I had the privilage to share my story with students of a health class through a series of questions. Sunnie Tobia, a health and physical education teacher in Rochester, NY, asked me to speak about how I turned my eating disorder into my passion. Part of their nutrition unit covered eating disorders, but the only thing most of the students knew were the different types. The class developed a list of questions reguarding my mindset before and during treatment and how I got to where I am n0w with fitness and powerlifting. My answers are real and personal (and a little embarrasing). They show how your own mental perception can be very different from reality, putting your own life at risk. Thank you to Sunnie and her students for asking such great questions that can help spread knowledge and awareness of how deep eating disorders are.
·How did you start to healthily gain weight again?
The start of my weight gain was not by choice. When I was 19 years old, I was so sick that my body was starting to shut down and I was sent to the ER and then hospitalized for one month. My regular resting heart rate was 30-40 bpm, I was in constant mild hyperthermia, I would get dizzy and light headed, along with many other health complications. The doctors and nurses had to stabilize my health, which included an increase in calories/food and absolutely no physical activity. I naturally put on some weight being on bed rest. I was released from the hospital just in time for the holidays and once January came, I was admitted into a treatment center in Syracuse. At first it was hard for me to put on more weight, but with months of treatment that included one-on-one therapy, group therapy, nutrition counseling and kitchen therapy, I was able to get in the right mindset and accept that weight gain was healthy and necessary for recovery.
·Was your excessive exercise due to fear of becoming overweight or were you just trying to live a healthy lifestyle that went too far?
I was a freshman in college when my eating disorder really took over and my exercise became excessive. In high school, I was a strong athlete who had more of a curvy, muscular built especially compared to the “regular” girls at school. I was always self conscious growing up and that carried with me into college. I grew up in a smaller town where everyone knew everyone’s business. I remember people always talking about the older kids gaining the “freshman 15” and how they looked terrible. So when I went away for college, gaining weight was one of my biggest fears. I didn’t want to be known as the athlete who went away to college and became fat. However, like many freshmen, I got into the party scene, going out and drinking 4 to 5 nights a week. But this wasn’t me and in my second semester, I decided to get my health and fitness back to where it was. I started running more, playing soccer, eating healthier and only going out once a week. I started losing weight (more than I expected) and I felt good! My confidence started going up and began to feel myself again. Little did I know though that this healthy lifestyle would spiral out of control and almost cost me my life.
·Were you not eating healthy because you were concerned about others opinions about you and your body? Or were you doing it for yourself because you had a lower self-esteem and just didn’t like how you looked?
I would say both. Growing up I was always self-conscious because I wasn’t as skinny as most of my friends. I would get comments from teammates, friends and boys growing up about my body. I remember being called “thunder thighs” and told that I could get skinny if I really wanted to. I know they weren’t intentionally trying to hurt my feelings, I was the girl who was easy going and laughed things off, but those words stuck and I wished I looked different. The skinny girls were pretty, got the guys and always happy. I wanted to be seen as pretty and I wanted to be a guy’s first choice, not just the friend who the guys went to ask about other girls. I know that sounds silly, but when you’re young that kind of stuff really affects your self-esteem. Even though I was successful and confident with my academics and sports, I still wasn’t happy with myself.
·What did every day feel like (living with an eating disorder)?
Every day became the same. I was emotionless and constantly tired. My days consisted of exercising, counting calories and going to class. My thoughts were consumed of how can I burn more calories, what and when I was going to eat next, how many pounds I can lose, and what excuse I could use so I didn’t have to go out to a social event (because that would ruin my routine). I got so wrapped up in my own world (aka the “eating disorder” world) that I didn’t care about anything or anyone else. ED took over my life.
·What were some thoughts going through your mind during the whole time you were trying to lose weight?
I would get excited and happy every time I saw the number go down. Seeing how the things I did and the foods I ate affected the number on scale gave me such satisfaction and a sense of power. I became addicted to the feelings I got every time I lost weight.
·Do you ever look back at your past as motivation to stay healthy and looking like you do now?
Yes. Looking back now, it was such dark time of my life. When I see old pictures, I now see how sick and unhealthy I looked. Today I still have my insecurities (I’m human) but I never want to go back to that dark, depressing place again. I also look at my past as a way to motivate and inspire others. Every day I have people (young, old, males, females, athletes, non-athletes, friends and family members of someone ill) contacting me with questions, for advice or simply expressing their concerns or situation. Whether my past is used as a learning tool or gives someone the slightest bit of hope to make a step towards recovery, I am always willing to share it.
·Do you still look back at it to this day?
