What happens to your body after an eating disorder

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"Having your period is such a pain!" I wrote in my diary, when I was in Year 6. I was lying. Or at least, I wasn't speaking from experience. I was ten years old and I was exercising almost twenty hours a week, and like most ten-year-old gymnasts, I had not gotten my period yet. But I desperately wanted to. Once, when I was seven, I tried to fashion myself a makeshift pad out of tissues and elastic bands. I really wanted my period.

If you'd asked me why at the time, I couldn't have told you. In hindsight, I think I wanted it to hurry up and arrive because having your period made you a grown up and it made you special. It made you part of a cool, clandestine club, a club whose members bemoaned bloating and cramps and inflexible pads, but who also got to do fun things like shopping with friends and running on the beach. I was young, and clearly, I had absorbed a fair bit of advertising messaging about periods. I was lucky that I came of age in a culture where periods were made to seem cool, if a little inconvenient, and not shameful and dirty. Still, the result was that I lied to my own diary about menarche, perhaps hoping that writing it would make it so.

It did finally arrive, when I was twelve, on a ferry. I was on the way home from school when I was hit with a kind of stomach ache I'd never felt before. Concerned, I went downstairs to the bathroom on the ferry (this should give you a sense of how worried I was; those bathrooms are horrid), and lo and behold, the long awaited moment had arrived. I went home and immediately went shopping with my friends, then for a run on the beach. Just kidding. I went home and curled up in a ball, beginning to understand why club inductees might complain about cramps.

A few years later, I went to my GP and got a prescription for the birth control pill. I wasn't sexually active yet, but I was competing in a lot of dance eisteddfods, and I could imagine nothing worse than unexpectedly getting my period on a day when I had to wear a skin-tight unitard or a white skirt in front of a theatre full of people (well, these were local jazz eisteddfods, so "full" might be stretching it a bit). So I went on the pill to regulate my cycle. Over the next decade, I got used to the new reality of my body, to the weird biological fact that my body had decided that it was ready for pregnancy and birth. It always astonished me – still does – that I have inside me all the machinery and almost all the material required to make a new human. I also got used to the banal reality of having your period, which was not nearly as special and exciting as I had been led to believe it would be. Except for the secret society of strangers who kindly hand tampons under the doors of public bathroom stalls, there was no club. Once I started having intercourse, I began to associate those first stirrings of cramping with a sense of relief. I’d high-five myself, or my boyfriend, if he was around – “Yes! Not pregnant this month!” – and then groan as I remembered that this fertility message is brought to you by five days of bleeding and blergh. As my 10-year-old self had predicted, what a pain. 

Then, a few months after my twenty-third birthday, my period disappeared. It wasn't a surprise to me that it had stopped showing up: that's what happens when you don't eat nearly enough and you exercise way too much. For two-and-a-half years, it kept not showing up. I wasn't particularly worried about it; like a lot of eating disordered people, I took it as a sign that I was doing something right.

Of course, it was a sign of completely the opposite. If a female's biological, evolutionary purpose is to conceive and bear children (I'm talking biology here, not culture; if you tell me that my purpose on earth as a woman is to conceive and bear children, I will smack you upside the head),  then I was failing miserably at fulfilling that purpose. My period disappeared because I wasn't healthy enough to sustain a pregnancy, and my body knew it.

Our bodies are smarter than we give them credit for. Often, they’re smarter than we are. When it comes to weight, they know what shape, and what size, they’re meant to be. We can fight them on that, we can try to thwart genetic destiny, but our bodies usually win in the end. You can starve yourself thin, but your body will adapt: it will take every morsel of food, every ounce of nutrient, and convert it into the fat it knows you need to survive. And it will hold on to that fat for fear that it might one day starve again. We might live in a world of diets and cleanses, but our bodies are relics of another time, when food was scarce and fat was valuable. During those years, my body thought I was living through a famine, when in fact, food was abundant. I just wasn’t eating it.

And then, a few months ago, I stopped starving myself. I stopped punishing myself on the treadmill. I started taking care of myself. And a few months after that, my period returned.

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It was like being twelve all over again. I had forgotten what that very distinctive pain felt like, like someone is grabbing at your insides and twisting them. I had forgotten the breakouts, the bloating, the crankiness that you know is probably hormonally exaggerated but that still feels one hundred percent real. In that sense, I wasn’t thrilled to be menstruating again.

On the other hand, I thought about what it meant for my period to arrive the first time, on that ferry. It was my body deciding it was ready for motherhood, even if the rest of me wasn’t. It was my body declaring, “I can take care of another small human life now!”

I stopped getting my period because I stopped taking care of myself. No way in hell was I ready to take care of a fetus or a child. My body knew that, and it acted accordingly. No shedding of the uterine lining for you, lady, until you give me what I need.

I have no interest in getting pregnant, or staying pregnant, or being a mother, at this moment in my life. Right now, I’m re-learning how to take care of myself. And as much as I groan about it when my time of the month rolls around, as bitterly as I complain, there’s a sweetness there, too. It’s my body’s way of telling that I’m on the right track, that I’m giving it what it needs. I’m getting healthy.

