Getting Diagnosed With A Chronic Illness Forced Me To Love My Body After Decades Of Disordered Eating

Photo: Courtesy of Author Olivia Jakiel / Instagram
Olivia Jakiel
Self

Summer, 2002.

Thanks to the blaring California sun, a milky way of freckles illuminated my 13-year-old face. 

My hair was lighter, thanks to the Sun In I routinely spritzed into it as I’d let it air dry outside while devouring the old Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines my mom kept under the bathroom sink.

And instead of my cheeks being flushed with the healthy, rosy glow of a teen basking in the lazy summer between seventh and eighth grade, my cheeks were stained with dried, salty streams of tears — thanks to my doctor, who had just called me fat.

Me, at the end of seventh grade.

RELATED: Trump Wasn't Worried About My Health — Why Should I Worry About His?

From the time I was 5 years old, I’ve been an athlete — and a competitive one at that.

I’m not talking about the “I tried soccer for a season” type athlete, either. From the moment I got into sports — mainly hockey and running — I’ve competed at top-tier levels

I’ve also been taller than most of my peers for the majority of my life. When I was 13, I measured in at around 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds — measurements that according to BMI standards, are completely normal for a teen.

However, when I went in for my yearly checkup months before the start of the new school year, my doctor told me otherwise. 

“You better lay off the chips if you want boys to notice you like that,” she said, completely unaware of what those crushing words would do to a fragile 13-year-old who already suffered from extreme anxiety, depression, and image issues, thanks to the acne peppered across my face and my andrognyous appearance.

So began my extreme dieting and hatred towards my teenage body. 

I had just joined a new hockey team that summer, and our coach was a fitness fanatic. I told myself that along with my strict new exercise regimen that was implemented by my well-to-do coach, I would only eat healthy and “nourish” my body with what it needed. No more candy, no more fast food, no more chips — especially no more chips.

About two months after what I thought was the start of my newfound “health journey,” I walked through the doors of my junior high school with an air of confidence I’d never had before.

Once an awkward, acne-prone tomboy whose inner voice was constantly screaming I was never going to be good enough, I suddenly became the epitome of health and beauty to my peers and teammates. 

Of course, what started as a “health journey” quickly spiraled into an obsession. I began counting every calorie, every carb, every gram of fat and sugar in everything. I worked out as much as I could, carefully calculating how many calories I consumed that day, and doing specific workouts to counter the calories I ate. 

At my lowest weight, I was 98 pounds. 

I thought it was a milestone at the time. Me, a tall, athletic girl who was constantly referred to as “big” because of my height, finally made it into the double-digit weight class. 

I obviously wasn’t healthy, though. My period stopped for nine months. My classmates would whisper about me as I walked past them. My teammates and their parents were concerned. My family was also very concerned, and would try to find ways to get me to eat and put on weight.

Fortunately, after I went to a new doctor for a checkup at the end of eighth grade, she gave me a reality check: if I didn’t want to end up with a feeding tube or going to rehab for my eating disorder, I’d need to start gaining weight, ASAP. 

And I did. That threat was enough to scare me into prioritizing my health for the rest of my high school career. 

I was awarded a full scholarship to play Division-1 ice hockey at the University of Wisconsin — Madison my senior year of high school. 

So when I moved halfway across the country for college in 2007 knowing absolutely nobody, my anxiety was at an all-time high. 

I started falling back into my previous thought patterns during my freshman and sophomore year of college. While I never lost a tremendous amount of weight while playing a D1 sport, I was more tuned into — and conscious of — my body than ever before. 

Around mid-January 2009, I suddenly started dropping weight. At first, I attributed the slight weight loss to my newfound love of staying hydrated and drinking mass amounts of water throughout the day. Perhaps, I thought, I was just flushing out toxins or getting rid of the bloating that I’d seemingly been subjected to my entire life. 

The following six weeks, though, I went from weighing about 135 pounds to about 115 pounds — without trying at all. Part of me rejoiced in this sudden weight loss, but another part of me knew something was terribly wrong. 

I was eating more than 5000 calories a day, craving sweets like no other (I have never been a dessert person), had an undying thirst that could never be quenched, and I was so tired, I’d sleep from the time I got home from practice in the evening all the way through my morning and afternoon classes the following day — all of which was out of character for me. 

On March 15, 2009, during my sophomore year and right before my team was set to travel to the NCAA Frozen Four held in Boston, Mass., I received a life-changing diagnosis that would forever alter my world. 

After some tests at the hospital a week prior, our team doctor called me while I was getting ready for an afternoon barbeque with my team. 

“You need to come to the rink right now. I’ll meet you there. We need to go to the hospital,” she said with an urgency in her voice that I’d never heard before. 

I hightailed it over the rink, and while we were driving to the hospital, my doctor looked at me with tears and fear in her eyes.

“You have Type 1 diabetes,” she said. 

It was a whirlwind from there. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office — I should’ve been hospitalized, but that’s another story — with nurses, a doctor, and a diabetes educator surrounding me.

I gave myself my first insulin shot right then and there, and they sent me home with my new medication, a blood sugar meter, and a very unhelpful sheet of paper explaining how to take care of myself for the rest of my life.

I remember getting back to my cold, one-bedroom apartment just outside the Madison campus, and having to call my parents with the news. My family was over 2000 miles away and there was nothing they could do at that very moment.

I had never felt more alone, and it didn’t help that everyone in my life who knew about it told me to hide it, as if I were some weak, internally-deformed monster who’d never experience a normal life.

Type 1 diabetes is a very complicated disease.