Yes I do. There is not one day that goes by without me thinking about it. It had such an impact on my life…from the way I currently think, the physical consequences that I still deal with (like digestive problems and low bone density), to how I can relate to people who are going through the same struggle.
·Did the weight loss empower you, therefore making you want to lose more, so that you felt more powerful?
Yes and that powerful feeling became addicting, making me want to do more and take more extreme measures. The more sick I was, the more powerful I felt. I was proud of being skinny, I was proud of feeling my bones, I was proud of looking tired….I was proud of being a good anorexic (as messed up as that sounds)
·Were you scared when doctors told you that you had an eating disorder?
No, I wasn’t scared because I knew in the back of my head that I had one. I was more pissed off and annoyed if anything because I didn’t feel like I was sick enough to get help. I also felt like the doctors and nurses had some nerve to tell me what I should be doing and how to live my life, especially since they have never mentally experienced what I was going through. It actually took a nurse who went through an eating nurse for me to listen and be somewhat open minded about recovery. Looking back now, I know that it was my eating disorder (not the real me) who was angry and didn’t want to listen to the doctors. If I listened and started getting help towards a healthy life, ED’s voice would get smaller and my voice stronger, which is what ED did not want.
·Did you know that you were putting your life at risk, or feel guilty about your eating habits throughout that experience?
Yes I knew. When I was sick, I would research and read about eating disorders and nutrition. I learned about all the negative symptoms and consequences, including death. I would experience these dangerous health problems but I didn’t even care. It was just part of who I was now and I dealt with it. Feeling sick and tired actually gave me a sense of accomplishment and happiness because I knew I was doing the “right” things to continue losing weight and get skinnier.
·What is living with an eating disorder actually like?
Very lonely. It’s just you and your eating disorder. It consumes your entire life, leaving you with no energy or desire for anything else. You lose or ruin relationships with family, friends and significant others. You miss opportunities for new relationships. You miss opportunities to grow in your career and every other aspect of life. It’s not a way to live because it is very dark, depressing and sucks everything out of you. And you will go through it alone until you find your strength, courage and faith to stand up and take the first step towards recovery. You have to realize that you are worth so much more than just going through the motions and living an emotionless life.
·Why was your brother the one to make you realize you were at risk?
My brother neverrrr shows emotions or talks about how he is feeling. So for him to come see me and tell me as I was laying in the hospital bed that he just wanted “Alicia back,” really made me take a step back and look at everything from an outside perspective. He was right, I was no longer me. The Alicia everyone knew was bubbly, always laughing, around people and being a strong athlete. My life with an eating disorder was the complete opposite.
·Were you aware of the risks this had on your mental and physical health?
No not before I developed the eating disorder. I knew what an eating disorder was by definition, but I never learned the risks and the depth of all the different disorders.
·Was it hard to recover?
Yes at first. Even though I walked through the doors of the treatment center and admitted I needed help, I was not 100% ready to give up ED. It took awhile for me to actually put on some weight (aside from being extremely malnourished and my body just soaking up any calorie and nutrient it could get to get to stable health). I remember being in the hospital and trying to hide food in my underwear or spitting it out when the nurses weren’t looking. When I went away to the treatment center, I tried to sneaking laxatives in, but those were found. So it took me some time to mentally want to give up ED, but I eventually got there.
·How long was recovery? What was your lowest weight and (if you don’t mind) what is your weight now?
Lowest weight (before hospitalized): 94lbs
Weight when discharged from hospital: 115lbs
Weight at treatment center: 115-130lbs
Weight range when competing in bodybuilding/bikini shows (on and off seasons): 130-145lbs
Current weight (powerlifting): 185-190lbs
Recovery time frames:
Hospital: 1 month
Treatment center (impatient): 5 months
Outpatient treatment (weekly visits): about 1 year
It is important for people to understand that just because someone goes into treatment does not mean that they are cured when they get out. Recovery is not an event, it is a process. This path looks different for each individual, which is why you can’t treat everyone the same way or expect certain things from them. It’s natural to have setbacks or relapses during the recovery process. If or when this happens, you have to remind yourself that it is okay (we’re human) and then find that mental strength to beat ED once again and get through the obstacles he throws at you.
Every day you work on recovery. Every day you fight your demons. Every day you make a conscious effort to keep moving forward and living a healthier life. So always be patient with yourself or with someone who is going through it. Whether it is day by day or meal by meal, find a way that works for you because any and every step forward (no matter how big or small) is a step towards a healthier you.
·What do you think was the cause of the eating disorder?
