Life is Good

By Chanel Paré
MD Candidate 2015
University of Ottawa

Believe it or not, I used to be that kid who couldn’t fit through the crack in the fence, then the teen known as “bubble butt” who couldn’t borrow those skinny jeans from her friends. But guess what? I was proud of my butt and I never worried about my weight. I was always an athlete (mostly played hockey and soccer) and ate pretty much what I wanted. Even though two of the five girls in my circle of friends suffered from eating disorders and were hospitalized multiple times, somehow I seemed to be resilient and I didn’t really understand it.

Then, before I went off to university, I decided I wanted to lose a few pounds. So I started eating healthier, lost a few pounds, went off to University and had five amazing years. (Yes, I did an extra year.) Towards the end of my university career, I discovered I was gluten intolerant and adopted a gluten-free diet. As a result of this new regime and my half Ironman training, that summer I lost quite a bit of weight in just a couple of months. One of my close friends in nursing and on the Varsity Triathlon team actually approached me and was worried I was suffering from an eating disorder. At that point, I was shocked. I said, “No, I don’t understand. I keep losing all this weight”. I felt good and didn’t want to lose any more.

So, I completed my half Ironman after finishing up my nursing degree and then was off to medical school. Everyone I met knew me as The Ironwoman and was so impressed with my “muscles” and level of fitness. I was proud. And I wanted to keep being known as The Ironwoman of my class. For the first year of medical school, I was happy. I studied hard, made new friends and had a long distance boyfriend I spent my weekends with. Life was good. Then, I decided to go on a trip to South America with three of my classmates during the first summer. I remember being excited about the trip, but the one fear I had was gaining weight while away.

So off I went to South America with this lingering fear in the back of my mind. In retrospect, the trip was amazing. We spent eight awesome weeks in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, hiking, surfing, meeting new people, trying new foods, etc … But I feel as though I didn’t fully enjoy the trip because of the lingering fear of gaining weight.

When I came back, my boyfriend picked me up at the airport and looked at me and said, “Where did you go? You’re so tiny!” I didn’t realize it but he was right. I had lost a significant amount of weight once again. I’d lost weight on the trip from being sick but also from restricting and skipping meals when all there was for dinner was in my mind “forbidden”. I kept getting similar comments from family and friends who hadn’t seen me all summer. I started feeling self-conscious and wore long sleeves in the middle of the summer.

Then, it kind of became a game. I thought, “Wow. I lost weight and people have noticed”. Even though they told me I was too skinny, I still took it as a compliment and viewed it as an accomplishment. I started wearing tank tops again and showing off my “muscles”, which were visible due to the lack of fat on my body. Then, the game became more intense—I wondered if I could lose more. So I kept going. I spent the next year of medical school restricting and over exercising. In the moment, I didn’t recognize that it was a problem. I didn’t skip meals. I ate five small meals a day and continued on with my Triathlon training, only at a higher intensity. Then, I joined the Ottawa Athletic Club for a month trial the next summer and had a free assessment with a trainer. She weighed me and measured my percent body fat. The trainer made me step off and step back on, thinking the scale was out of whack. But it wasn’t. Being a long distance athlete herself, she sat down with me and genuinely told me that my readings were dangerous and as a medical student I should have known. But I felt good. I was “happy” and performed well in my sport. But she promised me I could feel and perform even better with a little more “reserve”. I wanted to believe her… but I kept getting all these comments about my physique at the gym and I felt like I had to keep meeting these standards.

Things with my boyfriend had been rocky since my return from South America and we ended up breaking up towards the end of my second year of med school. My weight stayed low, and that summer, I went off on a bike trip to do the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island with a friend. We were biking a grueling number of kilometres per day, and sometimes hiking and kayaking on top of that. I was obsessed with eating at specific times and eating small amounts of low-calorie food (too little for the amount of activity we were doing).

Upon my return home, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. My boyfriend was no longer around and I was alone in my apartment. I ended up eating an excessive amount of those famous “forbidden foods” the first night back. I ate whatever was available and appealing in a ridiculously short amount of time. I guess that’s what they call a binge. Then it happened two more nights in a row. What was going on? I felt like I was out of control. Had I deprived myself of food and essential nutrients to the point where my body and mind were trying to compensate? I had also noticed that in the past few months my mind was CONSTANTLY thinking about food: what was I going to eat next, when was I going to eat it, when could I next treat myself… That’s when I decided I needed help. Maybe I was too skinny. Maybe I had an eating disorder.

