MY STORY >> Overcoming an eating disorder & hypothalamic amenorrheaFeb 17, 2020
In the summer of 2019 I opened up about my health journey. It was one of the hardest and most vulnerable experiences of my life but also the most rewarding. I shared my journey to provide hope to someone who may be experiencing the same despair and frustration. You can get through this. There is light at the end of this dark tunnel. <3
I share my journey in stages on Instagram but have put together each part in this blog post.
I want to tell a story…
There’s been a lot going on with me lately. I haven’t shared it because I’m scared of feeling weak or less competent or even being a burden to those around me. But by not sharing my story I don’t allow myself to heal and I don’t give the people in my life a chance to show up for me.
I am hoping that sharing my story might be a gift to someone else or maybe even myself. I don’t want to hide in fear. I also am starting to believe that sharing my story could prevent unnecessary pain and suffering for other women and young girls.
When it came to sharing, I didn’t know where to start. There are just so many elements to the story. In order for you to understand, I needed to roll all the way to the catalyst that brought me to where I am today.
It was 2010. I was a healthy, active, and loving teenage girl. I was very driven. I deeply cared about what others thought of me. I was very hard on myself. I wanted to be the best I could be! Being ambitious and hardworking had always been positive for me. Until it wasn’t.
My mom was and still is a strong female role model. Hard working, ambitious, and understanding. She never yo-yo dieted and she never talked about body weight. In fact, we never talked about the way our bodies looked at all. Sometimes my parents would tell me I was strong and muscular. That made me feel good. I wanted to be strong! But I had never put much thought into the way my body looked. Until it was all I thought about.
I was in Grade 11, wearing a yellow sweater, and sitting with my best friend working on chemistry homework. Let’s call my friend Jane. Jane had brought a box of Oreo cookies to school and we were eating them while doing our chemistry homework.
Then the teacher walked in. The only way I can describe this man is mean-spirited. He grabbed the box of cookies from the desk and said “Courtney, you can’t eat these cookies. Jane can eat these cookies because she’s naturally thin. But you, your body is different. You’re going to have to watch your weight.” He took the cookies and put them under his desk.
Maybe the gun was loaded... but his comment pulled a trigger.
To be continued!
Binging does not stop pain, it defers it. Purging does not fix the mistake, it worsens it.
It feels vulnerable and perhaps too graphic to share this story but I promise it’s building into a message I know is meaningful.
Chocolate chip cookies were just an after school snack. Cereal was no more than a ritual before bed. Chocolate cake was simply the best on my grandpa’s birthday.
When did these foods change from good to bad? I can remember the moment for me.
I don’t know why I was sad that night. I certainly wasn’t hungry. It wasn’t a celebration. So why did I feel like chocolate cake would make me feel better? Before I knew it, I had binged to the point of feeling sick. “I don’t like this feeling,” I thought.
“Maybe you don’t have to feel this way,” said a voice in my head. I had never binged. How did I even know how to make myself throw up?
All I remember is hiding out from my family in the basement bathroom and “fixing” my mistake.
Before long it seemed like making it through a day without turning to food to cope with frustration, sadness, and discomfort was an impossible task.
“Not every day will be this hard,” you tell yourself. Maybe tomorrow you’ll have a better solution to today’s problem. After a good night’s rest, you’ll feel stronger. But right now? Right now you just need an escape.
It feels so awful to purge.
Your throat burns for days afterwards. Your eyes sting. Your voice is scratchy. Before your know it you are hiding scars on your hand.
If you are sad or mad or frustrated or upset, you’ve got one problem. If you binge and purge to fix it, then you’ve got yourself two problems. You don’t stop your pain, you defer it. Like a magician you double your discomfort and triple your regret.
Ask for help.
I want to take a break from my story to share an important lesson I’ve learned this week.
A theme that runs through my story is my fear of asking for help. Prior to sharing my story, I felt like asking for help would make me look weak. I had been told all my life that I was strong, independent, and capable. “I can figure it out on my own”, I’d tell myself. Asking for help would mean looking weak. Revealing my dark side would make me look less competent.