There was not one specific cause or event. Through treatment, I learned that it could have been a combination of many things, including:
-Transition from high school to college
-Home environment growing up in
-Subconsciously picking up behaviors of people around me
-Friends constantly weighing themselves and having competitions of who could
lose the most weight.
-Teammates making themselves throw up
-Friends taking diet pills and doing “quick fix” diets
-Friends running, running and more running to lose weight
-Overachiever; setting goals and doing anything to reach them
-Obsessive and addictive behaviors
-Extreme about things
-Poor body image, low self-esteem (confidence) when it came to the looks of my body
·At what point did you notice the signs of your eating disorder? Did you notice there was a problem happening before it got to its worst?
At the beginning of my weight loss, I felt healthy, happy and confident. Friends were noticing and complimenting me. I started to notice the signs of my eating disorder when I began to abuse exercise and developed an unhealthy obsession. My mental and physical energy was decreasing, I was hanging out less with friends, my food choices were becoming more and more limited, I was constantly cold, my thoughts were consumed of food and working out, and the number on the scale was way lower than a healthy weight range for a female my height and age. So yes, I noticed that there was a problem happening before I reached the worse part of my illness.
·What was it like to try and convince yourself to change your ways and become healthy again?
It is a constant battle in your head. Talk about feeling crazy… you have your true voice in your head who wants you to get healthy and be free. Then you have ED’s voice in your head who wants to keep you sick so he can grow stronger. Every time you have reasons to get healthy and find strength to take a step forward, ED always pulls you back and convinces you to stay. For example, you’ll tell yourself “When I am healthy, I’ll be able to do the things I love again,” but then ED will tell you “being healthy means you will look gross and fat.” It is hard to get out of that place where you feel stuck. You really have to dig deep to take that first step forward and ignore any negativity that will try to stop you. As you’re making these steps forward to becoming healthy, do not look back or second guess yourself. Keep going and have faith in yourself that you will get through it and live the life you deserve.
·“I’m naturally small and get made fun of for it. Did you ever get made fun of for losing weight?”
Yes absolutely. One thing that I have learned in the past 10 years is that there will always be at least one person who has something negative to say about you. From my years of anorexia, college, bodybuilding to now as a powerlifter, people have CONSTANTLY made comments about my body. When I was sick people would say “Ew, she’s so gross. You can see all her bones. She must be sick.” When I went back to college, I was lean but without that skeletal/sick look, and people would still say I was too skinny. Multiple times people told me to go eat a steak or a cheeseburger. When I was competing in bodybuilding/bikini shows, people would say that all I do is diet and workout and have no life. I would also hear that my body was gross because my lean frame now had muscles. Now as a powerlifter, I am told stuff almost every single day to my face or through social media. “Oh, you put on a lot weight, are you ok?” or “You’re too muscular, you look like a guy” or “You should lose weight and compete in bikini shows again, you were prettier like that.” People are blunt, rude and they don’t even care to listen or understand what is going on in my personal life which affects the shape of my body. You also have to remember that people are insecure with themselves or feel threatened, so they tend to put negative attention on someone else. At first, these comments really take a shot at my self-esteem because I took them personally. But now I just ignore it or make a comment back in a professional way that gets my point across. It is absolutely not worth being upset about the opinion of someone else. You will never move forward in life with anything if you are always hung up about other people who have nothing to do with your goals and future.
·At what point did you decide to get involved with figure competitions and powerlifting?
My interest in bikini competitions started my senior year in college when I was living in Myrtle Beach. I had a few friends who competed and they said that I would do great. I always love a challenge, especially when it comes to pushing my mind and body. When I moved back to Buffalo, about 6 months after I graduated, I started coaching soccer and also working for the gym Catalyst Fitness, where some of my coworkers competed. I was no longer playing competitive sports and I wanted something new to train for. I hired a coach who was successful in the bodybuilding world and we went to work.
I got involved in powerlifting about 1.5 years after my bikini competitions. I was living in Florida during my last year of bodybuilding. In October 2015, I was in contest prep for a big show when my life started to fall apart and I felt like I was just shattering into pieces. All in one month, my aunt (who I was close with) passed away after a long battle with cancer, my friend passed away in a bike accident, my dad was still battling cancer back in Buffalo, I unexpectedly had to find a new place to live, and I barely had money. This was the start of my relapse. I was no longer able compete in my show that was just a few weeks away, so I began eating. Binging, binging and purging, chewing and spitting…any eating disorder that wasn’t anorexia. This was all completely new to me. I didn’t understand how this could even be possible, I was the most disciplined person when it came to food and now I had zero control. It became a cycle that I could not stop and it got worse every day. That’s when I decided to move back to Buffalo where my family was so I could get back on my feet financially, mentally and physically.
