Marie Lamensch, 36, is a communications and project coordinator at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) at Concordia University.
For most people, anorexia starts when you’re a teen, but I developed an eating disorder in my late 20s. I used to have a normal relationship with food; I enjoyed cooking and eating. But for the last 10 years, it’s been up and down. At one point, I lost so much weight that I couldn’t walk anymore. I had to move back in with my mother.
I received treatment at the Douglas Institute in Montreal. I’ve learned to manage my anorexia, but it’s not a way to live: I don’t get my periods; I can’t have children; I still eat very little throughout the day because whenever I eat, I feel guilty.
Even before coronavirus, I didn’t go to parties or restaurants. I avoided those situations because my biggest fear is being surrounded by food. I’m scared that if I’m near food, I’ll eat it and get fat. That’s what my mind says, anyway.
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I also avoided being home. I used to get up at 6:30 a.m., work out at the gym for at least an hour, bike to my job, work non-stop and leave the office quite late.
During this quarantine, people on social media have been sharing tons of advice on wellness and self-care at home. The content that’s been put out there assumes that everyone’s idea of home is the same; that home is a safe place. That isn’t the case for me. Home is my nightmare; where there’s always food and I’m alone with my body and my negative thoughts. Now that I’m at home all the time, I try to be as far away from the kitchen as possible. I also always have sound on—a podcast or music—so I don’t have to listen to my own thoughts about hunger. I always try to distract myself.
The strange thing about anorexia is that I am attracted to food shows and magazines because I’m always so hungry. I enjoy reading or watching because I know I can close the magazine or turn off the TV. But right now, wherever I look there’s food. On the web, there’s articles about baking bread or how to stock up your pantry. Even Quebec’s public health director baked pastel de natas to relieve stress. It seems like cooking is calming a lot of people down, but for me, it’s the exact opposite—it stresses me out.
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After a decade living with an eating disorder, I’ve forgotten what normal food portions look like. I eat very small amounts at a time. If you asked me to eat a whole apple, I’d be full after half of it. I even don’t remember what pasta tastes like.
That’s why it drives me nuts when I see people posting about weight loss or diets during quarantine. At the Douglas Institute, I learned that any type of food restriction can be detrimental. One of the reasons I developed anorexia is because of dieting and limiting what I allowed myself to eat. I lost control.
During the first week of lockdown, the food hoarding made me panic. Grocery stores are always scary places for people with eating disorders. I get overwhelmed by an abundance of food, but the idea of shortages is just as frightening because I survive on a narrow variety of fruits and vegetables like watermelon, lettuce and strawberries. The thought of not having access to these items worries me.
The gym was part of my everyday life, so when the YMCA closed, I started exercising outside. After a week of running on concrete, my feet got swollen and I couldn’t walk for three weeks. This was a wakeup call because I realized how much anorexia has hurt my body. At first, eating disorders are like your best friend; a constant companion. But now I know it’s my enemy—I just need to figure out how to beat it.
I talk to my parents almost every day and they’re really supportive. I have a couple friends who have had anorexia and we support each other. During the pandemic, Anorexia and Bulimia Québec (ANEB) has also been hosting weekly online chats that’ve been really helpful. Being in quarantine has brought so much disruption to my life that I reach out to my family, friends and support systems like ANEB now more than I ever have.
There have been some positive outcomes that have come out of being stuck at home. Lockdown has forced me to confront my fears—I was scared of being around the fridge and pantry because I thought I’d binge eat, I was afraid of what would happen to my body if I didn’t exercise, and I was afraid of not having structure, which is important to people living with anorexia. I’m learning that this new routine is okay, even though it looks really different from my life pre-pandemic.
I’ve learned that I can break the unhealthy habits I’ve developed by enjoying other activities that give me joy, like reading or drawing. I’m hoping that in the long term, this experience will help me get better. I’m finding ways to control my fears, instead of letting them control me.
—As told to Ishani Nath