As I am sitting at my desk sipping on my coffee, I realize I am smiling for no reason. I am sitting in total peace, completely content, and then I am overwhelmed by emotions. My mind starts racing and I begin to have flash backs from the last few years of my life. Over the course of those ten seconds of flashbacks and memories, I take a deep breath, and as I exhale, I say to myself, “Finally. Thank God, finally.”
Finally I can feel happiness. Finally I am not numb to everything around me. Finally I see how good I have it, how blessed I am and how far I have come. Finally I recognize how much love I am surround by daily. Finally I realize that I deserve to be loved. Finally I am capable of loving another with all my heart. Finally I truly love life.
There was a long period in my life where I was so out of touch with everything around me. I was like a zombie, living each day just like the last, as if I was a program set on repeat. Each day was the same routine, battle, and pain. My misery was either disguised with a fake smile and brave face, or was buried away deep in denial. My true feelings were not important to me during this time. Appearing happy and living up to unrealistic expectations that I and others had set for myself was what was important. Little did I know striving for perfection landed me in a dangerous cycle and in a place so unbelievably far from perfect. When I say place, I am not geographically speaking. I am speaking of a very dark, lonely place your mind goes when taken over by an eating disorder.
I was there. I lived it, I struggled, I battled. I overcame, and I survived. It was a journey that drove me down to rock bottom, trapped me, and beat me up while I was there. Those struggles didn’t keep me down though. With a will to change, perseverance, and an amazing support system I made it. Not easily, it was not smooth sailing. It was a series of extreme ups and downs. It often felt like for every step forward, I took two steps back. Eventually, when I felt as if I was about to be pushed backwards I pushed forward harder with more will than I knew I had within. They say a river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence; this has so much truth behind it. Once the realization of the danger I was putting myself in hit me, I knew I had to change not only for myself but for my beautiful family and friends. Life is so short and I knew that my actions could very well be cutting that time even shorter. I have so much to enjoy, so much to live for, and too much to offer this world to throw it away. I realized that even though this disease seemed to take over my life, it is MY life I just had to find the strength within me to gain control again. With the loving support of my amazing family, especially my Mom and True Love, I gained a little control with every step I took forward. These steps forward were not big strides; they were baby steps. I tip-toed forward, leaning on two amazing pillars.
When I finally found the courage to become honest with myself, I was able to begin healing, so as I pour my heart out in this brutally honest memoir, I hope I can help others find the strength within to begin the journey of healing as well.
I remember watching television as a little girl and noticing the pressure put on women to live up to a certain image. I remember thinking it was absolutely ridiculous when teenage girls would call themselves fat. In fact, I vividly remember saying to my Mom, “Even when I am a teenager, Mom, I really don’t think I will ever be one of those girls who say, ‘Oh, I am so fat’… I just don’t think I will ever be like that.” I was so comfortable in my own skin, and living life with the innocence that comes with being a child that I could not imagine ever seeing myself in such a negative way.
As a little girl I always wanted to be the first one to answer the question correctly in class, I wanted to be the first to hand in my assignments, I wanted to win the gold medal at every skating competition, and I only wanted first place ribbons at track meets. I wanted to be friends with everyone, and most definitely wanted the approval of everyone. I strived to be the best I could be, however, the pressure I put on myself turned into so much more.
When I was 15 years old my self-worth and self-love began to decline at a rapid pace. I used to look in the mirror and do a little dance and have a great big smile on my face because I loved me! Now I would look in the mirror with disgust. I would examine every inch of my body, criticizing myself. I criticized myself so terribly that I would look in the mirror and weep. I was so tired of hating the reflection staring back at me that I decided to take drastic measures to change the image that I saw. Little did I know, what I saw was not what the rest of the world saw – I was looking at an extremely distorted image.