I was wrong. So wrong.
Asking for help at any stage of my journey would have been a gift to everyone in my life, especially myself. I made a choice to “white knuckle it” and fight on my own. It cost me suffering and pain.
I started pushing the people closest to me away. I treated my family poorly because I was so wrapped up in my overwhelm. I created stories in my head like “nobody loves me” or “ I have no support systems”. The people in life created stories about why I was being that way, too. If I had been brave enough to ask for help I could have prevented unnecessary stress and strain on valuable relationships.
By choosing to not ask for help, I took away the opportunity for the people in my life to show up, support, and love me. In sharing my story, I have been positively overwhelmed with love and support from friends, family, colleagues, peers, and complete strangers.
Sometimes we can do it ourselves. Sometimes our challenges are an opportunity for us to grow stronger and learn a new skill. But ask yourself… Are there repercussions if I go at it alone? Could I damage my relationships? Could I harm my health? Could I compromise my integrity?
If you are struggling, give the people in your life a chance to show up. You owe them that. You owe it to yourself, too.
Asking for help is not quitting. Asking for help is not weakness. Asking for help is a sign of strength.
Hear me out.
I was just 17 years old. I can’t remember exactly when I lost her. I had moved to a new province and was navigating a new school, a painful injury, and frequent episodes of binging and purging. Then, one day, I realized that she had vanished. I didn’t have the energy to worry about her. I certainly wasn’t going to go looking for her! She was annoying. An inconvenience! I didn’t miss her and I certainly didn’t need her as part of my life. In fact, life was better without her.
But I was scared… I didn’t want to admit to my friends, teammates, coaches, or sister that I had lost her. Would they think I was weird? Unhealthy? Would I have to address my disordered relationship with food? “I’m just going through a lot right now,” I’d tell myself. “She’ll come back when I’m feeling more settled”
10 years later and here we are…
Not having a period is not normal.
You might be thinking of scrolling past this post. Brushing it off. Glazing through the information. Or maybe even chalking it up as “no big deal.” Yup. That was me, too.
I thought that my anxiety, depressive episodes, difficulty coping with daily stress, brain fog, chronic exhaustion, and inability to improve muscle tone and strength was an unchangeable part of my DNA. I’d fake a smile and brush it off. I didn’t know the dark cloud that loomed over my head was related to hormonal imbalance and amenorrhea. This doesn’t even touch on the long-term health consequences including impaired bone mineral density, heart health, and reproductive function.
I’m sharing my story to raise awareness so that you can help yourself or someone you love live their best life. To simply be themselves. I wish my friends, teammates, sister, boyfriend, mom, dad, nurse practitioner, doctor, nutrition coaches, colleagues, or CrossFit trainers had known that not having a period wasn’t normal. But how could they have? Nobody talks about it. It gets brushed off.
Information and awareness can prevent the short and long term consequences of the underestimated clinical problem that is functional hypothalamic amenorrhea.
Looking healthy on the outside doesn’t equate to health on the inside.
I became addicted.
I finally found my answer. The way to cope. My kind of drug.
It was Christmas break and I had yet an intense argument with a family member. I was so angry and so hurt. “I’ll never be able to do anything right,” I remember thinking. My binger brain took over.
The binger’s brain says, “I just need to escape right now by eating [insert food of choice].” I remember devouring the abundance of leftover treats and sweets from the holiday celebrations. I felt awful. But this binge was different. A switch was flipped. I had binged enough to know that it wasn’t easing my frustration, soothing my sadness, or improving my situation. I decided this binge would be the last one.
“Starting January 1st, I’m going to be a different girl”, I vowed to myself. “I’m going to take control.” Exercise replaced food as my coping strategy.
I’d get up at 6am to workout, do treadmill sprints on my lunch break, attend hockey practice at 4pm, and walk or run with my friends in the evening.
It only took a few dedicated months of this strict regime to become the girl I’d always wanted to be. Thin, toned, and in-control. I enjoyed my increased stamina, strength, and lean appearance—not to mention the rush of endorphins I experienced after a hard workout.
