“When Covid hit and the world went into lockdown, I was secretly relieved”

“When Covid hit and the world went into lockdown, I was secretly relieved”

How the pandemic helped me recover from a life-threatening eating disorder

“When I was diagnosed with anorexia in 2017, my psychiatrist told me I was slowly killing myself. I didn’t listen; all I cared about was shrinking my body. I was addicted to watching the number on the scale drop, and I took pride in being able to see my bones beneath my gaunt, hollow face. Adult clothes no longer fit me, even at the smallest sizes. The disorder was a voice in my head, constantly goading me to restrict, over-exercise and do everything I could to shed pounds. My eating disorder was my whole life.

“Every morning, I obsessively measured my body to reassure myself that I hadn’t gotten bigger overnight. Could I still touch my thumb to my middle finger while wrapped around my bicep? If not, I had to skip breakfast. Did my thighs touch when I stood with my feet together? If yes, then I had to do an extra half an hour on the treadmill. My life was controlled by arbitrary rules I had created, and I couldn’t break away from them.

“I ran or walked 30,000 steps a day, consumed fewer than 800 calories and completed a punishing exercise regime. Logically, I knew what I was doing was reckless, but no matter how hard I tried to silence those impulses, they always won out. “You don’t need to eat breakfast today,” the voice would say. “If you want to be successful, you need to lose more weight.” I was even afraid to put coconut oil on my skin because I was worried about absorbing calories. I refused to consider how my behaviour affected the people who loved me, and I lost touch with many of my friends and family. 

“I reached a breaking point in November of 2019. I was barely holding it together, struggling to keep up with a master’s program and mourning a failed relationship. I had just returned from my daily 10-kilometre run—a routine I’d been suffering through for the past several months. My body ached, my mind was numb and I was so thin that my Lululemon leggings hung from my body like sweatpants. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed and be still, but the voice told me I had to keep moving. 

“I trudged up the stairs, strapped on my ankle weights and launched into 35 burpees—another daily ritual. I was starving, but I still had an hour of exercise to go before I could even think about breakfast—exactly 100 grams of zero per cent fat plain Greek yogurt, 25 blueberries and a packet of stevia mixed into two cups of black coffee, all logged in the weight loss app MyFitnessPal.

“With a pair of five-pound dumbbells in my hands, I moved on to jumping jacks and began counting down from 500. My phone rang. It was my doctor. I debated ignoring the call to finish my workout, but I wanted an excuse to take a break. I answered and began pacing. At least I’ll still be getting some movement in, I thought.

“My doctor’s words stopped me in my tracks. She said the results of my recent ECG were in, and that my heart was beating only 35 times per minute, the lowest she had ever seen in a patient. She told me that I was at risk of a heart attack. 

“Until that moment, I had ignored warnings about the consequences of my eating disorder. My bone scans had shown early signs of osteoporosis, blood tests concluded that I was anemic, and I hadn’t had my period in over five years. Even a stint in a residential treatment program hadn’t been enough for me to change my behaviour. But for the first time in my life, I was scared. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to travel and have a life of adventure and freedom. But to do that, I knew I needed to gain weight. 

“When it comes to weight restoration, I learned, there is no magic number. I would need to eat a caloric surplus—over the recommended daily amount—until my weight reached a set point, at which time my body would naturally stop gaining. I needed to gain 25 pounds just to put me at the low end of a normal weight range. My doctor told me I would probably need to gain closer to 50. 

“With a BMI of 15—the healthy range for adult women is between 18.5 and 24.9—I was too sick to go into another residential treatment program, and I refused to be hospitalized because I didn’t want to have to drop out of school. The only way to fix the damage I had done was to gain weight on my own and begin intensive therapy. I was instructed to go on bed rest and regain the weight that I had lost—over a third of my bodyweight. This meant no exercise until I was back to a healthy weight.

“Under the guidance of a dietician, a psychologist, a psychiatrist and my GP, I took the first steps on my path to recovery. We started slowly, making small adjustments: two per cent flavoured yogurt instead of zero per cent plain, and my 25 blueberries tripled to one cup. By the spring, I was nibbling desserts after dinner, adding milk to my coffee and even savouring the taste of butter on a freshly baked croissant. 