I would try to eat as little as I possibly could, and if I indulged the guilt I felt would be enough for me to completely break down. It was extremely difficult to eat the little amount that I was allowing myself for two reasons; one being I did not have enough energy to focus at school or to get through my intense skating and track and field practices, and two, I didn’t want my friends and family to pick up on my eating habits. This is the point in time where the vicious cycle of binging and purging set in.
This was a great method, I thought at the time, nobody will ever know. I will lose weight, get the supermodel body that I long for, and no one will question me. I am an active girl, I am a competitive figure skater and work out every day, everyone will just think I have been training harder and working out more. Each and every day I would try my best to eat healthy, but if I had a slip up, or felt I ate too much I would immediately purge. I did not want to risk having too many calories in my body, because I truly believed I would get fat. I convinced myself that it was better to be hungry than to be satisfied because if I was hungry I was losing weight. I knew that if my daily calories intake was not high enough, my body would go into starvation mode and use its own tissue as fuel and that is what I strived for. I would deprive to the extreme because I truly felt I had a lot of excess body weight and I wanted it to waste away.
I thought I had it all figured out. My plan was to continue this habit only until my body was exactly how I wanted it to be, and then I would stop this unhealthy behavior and maintain my body weight by simply eating healthy and continuing exercising. I couldn’t have been more naïve, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I went from purging once every few days, to purging several times a day. I would purge until my stomach was completely empty. This resulted in a raw throat, broken blood vessels in my eyes, torn chest muscles, a heart murmur, and stomach swelling and pain. I would blame my bleeding eyes on the silliest things, like getting hit in the face with a dodge ball in gym class.
It is so true, and scary, how invincible teenagers think they are. I was causing very obvious damage to my body, yet I continued with this behavior because I didn’t think it would get any worse. My eyes didn’t cause me much pain, and my sore throat and upset stomach wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Besides, I could feel my body tightening up and I liked that. The “accomplishment” of having a smaller figure gave me a sense of pride.
As time passed and this behavior continued, it was becoming more and more evident that it was taking a terrible toll on my health. I had a problem, and it was out of control. If I could have stopped this vicious cycle at this very point in time, I would have. However, I had a full blown eating disorder, something that does not just go away. An eating disorder is not a phase or something that you can simply grow out of.
I was young, lost, depressed, and scared. I needed help, but I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even accept that I had an eating disorder, let alone admit to someone else that I was struggling with this disease. The embarrassment and shame I felt caused me to keep this part of my life to myself. I feared what others would think of me, I feared letting down my family and friends, and didn’t want to burden them. I lost all respect for myself, abusing myself daily. In private, I was a very sad girl, hating myself, telling myself I wasn’t worth anyone’s time or trouble. In everyone else’s eyes I was still the bubbly, ambitious, happy-go-lucky girl that I was before. I lost myself; I lost my love for life.
I struggled all throughout high school with my eating disorder. In my senior year of high school, I was still trapped in this monstrous cycle, but was beginning to want to turn my life around. I was exhausted. I was sick of being sick, and wanted to get on with my life. I wanted to be free. Again, I didn’t know how. My life was like a roller coaster. I would have great days, even weeks, but then I would have terrible days, and weeks. I felt so amazing on my good days and I wanted that feeling daily, but I never had the confidence that it would last for longer than a short period of time.
I had lost all control and desperately needed something to grasp onto, to give me control. This is when I decided to compete in a Figure competition. I knew that Figure competitors are extremely lean, which I strived for, and I knew that they were put on a very strict diet and exercise regimen to achieve their desired results. I knew that to achieve that body type I had to follow the plan given to me one hundred percent, and I wanted to win, so I thought that I would be determined enough to follow the plan exactly, which would give me a very lean body and would prevent me from binging and purging.