Friends, family, and teachers would have questioned had I chosen drugs or alcohol as a coping strategy, but exercise was seemingly harmless. I looked energetic, healthy, and strong. I was an athlete. It made sense that I worked out frequently and maintained a lean physique.
Women experiencing hypothalamic amenorrhea are referred to as the “walking well” as they may not recognize the immediate symptoms of low estrogen and are unaware of the long term consequences of estrogen deficiency. I knew that not having my period wasn’t “normal” but I felt healthier than ever.
Exercise was my addiction. I had found my magic pill to cope with life’s inevitable moments of frustration, sadness, or stress. The problem, however, was that exercise replaced food as my sole coping strategy.
Exercise offered a high that food never could. But after a high comes a low.
I miss some aspects of life when I was 99 pounds.
I miss the control. The way clothes fit without suffocating my waist. My pronounced collar bone and naturally contoured jaw line. I miss my extreme ability to delay gratification.
I don’t miss my hair falling out. I don’t miss how cold I’d feel without a scarf, a sweater, and a thick jacket.
I don’t miss chewing countless packs of gum to distract from my hunger. I don’t miss hiding out in the library for fear of the food that haunted me in the pantry and fridge at home. I don’t miss my inability to focus and learn.
I don’t miss hunger so strong that I couldn’t sleep. I don’t miss gawking at the photos in cookbook to satisfy my intense physiological desire for food.
I don’t miss feeling scared all the time. Like the tips of my fingers were moments from losing their death grip on the cliff I clung to.
Life wasn’t what I expected it to be. This wasn’t the light, free, casual, and content life like the women I’d admired on cover of Women’s Health magazine. I knew that losing weight required discipline and self-control. But wasn’t arriving at thinness suppose to bring release?
I imagined happiness on the other side of losing weight. I’d imagined that the arduous journey would lead me to a peaceful paradise. The contentment of arriving at my destination would be like walking off a plane and experiencing the warm sunshine of Mexico after a cold Canadian winter.
Instead it was rain. It wasn’t what I’d imagine. “What if I can’t stay here? What if I gain it back?”
The months that followed - in fact, a year - were dark. I was the lightest I’d ever been but was weighed down by sadness, loneliness, and isolation.
*I know this is a lot to share. It’s very hard to share too. But the story is leading into a message I know is so important. I really appreciate your support and for following along this journey ❤️*
“You look great,” they told me.
Hypothalamic amenorrhea (let’s just call it HA for short!) is defined as the absence of normal menstruation for 3 consecutive months or more. In 2010, my journey with hypothalamic amenorrhea began and the journey continues - almost 10 years later.
Deep down I knew it wasn’t healthy to not have a period … but I was scared. I didn’t want to find out that I had severely damaged my body from the psychological stress of an eating disorder, rapid weight loss and gain, the pressures of being a student turned entrepreneur, and an excessive exercise regime.
I also feared having to drastically overhaul my lifestyle. I enjoyed being lean. I craved high intensity exercise. I loved the pressure of being an entrepreneur.
I first sought medical attention in 2013 which was about 3 years living in absence of a menstrual cycle. By that time, I had gained body weight and was considered a “healthy BMI.” I looked well. But I was I?
A common misconception is that HA only occurs at a low body fat percentage. The cause of this disorder, however, is related to not just weight loss or calorie restriction but chronic stress, excessive exercise, or a combination of these factors.
Unfortunately, the medical professionals I consulted were not aware of the multifaceted nature of the disorder.
Looking healthy on the outside has led to assumptions that I must be healthy on the inside. Take this very photo taken last week. I look healthy enough. Heck, I’m surrounded by colorful flowers with a big smile on my face. What could be wrong? But I don’t have my period.
Countless medical professional assured me there was nothing to worry about. I was of a healthy body weight! In fact, I was told I should “enjoy the convenience of not having a period!” I chose to listen.
I later realized not having your period is anything but convenient.
