Jennifer Rollin spoke with Dr. Stephanie Waitt. This interview is the first of two installments.
Jennifer: Tell me a little bit about your struggle with an eating disorder (please avoid numbers or graphic descriptions of behaviors, so as not to trigger my readers):
Stephanie: It started pretty innocently, as I think most do. It started with me deciding to make some financial changes in my home and not eat out as much. I started eating at home, but I did not know how to cook, so I ate foods that caused changes in my body and my weight.
I was also bored. I was single and living alone, so I bought a couple workout videos from Target. My body changed some more and people started noticing. My obsession with working out grew from there.
I had Orthorexia so my eating disorder looked “normal” and “okay.” I was praised for being “dedicated” but what people do not understand is that I spent 75 percent of my day thinking, planning, and obsessing about my next workout and my next meal.
I would sit in class and plan my workout or meal. I would spend my free time researching workouts and meals. The more I learned, the more foods I restricted and the more I worked out. I was literally afraid of some foods so much so that I didn’t even like having certain foods near me.
The food restriction grew as my workouts intensified. I would work out longer and harder and would cut more foods that felt “unsafe” to eat from my diet.
At one point, I carried my food with me everywhere. I even packed an entire week’s worth of food to take with me to New York for vacation. As my family sat and ate pizza, I ate my cold days old food. I thought I had to do this in order to keep changing my body to fit an ideal I was chasing.
People called me obsessed and I got a lot of comments on my body. I know people were just being nice but this put a lot of pressure on me. I felt I could not stop or relax what I was doing because I could not let other people see me not be so “dedicated.”
I was really deep in diet culture and fitness, even becoming a fitness instructor and competitor, and this only continued to escalate my behaviors. I believed I had to keep going and working harder and better because I was never happy with my body.
For years, I would choose food and working out over family and friends. If I didn’t workout or eat the way I thought I should, I had extreme anxiety. I often kept this hidden or I would wake up super early so I could work out. Working out and eating my “meal plan” came first, everything else came second.
I think I realized I had a problem on my trip to New York. I had all this food packed, because I just could not bear the idea that I could not follow my very strict “meal plan,” and some of the food got ruined because I did not have a refrigerator.
I start freaking out and left my husband and my brother-in-law and his girlfriend and stormed out of the hotel room and wandered around Times Square crying, trying to find the right type of diet food to replace the food that was ruined. That is not a vacation; that is a living hell.
I was never just okay or happy with my body. I thought I had to keep being different and then I would achieve some type of success. Looking “fit” for me was the destination, but I never saw it. Even compliments from other people caused me to see how much more I needed to work out or eat a certain way. I was never enough and this fueled my obsession further. I hoped that if I changed my body in some way I would be “enough.”
Jennifer: What do you think was the function of your eating disorder in your life?
Stephanie: At the time I didn’t see it. I just thought I was being a “good” person by living this lifestyle. But once I was removed from my eating disorder, I saw how it served as a way to help me in a lot of ways. Let me explain. At the time I was working at my “dream job” as a therapist in a non-profit childhood sexual abuse agency. I was seeing 40+ clients a week, all with trauma.
I was single and living in a city where I didn’t know anyone. I thought I was coping but I was using exercise and my diet to help me feel in control. It was a distraction from having to face the fact that I was not coping with the hurt that I felt. I was not okay, but because of my eating disorder, I never realized that.
Exercise does help a person feel better, but it should not be the only thing that people use to feel better. For me, it was my only coping skill, and when I started to feel more anxious and overwhelmed, I engaged in more disordered eating behaviors. It wasn’t sufficient so I felt more anxious and overwhelmed so I escalated the disordered eating behaviors. It was a vicious cycle.
Jennifer: Was there a turning point for you, where you really started to embrace the idea of recovery?
Stephanie: I think my incident in New York on vacation helped me see I had a problem, but I didn’t stop just yet. I was newly married and I made my husband attend a fitness competition that I was going to compete in. You see, I thought that I had to do this fitness competition to be “enough.”
I only got further into my obsession with working out and eating, yet even on the day I stood on the stage, I was very disappointed in my body. I made my husband attend this competition on our one year anniversary. Rather than celebrate this amazing relationship and man, I spent the day obsessing about my body, exercise, and food.
After the show, I tried different diets but my body changed and I was really scared to eat food. I ruined a surprise date my husband had planned because I too anxious about what we were going to eat. I ruined the surprise obsessing about the meal, and this was the moment I realized I had a problem.
I was being so selfish. I was ruining this amazing relationship because my eating disorder was more important to me. I had to make a change. I had to abandon dieting. This realization was huge for me and my recovery. When I decided to ditch dieting I found my time in the gym was no longer serving a purpose. I found I wanted to be home, I wanted to be with friends and family.
Jennifer: What helped you get through the tough times in recovery?
Stephanie: My husband and my friends. I saw that my husband loved me despite my weight and body size. In fact, as my body found its set point, my husband became more attracted to me. We started enjoying food and dates together. Even though I may have felt scared or anxious to try a new food, or to see my body changing, I was also able to see how I was growing in my relationship with my husband.
I also saw significant growth in myself. I saw how I was able to do things professionally and start my own private practice. I didn’t need exercise or eating a certain way to do those things. My body had nothing to do with the success and love I was experiencing. I had to hold on to this whenever I feared the challenges that came with overcoming Orthorexia.