As identical twins, we shared everything. Except my eating disorder
Bridget Yard and her twin couldn't have been closer. So why did Bridget stop eating, and not Brianna?
I am a journalist, and I am an identical twin. Those identities usually co-exist peacefully, and my personal life rarely bleeds into the professional.
But my unique experiences with my twin sister have led me to a story that I can't ignore.
Brianna and I couldn't be closer. I love her in a way that no partner or parent or friend has ever come close to.
But when I was 13, I developed an eating disorder, and she didn't. I hid it from everyone in my life, including Brianna, who was usually my confidante.
I sometimes thought I wouldn't survive my teenage years, or early adulthood, because of my illness. But once I let Brianna in on my secrets, we began to deal with them together.
She continues to be my greatest support as I enter recovery and work hard to live a healthy, full life.
But we both still struggle with something. Why did I develop an eating disorder, and not Brianna? We were raised in the same environment, by the same loving parents. Our DNA is identical.
I want to know what tipped the balance. Why me?
Two of a kind
I loved to be around her and she knew all my secrets. Really, when you're that close, you can't have secrets from the other party. We were just two of a kind growing up.- Brianna
Brianna and I slept in the same crib every night as infants. Our parents used to swaddle and lay us at opposite ends.
By morning, we would always have made our way to the middle, touching in our sleepers.
My parents tell me now that we had our own language of babbles before we could speak properly, and we seemed to communicate to each other just fine.
When we progressed from crawling to walking, I was about a month ahead, but that doesn't mean I left Brianna behind. I pushed her in front of me, on a little toy train.
Brianna was clever and mischievious and fiercely protective of me. I was sensitive with a precocious streak. Sometimes I needed protecting.
Our closeness is the standout of my childhood. Every memory includes my twin sister. We hated to be apart, and shared every single secret.
We were happy, joyful children. I wish every child had a twin so they could experience the comfort our relationship brought to me when I was younger.
A secret takes hold
I knew that you were sensitive, and I use 'sensitive' now like a blanket term to say 'she's sensitive and sad.'- Brianna
I spent five years in high school, and I was hungry for all of them.
I knew I didn't want to eat, but I didn't know why. It would be years before I realized I was struggling with anorexia, and years after that before I was honest with my twin sister about what was going on.
For most of my teens I felt like a raw nerve, sensitive to every judgment and criticism, real or perceived. As in childhood, I continued to feel emotions deeply and intensely.
I didn't attend parties with Brianna or our other friends until I was 17, because I was terrified to be rejected by my peers. I couldn't imagine that anyone would want to speak with me at length on some couch in a friend's basement. It terrified me that I might have to drink alcohol to summon the confidence I needed to hang out with my friends. But then, I was also terrified what I might let slip in conversation if I did choose to drink.
You always ate way less than me. I just thought, oh my gosh, you must be so hungry!- Brianna
At school, I walked around with a heavy book in my arms at almost all times — it was my secret weapon. Instead of eating in the cafeteria at lunch, I could find a quiet corner to read.
By the end of the day, I was exhausted and miserable from starving myself. I took my frustration out on my parents and my sister.
The helplessness and confusion I felt was probably some combination of depression and anxiety. I might have learned that earlier if I had sought help, or if anyone had realized what was going on.
"You always ate way less than me," said Brianna when we spoke about our teenage years recently. "I just thought, oh my gosh, you must be so hungry!"
I was so deep into my secret life that I whenever I ended up at the doctor's, I explained away all my symptoms — and always kept a few rolls of coins in my pockets just in case they wanted to weigh me.
Depression didn't fit with the story I told others, or with the Bridget I presented to the world: smart, high achieving, athletic, and — most important to me at the time — thin.
I became so good at keeping my true self hidden that even Brianna didn't know the extent of my struggle.
Not only was I hiding my anorexia, I was hiding all the reasons behind it — the secrets that kept me sick.- Bridget
I never allowed my teenage self to just be who she was. Even now, looking at photos, I can tell how uncomfortable I was in my own skin.
Not only was I hiding my anorexia, I was hiding all the reasons behind it — the secrets that kept me sick.