If I could give my 20 year old self one piece of advice it would be…
Courtney Ann Berg. Take some gosh-darn ownership. You can’t just toss your health to the side and deal with it later like thumbtacks in a junk drawer.
“Unless you want to get pregnant, I would enjoy the convenience of not having a period,” I was assured.
Part of me wanted to believe that I was better off without painful cramps and rapid mood swings. Not to mention spending my hard earned cash on tampons.
But deep down I knew it was too good to be true. And just like a dust bunny, I swept my concern under the rug. “I’ll deal with it later,” I’d tell myself. I’m just stressed with school.
But the stress of University turned into a stressful internship. A stressful internship spiralled into a hard breakup. A hard breakup transitioned into starting a business. Starting a business grew into building a business.
The moral of the story? Life is always going to be hectic, challenging, and busy. Prioritize your health now.
Perhaps in my immaturity, I was unable to visualize my older self. But as I age, I think more about future, older Courtney. I don’t want her to be mad at her younger self.
I started to wonder how my choices now would affect my health in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, and beyond.
Maybe you’re like me and know that the future you would appreciate some better choices starting now. Perhaps you know you’d optimize your health by sleeping more, starting an exercise program, or eating more veggies… or maybe you need to take a step back, stress less, and enjoy life.
Do it now. If we can’t take ownership over our health today, when will we find the time?
I believe I’ve been on a destructive path - time to clean out the junk drawer...
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” I cried.
I was the luckiest girl. I was smothered in love from the best boyfriend in the world. In fact, my friends joked that he loved me “too much”.
He’d do anything to make me happy. He’d wake up at 6:30am on his days off to drive me to school. He’d plan a trip to ensure we spent quality time together. He’d build custom care packages to make me smile. He’d leave me nice notes. He’d send me reassuring text messages. He’d cook me my favorite meal after a hard test. He’d do anything for me.
But he couldn’t fix me.
Like everyone, I’d have moments of feeling down in the dumps. This feeling, however, seemed to be evolving. When did it change from a “bad day” to a dark cloud that lingered? It was like nothing was wrong but everything was wrong. I would feel so sad. So incapable. But the weird part was that I couldn’t actually identify a single reason to feel so sad. Logically, everything was fine.
I will never shake the memory of me laying on the floor for an entire night. Curled in a ball. Crying uncontrollably. Despite his exhaustion, and chronic back pain, he lay beside me the entire night asking me, “Court, what is wrong? I want to help you.” But I didn’t know what was wrong. Why was I so down? Why was I falling apart?
“I love you so much,” he’d tell me. “But it means nothing if you can’t love yourself. It kills me to see you this way.”
Recently I had a health coach in the space tell me not to be so hard on myself in relation to what I’ve been sharing. But it’s hard not to be angry at myself for letting hypothalamic amenorrhea destroy my most cherished relationship. It stole my support network. My best friend.
It’s painful to think how my life could have been so different had I known the psychological impact of hypothalamic amenorrhea.
Sadly this memory wasn’t a singular event but a pattern throughout my adult life characterized by extreme sadness for no apparent reason and an inability to cope.
I chose not to care about losing my period. I didn’t know in doing so I chose to lose my best friend, the person I loved, and my confidence.
You can’t always feel it in your bones.
I had a TSN turning point. I use this phrase as a reference to The Sports Network highlight reel where they show the pivotal moment that impacted the game’s outcome - haha! In my amenorrhea journey, my TSN turning point was a DEXA scan.
I scheduled the scan to assess my body fat percentage and muscle mass but the scan also measured bone mineral density.
The results felt like a punch in the gut revealing that my bone density wasn’t as high as expected for a female athlete in her 20s. I suppose this news shouldn’t have been a surprise. It is well known that the hormones involved in the female menstrual cycle are heavily involved in bone density. A female in her teens and early 20s is gaining a huge amount of bone density that will serve her for life.
I’ve had an absent menstrual cycle for the majority of my bone building years.