I began my training program in the fall of 2009, and was instantly hooked on the body building lifestyle. Keep in mind, your first phase in training is your off-season, which is basically just eating 5-6 small, clean meals per day. This structure really helped me get back on track – for now. As the weeks progressed and competition day came closer, the meals got smaller and smaller, the workouts got longer and longer and I was severely exhausted. Physically, I could tell I was getting run down, but I could fight through the physical exhaustion. The mental wear and tear is what was taking its toll on me. Training for this competition was supposed to help me, and I now realize I couldn’t have found a worse solution to this problem.
I became even more obsessed with my physique, instead of loving myself and my body more with the results I gained from my training regime, I hated myself more. As soon as I reached one goal, I immediately set another one, as I was never happy regardless of what goal I reached. Ultimately the goal I set for myself was perfection. The biggest trap I put myself in was striving for an unattainable goal. The only thing that I reached was disappointment, because as we all know perfection is impossible, and if you are constantly striving for the impossible, you will never reach that point; therefore there is no satisfaction.
Despite my unhappiness, I put on my smile and followed through with the competition. I did extremely well, placing 2nd at my first competition, advancing onto the Provincial level where I took 3rd place. You would think that these results and the recognition I received would have boosted my confidence and made me feel great inside, but deep down it did the opposite. All of a sudden I was not just me, I was not just Jenna, I was the body builder girl, muscle girl, bikini girl, gym rat girl, etc. I felt defined by these accomplishments and felt like I had to live up to them daily. So If I had a slip up on my diet, or my workout wasn’t as intense as I thought it should have been I would feel as if I had failed myself and everyone else. If I didn’t follow my training program 100% it would completely wreck havoc on my emotions. I couldn’t live that way, I couldn’t live off of green beans, chicken, and water day in and day out, and spend all of my time at the gym so I tried to leave my fitness training behind and try to live a “normal” life.
This was not easy. What is normal?! I had no idea how to live without training, and soon enough the vicious cycle of binging and purging and yo-yo dieting began again. I would go from training intensely, to not training at all, to restricting most foods to eating everything in sight. I essentially gave up on myself and just thought this was the way my life was going to be. I didn’t have the strength to change; I didn’t have the strength to get better because I didn’t love myself at this point in time. If you don’t love yourself you are not going to treat yourself with the love and care you deserve.
For two years I struggled silently, keeping to myself and denying there was a problem and not accepting any help or support. Finally, I had enough and reached my breaking point. I was at work one dreary winter day and had to leave immediately I was shaking, crying, and scared and it was as if for the first time ever I realized how serious this was. I called one of my dearest friends, and explained to her that I needed to change my lifestyle and better myself but didn’t know how and was so worried about what other people would think of me. She said, “Jenna, honestly those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. As your best friend I can tell you I do not care if you compete, I do not care what size you are or what you look like…honestly I like you better when you aren’t training anyways!” Those words meant the world to me because I really needed to be reminded that I needed to be brave and that I was loved for ME, for what is inside.
I got home and ran inside straight into my Mom’s arms and just cried and said, “I need help.” I was so tired of living this way and needed to change NOW. Before we left for the hospital there was one person that was really special to me that I needed to come clean with, my new boyfriend (who is now my husband). I was so nervous to tell him because I was scared he would leave me and although the relationship just beginning, he already meant so much to me. I didn’t go into much detail over the telephone because it was still hard to spit out the words, and I could tell he didn’t know what to say but he said, “Jenna, I hope you know I don’t look at you any differently now. I am here for you.” An overwhelming sense of relief washed over me, and little did I know this amazing man would help me and stand by my side more than I could have ever imagined.
We got to the hospital that afternoon and after telling my doctor everything, he immediately got me into see a therapist who dealt with patients with this disease along with the application forms to a stay in center for eating disorders. My first session with my therapist was tough because I had never opened up about this before, and I was scheduled in to see her again after just a few days. After that appointment I called the center that I was referred to and they did an over the phone assessment with me. The program best fit for me was a 21 day stay, and that was just the first step. Although I was willing to take this step, I was determined to overcome this without having to leave the comfort of my home. All I wanted was to get back to normal, and I didn’t want to be sent away somewhere so I fought with everything I had to get back on the right foot.