I had little crushes on female celebrities and female friends my whole life. I had crushes on men, too, and those were the only feelings I spoke about.
My bisexuality became obvious to me as a teenager. I was so terrified of the judgment of my parents and my peers that I kept any kind of sexual expression buried far longer than my friends and classmates.
I pushed my sexuality further back into the closet than my eating disorder. That closet was full up, and it was killing me to continue the charade.
Running on empty
I find it difficult that she kept secrets from me. Now that I know the depth of suffering and that she was in pain, and the self-hate, I feel more sad than angry that she kept it from me.- Brianna
There was one part of myself that I shared with others — my passion for running.
It was one of the only things, other than reading, that gave me true pleasure and peace.
Brianna and I trained up to 20 hours a week together for cross-country skiing and running. Endurance sports were the perfect hiding place for an eating disorder, so my thin frame was usually safe from any scrutiny that might expose my secret.
During this time, I didn't eat unless I had trained that day, and even then, I never ate enough to fuel the many kilometres I was logging.
At 17, I lost a noticeable amount of weight after a winter cough progressed into a springtime lung infection and pneumonia. I didn't eat to nourish my body or to get better. I ate only enough to get my parents off my back so I could eventually get out of bed and go back to school.
I ended up missing the track and field season that year because of the pneumonia. I was disappointed, and so was my sister.
She knew how badly I wanted to be there - and how hard I'd worked. She called me from the meet that day.
"You asked me how I did. And I told you, 'Oh, so-and-so won the steeplechase' and you started crying," she said, when I asked her about that day.
"I thought you were going to be excited. I'm so sorry. I had no idea how you were going to react to that."
As close as we still were at this time, I had become someone Brianna had to tiptoe around, because of my explosive emotions.
She still didn't realize that I was suffering from anorexia, but she knew I needed her.
Becoming the story
I still question almost daily what it was that made this happen to her.- Brianna
My personal interests have always guided my storytelling as a journalist. When I learned about a new body image workshop taking place in Saskatoon, I was excited to pitch a story on it
While participating in the workshop and interviewing the facilitator, I realized this story was too close to home. I couldn't write about body image impartially anymore. I had to disclose my closeness to the story to our audience and listeners.
I spoke on air about my disordered eating for the first time with Saskatoon Morning, our regional morning show.
The host that day, a close colleague of mine named Jennifer Quesnel, introduced me as a reporter for CBC, and began going through her list of questions about body positivity and diets.
"So you're someone who's gone on diets before," she said, reading from the script.
"But what was your experience there?"
There. I said it. The thing I kept secret for so many years was now as public as could be.- Bridget
"Well, I dieted and failed, like most people, but I did diet and succeed, by one measure," I answered.
"The difference is that my diet was life-threatening. I had an eating disorder for many years."
There. I said it. The thing I kept secret for so many years was now as public as could be.
But once I had spoken my truth so publicly, I felt wholly unprepared for the questions that would come next. The most difficult questions to answer were about my sister Brianna.
Why did this happen to me, and why was she spared?
The 'skinny twin'
It's sad. You achievedso much, even in high school, you were an overachiever, and someone calling you skinny — it was like the best. That's nuts.- Brianna
As identical twins entering adulthood, my sister and I still felt like something of a package deal.
People loved to point out our physical differences. It became a bit of a game — well, your eyes are a bit smaller, or her hair is a bit longer. They were all very innocent, well-meaning ways to tell us apart.
We sometimes accepted those differences as parts of our own identity — anything to be recognized as your own person, and not just half of a whole.
Because inside, Brianna and I were, and still are, incredibly different, so those external differences helped us to define who we were as separate individuals.
"You were taller than I was. Everybody would always say, 'Oh she's taller,' and that used to drive me nuts," Brianna remembers.
"But then, as people came to know us, they'd say 'Oh, she's more girly,' and they'd say you're more of a tomboy."
People also called me "the skinny twin."
As much as I said it bothered me, it was affirming to my mind gripped by mental illness. It made me feel good to be the skinny twin.
Was it my fault?