So I called up a friend who referred me to her sister’s psychologist, who then referred me to someone who focused on athletes and eating disorders. I went for psychotherapy for the last two years of medical school and had some successes followed by downfalls. I kept getting up but falling back down. Finally, I hit my lowest point last fall. When I stepped on the scale and realized I had put on a few pounds, I felt like it was the end of the world. I was still bingeing weekly, skipping meals and clearly putting on weight. I couldn’t focus at work, and I had lost my passion for medicine and triathlon. But worst of all, I had gained nothing but a few pounds and I wanted to go so far as to end my life. I never had a plan, but I remember going for a run and, towards the end of it, stopping and sobbing like a small child on an overpass and thinking to myself, “if only this bridge were higher”.

Then I called my dad and told him what went through my mind. It felt good to tell him but I then immediately made an appointment with my psychologist and she suggested starting a medication. I was opposed to this. I wanted to be strong enough to battle this eating disorder/anxiety/depression on my own. But finally I decided it was time. I went to see my family doctor and she put me on an antidepressant that I took for 4-5 weeks, but which didn’t seem to have effect. Part of me wanted to stop. I could do this without medication. I was strong enough.

But I knew I should give it a shot and try another medication. A different antidepressant. I went home for the Christmas break and started to enjoy things like cooking with my stepmom and making Christmas desserts with friends. I had put on some more weight and felt OK, but I was afraid to see my family. I wore very conservative clothing and was still very anxious and uncomfortable in my new body. I continued to put on weight but stopped weighing myself. Part of me was still telling myself I’d lose the weight again and would be happy if I was back at a certain weight. The stupid number game. My weight was like a yoyo for the last year and it wasn’t fun anymore. In fact It was never fun!

The weeks went by and I continued on with my last year of medical school, touring the country for electives. I had some really great moments and some really tough ones. I was slowly putting on more weight and this was causing me a lot of anxiety/distress. Although I felt a bit better mentally, I was still afraid to see my classmates upon my return from these placements, in fear of what they would think of me.

My last placement away was on Manitoulin Island at the Mindemoya Hospital. My friend from the island set me up with a place to stay close to the hospital with a wonderful couple who displayed so much love and affection. I got a hug every morning before heading to work and dinner was served every night when I got home. I was spoiled and I loved spending time with them, just chatting about life. During those two weeks I realized I was a lot more relaxed and focused on my school. My mind wasn’t preoccupied with thoughts about what I was going to eat next and how much I would have to run to burn it off. I simply enjoyed peaceful runs by the lake, focused on my placement, and allowed myself to be spoiled with delicious home cooked meals ― which originally had caused me a lot of anxiety.

When I got back from the island I felt good. I didn’t really know how to explain it. Anyway, I unpacked my suitcase and at the very bottom I found an envelope with my name on it. I was shocked. I gasped out loud, then smiled to myself and felt the tears well up in my eyes. It was a card and scarf from the couple I had stayed with, telling me how much they had enjoyed my company the past couple of weeks and thanking me for bringing lots of positive energy and happiness into their lives. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt such strong emotion. It felt good. Then, I reasoned through it and realized my mind was always so preoccupied with my weight and the food thoughts/anxiety that I had forgotten how to feel certain emotions. It made sense. It had all started with wanting to lose a few pounds, the gluten intolerance, the “iron-man training, the fear of gaining weight, the endurance sport training, and then got seriously out of hand. I had to keep living up to what I thought were other people’s expectations and while I looked so happy on the outside, deep down I was miserable.

Today, even though my favourite jeans don’t fit, I can sincerely say that I am happy and enjoying life. I am focused on my career, excited to run the Boston marathon, strengthening old friendships, pleasing others (as well as myself) and am back on the dating scene. I can focus on the good stuff and not sweat the small stuff. I’m not sure if this is because of the help of my psychologist, my supportive friends and family, the medication or the trip to the island, but whatever it is, it feels good to be able to live, love, laugh and BE.

     The day before the Boston Marathon 2015.        On campus studying for my medical boards
What an amazing experience.                            - the shirt says it all.