Content warning: eating disorders. This piece was written for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2021.
When I studied abroad in Trondheim, Norway the fall of my junior year, there were five grocery stores within a 15 minute walk from my student village. There was Kiwi, where they made all the employees wear green, and Rema 1000, the big one that was still small by American standards. Meny was the fancy one, and Bunnpris had the post office where I went to pay my rent. Then there was Coop Extra, just across the parking lot, a two-minute walk away.
I only ever went to Extra, and I mostly went to Extra in the dark.
Strictly speaking, that isn’t saying much. It was dark a lot of the time in Trondheim—by the end of the semester, the sun was setting just after 2 p.m. But what I mean to say is that I mostly went to Extra around 11 p.m. at night.
The whole area, with its five grocery stores, had a bit of a lonely, industrial look to it, especially when the sun was setting. You had to cross an overpass over the highway to get anywhere. I always thought it looked like the place hadn’t quite caught up to the fact that Norway is one of the wealthiest countries on earth.
Like I said, it looked lonely. Or maybe that was just me. I was lonely in Trondheim, and I was hungry.
When I remember Norway, I remember the fjords and the mountains and the days spent wandering around the city on buses. But I also remember lying on my bed with an emptiness in my stomach, trying to ignore it, trying to sleep it off. I remember the waves of anxiety upon walking into the kitchen. And I remember the late-night trips to Extra, just before it closed, because I couldn’t bring myself to go earlier, because it was too much, even though it was only two minutes away, even though I hadn’t been in far too long, even though I had run out of whatever snacks I could manage to eat. My flatmates laughed at me for cooking dinner at midnight sometimes, but it wasn’t dinner, really. I numbered my meals. The good days were the ones where there was a Meal #2.
I went over there speaking Norwegian, but I didn’t know how to say eating disorder until that semester. For some reason it was easier to say in another language.
I should clarify that I am lucky. I don’t have bulimia, and I don’t think I have anorexia. Rather than an obsession with weight loss, what I feel towards food is at best a concerning level of apathy, and at worst a deep avoidance and anxiety. I often wish that I just didn’t have to eat at all. The simple act of getting a meal, once a mindless task I easily performed three times a day, now takes a significant amount of energy. The whole thing is some deeply enmeshed combination of anxiety, depression, and their physical manifestations.
But I am lucky. Eating disorders are one of the most dangerous mental health conditions out there. I am lucky that mine is a less severe case. I am lucky that I am still moving forward in pursuit of my goals, even if it is harder than before. I am lucky that I have supportive loved ones, that my family can afford medical care, that my body type is such that people don’t question whether I’m “allowed” to have an eating disorder.
I started struggling with disordered eating my sophomore year at Carleton. I began to avoid the dining halls. Things just felt easier that way. I felt nauseated, lost my appetite. I would eat so slowly that my friends would finish their meals when I had barely begun. Going to class on an empty stomach, once totally out of the question for me, became regular practice.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it’s hard to get through Carleton on an empty stomach.
In some senses, though, nothing began in college. When I joined the swim team my freshman year of high school, the intensive exercise soon left me underweight. It scared me. The rest of high school felt like a constant stream of mixed messages. You need to fatten up. You should be eating healthy. Don’t snack too much. Make sure you eat enough before the meet. Go as hard as you can in practice. You’re too skinny. You’re getting out of shape. You’re packing too much food in your lunch. You’re not packing enough. Take that second helping. No, don’t take it. I was anxious and perfectionistic in a lot of areas of my life, and I guess food was no different. I was always eating three meals a day, but each choice filled me with anxiety. It felt like my world shrunk down to home, school, and the lunchbox I carried back and forth in between.
My world shrunk down in Trondheim as well. I had enrolled directly at the university, so I didn’t have the structure of a formal program or the company of fellow Carleton students. My flatmates joined spontaneous road trips and signed up for weekend excursions, but I mostly just stayed in Trondheim. Getting to Extra was hard enough.
This all brings me to COVID, the ultimate world-shrinker. Like many of you, this past spring and summer, I spent the vast majority of my time in my house. At Carleton this year, my pod has been limited to my housemates, and I rarely study outside our house. The isolation has caused my disordered eating to deteriorate, and I’m not alone. The national burden of eating disorders has worsened significantly during the pandemic, with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) seeing a 78 percent increase in calls to its helpline during March and April of last year.
This is all the more reason to recognize National Eating Disorder Awareness Week this year, which falls February 22-28 with the theme “Every Body has a Seat at the Table.” If your eating disorder has worsened during the past year, if your recovery journey has seen progress lost, if you have begun to experience disordered eating for the first time during the pandemic—you are not alone. Please do not be afraid to reach out for help at your own pace. It took me a long time to talk to loved ones about my eating issues, longer to seek counseling, and even longer to recognize that I needed care specific to eating disorders rather than generic therapy and check-ups. But I got there. I’m still getting there. Wherever you are in your journey, you can get there too.If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consider seeking help by calling the confidential NEDA helpline at 1-800-931-2237, consulting the eating disorder resources provided on SHAC’s website, or visiting a provider knowledgeable about disordered eating issues.