I’ve started another mini series about what it’s like to spend a day living with different mental health problems.
I don’t normally do this, but I’m putting a content warning on these posts. They might be difficult to read for people who are experiencing or are in recovery from any of the topics I’ll be discussing. However, it’s very important to me that the raw, painful truth of mental illness is exposed. There are many, many examples of mental illness being glamourised in the media, but that’s not the reality we live with day to day. I’m hoping it wont be, but some of the content might be triggering.
In 2012, I developed an eating disorder called orthorexia. According to the National Eating Disorders Association of the United States, orthorexia is an “obsession with proper or healthful eating.” Orthorexia can lead to compulsively checking ingredients lists and nutritional labels, cutting out an increasing number of food groups (such as sugar, carbs, dairy, and/or meat), and obsessively following food and “healthy” lifestyle’ blogs on social media.
Orthorexia is different than anorexia nervosa (commonly referred to simply as “anorexia”). Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss, distorted body image, and calorie restriction. It may also be accompanied by compulsive exercise, purging via vomiting or laxatives, and/or binge eating.
For a long time, I didn’t think I had an eating disorder because I was technically still eating, and I was eating fairly often (about every two hours). It wasn’t until I ended up in the hospital with hyponatremia (low sodium) that it occurred to me that I had a problem.
My battle with orthorexia started innocently enough. It was the last semester of my senior year of college. I’d fulfilled my degree requirements and I decided to take Personal Finance as an elective. During the class, we talked about the importance of proper nutrition as a way to minimize health care costs and promote financial stability. We read a book called Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Furhman that talked about the nutritarian diet. Nutritarianism is an eating style that focuses on maximizing micronutrient intake (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals) at all times.
Ever the perfectionist, I took nutritarianism too far and developed orthorexia. I’m doing a lot better now, but it’s only because I constantly remind myself of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Here’s my story: a day in the life of orthorexia when my eating disorder was at its worst.
A Day in the Life of Orthorexia:
As soon as I wake up, I drink a glass of water with lemon juice and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. Lemon juice for the vitamin C and to help cleanse the liver. Apple cider vinegar for the antibacterial properties, liver cleansing power, and the added bonus of helping to reduce body fat. The combination doesn’t taste very good, but I remind myself that it’s healthy, which makes me feel better.
For breakfast, I eat a bowl of sliced zucchinis with scrambled egg whites. No salt or cheese. Salt can cause high blood pressure and high blood pressure runs in my family. Cheese is greasy, fatty, and full of empty calories. The zucchini is lightly steamed, not microwaved or fried because those methods of cooking destroy the vitamins and minerals. Egg whites because egg yolks are high in cholesterol.
With breakfast, I drink a cup of tea with sugar-free sweetener and unsweetened soy milk. No sugar since sugar is just empty calories and doesn’t add any nutritional value. Soy milk for the high levels of healthy protein and fiber. It is naturally free of cholesterol and low in saturated fat. The soy milk has to be unsweetened though, or I won’t drink it. Even then, I only add a splash to my tea. Black tea has antioxidants, but the tannins in the tea can block iron absorption. I have iron-deficiency anemia and take an iron supplement at night since it tends to upset my stomach.
After breakfast, I drink another cup of water to make up for the diuretic effect of the tea. I then put on my workout clothes and head down to the small gym at our apartment’s clubhouse. 20 minutes of cardio on the treadmill, alternating running and walking, which is optimal for fat-burning. 15 minutes is the average time it takes for the body to use up sugar reserves and start burning fat. I throw in an extra few minutes just for good measure, then do some crunches to keep my tummy slim. Meanwhile, I drink more water. There’s a sliding counter on my water bottle for tracking water intake and I slide it to the three.
Most people eat protein after a workout. I don’t eat dairy or eat meat, so I can’t drink a protein shake or eat a sandwich. I know I’ll be eating lunch in a little bit, so as a snack I eat a slice of extra-fiber, extra-multigrain toast with a thin layer of light margarine. “Light” just means the manufacturer whipped it with water, so there’s less fat and fewer calories. Margarine isn’t particularly healthy, but this one doesn’t have trans fats and has less fat than butter. I don’t like eating bread because it seems like empty carbs, but the extra fiber provided by the inulin seems like a fair tradeoff. Plus, it has flax seeds, which contain omega-3 fatty acids.
My husband looks concerned about me only eating a piece of toast after a workout, so he slices an apple for me and I eat it before taking my shower. Apples are a healthy snack because they’re full of antioxidants, flavonoids, and dietary fiber. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, right?
I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I step into the shower. I can’t tell if those are ribs or abs. It also looks like a thigh gap is starting to form. I’ll have to find a way to fit more fish or plant protein into my diet. I want to be fit, not just thin. I have to be healthy.
After my shower, I get dressed and I start feeling dizzy, so I decide to eat lunch before packing my dinner for work. For lunch, I eat a bowl of low-sodium lentil soup. I’ve studied the nutrition facts on the label and I know this soup is relatively safe for me to eat. Legumes such as lentils are high in fiber and a good source of plant protein. No cheese, no crackers, and no extra salt. Meanwhile, own his own bowl, my husband piles on a mountain of full-fat cheese (it’s not even the 2% variety) and serves it with an obscene amount of crackers. I eat my healthy soup and drink another glass of water.
