As a registered dietitian, one of my greatest passions is helping people learn to fuel their bodies and improve their health with food.
But although now I consider myself to have a positive relationship with food, it hasn’t always been that way.
In fact, when I was 14 years old, I was admitted to an inpatient program for an eating disorder.
This came after months of meticulously writing down everything I ate, counting every calorie, and stepping on the scale multiple times per day, only to break down in tears when it still wasn’t low enough.
Here’s my story.
Oftentimes, people with an eating disorder are searching for a sense of control by modifying their food intake.
This was the case for me as well. By the time I reached middle school, I had already moved seven times and was constantly having to adjust to new cities, schools, and classmates.
My most recent move was to a small town in the Midwest, where everyone had known each other since kindergarten. Entering a new school as a shy seventh-grader who didn’t fit in didn’t help my case.
I had never had any problems with my weight or food intake at that point.
Still, after months of feeling like an outsider, I started to believe that I needed to change everything about myself and how I looked to fit in and make friends.
Restricting my food gave me the sense of control that I lacked in other aspects of my life. Or at least, it gave me the illusion of control.
What I didn’t realize, however, was that my eating disorder was actually the one controlling me.
Over the next few months, I became obsessive about the number on the scale. I told myself that if I just reached a specific weight or ate a certain number of calories, I would finally feel happy, confident, and accepted.
But the lower my weight got, the worse I felt — and the tighter my eating disorder’s grip on me became.
A few months after I started restricting, my classmates, teachers, and parents started to notice that something was going on.
Not only was I withering away right before their eyes, but other symptoms started setting in, too — I had no energy, I was always cold, and I started getting dizzy almost any time I stood up.
I even started isolating myself to avoid situations that involved food, and I was constantly trying to find new ways to hide my unhealthy behaviors from my family.
So, at the end of my eighth-grade year, I was admitted to an inpatient program focused on treating anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders.
Recovering from an eating disorder is hard. It’s a journey that you have to take meal by meal, and oftentimes, minute by minute.
It requires you to completely reframe your mindset and confront the deepest, darkest parts of yourself that you’ve learned to hide away from the rest of the world.
It forces you to unlearn everything society has drilled into your head about diet culture and challenge the idea that you need to look a certain way to be worthy of love and acceptance.
And perhaps most difficult of all, recovering from an eating disorder requires you to give up control, ask for help, and allow yourself to be totally vulnerable.
During my time in treatment, I met a lot of people at different stages in their recovery.
I was only 14 and had my entire life ahead of me. But many others in the program had been struggling for years or even decades, and some had been in and out of treatment for the majority of their life.
I decided I didn’t want to let my eating disorder control me any longer. I wanted to go to college, travel the world, and have my own family someday, but I knew I couldn’t do those things if I were stuck in this cycle.
I learned that recovering from an eating disorder wasn’t about gaining weight, but rather about becoming healthy — both mentally and physically.
I also realized that the people around me didn’t care about the number on my scale at all. In fact, my friends and family loved me for all the things that made me who I was, not what I looked like or how much I weighed.
Slowly, I started to shift my focus to things in my life that I could actually control: my grades, my relationships, and my mindset. I found new hobbies and channeled my stress into other outlets like art, writing, and yoga.
I also focused fully on my recovery process, which involved weekly activities, group outings, and individual and group therapy sessions focused on topics like body image, coping skills, and mindfulness.
Plus, I worked with a registered dietitian for an entire year and began learning more about the intricate relationship between nutrition and health.
Eventually, I began viewing food as a source of nourishment and pleasure rather than a control mechanism.
Instead of depriving myself of food to gain a false sense of self-control, I learned that taking care of my body made me feel more healthy, strong, and powerful than my eating disorder ever did.
I also started noticing how much my eating disorder had truly taken away from me once I was able to appreciate the social aspects of food again.
Simple things like going out to dinner with my friends, indulging in a delicious dessert, or experimenting in the kitchen — all of which had once been sources of guilt, stress, and shame — suddenly became enjoyable again after my recovery.
Regaining my sense of self and learning to love food again is also what inspired me to become a dietitian. I decided I wanted to help empower others to transform their relationship with food once I realized how much impact it had on my life.
A few years later, I started working toward my degree in dietetics and eventually went on to work at a veterans hospital for several years before I began writing about nutrition and health full time.
That’s not to say that my journey was completely linear. There were plenty of relapses and bumps in the road along the way, and it was a process that I had to work on every day actively and even several years later.
But, with the support of my family, friends, and healthcare team, I was able to eventually take back control and rebuild my relationship with my food, my body, and myself.
Eating disorders can often cause feelings like guilt, shame, hopelessness, and isolation.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. And although recovery can be challenging, it is possible.
In fact, most of the people I met during treatment went on to have successful careers and fulfilling lives.
Like me, several even went on to become dietitians, therapists, nurses, and doctors, and many now even use their firsthand experiences to help people who have eating disorders.
However, this is only because they were able to break free from their eating disorder and take back control of their lives.
Getting help is the first step. Reach out to a loved one, talk to a healthcare professional, or call the National Eating Disorders Association’s confidential helpline.
Even though starting the journey toward recovery can feel scary and uncertain, your eating disorder doesn’t have to define you, your life, or your future.
Rachael Link is a registered dietitian based in New York City. Rachael completed her undergraduate degree in Missouri and received her master’s degree from New York University.
When she’s not writing, Rachael enjoys gardening, yoga, and playing with her two Boston terrier pups. She also enjoys sharing healthy recipes and nutrition tips on her blog and Instagram.