My eating disorder is a terrible quarantine companion

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It’s easy to eat dinner absurdly late when you’re eating alone, just like it’s easy to avoid “risky” foods when you’re cooking for one.

With no one else around, anorexia has crept back in to warp my view of food and exercise. (Submitted by Ffion Hughes)

This First Person article is the experience of Ffion Hughes, a student in Montreal. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ. Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders, over-exercise, body dysmorphia and food “rules.”

Every morning since the start of the pandemic, I’ve written the day of the week on my whiteboard. It’s a futile attempt to stave off the “blursdays” — the overwhelming sense of stasis that is lockdown life. As a fourth-year student at McGill University, I’ve been far from idle this past year, but no amount of studying can substitute for lost time with friends and family.

In the face of this lonely torpor, I’ve found myself turning to an old companion: anorexia nervosa. Thoughts of food and exercise have crept in to fill the gaps left by spontaneity, certainty and in-person socializing. My eating disorder is a nasty, uninvited guest — not unlike the coronavirus itself.

While COVID has haunted us for the past year, anorexia first barged into my life in 2015. I swiftly spiralled from a Nutella-loving 17-year-old to an anxious wreck, terrified of 2 per cent milk. I’d sit in class fantasizing about food I’d never let myself eat, before heading out on punishing afternoon runs. I starved myself so viciously that I grew unkind toward those around me, although I aimed the cruellest treatment at myself.

I was nevertheless fortunate, as my loved ones helped me realize I was unwell — not an easy task, given that anorexia sufferers often feel “not sick enough.” After months trying to find adequate care, I finally began a year-long odyssey of inpatient and outpatient treatment. In a twisted sense, I was lucky to access medical help so (relatively) quickly — but only because malnutrition had reduced my heart rate to a dangerously slow pace.

Blowing out the candles on my cake for my 18th birthday, in the middle of treatment for anorexia nervosa. While the cake was delicious, I was certainly anxious to be eating what seemed like a ‘risky’ dessert. (Submitted by Ffion Hughes)

Treatment was both incredibly challenging and immensely rewarding. I slowly learned to nourish myself independently, enabling me to finally head off to university. Of course, recovery is neither linear nor instantaneous: throughout my first three undergraduate years, I continued to fret over food and exercise. Yet I was nonetheless able to consolidate the recovery I first encountered in treatment. I enjoyed dinners with friends, I frequented local bakeries and I even took up moderate exercise again. I never fully freed myself from anorexic thoughts, but they took a back seat in my brain.

Then came COVID. My school, my job and my social life all shifted online, and I soon began to feel like I was simply treading water. Of course, I couldn’t really tread water — all the pools were closed — so I shifted to exercising at home. I told myself that it was a harmless way to stay healthy, to add some variety into my perpetual “blursdays.” However, I quickly slipped back into over-exercise.

With no one around to keep me accountable, it became alarmingly tempting to work out past the point of exhaustion. Almost a year into the pandemic, when I finally worked up the courage to shorten my workouts, I was already saddled with overuse injuries. Now, the pain in my knee feels like an accusation: “you brought this upon yourself.”

In many respects, I’ve maintained a more solid grip on my eating habits. I’ve continued eating three meals and five snacks per day, and I often challenge myself with takeout. But there’s a bitter irony here: as I write this, I’m actually quite hungry. I will eat, and I will eat enough, but one lingering anorexic “rule” of mine involves delaying my meals to specific times. It’s not lunchtime yet, so I can’t yet eat lunch. It’s illogical, I know — but a rule’s a rule, right?

Because I’m no longer eating with others, I’ve found myself reverting to a number of these old food “rules.” It’s easy to eat dinner absurdly late when you’re eating alone, just like it’s easy to avoid “risky” foods when you’re cooking for one. Now I (or in reality, my anorexia) have too much control over what, and when, I eat.

Ffion preparing meals for clients at Accueil Bonneau, a shelter in Montreal. (Submitted by Ffion Hughes)

COVID has also uncomfortably altered my life’s geography. I no longer have any distance between school and home, work and leisure — I’m even writing this at my kitchen table. I study two steps away from my fridge, three steps away from my running shoes, making it difficult to escape thoughts of food and exercise.

Of course, I do leave my apartment here and there. Trips to the grocery store have become minor adventures — it’s lovely to go for a walk with a destination — but as an anorexia survivor, they come with perils. It’s been tough learning to limit my supermarket trips, especially since I sometimes struggle with food-related decision-making. And the nonchalant COVID-related attitudes of some of my fellow shoppers don’t help — please, just put your mask on properly!

Despite now (theoretically) enjoying two metres of social distancing clearance, part of me still wants a slimmer body. Yet I still don’t entirely trust what I see in the mirror, so it’s been difficult to ascertain whether my body has changed during the pandemic. I’ve spent so much time alone that I’ve wondered if my body is undergoing immense transformations, but no one is around to point it out.

Fortunately, the logical side of my brain tends to win out: I realize that the costs of starvation outweigh the supposed benefits of weight loss. COVID has brought unwelcome new struggles, but I’ve fared relatively well. I’m fortunate to have a solid support network, plus an array of healthy coping skills. And honestly, maintaining this level of recovery during a pandemic is an achievement unto itself.

While I’m grateful for my health, I’m acutely aware that the coronavirus has lengthened waiting lists for eating disorder treatment. I nonetheless urge all those who are struggling to reach out for support. Eating disorders are hard — all the more so during a pandemic — but there is hope. Five years ago, when I was sobbing over salad dressing in a hospital ward, I didn’t expect that I’d ever be able to feed myself again.

Yet here I am. My recovery is a work in progress, but progress is the operative word.


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