Ten-year-old me was right: having your period is a pain, but there’s also something really cool about it. That time of the month means something different to everyone, but to me, it does feel like I'm a special, secret club. My body and I are in it together, and we're friends again. And that's really great. But now, please leave me alone while I curl up on the couch and give my body what it needs: a pot of tea and half a pack of Tim Tams.

 

 

7 comments

  • This is a really brave piece. Thanks for writing it Chloe. And I'm so glad to hear you're recovering.

    Commenter
    N
    Date and time
    August 26, 2013, 7:09AM
    • As an ex partner of a mid-30s recovering Anorexic who's body is still a total mess years later (not to mention the psychological effects which are still active), I hoped to find some helpful info here on a topic which isn't often discussed, but your piece doesn't address the title at all.

      No mention of the totally abnormal stool cycles, destroyed digestive system, inabilities to breakdown foods, reintrodoction of foods, toxin releases on the skin, and other subtopics. It's wonderful that your journey has come to a better place, but this is a very misleading piece on a topic which just isn't addressed enough.

      There's nothing here which really describes what happens to the body after an eating disorder.

      Disappointing I'm sorry to say.

      Commenter
      Mr M
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 10:34AM
      • Thanks Chloe. However, it really should be titled "What happens to your menstrual cycle during and after anorexia as there are other eating disorder which do not affect the menstrual cycle and this also this article focuses only on the menstrual cycle.

        I can tell you from experience what happened to my body after being in remission from anorexia.

        I found that prior to getting sick I was smart, sharp as a tack, had a brilliant memory. Sadly I don't any more. Having left my body in a state of severe malnourishment has affected my brain and although I'm not 'stupid', I no longer possess that brilliant mind.

        My skin aged at least five years, particularly on my face. I was always being told I looked much younger, but sadly I now look several years older than what I am due to the malnourishment. My poor skin just didn't get enough nutrients.

        Despite many sufferers growing fine body hair, I lost a lot of hair on my head and it's never been the same again. I am envious of women who've long luscious locks. Sadly, I'll never have that.

        If I'd known all this would happen to me prior to starvation would I still have continued down the path of an eating disorder? Sadly yes. Unfortunately what the majority of people don't understand is that it's illness and something that the patient has no control over. It's not a matter of 'just eating'. There are deep psychological and psychiatric disturbances and I can honestly say that being skinny is a side effect of anorexia.

        Therefore, I beg you to think about that before you throw the term 'anorexia' around to describe a thin person. Also saying to an anorexic patient 'just eat' doesn't help anyone.

        Commenter
        Jenna
        Date and time
        August 26, 2013, 12:08PM
        • Fair enough, but your body doesn't *need* half a pack of Tim Tams. A couple of Tim Tams is enough, after that sweet cravings are best taken care of by eating a piece or two of fruit. :)

          Commenter
          mum of four
          Date and time
          August 26, 2013, 12:09PM
          • I've always had a very "meh" attitude towards my period. The only time I think about it is when I actually have it and I think that I'd better make sure I have enough pads for this time and add the item to my next shopping list. I do keep track of them in my diary but only for medical reasons. I recently realised that my period had been erratic for the past 2 years and it was invaluable information for my GP. Other than that, "meh".

            I don't see them as annoying or beautiful, they're just something that happens to me (hopefully) once a month. As I haven't been sexually active for a while now, there's no fear of STDs or pregnancy. When I was pregnant and they stopped, I hardly noticed. I've never seen them as a right of passage or a measure of my health.

            I don't like the pain and tenderness every month, but that's just part of life and an accepted penalty I have to pay for the "priviledge" of bearing children.

            Commenter
            Audra Blue
            Location
            Brisbane
            Date and time
            August 26, 2013, 12:33PM
            • Glad to hear you are in better health these days.

              Commenter
              Mellah
              Date and time
              August 26, 2013, 12:48PM
              • Funny, exact same thing happen to me when I was in year 9 (15 years old).

                My periods had stopped over a three - four month because I exercised to a point where my body decided I could no longer sustain a pregnancy and therefore i didn't get a period.

                So i eased back off the exercise and put on the pounds and it came back.

                The BMI measurements in my case aren't realistic for my health and I worry about others also focusing so hard on a measurement which isn't completely accurate in describing someone who is healthy or not.

                Amenorrhoea (BE) is the absence of a menstrual period in a woman of reproductive age.

                Women who perform considerable amounts of exercise on a regular basis or lose a significant amount of weight are at risk of developing hypothalamic (or 'athletic') amenorrhoea. It was thought for many years that low body fat levels and exercise related hormones (such as beta endorphins and catecholamines) disrupt the interplay of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone.

                However, recent studies have shown that there are no differences in the body composition, or hormonal levels in amenorrhoeic athletes as compared to regularly cycling athletes. Instead, amenorrhoea has been shown to be directly attributable to low energy availability. Many women who diet or who exercise at a high level do not take in enough calories to expend on their exercise as well as to maintain their normal menstrual cycles.

                A serious risk associated with amenorrhoea is severe bone loss sometimes resulting in osteoporosis and osteopenia. It is the third component of a syndrome known as female athlete triad. The other two components of this syndrome are osteoporosis and disordered eating. Awareness and intervention can reduce the prevalence and negative health effects in female athletes.

                Commenter
                Connect the dots
                Location
                Melbourne
                Date and time
                August 26, 2013, 4:32PM
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