Fighting An Eating Disorder When It's 'Hard To Want To Get Better'

Nov 14, 2017
Originally published on November 15, 2017 11:20 am

When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who has already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

All of a sudden, Maddy Rich found herself in the middle of a crisis. It sneaked up on her, in February 2016, during her sophomore year at Cornell University.

When Maddy got on campus, she started exercising a lot. "Oh, my gosh, there are all these athletes around me, that's really inspiring," she remembers thinking. She started eating less, too: "Oh, I have to go the lab, I don't have time to eat anything."

Maddy had developed an eating disorder: anorexia nervosa — and it was getting worse. She was obsessing, she says, thinking about food all the time. She started to get physically unhealthy.

Eventually, she hit a turning point, during a phone call with her mother. "She was just so upset, like, 'Why are you falling apart? I don't understand what's going on,' " Maddy says, "and I was definitely sitting there with a cup of watered-down soup that was going to be my main lunch. And for some reason I couldn't eat it, and I just started crying."

Maddy, now 21, got help. She eventually spent three weeks in a residential treatment program. But recovery from anorexia is an ongoing challenge. "It was hard to admit that I needed that much help," Maddy says, "and also hard to want to get better that much."

Maddy uses a metaphor when she talks to people about anorexia. "Even when I'm doing better, it's like there's chained to my ankle, a dead body that I'm just dragging around with me."

Julia Sinn knows what that is like. She stopped wanting to eat when she was about 16, she says, and struggled with her eating disorder — which had symptoms of both bulimia and anorexia — for years before getting help. And she says there is still a part of her mind that thinks destructive thoughts.

"There was a lot of fuel on that fire," 29-year-old Julia says, "but every day, I put a little more fuel on the other fire, which is, being patient with myself and being compassionate and listening to what's going on in my body."

This has been lightly edited for clarity.


Advice from Julia Sinn

On wanting to get better

I was struggling for seven or eight years. And I didn't want to get better. Obviously, I was really unhappy, but there's this defiance, you know like, "I like it" or "I'm better this way" or "This is what I want to be doing." I would say 80 percent of the struggle of getting into recovery was being like, "I don't want to do this anymore."

On keeping destructive thoughts in check

Every day, I have to be like, "Oh, I've been scrolling through Instagram feeds of really skinny models for 20 minutes, maybe this isn't good." Or "Oh, I actually did skip breakfast on purpose. It wasn't 'cause I was too busy or blah, blah, blah." Like, checking in every day to see what I'm doing and where it's going.

On learning to forgive herself for mistakes

My life will go on if one day is different from how I thought it was supposed to be. And this helped me heal from disordered behavior: I had to recognize that it was OK if I had relapsed, just like it's OK if I can't make it to the gym tonight.

On learning to live with eating disorder thought patterns

It probably is always going to be there, but that doesn't mean that it has to be a cloud over your head or a chain on you every day. It's like a little yappy dog, but eventually it becomes part that you're just like, "that's there." And some days it's really loud, and some days and weeks go by where it's not, and it's just sleeping in the corner. But it's going to be there. And I don't want you to get disheartened or scared of that. And, it's almost empowering to recognize that. Because when you're in the depths of eating disorder behavior and thoughts, you feel defined by it. It's all you can think about. So there's just something empowering to owning your eating disorder without letting it own you.


Former NPR Story Lab intern and freelance journalist and producer Mette Lützhøft contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In early 2016, Maddy Rich was in her sophomore year at Cornell, and something started to happen, something she thought would never happen. Up until then, she says she'd been pretty confident and self-assured.

MADDY RICH: But getting to college - very new environment. Cornell's a bit of a pressure cooker - and also deciding, like, hey, I might as well do some more exercise, get a little more in shape because oh, my gosh, there are these Ivy League athletes around me. That's really inspiring. And then also in general just eating less because I have to go to the lab. I don't have time to eat anything. So that kind of accumulated over a couple of years.

MCEVERS: Maddy did not know what was happening, but she knew something was wrong.

RICH: I was really physically unhealthy, so my mom and I were trying to figure out what was going on, going to all these different doctors. And just one day we were on the phone, and she was just so upset - like, why are you falling apart? I don't understand what's going on. And I was definitely, like, sitting there with a cup of, like, watered-down soup that was going to be, like, my main lunch. And for some reason, I couldn't eat it. And I just started crying. I didn't understand - why is it so hard to just eat the stinking cup of watered-down soup? And she immediately snapped into - OK, this is a crisis.

MCEVERS: That crisis was an eating disorder, anorexia. And Maddy got help quickly. Three weeks in a residential treatment center. And at first, Maddy thought that was it.

RICH: I got out and was like, I'm all better. Like, you should have just told me I had anorexia because I'm a scientist, right? I just need to eat more, and then I'm all better.

JULIA SINN: (Laughter).

RICH: And, look, I'm the best at getting better because I got out in three weeks instead of in four weeks or in five weeks.

SINN: (Laughter).

RICH: I'm so good at this. This recovery thing - whatever.

SINN: That sounds so Ivy League.