Developing these new eating disorders caused me to gain weight and it didn’t help that I was binging when my body was very sensitive from dieting and being depleted. I was depressed and so uncomfortable in my own skin that I didn’t even want to show my face in public or in front of my family and friends. I put on weight fast and even though I wasn’t “fat,” it was not in the way I wanted, nor was it healthy. However, the one good thing about my weight gain was that I became stronger. I found myself lifting heavier in the gym and pushing myself in different ways that I never did training as a bikini athlete. I started deadlifting more and discovered I was kind of good at it and I really liked it. My coworker, who competes in bodybuilding and powerlifting, would help me out and was the one who put the idea of powerlifting in my head. One day, a powerlifter and gym owner (who is now my current coach) saw a video that I posted online of me deadlifting 300lbs for the first time. He messaged me about getting into powerlifting and I met with him at his gym. Everything we talked about sounded exciting and this would be mentally healthier for me than bodybuilding, so I decided to give this new sport a shot.
·What were some body systems that experienced the most trauma?
-My whole digestive system from food restriction, laxatives and throwing up.
-Menstrual cycle (I no longer got my period and was told I probably
wouldn’t be able to have kids)
-Body temperature average was around 94 degrees, keeping me in mild hyperthermia
-Fine hair growth all over the body (similar to peach fuzz).
-Heart complications, irregular heartbeat, resting heart rate was 30-40 bpm
-Osteoporosis (low bone density)
·How do you train for powerlifting and what is it like to compete? (a little off topic, but adorable)
My training for powerlifting is sooo much different than any other type of training I’ve ever done, both physically and mentally. When I was bodybuilding and competing as a bikini athlete, the workouts focused on aesthetics and making my body look a certain way. My hard work, discipline and dedication allowed me to sculpt my lean body and keep a strict diet all year round.
Now that I am powerlifting, I personally feel that it is my most challenging and demanding sport. It has also been the most rewarding because I have learned (and still learning) to push myself beyond any limits with my body and mind. I have accomplished things I would have never thought I could do. The goal in powerlifting is to get strong and lift HEAVY. Every workout in my training program is hard, even the “lighter” days are hard. You have to mentally and physically be prepared for every workout and every meet. Powerlifting has given me a sense of purpose and I’m slowly starting to regain the confidence I lost when I relapsed in Florida. The support and encouragement from my coach, team and friends make it very exciting and they help me see my potential. In my first powerlifting meet, I won a state championship and broke the squat world record for my class in the federation I competed in. It was such an amazing (and relieving) feeling to finish my first meet with good numbers and to be surrounded by such great people who love the sport. After the meet, my coach and I discussed our next moves to keep progressing and we got right back to work.
·How should I approach someone who I think has an eating disorder?
One important thing to remember about approaching someone with an eating disorder is that food is NOT the root cause of the problem. It is a symptom and coping mechanism. Don’t tell them how, what and when to eat. We do not want to hear that. It only made me angry when someone told me to eat. I would purposely wait longer to eat or eat less, just to show them that I was the one in control and that they had no right to tell me what to do.
When talking to someone with an eating disorder, offering and showing your support is best. We have already ruined lots of relationships and isolate ourselves, so just having someone in our life that will not give up on us means a lot. Even if we don’t show it or we try to push you away, your continuous support will eventually help us. If you do decide to bring up the topic of food or us having an eating disorder, do not be aggressive or judgmental. If you are confronted with denial, do not stress it anymore and just move on to something else. We are NOT our eating disorder. We have an eating disorder, but we are still a human being who enjoys other things in life. Would you go visit a cancer patient and only talk about cancer? No. When I talked with my dad or aunt who both had cancer, we discussed meaningful topics and other things that were happening in our lives.
Eating disorders are a very sensitive topic and can be tricky. My best advice when approaching someone with the illness is to be caring, let them know they can trust you and open up about anything, encourage (NOT PUSH) treatment, be patient, and don’t take anything personal if there is denial and anger.
·What were your thoughts during recovery?
Recovery was probably one of the scariest things. I didn’t want to go at first. I didn’t want help, I didn’t want to gain weight, I didn’t want to give up my control of food and exercise… In other words, I didn’t want to give up my eating disorder. It can take some time and patience to think of recovery as something positive and not as something negative. But once you realize and believe that recovery is healthy, your hope turns into determination of getting your life back. I learned a lot of things about myself and life during treatment, all things that help keep me in the right direction and to be stronger than ED in this lifelong recovery.