My next appointment with the therapist went even better, I felt as if the weight I was carrying on my shoulders was slowly lifting off. Being honest and accepting the help and advice offered to me gave me the confidence that I could do it. By my third appointment which was only a week after my first appointment, my therapist told me that I looked like a new person! She said she could not believe how much progress I had made in such a short amount of time. In fact, she said many patients with cases similar to mine didn’t make as much progress in a year as I did in one week. Inner strength; that is what drove me in the right direction and I was able to get well without having to go through an in-patient program.
It was shortly after this that I made one of those most positive changes to my life, I moved to Saskatoon for a fresh start and to be with my boyfriend, Blair. Mine and Blair’s relationship has brought so much joy and has turned my world around. He loves me so unconditionally, through thick and thin. When I realized how much this amazing man cared about me it really motivated me to take care of myself, not just for me, but for him. He was my reason to change and I will never be able to thank him enough.
Since I made the decision to get better, there were a lot of ups and downs, but sure enough the good days began to outnumber the bad, and I can proudly say that I won the battle. I overcame, I survived, and could not be happier or more proud of myself. I keep physically active, and rather than sticking to a strict workout plan, I walk my dogs, do strength training programs that I find on Pinterest, go for runs outside, use difference machines for cardio, try different workout videos from time to time, anything that I enjoy and has me sweating! I exercise for my overall health and wellbeing, not because I want a perfect body. I am so comfortable in my own skin, something I never thought I’d be able to say! I have accepted who I am, flaws, quirks and all, and embrace every part of me. I eat foods that give me energy and provide my body with the nutrients it needs to be strong and healthy. I indulge in treats when I want to and no longer feel guilty because of it. I have found an amazing balance in my life, which allows me to be fit and healthy and have a social life and enjoy different types of foods and beverages!
Although my journey to happiness and health was anything but smooth sailing, it has lead me to an amazing place. They say, “Beautiful pictures are developed from negatives in a dark room…so if you see darkness in your life, be reassured that a beautiful picture is being created.” No matter what struggles you are going through in life you CAN overcome it. We all have a powerful inner strength, and if we are brave enough, and courageous enough to battle, we can get through anything.
I often wish that I would have heard words like my own when I was struggling. Simply knowing that my disease was not something to be ashamed of, and knowing that I was not alone would have made the world of difference. Eating disorders and poor body image is not something that should be kicked under the mat. It is a very serious issue that should never be taken lightly. It is a medical condition, it does not define who you are. Do not give your power away to this disease, take your power back. You DO have the power to overcome it, you ARE better than that, you CAN do it, and as impossible as it seems, you can CONTROL it.
An eating disorder is not a battle to be fought alone, and I know from experience how extremely painful it can be to admit there is a problem and to seek help, but we are all going to need help and support at some point in our lives so take it when you need it and do not be ashamed.
Take a moment look around and realize that there is beauty in everything. Life is so beautiful; do not let an eating disorder, or whatever your struggles may be, blind you of its beauty.
YOU, yes YOU, are beautiful! Let go of what is holding you back from reaching your full potential, deafen your ears of those voices telling you you’re worthless, close your eyes from the made up images that make you feel ugly. Today is a new day, embrace it. Nourish your body with the fuel it needs to make today a great day, drink lots of water, dream, dance, laugh, be silly, be weird, find that childlike innocence and wonder and enjoy the day!!! True beauty comes from within, true beauty is a loving soul, true beauty is joy, confidence, and believing you are worth it!! True beauty is projected from the soul.
Sharing something so personal is something that I have been debating for a long time, but the reason I have decided to share this is because I believe that there are so many people that are secretly going through similar struggles that I did, and I want them to know they are not alone. I want to inspire those people and give them hope that it is going to be okay.