Thursday March 02, 2017

Hunger game

Listen to Full Episode 32:01

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[WARNING: CONTAINS EXPLICIT CONTENT]

Body image can be a focal point for so many students starting out in university. But too often it can become an obsession. And in Meredith Healey's case, it turned into a hunger game that threatened her life.

"Being super skinny was really championed. Especially in the fashion magazines, the models that they used. I just got this perception of what beautiful looks like, and what pretty looks like."

It all started out as an innocent attempt at avoiding the Freshman 15 - those inevitable 15 pounds you gain during first year of university or college, thanks to bad eating habits and excessive drinking. In Meredith's case, this notion quickly sparked an infatuation with weight-loss, fuelled by fashion magazines. Without even realizing it, she became anorexic.


FRESHMAN 15

In high school, Meredith excelled on all fronts. She was a straight-A student, played varsity basketball, had tons of friends, and was even voted most likely to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Her parents couldn't be prouder. 

"I had a huge group of friends, socially was better than academically. I mean, my excellence was in academics, but my joy came from my social life. I had it all. It was all perfect."

But a few months before university started, she began hearing the term 'Freshman 15' mentioned in conversations with family and friends. And being the driven person she was, Meredith was determined to avoid the Freshman 15. So she took action.

"I decided that I was going to preemptively squash that Freshman 15 theory by losing 15 pounds before I even got to university. So I started by just working out a couple days a week. Two weeks passed by, and I didn't have results," she remembers.


OBSESSION

It wasn't long before Meredith became obsessed with losing as much weight as possible. She read fashion magazines that influenced the way she perceived beauty. In her eyes, being really skinny was championed. So she decided to take it to another level, and stop eating altogether. "I remember thinking that I really wanted the chest that they do. And I don't mean breasts, I mean chest. It was like a protruding pigeon chest almost, but, it was bony, but it was elegant," she recalls.  

"In my mind, that was the sound of my body eating its own fat. I loved feeling that sound. And when I heard that sound, that's when I knew that I was doing it right."

"So my next challenge to myself was to eat as few calories as possible. I didn't have a threshold. So I'd get through the day by chewing on gum and drinking coffee, black," she said.

In the evenings, Meredith began experiencing hunger pains. And to combat this, she ate watermelon just to fill her stomach before falling asleep. Things quickly spiraled out of control - Meredith had become anorexic without even knowing it.

Meredith Healey

EXTREME ANXIETY

By the time Meredith started university, she had already lost 25 pounds. But weight loss was no longer the priority. In order to remain in the journalism program at Carleton University, she had to maintain a B+ average by the end of first-year. With only weeks into that first semester, Meredith became extremely anxious on a daily basis. "I think that anorexia was a gateway to this mad anxiety that I went through," she remembers.

"I run into the ER screaming, 'I need a doctor! I need a doctor!' And I'm clutching my chest. All I want to do is rip my fingers into my chest and pull my heart out because it won't stop beating against my ribs so hard."

One morning, while walking to French class, Meredith suddenly began to have breathing problems. "The walls around me are closing in on me. But the biggest thing that I feel and I can't let go of is my heart. It starts with a pop, and then it starts doing triple time what it usually does. And I think I'm having a heart attack, I'm 18 years old, and I'm having a heart attack," she thought.

She caught a cab and raced to the hospital. And when she arrived, a doctor told Meredith that she was experiencing a panic attack, and gave her a paper bag to breathe into. After she regained her composure, the doctor simply sent her home.


THE SYMPTOMS  

As the semester continued, the anxiety persisted. She struggled to get a handle on what was happening to her. "I'd run back to my dorm room and I'd do exactly what that doctor did to me, and breathe into a brown paper bag, and feel my own pulse, and just count, 1-10 and 10-1," she recalls.  

"Sometimes I would just sit down in the shower and let the hot water just spray down on me. And in that moment, I felt warm, so at least one thing was going good."

Meredith was experiencing a myriad of symptoms too - her hair began falling out, she was constantly cold, her teeth began hurting, and she couldn't bring herself to fall asleep. "I think I was always striving to get control of it, and that's why I wouldn't go to a doctor. I was trying to understand what was going on in my head," she said.


ROAD TO RECOVERY

Eventually, after her mom insisted that she should see someone, Meredith reluctantly visited a doctor. And when she stepped onto a scale, she was shocked at the number she saw - Meredith was 89 pounds. 

"And right away I dropped to the ground and I was bawling. And god, I went to school in September, being 100 and it was November, and I had lost 10 more pounds. And I didn't even mean to. 90 pounds for an 18 year old girl, that's sick." 

According to Meredith, that scale saved her life. She told the doctor everything that day, and pleaded for help. Afterwards, the doctor put Meredith on medication. She began her road to recovery.

Now, Meredith is healthy, and back to 125 pounds. "There are times when I feel those days of anorexia creeping back into my head. If I'm two months away from going to a trip down south, or I know I'm gonna be in a bikini next weekend, so I better not eat this week. You know, I get those voices in the back of my head all the time still, so it doesn't exactly go away, but you can fight it off because those were the darkest days of my life," she reflected.

EXTRA | There's one part of Meredith's story that really stands out for us. While she was gripped by her first panic attack, she went to the hospital thinking she was having a heart attack. An ER doctor helped by asking her to breathe into a paper bag. When Meredith eventually calmed down, the doctor simply sent her home. 

At this point, Meredith was 100 pounds. She was skinny and frail, yet the ER doctor didn't pick up on any physical signs pointing to a mental illness. 

But Meredith certainly isn't alone. In fact, anorexia carries the highest mortality rate of any mental illness out there. So where is the disconnect when it comes to recognition by healthcare professionals?

For more insight we asked Dr. Brian Goldman, an ER doctor and host of CBC Radio's White Coat, Black Art, to join us for a chat. Hear this important conversation about why eating disorders are being forgotten in the medical world.