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You have an eating disorder called...what?

Updated: Mar 6, 2018

Is that all you’re going to eat? Are you sure you’re not still hungry? You should eat more!


People have been saying these things to me for years and despite how much I’ve heard them, I still tense up every time someone draws attention to the plate in front of me. I’ve never known how to explain my strange eating habits -- that I’m just starting to understand, myself -- when people mention them.


Eating doesn’t provide the same joy for me that it does for most people. I’ve always wished I could take a pill that somehow gave me everything I needed from food, like nutrients and the feeling of being satisfied. But when I am hungry enough to eat, I generally feel full quickly and/or nauseated. Did I create an eating disorder in my head? Is there something medically wrong with my stomach? Yes to both. But we’ll get to that later.


Recently, I was re-diagnosed with Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) and started a treatment program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Eating Disorder Clinic. It’s taken me a long time to take action, but now I’m putting my health and happiness first.


“Eating disorder” makes us think of anorexia, binging and bulimia — but there’s this relatively new disorder named ARFID that has suddenly become a huge part of my life. By relatively new, I mean it was only just recently deemed a legitimate illness. ARFID isn’t centered around weight or physical appearance. Instead, this eating disorder is based on an aversion to food. For some people, the restrictive or avoidant behavior develops after a traumatic experience like choking or food poisoning. Most people who are diagnosed with ARFID don’t eat certain foods because they don’t like the texture, smell, etc. I fall into the less-common subcategory of ARFIDs that don’t eat because of a small appetite, nausea or extreme fullness. Whatever the specific source, anxiety is thoroughly intertwined with ARFID.


To learn more about ARFID, check out the National Eating Disorders Association website because they explain it better, and honestly, they’re much more reputable when it comes to medical facts and whatnot.

I didn’t really address how little I ate for the first two years that I was restricting. After all, I’ve always had a small appetite and the dwindling food portions weren’t causing major problems in my life, so I didn’t care. When I started balancing my last semester of undergrad with my first full-time writing job, eating became even less of a priority. I didn’t have enough energy to get through the long days, I found myself skipping lunch (or barely eating) most days, and low-blood-sugar-induced writer’s block would set in by 3 p.m. When I did buy or bring lunch, I would take a few bites, let it sit on my desk for hours and eventually throw it away.


In 2015, I left my boring corporate job to walk dogs. I know what you’re thinking; yes, it was amazing. During the work week, I walked between five and 10 miles throughout the day, meaning my body needed even more energy than it did while I was sitting at a desk most of the day. Since I already wasn’t eating enough, I started to burn too many calories and finally told my doctor that I wanted to try to change my eating habits. I met with a nutritionist, became more conscious of my protein intake and tried to eat regularly. After a few months, she diagnosed me with ARFID and referred me to the eating disorder clinic. I had the perfect opportunity to ignore the diagnosis because she went on maternity leave right after. Seeking treatment didn’t appeal to me because it meant accepting that, after all the progress I’ve made with my mental health and stability, my brain still isn’t working right.


During the following two and a half years, I repeated the same cycle over and over again. I would notice that I physically and mentally felt terrible, recognize that I was barely eating and try to adopt better habits. But I never made lasting changes. I’d often be more diligent about eating for a few weeks before going back to skipping meals again. Then I felt like a failure because nothing was different.


I have a lengthy history of depression and anxiety (you can read more about that here), and it’s been an ongoing battle for as long as I can remember. Over the years, I learned that there are three things I can do to help myself feel good: sleep enough, eat enough and exercise enough. My life changed for the better years ago when I realized that medication can only take me so far, and I need to put in some work too. By not eating as much as I should have been, I increased the likelihood of depression affecting my day-to-day life. And it was. And I was tired of it.


So years after being told to schedule an intake appointment at the eating disorder clinic, I finally called. Here begins my journey to take my life back, get my seemingly random eating disorder under control and let anyone else who has ARFID know they aren’t alone.


It’s easy to feel ashamed about being diagnosed with an eating disorder, especially one that sort of sounds fake to people who don’t know anything about the psychology behind eating disorders. So in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I’m trying to bring more visibility to ARFID.


Stay tuned for posts about how having a small appetite turned into a big problem, my efforts to change my eating habits and general thoughts about the tendency to restrict or avoid eating.