ON SELF LOVE

An Unhealthy Obsession With Health: My Struggle With Orthorexia

How I forgave myself, and overcame orthorexia.

I am completely passionate about health and wellness. From a young age, I always loved to move my body: Dance, running, gymnastics—anything that made me feel energized and alive. I love to learn about all aspects of health and wellness, from movement to nutrition to self-transformation. This passion for a healthy lifestyle, however, was not always “healthy”.

A passion to an obsession.

Years ago, moving to the big city opened my eyes to new lifestyles consisting of gyms, health food stores—and the ‘clean eating’ trend that was sweeping the world. I was hooked. Part of me had always leaned towards perfectionist tendencies. I grew up feeling that I needed to be the best, prove my worth, and earn love and acceptance. I loved to compete in all of my pursuits. I sought approval from others, and wanted a lot of attention. From the outside, I was just “super determined”; from the inside, however, I was attempting to fill a void that perfectionism and approval-seeking never would.

Striving for perfection.

I grew up with my dad and brother, and saw and spoke to my mom only rarely. I had a lot of pain, resentment, and feelings of abandonment tied up in our relationship. I was 19 years old when she passed. I thought I had grieved, yet, in reality, even on the day of her memorial I was distracting myself from feeling by studying for exams.

Soon after, my passion for health developed into something damaging. I made rules for my eating and workouts. I researched the topic excessively, cut things from my diet and ramped up my workout regime. I became fitter, and people noticed, fueling my desire to take it further.

More rules, more restrictions. I was hooked on the need to control, to compete, to “win” my own approval. When I had control over this outward aspect of my life and met all the rules I created, THEN (and only then) would I feel good about myself. Breaking any of these rules—even having a “rest day”—made me feel worthless. This continued for months.

I had a “disorder” and had no idea.

A person with Orthorexia is not obsessed with “thin-ness”; it comes about as a desire for purity (hence clean eating). It is healthy eating to the point of unhealthy-ness. Like most eating disorders, it’s a condition of control that can result in severe weight loss, malnutrition, and disease. My control manifested in maintaining a strict and intense workout regime while eating as minimal clean foods. I lost 44 pounds in a matter of months. I found myself at 94 pounds, 4% body fat. Then my internal organs began to shut down. I was weak, my moods were dull, I barely slept. I had constant anxiety about whether or not I was meeting all the rules I had set. At the end of the day, if I did meet all my rules, I would feel a sense of okayness.

orthorexia

I was seeking more than control.

I was seeking love and self-acceptance, things I believed I couldn’t have unless I earned it. How could I accept me when my own mother didn’t? The guilt, grief and depression that I bottled up came out through my condition.

If I could control my eating and exercise, I could control my emotions and I’d deserve to feel ok about myself. Of course, I had no conscious knowledge that I was doing this. It is only in hindsight, after self-reflection and therapy, that I see it. It was more than feeling abandonment: It was the guilt and defeat I felt when my mother died, knowing that I had so much more to give, to connect and to forgive in our relationship.

The therapy: Loving my mind, body and spirit.

I was physically at the point where if I didn’t make a change, it would be fatal. I took time away from all obligations; I quit my job, left university, stayed with family. I took that time to just BE. Instead of battling the thoughts and anxiety with my mind, I felt it—all of it. I realized that I wasn’t my thoughts. I wasn’t my feelings. They were just thoughts and feelings, and I could just watch them. I listened to audiobooks from Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, Thich Naht Hahn, which, combined with various mindfulness exercises and therapy, aided in my recovery. I started devoting time to my art. I found yoga. I connected with my family. I got down deep and dirty in the depths of my mind, and shined a light on even the darkest places. Eventually, I forgave myself.

A return to my passion.

Through my recovery, I still maintained a healthy lifestyle. I worked out. I ate well. The difference was that it wasn’t coming from a need to control. I didn’t attempt to focus on my patterns around food; rather, I focused on the emotions driving my patterns. What worked for me was that I QUESTIONED all that I did. I asked myself “Is this action coming from self-love, or in a bid to feel approval?”

Most of all, I made sure that even without working out or eating completely clean, without doing or being anything, I felt more than ok about myself, that I could love who I was, unconditionally. I realized that health was so much more than what I ate and what I did. It is a mindset—not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Wellness is balance.

Where I am now.

Not long into my recovery, I went on a yoga and meditation retreat in Bali. I fell in love and knew I would live here some day. Four years later, I’m living in Ubud, teaching yoga, presenting mindful eating workshops, and working as a writer and an artist. Some days, the patterns of perfectionism and control come back in. I am grateful to have spent my energy on creating the awareness within myself to know that I can let these thoughts and feelings pass. They can move through me, and go beyond me. Because they are not me.

I am beautiful. I am worthy. I am loved—as I am. And so are you.

If you, or someone you know, may be struggling with controlling their ‘healthy’ lifestyle in an unhealthy way, seek help. It is there for you, and you will come out stronger and healthier in your entire being.

Visit for orthorexia.com for more info.

A few more personal essays that may support you on your journey:

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