I've always had this self-esteem and this respect and this love for my body. And then Bridget was very much the opposite.- Brianna
Again, my work life and my personal life collided in a decision: to pick up the phone and get some answers. I wanted to really know how it could be possible that I, an identical twin, could have developed this illness, and not Brianna.
According to Steiger, the anorexia I experienced has many causes, and they go far beyond being compared to my sister.
Since our DNA is the same, Steiger says there are a few ways one twin could develop and eating disorder, and not the other.
According to Steiger, this could be caused by "either a unique experience lived by one of the twins that wasn't experienced by the other, or sometimes various factors that can actually change the expression of genes."
Steiger also mentioned that these factors include in utero stress.
I was the weaker twin, more ill than Brianna when we were born prematurely.
Then Steiger tells me about something called epigenetics.
"There are various processes that will either allow a gene to express itself, or silence its expression," said Steiger.
"It's not things that change your DNA, but things that change the way your DNA talks or expresses itself. Like stress or diet."
Howard Steiger told me that since I was the more vulnerable twin, I may have been subjected to the more challenging in uterine distress, which tipped the scales toward genes that are related to eating behaviour, anxiety, and stress management.
Then, he started describing high school Bridget.
"The twin that shows the anorexia nervosa is found to be often more perfectionistic, more prone to being very concerned with making errors, concerned with others' judgments. Now we don't know, is that a sort of a life experience thing that causes that to become more expressed? Or is that a secondary thing because of starvation and the effects of malnutrition? Or is it maybe a prenatal effect, that meant that one of the twins was programmed to be a little more perfectionistic than the other?"
I have never felt more validated than after my conversation with Howard Steiger. Maybe this wasn't all my fault.
'Nothing to it but to get through it'
I felt that urgent kind of gut feeling — this is wrong.- Brianna
I eventually found the courage to get help from the campus health centre when I left my hometown for university across the country. Brianna was three provinces away.
I went to the doctor complaining of a headache, but the moment I sat down on the exam table, the floodgates opened. I cried and cried and told the very kind doctor that I wanted to die.
I was put on medication to regulate my mood, and I went to therapy. Things got better, ever so slightly, ever so slowly. I realized I had been battling anorexia, depression, and anxiety.
By my third year of undergrad, I was completely open with my sister. We used the words "eating disorder," "relapse," and "recovery."
I was also starting to think of my sexuality as something that perhaps didn't have to be hidden.
Brianna and I spoke on the phone every single day. Sometimes multiple times a day.
Bridget, how can you hate something so much that you just want to destroy it?- Brianna
It was hard on her. She was a young woman about to graduate teacher's college, with a bright future ahead of her. I felt like an albatross around her neck, but she was the only person on Earth I could imagine sharing my secrets with.
It took me 10 years to finally tell her about the anorexia. I wasn't going to hold back anymore.
I confided in Brianna one day that I hated what we called my "recovery body." I was in one of my "up" moments. Trying to eat three meals a day, and trying to be kind to myself.
But this new body was lumpy in different places it used to be lean. My weight was redistributing in a way that looked ugly to me.
"Bridget, how can you hate something so much that you just want to destroy it? Because I saw you destroying yourself," she told me later.
"And then I started to understand that the outside was also the inside, that you weren't doing this because you wanted to look a certain way, you were doing it because you felt great conflict within yourself."
Brianna is the only person in my life who ever understood that the eating disorder I battled was directly connected to the way I felt about myself and my truth.
Brianna has a phrase that we use a lot: "Nothing to it but to get through it."
I used to hate that. It's so cold, and things aren't always so simple.
But now, I embrace it. I know I will never have to do this alone. There's nothing to it but to get through it — honestly, and together.
Listen to Bridget's documentary by clicking the Listen link at the top of the page, or download and subscribe to our podcast.
If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention is a good resource.
If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre is also a great resource. Their toll-free help line is 1-866-633-4220,
About the producer
This is Bridget's second documentary for The Doc Project. Her first was "From homeless to Homeward Bound."
This documentary was co-produced by Alison Cook, and edited by Acey Rowe.
Special thanks to Allan Ptack, M.S.W., R.M.F.T. at Homewood Health, for advising on this story.