What came first?
The depression, the severe IBS or the binge eating?
For the past 8 years, this twisted version of the “chicken or the egg” scenario has occupied the vast majority of my headspace.
When you lose your keys, you’re supposed to retrace your steps. This is also the first question you’re asked in the doctor’s office. What was your first symptom? The problem is, what if all the symptoms are inextricably linked and there was no first? No doctor, therapist or online Google search has been able to give me the answer-or any answer- as to how to move forward with all 3 together. In fact, of the 10 doctors and therapists that I’ve seen, nobody has ever qualified my symptoms to be so critical in nature that I need help.
“But you’re so successful for 23.”
“You’ve never actually attempted suicide.”
“This is just IBS. It’s normal and you just live with it.”
“You’re not losing weight so you must be fine.”
In fact, when I went to the emergency room because I was vomiting blood, instead of gently explaining that it was from my GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease, a common side effect of my symptoms) the woman PA cynically questioned me not once, but three times, whether I was seeing blood or just red Gatorade.
True, nobody has been able to give me the Willy Wonka golden ticket to get back to feeling healthy. Because there isn’t one. But I haven’t experienced an ounce of understanding either. I write this knowing that I am not the only one who understands. What I’ve learned, and continue to learn, is that each step towards healing when dealing with depression, IBS and binge-eating habits comes from an overhaul of your true identity and reasoned choice. You are not who the world sees you to be, nor who you were yesterday or even a minute ago. As Aristotle famously quoted,
“Choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”
No matter what ailments have befallen you or your body, keeping your mind in control and remembering who you want to be will be the key to picking yourself back up to health.
This week, at my core, I let my identity as a weak-willed binger win. I write this at 3:30 a.m. on my iPhone in the fetal position unable to fall asleep because last night following dinner I ate 6 cookies, three servings of ice cream, a mini pie and half a bag of chips before popping 4 laxatives. Despite making good choices for the previous three days, that little hiccup will have me in pain for the next 48-72 hours. My digestive system won’t go back to its form of normalcy for 4-5 days. If my masochistic cycle remains, I’ll eat healthy, self-cooked meals for 4 days, something from my IBS will flare up without any sort of pattern, and that’s the day that I’ll binge again. Because why should I eat healthy if my stomach is going to be in pain anyway?
This is my ever-churning, self-harming cycle of the past several years. My best friends and I joke that I’m a true masochist and that I have no self-control. But I wake up every single day and my first thoughts are always:
“Did I do okay yesterday?”
“Will I feel bloated when I stand up or am I not going to feel good today?”
“Can I even go into the office?”
I will myself to be a woman of strong control and determination. I write it down every night. I know that I actually love meal prepping, cooking new fun foods. I don’t even enjoy eating poorly. I like challenging myself in new ways and treating my body like the incredible force that it is. Some days I’ll string together 3 weeks of positive healthy choices in a row. Recently though, I can’t go a week without a setback. Some days I sleep for 16 hours. Some days I run to the bathroom 13 times a day.
But some days when I feel most myself, I run 9 miles and hit a new personal record in Crossfit. Some days I’m bubbly, personable and killing my career path. Some days I don’t let myself be victim to the symptoms. I own my identity. Yesterday was not one of those days.
I choose to believe my major depressive disorder came from genetic roots, but likely all of my symptoms have been exacerbated by the other two. I can now recognize elements of severe IBS from the time I was quite little. My parents could see how unnaturally extended my stomach was after certain meals to determine when I was done. We used to laugh about how I, as a naturally small frame, could look 6 months pregnant after eating. Not uncommonly, my binge eating grabbed its hold during a stressful relationship in my late teens.
The three came crashing together when I moved away to college. The new environment and new food set off symptoms that I’d never had before. I realized that my unnatural bloating and mysterious stomach pains may actually be rooted in a medical cause so I visited the health center that promptly referred me to a gastroenterologist. Three lackluster tests later, the doctor looks at me and says, “You’re taking anti-depressants. You’re too young for serious issues. You’re doing well in school. Take this medicine and you’ll be fine.” He strongly recommended that I not make another appointment. Seriously.