RICH: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: That other voice you hear is Julia Sinn. She struggled with her own eating disorder. She had symptoms of both bulimia and anorexia for a long time before she got treatment. Julia has been healthy for seven years now. She says she's no longer controlled by her eating disorder. And Julia sat down with Maddy for our series Been There, connecting people on either side of a shared experience because Maddy still has questions. Even after intensive treatment, she's realizing that recovering from an eating disorder takes time.

RICH: The semester after that, in the fall, again, I was, like, cutting up potatoes or something and just started crying because, oh, my gosh, I'm going to have to eat these. And I really don't want to eat these. And this is a problem. There have definitely been hills and troughs. And when you're caught in the troughs, you don't know how you're going to get out of it. And it's frustrating right now because I feel like I've done so much. I've gone through all the motions. Why am I still stuck here?

SINN: Yeah, totally. You know, for so long - and I was struggling for, like, seven or eight years. And I didn't want to get better. It's like, obviously, I was really unhappy. But there's this defiance. You know, like, I like it. Or I'm better this way. Or this is what I want to be doing. I would say 80 percent of the struggle getting into recovery was being like, I don't want to do this anymore.

RICH: But I think part of the problem is I'm still kind of lost at, how do I handle daily things? I mean, I feel so - like that there are two parts, and one will take over if I let it. And I'm kind of letting it.

SINN: Yeah. There are two parts. You know, one's the dark part that wants to destroy you. But it's not like the dark side is, like, stronger. It just is what you've been focusing on. And I was - I focused on it for like eight or 10 years. So there was a lot of fuel in that fire (laughter).

RICH: Yeah.

SINN: But every day, I put a little more fuel on the other fire, which is, like, being patient with myself and being compassionate and listening to what's going on in my body...

RICH: Yeah.

SINN: ...Whatever. That's a long way of saying...

(LAUGHTER)

SINN: ...Every day, I have to be like, oh, I've been scrolling through Instagram feeds of really skinny models for 20 minutes. Like, maybe this isn't good. Or, like, oh, I actually did skip breakfast on purpose. It wasn't because I was too busy or blah, blah, blah - like, checking in every day to see what I'm doing and where it's going.

RICH: One of the things that I do that really, really helps me is rock climbing. That's...

SINN: I'm a climber, too.

RICH: Oh, my gosh.

(LAUGHTER)

RICH: But whenever I get on the wall, I can just feel the pure joy of moving and being strong. And afterwards, it's OK to eat. I can justify eating. But when I'm not doing that, then it's very hard - or when I'm injured. Like, a couple weeks ago, I injured my elbow. And it was like, crud, my elbow hurts. But it also was a huge emotional blow, sitting and watching people climb and not eating as much as I definitely should and then just getting angrier and angrier because, of course, you're hungry, and your body wants food. And so dealing with rock climbing as both a very healthy, healing thing that makes me love myself but also as something that can definitely throw me off the cliff.

SINN: Something that helps me, especially rock climbing, is that like, you know when your body's hurting, right? Like, how did you injure your elbow? Were you just - maybe you were climbing too hard or too long or...

RICH: Yeah, definitely.

SINN: So what an amazing opportunity to listen to your body so intuitively. I mean, what if you just - I know this sounds like a nightmare - but what if you just didn't rock climb for a little while. What would happen to you? Like, would you die?

RICH: Perhaps (laughter). I mean, you asked that kind of as a joke (laughter).

SINN: I mean, would the world end?

RICH: No. Obviously, it wouldn't. But I mean, I can't imagine myself without it. And maybe that means it's definitely too much of a crutch.

SINN: That's why I said to you, like, what's going to happen if you stop rock climbing? Because what will happen to me if I don't? I'll be fine. My life will go on if one day is different from how I thought it was supposed to be. And this helped me heal from disordered behavior. I had to recognize that it was OK that I had relapsed, just like it's OK if I can't make it to the gym tonight.

RICH: Yeah. Even when I'm doing better, it's like there's chained to my ankle a dead body that I'm just dragging around with me. And it's there all the time. And I don't know how to get rid of it.

SINN: Well...

RICH: And I don't know if it'll ever be gotten rid of.

SINN: It's - I'm just going to, like, be super real with you, Maddy, that, like, it probably is always going to be there. But that doesn't mean that it has to be a cloud over your head or a chain on you every day. You know, it's like a little yappy dog. But, eventually, it becomes part - that you're just like, that's there. And some days, it's really loud. And some days and weeks go by where it's not, and it's just sleeping in the corner.

But you - it's going to be there. And I don't want you to get disheartened or scared of that. And it's almost empowering to recognize that because when you're in the depths of eating disorder behavior and thoughts, you feel, like, defined by it. It's, like, all you can think about. So there's just something empowering to, like, owning it and sort of not letting it own you.

MCEVERS: That's Julia Sinn. It has been seven years since she got treatment for her eating disorder. And she was talking to Maddy Rich, who is recovering from anorexia. They talked to each other for our series Been There. And if you are at the beginning of a big change in your life, let us know. Email nprcrowdsource@npr.org and put Been There in the subject line.

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