Every story starts with a backstory. I could share my journey without providing any context, but it wouldn’t read the same way or convey how God has worked throughout the entire process. Here’s how it all began.
Most college females struggle with the freshman 15 and restrict their eating to shed pounds, but that wasn’t me. I lost 15 lbs. since the beginning of last year due to medically induced anorexia and have developed other health problems, including sinus bradycardia, low blood pressure, hypoglycemia, anemia, mild osteoporosis, peripheral neuropathy, and nutritional deficiencies.
I noticed something was wrong — really wrong — with me near the end of April during my sophomore year. I felt horrible pain after eating lunch one day. It originally seemed like my stomach reacted negatively to some item (cafeterias are notorious for food poisoning due to cross contamination, food sitting out too long, etc;). However, the pain recurred. It continually felt like someone stuck a rock inside my abdomen. Things worsened after a week or two and instead of just abdominal cramping, my stomach started bloating and rumbling.
The problems affected more than just my digestive system. I soon started feeling “foggy.” I couldn’t concentrate in any classes or focus on the papers I wrote. I frequently spaced out as I edited any assignment and became surprised when my professors took points off for errors — after all, I swore I read through that paper at least five times. The fogginess morphed into painful migraines and there were a couple times where I almost started bawling in classes and ran out of the room. For a while, I thought I had some horrible flu bug that my body couldn’t fight off for some reason.
As if that wasn’t enough, I was extremely fatigued. All the time. I generally slept eight hours a night, so it’s not like my body was sleep deprived. Nonetheless, my body ached all the time and felt very lethargic, so I napped between several classes (even if it was as short as 10 minutes) and even had some days where I went to bed at 7 p.m. I eventually declined my friends’ invitations to hang out, stopped responding to texts, and isolated myself in my room.
As April turned to May, it became clear something was off, yet I was too afraid to tell anyone. Things really spiraled out of control at the end of May when I started working as a camp counselor. I always felt sleepy and sick after eating and became apathetic about my job after the first two weeks because I’d spend several hours sleeping instead of hanging out with the staff. In addition, I did not interact with some of my campers some weeks as much as I hoped because I simply didn’t have the energy to smile and just be around people. The camp environment pushes extroversion. I already had to push past my comfort zone as an introvert, but fighting illness at the same time really pushed me over the edge and caused me to feel overwhelmed, leading to psychological damage.
I called my parents the second week of camp in tears. “Mom, something’s wrong with me,” I said. “Honey, I think you’re just stressed out — maybe a good night’s sleep will help,” she replied, but this phone call wasn’t the last. I called her a couple days later and cried in the bathroom during free time probably at least three different times because I couldn’t get through the day. It got to the point where I wanted to escape reality, lay in bed ,and never wake up. During the middle of the third week, I called my mom and told her I wanted to leave camp. Forever. We both knew this wasn’t the answer but realized I needed to come home and at least see a doctor, so I took Monday and Tuesday off the following week and checked into an urgent care.
The doctor concluded I had a blood sugar problem and gluten sensitivity, but my weight also dropped to 105 lbs, which shocked me. I just attributed it to the fact that I ran around all day as a counselor and swam laps as a lifeguard, so I naturally lost weight. My pain started fleeing after I adapted a gluten-free, low-glycemic diet, but I still didn’t feel normal.
Everything spiraled out of control in September. I constantly felt horrible after eating anything and started skipping meals. Like last semester, napping became a central part of my day. However, I pushed myself harder this semester so nobody would notice I dealt with an illness. I still hung out with friends, worked, led a team of writers, and played in wind ensemble. And did homework on top of that.
Even though I convinced myself I was fine, I felt pressured to perform for others, which drained any energy my body had. I didn’t want to complete my homework most nights, yet the majority of my professors didn’t know what I dealt with and I pushed myself to complete everything as best as possible, even if it meant spending a couple extra hours than projected or staying up late. I earned a solid 4.0 last semester, but I exchanged these good grades for trauma. Mental scars formed from these unhealthy habits and I eventually thought I was on the brink of insanity because I’d feel great at one moment and then sit alone in a dark room the next. The trauma also caused me to hate the things I loved, so I practiced flute less, put my guitar away, hated everything I wrote, and even boxed up my painting supplies.
I swore I’d never call my parents more than a couple times each month during college, but I started calling my mom at least twice a week starting in October. Pretty soon, my “meals” became granola bars, apples, yogurt, and salad. Eventually, it was just one of those two items for the whole day. My body rejected any kind of food. In November, it got to the point where I didn’t want to eat anything and completely lost my appetite. If I had my way, I wouldn’t have eaten anything the whole day, but I forced myself to at least eat snacks so nobody would suspect anything or ask me if I was okay.
As a result, my weight dropped to 96 lbs — a whole nine pounds less than what I weighed only four months previous in July. My doctor told me I barely ate probably 1,000 calories a day and had to stop swimming. As a swimmer, that was devastating news. Swimming relived my stress, so I lost my stress reliever. I called my mom a week before Thanksgiving and told her I wanted to drop my classes for the semester and go home. Thankfully, I stuck things out.
The school doctors soon found out what was going on and tried to help, but several people constantly told that I had an eating disorder because I didn’t want to eat anything and swam a half hour for four times a week, plus an hour on the weekends (about three miles each week). However, I knew I didn’t have an eating disorder — I love cooking and write a food beat as a journalist, after all. But it seemed logical, so I convinced myself for about two months that I was anorexic and only loved swimming because it was an easy way to lose weight. A conversation with my parents soon revealed that, no, I didn’t actually want to lose weight, but I also didn’t want to eat because I didn’t feel like myself when I endured severe pain after eating.
I hoped the problems would go away over winter break since I didn’t have to fight stress from classes, but things didn’t improve. I lost two more pounds between January and February. The light at the end of the dark tunnel came through in February when I finally obtained an appointment with a gastroenterologist, who performed an endoscopy on me. The result was Gastrophic Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Thankfully this diagnosis helped me take steps towards recovery, such as more dietary changes and purchasing certain supplements or medications.
Even with these modifications, I still struggle quite a bit with digestive issues and push myself way past physical limits because I psychologically convinced myself that I can ignore my feelings. Although I’ve eaten quite a bit more than I did in the last couple months, I cannot eat too much at once, can barely eat a small meal, and constantly feel sick after eating due to acid reflux and not eating normally for a long time. Obviously, not eating normally affects my mental health, so I almost dropped out of school twice this semester, but I’m glad I didn’t because God’s given me incredible opportunities at Biola.
Clearly, this has been a difficult journey that I’m still on. I’m thankful that things started improving, for the four doctors that have helped me through this process, my parents, and my friends who have all walked this journey with me. I hope my story brings hope for others struggling with autoimmune conditions and helps others know how to support people struggling with severe illnesses.