An eating disorder at 13 years old led to a long—and so far, fruitless—journey through infertility.
I remember the day perfectly, sitting in 8th grade homeroom, wearing the plaid jumper skirt most parochial schools require with the matching logo on the collar blouse. I even remember the size I wore: I was a five in pants. I was an otherwise average, athletic, high-spirited young woman ready to take on the world.
Out of nowhere, a boy turned around and told me I was fat; tough words to swallow for a 13-year-old who'd just started her first period. That particular comment, lobbed to a girl at an awkward age, with misfiring hormones, challenges at school and nagging insecurity—it was like a sucker punch to the gut. Before long, I started to feel completely out of control, and found myself yearning for something—anything—that would allow me to take back the power.
That desire for control led me to make drastic changes in my eating which resulted in a very serious cycle of restriction and over-exercise—and led me down the path toward an eating disorder. Within three months, that size five shrank to a zero. I lost my recently gained period, developed lanugo, or fine hair growth all over my body (the body's natural defense system to help regulate body temperature), and became depressed.
It was an awful time, but looking back I can see that I was one of the lucky ones. I wasn't abused, I hadn't experienced a monumental loss, and I had a loving family. I was just a kid struggling to figure myself out.
Recovering from anorexia
My family and multidisciplinary treatment team were the key to my recovery, weight restoration and, consequently, career path in life.
But, it wasn't that "easy" to snap right out of my restrictive ways as a stubborn teen. Though my team was great, it was a struggle to embrace and allow myself some of that ubiquitous teenage meal—pizza. What snapped me back on track was when my mom would turn to me and say, "don't you ever want to have kids, Elizabeth?!" These words immediately ignited the fire in me I needed to push past my insecurities and fear of fat, and embrace my body as it was.
After six months in recovery I was still having trouble getting a normal cycle. Just a few months of "flirting" with disordered eating has had a lifelong effect on my health. My doctor at the time prescribed oral contraceptives (OC) to try and fix my menstrual cycles, a regimen that stayed with me until I got married—roughly 12 straight years of a band aid to fix a problem that never was properly addressed from the start.
The impact on my future
Though the research is not straightforward on the link between OC and fertility, I feel strongly that the manipulation of hormones at such a young age has directly impacted my current fertility struggles.
After spending four years struggling with fertility, being diagnosed with hypothalamic amenorrhea, gaining over 35 pounds to hopefully fix the problem from my childhood, I've found no resolution or happy ending. And I find myself feeling numb.
I'm a NORMAL human being. Well, except for the fact I don't ovulate. According to my reproductive endocrinologist, given the history of my longstanding hypothalamic amenorrhea and the time the insult occurred, I will likely never recover hypothalamic function.
I read this and cringe. I get mad, annoyed, and upset all at once. I've always viewed my anorexia as a sort of blessing in my life: It led me to meet the registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) that was my idol, and I discovered my life's mission to become an RDN myself. My eating disorder led me to the most fulfilling career I could have ever asked for. But, now that I am facing nearly four years of trying to conceive with one failed IUI, one failed IVF FET transfer, and still no period, I don't know what to feel.
I've read countless articles, written a book on the subject, and worked with experts to try to find a cure for my infertility, and yet, there appears to be none. It's a known fact that anorexia can lead to infertility, but I never thought that blip in time as a child would affect my lifelong dream of having a family.
Though I can't change the past, nor take away the pain this disease has caused my parents, my sisters and, most importantly, my husband, I know there is a bigger picture being drawn for my life that has yet to be revealed.
Every day I work to focus on the positive of this situation, and I find some peace knowing that through sharing my story, girls out there struggling to find themselves in a sea of negativity might recognize the power of silencing those toxic thoughts and reminding themselves, "you're beautifully and wonderfully made."