To nobody’s surprise, the medicine didn’t work. In fact, it actually worsened my symptoms. If the doctor had truly listened, he would’ve realized that I have IBS+C, and what he gave me perpetuated my already slow system to prevent bowel movements for up to 8-9 days. This would inflate my set body weight anywhere from 8-10 lbs on any given day. Two days before my sister got married, we feared that my maid of honor dress would have to be taken out because of my bloating. Once my body regulated, the dress was actually loose.
With IBS+C, you’ll do about anything to make your body re-start.
So I started binging. At the time, I thought I was just dealing with a highly emotional relationship that was taking a toll on my mind and body. I was stress-eating. My boyfriend at the time was so entangled by a prescription drug addiction that neither of us understood. It was enveloping him. He was over dosing. I was the only one that knew. I forgot to take care of myself while I took care of him. In my mind I may have been gaining weight, but I’d rather be doing that, than have an addiction and lose my health like him.
Unfortunately, two years of those habits, took a major toll on my already fragile digestive system. By the time I graduated and moved to a brand new city, my IBS symptoms were at their peak. The black dog of depression was nipping at my heels from a tumultuous break-up. So I went back to the doctors and therapists.
After one year of testing, procedures, scoping and three thousand dollars in medical bills, I learned that yes, my digestive system has sustained severe damage, but my specialist had no answers as to why.
What truly broke me was finding out that she was committing insurance fraud on my case. My test results were rendered obsolete.
I turned to laxatives. I would eat clean, still be in pain, and then eat through an enormous amount of food just to take up to 6 laxatives a day in order to clean my system. I gained 20 pounds.
So I uprooted my life, moved back home and studied the low FODMAP diet feverishly. The problem with depression, IBS and binge eating habits, though, is it’s tough to stick with any diet, let alone one that is hard to understand. I’m not sure how many times I’ve wished myself to have a more critical condition just so that I would know what I could or couldn’t avoid.
It would make it easier to have excuses for my job as well.
“Oh your stomach hurts?”
“Do you have celiac?”
“Have you tried probiotics?”
“What about peppermint oil?”
There is a known stigma around mental health in our country. Though it is not well-addressed, people know mental health issues are rampant. Public knowledge is much less pervasive, though, with women and IBS, which impacts the daily lives of 8% of the population.
On days where my body decides to flare up, no human would want to be running to an office bathroom twice an hour or deal with the migraines and exhaustion that follows. But sick days aren’t always unlimited, especially for what most deem as just a “stomach ache.” It’s embarrassing to share in detail, but if I don’t, I’m pegged as the “lazy millennial who gets to work from home more than others.”
My advice? Don’t apologize and forgive yourself for whatever weak moment you lost yourself into a past identity. That decision has no power over your next one.
I’m finishing typing this from work at 11:30 a.m. the next day. My stomach is distended. I’m wearing a tight skirt. I haven’t eaten yet today. But I feel like I’ve made a break through. Whether you’ve suffered from an eating disorder, IBS or just societal pressures, food does not have to control your present choices. Each minute, choose to do a bit better and celebrate those successes. Celebrate your food wins as much as you do your fitness accomplishments. Focus on fueling your body through food and not what the end goal will make your body look like.
Today I feel like myself because I am myself. No choices that I made yesterday make that less so. No choice that I make today makes it more so. There is no more of “Day 1 of low fodmap or Day 2 of eating clean.” There’s just another day of choices that reflect the true me. In the end, it doesn’t matter what came first.
All that matters is knowing who you truly are and making sure your present choices reflect that individual.
Morgan Chicchelly is a Social Media Director in Des Moines and will be attending Columbia University in New York City this fall.
If you think you’re a cool person, you probably are. Share your story with me! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.