book everything was put into perspective for me, and by hearing other people's stories of anorexia and bulimia I really had a more clear understanding of my own. I have concluded that for my whole life I have had Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD).

Obsessive–compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is a personality disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency.[1]

As you can see from the definition below, this is slightly different from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry, by repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing the associated anxiety, or by a combination of such obsessions and compulsions.

Source: Wikepedia

The author of the book described how she believes she has this disorder herself (OCPD), and studies have shown that many anorexic individuals possess many of the traits that accompany this disorder; mainly perfectionism, rigidity, inflexibility, caution, and need for symmetry. I think about my life as a child and that just about sums it up.

Overall I believe I was an odd case. Unlike many of the people in this book I never actually looked at myself in the mirror and thought I was fat or undeserving. I actually loved myself and my body, for the most part. I was always very happy as a child and adolescent. Sure I had my down times, but doesn't everyone? Now that I know I had/have many traits that mimic OCPD I have figured out the toxic combination of traits and events that produced the perfect storm for my eating disorder. I did a lot of looking back at my life as I was reading this book (mentally looking back and also reading old journal entries) and I can specifically remember one day in high school looking at a picture of myself at my Junior prom, in my prom dress, and noticing the dress was way too tight. I was so angry that no one had told me I looked ridiculous! While I didn't dwell on it a whole lot, I think seeing that picture sparked some serious anxiety about my body that was imbedded deep within me. At the same time I was stressed about the slow decline of a very tight bond with my best friend, and meanwhile my first serious boyfriend had just cheated on me, for the second time. This was in addition to the stress of being at an all girls school where getting into a good college was absolutely critical. The perfect storm had been created. It was too much stress all at once and all of a sudden I felt I had lost control of my life and my "perfectionism". I had never planned for my life to come to this point! To deal with the stress, I literally gave up fat and became obsessed with the control I had over my ability to get smaller, and smaller, and smaller.

Source: iStock Photo

I talked to my dad a few days ago about that time of my life and he said he "remembers that I would come home from the grocery store with all sugar free and fat free foods".

The only thing I remember very clearly is my consistent, repative and controlled breakfast; Kashi cereal mixed with Fiber One, measured in a 3/4th measuring cup with 1 cup of skim milk.

This was so unlike me. I never used to measure my food! But I don't think my parents really thought anything of it at first. After all, this was the 1990's, the decade of the whole fat free craze, so perhaps they thought it was just a faze. I started eliminating fat from my diet and was so good at it that I dropped ten pounds by the time I reached my senior year (that's a lot considering I was already only 110 pounds). Every day I felt the urge to do better at controlling my food, and each time someone told me I was "too skinny" I was pushed even harder to do even better at losing weight and controlling my food intake.

Flash forward to now. I am not going to lie and say that my OCPD traits have completely vanished, because they have not. I am still compulsive about planning/controlling my life, but everyday I get a little better at just living in the moment. I read in the book that, "the ultimate experience of control is achieved, paradoxically, when we are least worried about control". Amen!

I am completely aware of my tendencies to deal with stress by becoming even more obsessed with planning and controlling things. It's crazy how even the simplest stressor will cause me to tense and be compulsive. Stress also effects my eating, just as it does for so many of us. The good thing is that stress makes me eat, and I almost always choose healthy foods to eat because I've learned that's what makes me feel better.

I truly think anyone who has had, or who has dealt with someone with an eating disorder should read this book. In the end I learned a lesson that I will keep with me forever, and that is how to prevent my own children from developing the same poor relationship with food that I did, in such a short period of time. I feel empowered knowing that I have a better understanding of how my personality, behavior, and environment came together, perfectly, to create the life-threatening situation that it did. My parents were completely caught off guard. If my own child shows signs of an eating disorder, I will be ready and eager to help.

I am currently in the middle of writing my autobiography, as I have realized that my story truly is unique. My goal is to have it finished in the next couple years and to really do some more healing throughout that time. Just reading this book has helped me deal with so many issues that I didn't even know I was still subconsciously dealing with. So far, as I write my autobiography, I have continued my journey of healing simply by looking back at my past, reading my journals, and talking to my friends and family.

I've read so many stories of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders on blogs. One of my favorite bloggers, Sophia of Burp and Slurp, has a weekend series of stores about her own struggles with anorexia. Her stories are personal, touching, and completely candid. I encourage everyone to stop by sometime and read her weekend series (or any of her delicious posts throughout the week).

QUESTION: What are your experiences (personal or otherwise) with an eating disorder? Have you read Gaining?


  1. what a great post Gina! I haven't read Gaining but found your post so inspiring. I don't think I have any of those symptoms but I find it useful to identify future problems of my kids. As you say, many situations and mental problems can manifest in EDs. I'm really glad to know that you've learned through this book that your trigger to ED was not your Mom. That must have been hard for you and her to know. What a release now. :)
    Are u writing an autobiography? that's so cool! I love your writing and I'd love to read it when it's done!