“Most of the time I looked forward to trying foods I’d denied myself for years, like key lime pie, but after a few bites the fear of weight gain would kick in and I would put my fork down. When I weighed myself to track my progress every week, I would burst into tears of sadness and alarm upon seeing the new number on the scale. My clothes went from baggy, to fitting the way they were supposed to, to too small. I was mortified by my changing body. But I would force myself to take one more bite each day, knowing that it was keeping me alive.

“I had panic attacks almost daily and I was constantly angry, resentful and scared of losing control. I felt like the world was crumbling down around me—as though every bad thought was flooding my mind at once and all I wanted to do was rip off my skin and run. I wanted desperately to get out of my body, but wherever I went, there I was.

“When Covid hit and the world was terrified, I was relieved. Holed up at home under lockdown orders, I could gain weight without having to worry about the judgment of others. Social distancing gave me an excuse to avoid seeing people in person, and restaurant closures freed me from having to face my fear foods, like butter, oil, cheese, sugar and meat. 

“I still struggled every day, but the pandemic allowed me to recover at my own pace. It might have even saved my life. But there was a catch: the more comfortable I became in lockdown, the more I started to dread the eventual reopening of society.

“In December of 2020, as talk of lifting the first lockdown stirred, I began to wonder how I would cope in the world in my new body. Would I be able to keep up my recovery, or would I relapse? And if I relapsed, would I survive? 

“Throughout the pandemic, the phrase, “quarantine 15” was constantly being thrown around. My quarantine 15 was actually quarantine 50, and all I could think about was how my friends and family would perceive my added weight. My clothes no longer fit, my thighs touched and I had even started to sweat again—a bodily function that I hadn’t experienced in years. I wanted lockdown to last forever so I would never have to show my face and body in public again. But I knew that if I wanted to live a normal life, I would have to face my fears and go back into the world like everyone else. 

“I knew what I had to do to feel comfortable in society, but I didn’t know where to start. What does a proper portion size look like? Is it okay to eat pasta and potatoes? How many grapes are too many as a snack? Throughout my recovery, I followed a strict meal plan that had me consuming thousands of calories a day while also challenging higher-calorie foods like pasta and desserts. I didn’t know how to eat intuitively. I felt lost and out of control. I needed to do something drastic to avoid yet another relapse.

“In December of 2021, I packed up my things and accepted a job in Costa Rica. Being in a new environment allowed me to create a fresh routine, one that was built around doing things I enjoyed and appreciating my body for what it can do as opposed to how it looks. I didn’t know anyone there, so I wasn’t as worried about being judged. I spent my days surfing, teaching yoga and writing about subjects related to healing the body. I wore swimsuits, shorts and dresses, all of which exposed more skin than I was used to showing. I ate what I wanted and continued to gain weightanother 20 pounds in four months. 

“Although I loved my time in Costa Rica, I was still hiding. In April of 2022, I finally felt strong enough to come home. My first week back, I went out to a restaurant for dinner and met up with friends for coffee—both activities I would never have been able to do when I was deep in my disorder.

“I thought the only topic of discussion would be my weight gain. But when I saw one of my oldest friends, my disorder didn’t come up once. I ordered tea—with milk—and actually enjoyed our time together. For the first time in a while, I felt like a normal 20-something woman.

“I’ve now gained over 54 pounds. My body feels like it belongs to someone else. I often find myself in a panic when I notice a new sensation from the added weight: belly rolls, hip dips, larger breasts. I know that these are all signs of being healthy, but the perceived societal judgment that comes with weight gain still gets to me sometimes.

“I’m almost double my lowest body weight, but I have experienced more life in the past three months than in the last four years. My days are no longer consumed by exercise, and I can enjoy a drink without having to track it on MyFitnessPal. I still struggle with using exercise to cope with my anxiety, but I’m able to identify when I’m overdoing it. My obsessive thoughts are still there, but they’re much quieter. When the voice tells me to skip a meal, I tell myself that I need to eat if I want to achieve my goals: travelling, writing and experiencing the foods of other cultures. 

“When the pandemic began in 2020, I wasn’t scared of getting sick, I was scared of gaining weight. And although my biggest fear came true, I could have never anticipated how good and free it would make me feel. Choosing to recover has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but sometimes the hardest thing is also the right thing.”