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I Had an Eating Disorder Relapse — While Pregnant

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Right before I became pregnant, I got in the best physical shape of my life. I was teaching indoor cycling classes several times a week, running six miles every other day, and eating in a way that was healthy and nourishing for me. Most of all, I was feeling a confidence that I’d never felt before. For maybe the first time ever, I felt like myself.

Weight has always been an issue for me, even before puberty, when my cold-handed pediatrician informed my mother that while I wasn’t overweight, I didn’t need to be gaining more weight, either. I was not raised in a household where food and weight simply existed; on the contrary, food and weight were permanent fixtures of obsession. But this infatuation wasn’t exclusive to my home life. As a Y2K teenager, I came of age reading Seventeen and Cosmopolitan magazines like they were gospel. We demanded that our bodies fit into impossibly low-rise jeans and that our arms fall like twigs out of spaghetti strap tank tops. There was a constant, consuming, and unattainable desire – a need – to look like Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions.

By age 15, the pressure became too much for me, and I developed a toxic relationship with food and my body. In a grotesquely convenient twist, I had always suffered from acute motion sickness as a child, often vomiting on five-minute car rides to school. In other words, throwing up was no big deal for me. Bulimia, therefore, came easily, and I quickly developed the dangerous habit of making myself sick after many meals. My weight didn’t plummet, but rather plateaued, as I was privy to eating “normally” most of the day and then binging and purging once or twice.

My bulimia lived with me like that for years, some far more consistent than others. But it was always there. It was always an option for me. Wherever I was in my life, my bulimia hung around me like a dark cloud.

It wasn’t until I was 30, just a few years before I had my son, that I thought I’d found peace with my body and had finally overcome my bulimia. I had overhauled my life in just about every way, quitting my job to write a novel and moving to a small island on the other side of the country. I worked with a therapist and a nutritionist to find the right balance of control and freedom that I needed to recover. I shed the weight that I’d wanted to lose in a healthy and sustainable way, and I reached levels of fitness that I’d been striving for. I felt good.

Then I got pregnant. And my pregnancy arrived with a deep, insatiable hunger that never went away; in fact, I discovered I was pregnant when I realized that I’d felt starving for several weeks in a row. My pregnancy is a hazy memory of Nutella, Pad Thai, and Doritos; I leaned hard into the cliché of “letting myself go” – and it was liberating. Yes, I was genuinely hungry (growing a human is as physically taxing as it gets), but I also knowingly indulged. As someone who’d restricted my food intake for my entire life, it was wild and exhilarating to eat whatever I wanted, whenever.

But by six months, the novelty had worn off and sciatic back pain had set in. At this point, when strangers would reach out and touch my belly without asking, I felt terrible. Intellectually, I knew that I was growing a human. But I didn’t actually feel that way. The reality hadn’t hit me (and I know now that it doesn’t really hit you until you’re covered in spit-up at three in the morning). All I felt was huge. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see the power and beauty of pregnancy. I was only greeted with a level of self-hatred that I had desperately hoped to never see again.

I missed my old body and how easily it had moved. I missed my old confidence. I missed the way my partner had looked at me before. I missed being able to wear a bralette. I missed not being called “ma’am.” But I kept all this to myself, ashamed, assuming that having these thoughts meant that I was too superficial and self-absorbed to become a mother – that I was unworthy. As my delivery date approached, I masked my true, aching feelings of self-disgust with smiles and endless purchases of baby clothes.

It comes as no surprise, then, that at my lowest emotional point during pregnancy, I sought comfort in bulimia. After inhaling a pizza one night, I felt so inflated that I truly thought I might burst. I waddled to the bathroom and squatted in the familiar position on my knees, only now my stomach was jutting into the toilet seat. And a brand-new wave of self-loathing washed over me: not only did I hate my body, but now I hated myself for doing something that I knew was so terrible, so shameful, so unfair to my baby. Was I really going to do this, just months away from delivering? I imagined what it would feel like for him, inside my belly. Would he know? Would he be hungry after? Would it hurt him?

And yet, I went through with it. My eyes stung and my heart broke as I stuck my finger down my throat. But my heart wasn’t breaking for my son; I knew he would be okay. My heart was breaking for me. Only then did I realize that since I became pregnant, I’d been depriving myself not of food, but of love. Somewhere along the road to becoming a mother, I’d made the decision to put myself on the back burner and had given everything I had to my future son, to my partner, even to our dogs. I’d forgotten about me. Letting myself go didn’t really mean that I had gained weight with abandon; it meant that I had lost sight of myself.

That was the last time. Though it wasn’t the last time I thought about it; not even close. My son’s first birthday is in a few weeks, and still, every single day it is a challenge for me to feel good about myself, to celebrate the physical achievements of my body, to honor the postpartum process. I’ve found my postpartum body to be even more foreign than my pregnant body, and the longing for my old stomach, hips, and breasts has become even more potent. I envy the women who claim to fully embrace their “battle scars” from pregnancy and birth, the new stretch marks and the new curves. I am not one of them, or at least not yet. And I might not ever be.

But what I’ve learned is that having these feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, or even self-hatred doesn’t make me a less caring or devoted mother. Having these feelings makes me an honest, complex human, who is also a mother. The sooner we talk about these feelings out loud and normalize them, the sooner we will feel less alone in a struggle that I know is far too common.

 

Best-selling author Julia Spiro ’s next book, Full (an influencer lies about her own struggles with bulimia, inspired by Julia’s own personal battle), will be published in April.

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