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Mental Health

Imperfection is Beauty

My personal struggles with an eating disorder

Lynsey Henry, MA, RCC

Reprinted from the "Responding to Feelings" issue of Visions Journal, 2021, 16 (4), pp. 16-17

Lynsey Henry

My parents, who didn’t talk much about emotions, were not sure how to help me and often told me to “just calm down” and “get over it.” I noticed how my mom’s constant struggles with her weight started to rub off on me and had me worried that I would grow up overweight.

In the summer before entering high school I lost my friend group from elementary school because they cyberbullied me on MSN Messenger. They said they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore and I should find someone else to hang out with. I felt so out of control. I did not know how to manage my emotions. It seemed best to hide them rather than ask for help. I feel like this is how my eating disorder developed: as a way to have some sense of control.

It started with me obsessing over low calorie and low fat recipes in cookbooks. By offering to cook these meals, I was able to control my food intake. Little did my family know that I had read somewhere about throwing up food to manage weight (purging). So I tried this. At first, I purged foods I deemed “unhealthy,” but this soon grew to include anything that made my stomach feel full. I also restricted my food intake. Struggling with the idea of perfection, I felt overwhelmed, helpless and confused.

Bulimia involves episodes of binge eating followed by efforts to avoid weight gain, such as vomiting, using medications, fasting and excessive exercise. Often people with eating disorders have a distorted view of their body and condition. They might think they are overweight when they are underweight.1

On a trip with my family in the summer of Grade 8, I purged a meal in the hotel room toilet and forgot to flush it. When my parents noticed and shared their concerns, I made excuses, saying my tummy just didn’t feel well. By the time I was 14, I was no longer getting my menstrual period and was cold all the time. My weight was down to close to 100 pounds. Peers started to notice and ask why I got so skinny. This just made me feel more uncomfortable and hide my body with baggy hoodies. I refused to go out for dinner at restaurants with family because I could not control how many calories I consumed or hide my purging behaviours in public. This would often lead to arguments and emotional meltdowns. My family took me to the family doctor who referred me to a dietitian. No one ever recommended a counsellor, even though it was obvious that I was underweight for my age.

I continued to struggle throughout high school but ended up finding a more positive group of friends who supported me. My friend’s mom noticed that I was purging and confronted me about it. At first, I was embarrassed, even angry, but being called out helped me realize I had a problem. After graduation, I continued to struggle off and on. Certain triggers, like idealized media images, would bring back the purging behaviours. A common misconception with mental health and eating disorders is that they just go away once they are treated, but this is not the case. It is more realistic to expect to be affected by triggers in your life. But as a whole you do learn to manage your mental health better. Being in an abusive relationship as a teen and young adult also delayed my willingness to seek help because my self-confidence was so low.

The year I started my first job, as a school teacher, I sought help for my mental health from a counsellor and disclosed my disordered eating. The counsellor taught me cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) skills like journaling and reframing my thoughts and feelings. She also taught me coping skills like finding a mantra, which is why I chose Imperfection is Beauty as the title of this article.2 I also learned self-soothing strategies like yoga, peaceful imagery and deep breathing.

In my practice as a Registered Clinical Counsellor, I teach my young clients many CBT strategies and suggest coping skills that worked well for me. I have found that reframing and repeating affirmations to myself and following body positive Instagram accounts (such as @thebirdspapaya and @mikzazon) especially helpful. Finding an accepting and understanding partner has also been a blessing in my journey.

In reflecting on why I didn’t talk about my emotions much as teen, I think it was because mental health was often stigmatized and frowned upon at that time. If you struggled with your emotions, you were deemed a weak person. School counsellor access and support were lacking—or at least I did not know how to ask for help. This experience has led to my passion of making counselling support accessible for children, youth and teens. I strive to teach them the skills I wished I had learned as a child.

I feel happy to see that many more young women are sharing their struggles with mental health on social media. I hope that reading my story has helped to inspire you the same way that reading others’ stories has inspired me. My last piece of advice to young readers would be to find the words that matter to you, whether that be a mantra, words of affirmation, quotes or song lyrics. Hold on to those words when you are struggling and use them to push through. You’ve got this!

About the author

Lynsey is a Registered Clinical Counsellor. She works as a school counsellor in Surrey. In her spare time, she counsels youth and volunteers for the Stigma-Free Society. Lynsey feels that her struggles with mental health have made her a more empathetic counsellor. Connect with Lynsey on Instagram (@the_passionate_counsellor) and Facebook (LynseyHenryRCC)

Footnotes:
  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA.

  2. This is part of a quote frequently attributed to Marilyn Monroe, but there isn’t clear evidence about authorship.

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