It’s an autoimmune disease, and differs from Type 2 in many ways. Living with Type 1 diabetes doesn’t mean you just take some insulin and call it a day. Literally everything affects your blood sugar: hormones, stress, the weather, exercise, what you eat, what you don’t eat, the altitude — I can go on forever. 

Insulin is a hormone made in your body's pancreas, and its job is to regulate blood sugar. If your body doesn’t produce insulin — which everyone needs to survive — you will die.

With Type 1 diabetes, you have to figure out your short-acting insulin to carb ratio in order to inject the appropriate amount before meals, snacks, or any time you consume food or beverages. You need to figure out what your long-acting insulin requirements are. 

You need to know how many carbs are in everything you eat. When someone without diabetes sees a plate of food, they see a plate a food. I see numbers, I see calculations, I see my foreseeable miserable future if I don't take enough insulin or if I take too much.

You also need to know how your body reacts to everything — food, your environment, etc. You have to keep your blood sugar in range all day, every day, for the rest of your life. And these requirements constantly change.

Type 1 diabetes is a 24/7 job. You don’t get a vacation. You don’t get breaks. If you take a break, you die. 

Here’s the thing, though: high blood sugar will cause weight loss, which is one of the main symptoms many people experience before getting diagnosed. 

As someone who suffered from an eating disorder at a very young age, the thought of having to inject a hormone multiple times a day that would make me gain weight, for the rest of my life, was the cruelest joke the universe could have played on me. 

Thus began my years-long battle with a new eating disorder: diabulimia. 

RELATED: What They Don't Tell You About Battling An Eating Disorder

Diabulimia is when a person living with Type 1 diabetes purposely restricts their insulin in order to lose weight. It’s dangerous, often results in hospitalization, and will likely cause long-term damage to one’s organs. It can also result in death.

For years after my initial diagnosis, I would restrict my insulin. 

Sometimes, I’d go weeks without checking my blood sugar. I just wanted to be “normal” again, to live my life like I did for the previous two decades.

I desperately wanted people to still see me as “the tall skinny girl,” not “the girl with diabetes.”

Looking back, I was in a state of denial for quite some time. I’d go through periods of feeling empowered about my illness and take really good care of myself. Then, I’d relapse and fall into my old patterns, and would pretend like I didn’t have a disease that could very well kill me if I didn’t get my sh*t together. 

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Join now for YourTango's trending articles, top expert advice and personal horoscopes delivered straight to your inbox each morning.

I ended up in the hospital multiple times due to DKA — Diabetic Ketoacidosis, which is basically when your blood sugar is so high, your organs start shutting down. 

In 2018, nearly two years after my latest hospital stay because of not taking my insulin, I was happy with how I was taking care of myself and embracing my disease. 

But then, I started losing weight again, having adverse reactions to foods I could previously consume with no issue, and was experiencing crippling anxiety to the point where I couldn’t go out in public without having a massive panic attack.

It’s a difficult thing: not having control of your own body no matter what you do. 

But instead of reverting back to my old mindset, I took control of what I could. 

If you look closely, you can see my “robot part.”

I was approved for a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) in Oct. 2018 and it was life-changing.

CGMs are basically robot parts implanted on one’s body that allow those living with diabetes to see their blood sugar trends in real time, which makes monitoring blood sugar SO much easier. You can just look at the app on your phone and see where you’re at — instead of pricking your fingertips eight times a day, the info is readily available at your fingertips instead.

It gave me peace of mind for the first time in almost a decade, and in a way, finally forced me to come to terms with my diagnosis. 

I’ve proudly worn my CGM on my arm for the last 2+ years, and it’s allowed me to regain control of my life. Instead of wondering what my blood sugar is, not caring, or being too busy to check during exercise, while running errands, etc., I just peep my phone and make decisions from there.

This also made it easier for me to start a new health journey. Life isn’t just about being “skinny” anymore — it never should’ve been in the first place.

When I was restricting and/or completely disregarding my insulin, I could barely function. 

I couldn’t walk up the stairs without getting winded, I couldn’t aimlessly wander the aisles of Target without needing to sit down, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, complete any sort of workout. The shame I carried from being one of the top athletes in the country and going to ... that — was unbearable.

Now, I feed my body what it craves. I stick to a relatively low-carb diet because that’s what my body responds best to (the more carbs you eat, the more insulin you have to take), but if I feel like devouring an entire gluten-free pizza and treating myself to a couple glasses of wine, I do it — without guilt and without beating myself up about it.

And if I want a bag of chips, then let me tell you: I eat the hell out of that bag of chips. 

I can hike 10 miles through the California mountains, only needing to stop for a water break or to give myself some skittles if my blood sugar is going low. I can do hour-long spin classes, play volleyball on the beach, and paddleboard in the ocean — things I was never able to do while punishing my body for attacking my pancreas over a decade ago. 

I proudly display the bruises from my insulin shots on my stomach, my robot part on my arm, and the fact that I’m living with a life-long, chronic illness — and kicking ass while doing so. 

I once thought that my Type 1 diabetes diagnosis meant my life was over, and that it was an inevitable death sentence. I thought I had done something awful to deserve the mental and physical anguish I'd been put through since my diagnosis. 

Now, I know that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Type 1 diabetes is a life sentence in many ways, and if I had never been diagnosed, I would still be in the toxic cycle of self-hatred that was instilled in me as a young girl. 

RELATED: 10 Critical Lessons I Learned From Binge Eating Disorder Treatment And Recovery

Olivia Jakiel is an editor and writer who covers celebrity and entertainment news. Follow her on Instagram and keep up with her zingers on Twitter