  2. These characteristics make complete sense in terms of eating disorders. I think many of us struggle from striving to be perfectionists, and some are more determined than others. Thank you Gina for sharing your story with us. It's always inspiring to hear from people who have overcome significant obstacles in their life. And I agree...autobiography in the works?

  3. I walked by this book in Borders the other weekend and came so close to buying it. I wish I had! I love that you've learned so much by reading this book.

  4. Wow, what a great post! It makes sense that people who develop an eating disorder fit into certain personality types. I find the whole idea of personality types so interesting because mine has changed a lot in my transition from being a teenager to being an adult- I used to be a very flexible and not stressed person, and I've slowly watched that fade away a bit in adulthood, especially with teaching. I still think many people who work with me would say I'm very laid back and relaxed, but I think now I just push all my stress to my stomach, lucky for it.

    I definitely have never had the right personality for an eating disorder, even though there have definitely been influences that would've led me down that path if I was. I did have 2 close friends with eating disorders, one diagnosed and one not. In both cases, I maintained distance from the eating disorder itself while still staying close friends with them (we very rarely if ever talked about it at the time). I think I was still a good friend to both of them but just could not relate and had no idea how to manage something that big. I think one of them in particular appreciated my distance from it so we could talk about other things and just be like normal friends. But maybe that's just what I told myself because I didn't really know what to do (especially with this particular one because she was already diagnosed, seeing more than one therapist etc).

    I'd be interested to know what you think about friends being able to help, can friends help or is it really something that you need professional help or at the very least parents to help with?

  5. Wow, this book had a huge effect on you. I am curious to read it as well. I blogged about a different book but referred to that oh-so-tricky mother/daughter relationship you mentioned as well. I am curious if you counsel clients. While I would read your story (and love your blog) in a heartbeat. I would be hesitant to write a personal account of my life for fear of that client/professional relationship. I know you do grocery nutrition not sure if you do on on one.

  6. I've seen this book and ALMOST bought it! I'm glad you enjoyed it and have inspired me to pick it up! My mom was much like yours. She never called me fat but she talked down on herself (even though I was bigger than her!)and that hurt me! I would never blame my mom for my disorder but I know she played a role in it! LOve your perspectives here!

  7. I've never had an actual diagnosed eating disorder but I definitely went through a period where I was busy with work, stressed...and just not eating enough. Once I was ready to put a few lbs back on it was REALLY hard to get used to eating differently (and I definitely gained more than I had wanted to, so I constantly feel like I'm struggling to lose). Different experience but "needing to gain" weight is really difficult. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  8. gina, thank you for sharing your story and being so honest with us and yourself. i tend to lean towards a binge type behavior though over the years it has gotten quite a bit better for me......

  9. To be honest - I haven't really had much experience with anyone who has had an eating disorder. I have known friends who earlier in life (before I knew them) had one, but not anyone in the throws of one. But I really appreciate your thoughts on your own past with an ED, and on the book. As someone at school to become a dietitian, I bet it would be a very valuable read. I'm adding it to my list :)

  10. It's hard for me to relate as I have none of those tendencies, probably to a fault, but I think reading that book and your autobiography would help me understand more about ED's. To be honest, ED's scare me because I'm so unfamiliar with them and unable to identify with them. But the 1990's being the fat-free craze that they were - I can relate to that. That's when I lost all my weight and in a very not healthy way.

  11. Great post Gina, and thank you so much for your honesty! I've only worked with one ED client, but I'd love to read the book. I'm curious to know if the author offers any suggestions for identifying these traits sooner rather than later, and what the recommended therapy is.

  12. Gina, thank you so much for your incredible, moving, post, and your brave openness... Thank you also for making me aware of this book, which I truly need to read! The 3 personality types you described was very insightful - over the years I've come to realize/come to terms with the fact that I'm a mixture of all three personality types as well, and I'm sure I would learn much from the book... Thank you most of all for your courage which gives us all courage!

  13. Thanks for a great thoughtful and personal post.
    I haven't had much experience personally with eating disorders (a little disordered eating here and there, but nothing serious). I do teach about it in a wellness class and deal with a lot of clients who are in the midst of dealing with issues. I haven't read this book, but I think it will be helpful for me--and for recommending it to people as well.

  14. Totally can relate to the "perfect storm" you talk about!! I love that you opened up to talk about your experience. I went through a stressful period in college and certain events combined with my personality lead to disordered eating... thankfully I put myself in counseling right away so it never became a serious issue... My relationship with food/my body is so much healthier now that I don't try to control everything. I focus on nourishing my body with healthy foods and keeping my body strong.

  15. I have heard of this book but haven't picked it up yet. Thanks for discussing it.
    And again, thanks for sharing your story with the world. I know at times it must be difficult. I think having overcome such obstables only makes you a better dietitian.

  16. Glad the book was so helpful to you! Sounds like you learned a lot about yourself. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  17. Such a great post. I have been working through my ED for the past 8+ years but with every passing one it gets easier. Like Sophia, I have my own series called Side Notes where i write about my struggles too. they are usually very of the moment blog posts about certain things i struggle with.

    I've been meaning to read gaining just can never find it when i get to the bookstore!