Once I’ve eaten again and the dizziness subsides, I pack the meal that I’ll take to work. I remember that they’re having a potluck at work and there will probably be a bunch of unhealthy food there. I’m quite content with nutritious options that I’ve packed, and I prepare myself for the arguments that will arise when I don’t eat any of my coworkers’ carcinogenic (cancer-causing) foods. I know I’m healthier than they are, and that’s what counts.
I work as an assistant store manager at a two-story retail store. It’s the holiday season and the store is busy with shoppers. I walk the stairs 10, 15, 20 times. Up down, up down. I lose count. I take a sip of water every time I pass the water fountain. I make a mental note to update the counter on my water bottle to five.
As I pass by, a customer tells me that I should be a model. I smile and say thank you, meanwhile thinking that models are too skinny and they probably don’t eat anyway. At least I’m healthy.
During my break, I sit in the office to eat my snack so I don’t have to be around all of the unhealthy food in the break room. I can still smell the cookies and cakes and other sweet things wafting down the hallway. Not much of a potluck. One of the longtime associates tells me I should eat some of the food. I smile and say thanks. I don’t’ say that I’ve already taken a peek and it all looks disgusting. Besides, I have carrots with hummus for my snack. Carrots for the vitamin C and beta-carotene. Hummus is made from pureed garbanzo beans, which are full of iron, folate, phosphorus, and vitamin B.
Break time is over. Up down, up down, Water, water, water. How many glasses is that now? Six?
Two of the younger associates are talking about cheeseburgers. They ask me if know where to get a good burger around town? I say I’m sorry, but I don’t eat cheeseburgers. They look disappointed, but they quickly move on. I shake my head thinking about how you couldn’t pay me enough to eat something so unhealthy.
The next thing I know, it’s time for my lunch break, which is actually dinner for me. I drink some more water and eat a bowl of ratatouille (ra-ta-TOO-ee), which is a French dish made of stewed vegetables: eggplant, onion, tomato, zucchini. I’ve already had zucchini today, and I’m sure the stewing of the vegetable has killed off some of the nutrients. However, my husband was kind enough to make it, and it’s tasty and filling even without the rice like how he eats it.
The other assistant manager comes into the office while I’m on lunch. He asks what I’m eating, but he’s never seen or heard of it before. I explain how it’s full of fiber and vital nutrients like niacin, magnesium, and copper in the eggplants; vitamin C, potassium, folate, and vitamin K in the tomatoes. I think I lose him at lycopene in the tomatoes when his eyes start glazing over. He tells me I’m “too healthy.”
I want to argue that there’s no such thing as being too healthy, but instead, I ask him what he likes to eat. He’s Greek and he loves Greek food, especially at this Greek restaurant not too far from where we work. He jokes that he’d recommend it to me, but not if I’m just going to go there and eat a soup. I protest that I love soup, but then wonder if their soup has meat or dairy. If so, I wouldn’t eat it anyway.
Mealtime is over. More stairs. More water. I’ve lost track of how much water I’ve had, but I’m sure it was at least the recommended daily serving of eight glasses. One of the older associates tells me that I’m too skinny and that I should eat something. I tell her that I did eat something. In fact, I’ve eaten a lot of somethings—all healthy things.
Up down, up down. Water, water, water.
On my next and final break, I eat my non-fat probiotic strawberry yogurt outside to catch a few rays of sunshine as the sun is setting. 10 minutes on 10% of the skin allows the body to synthesize vitamin D. Direct sunlight is better, but I figure it’s better than nothing, especially since I don’t eat egg yolks, which is the part of the egg that contains vitamin D. I don’t eat dairy except for this special yogurt because the probiotics are good for digestion, there aren’t any added sugars, and it had little bits of fruit on the bottom.
While I’m sitting outside, I can smell waffles coming from the diner on my left, grilled meat from the Mexican restaurant on my right. All I can think about is the empty calories in the syrup at the diner and the fat and cholesterol in the greasy food at the Mexican restaurant. The smell grosses me out and I have to go back inside.
I eat one piece of dark chocolate before going back to work. Dark chocolate contains antioxidants, and I can’t think of a better dessert than antioxidants. Just one piece though. Any more than that would be more detrimental than beneficial.
I drink more water and try not to think about how I’ll probably have to pee in the middle of the night. Finally, my shift is over. It’s late and I should probably go to bed, but I can’t stop thinking about salad. A nice big salad with dark leafy greens and scrambled egg whites on top. Maybe I’ll even throw in some tuna for the extra protein. I make a note to pack a salad for lunch the next day. In the meantime, I eat a few raspberries before brushing my teeth and going to bed. I’m hoping the little bit of fruit will level off my blood sugars so I don’t wake up ravenously hungry and eat something that I’ll regret.
The purpose of this series is to be real and honest, and I hope we’ve achieved that. I want people to understand that mental illness is real and that battling with your own mind every day is all consuming and frightening. If you have struggled with any of the issues mentioned above, you can find some great resources here. You can also find other posts in this series about anorexia, mania, depression and OCD.
Do you have your own story to tell about a day in your life living with a mental health problem? If you’d like to contribute to this series and write your own post, I’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me here.