I finally started to visualize older Courtney. I thought about how my choices may affect her in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, or even 50 years. A benefit of weight bearing exercise is the strength it brings to bones. I was exercising to be healthy, wasn’t I? It seemed ironic that my “healthy lifestyle” could actually be harming my bones.
Reassurance from health care professionals “not to worry” or advice to take hormonal birth control wasn’t easing my discomfort. There are many short and long term consequences of hypothalamic amenorrhea, but increased risk of osteoporosis related to low bone mineral density was one I couldn’t shake.
Doctors, nurses, specialists, coaches, and nutrition coaches told me not to worry about an absent period. Their recommendations certainly weren’t malicious in nature. I wanted to believe them! But did we have future Courtney in mind?
It was a somewhat shocking realization when it dawned on me that I am the only person who is responsible for my health and happiness. Whether that be in this very moment or in 70 years.
For women, your period is your best indicator of your underlying health. Lack thereof is your body’s way of trying to ask you to live your life differently. Are you answering or ignoring the alarm bell?
“If you want to drive a Ferrari, you’re going to have to change the oil.”
As part of my story today, I would like to share an excerpt from a caring message I received from a concerned (but confused) reader:
“Normally I wouldn’t waste one minute of my energy on this but for some odd reason I care and I really don’t even know you. I think it’s just because I don’t get it… I don’t understand how you say you aren’t 100% healthy. If the photos you are posting are in chronological order and are recent, you look fantastic.”
I recognize that a smiling photo of me makes it appear that I’m driving a Porsche down a well paved highway. But what you can’t see from the outside is that the “check engine” light has been on for 9 years and I’m running out of fuel.
A period is one of a woman's best indicators of their underlying health. An absent periods is like a flashing “caution” sign on the highway. You can’t just ignore the sign even if the road appears clear. You need to pay attention and slow down.
Hypothalamic amenorrhea which can be triggered by an extended caloric deficit, excessive exercise, chronic stress, or a combination of these factors. It’s like driving your car with the gas tank on empty for far too long.
It might appear that the road is smooth me, but I feel like I am riding in the back seat of my best friend’s ‘97 Pontiac Sunfire down a bumpy gravel road. I want to drive the Ferrari on a double lane highway. But our body’s aren’t like cars. I can’t just buy a new one. And I can’t just put more gas in the tank, either. I need to fix my engine. And it’ll take some time in the shop.
Even though it still feels like I am driving at night with no headlights, my road has been brightened by everyone who has read my posts or offered words of support. If you are reading this now, thank you.
I thought that taking the bumpy road made me tough. I was so wrong. I hope that sharing my story can be like a street light that directs women down a smoother path.
Achieving a goal is like melting an ice cube…
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I’ve been overcoming hormonal health challenges
I haven’t had a regular period for close to 10 years 😣
I’ve changed my training, my diet, and my mindset in an attempt to regulate my cycle.
I even changed my lifestyle and took off on a trip across the globe ✈️
Still no period 😥
But deep down I know good things are happening ✨
Achieving any goal is like melting an ice cube. When you warm an ice cube from -6°C to -5°C there is no visible progress
But when you warm the ice from -1°c to 0°C it finally begins to melt
Just like a melting point, breakthrough moments are the culmination of many steps leading to that point.
Warming the ice cube from -6°c to -5°c offers no tangible progress but is an equally important step to eventually melt the ice cube.
The changes we make need to persist long enough to break through the plateaus where we don’t see the success that we envisioned.
I’m being patient and trusting that good things take time.
What breakthrough moment are you patiently waiting on?
The hardest thing I ever did was open up about my dark past this summer.
**if you’re new to my account you can read the full story by scrolling back or clicking the link in my bio**
A summary of my story….
👉🏻Anorexia and binge eating in my teens and early 20s led me to a career in dietetics
👉🏻 Over the past 10 years I’ve experienced hypothalamic amenorrhea (ie. lack of period)
👉🏻 I realized many of the physical and emotional challenges I was experiencing were due to hormonal imbalance
After sharing my story, I’d find myself waking up in the middle of the night in a panic.
“What the heck did I just do? Why did I share my raw and real truth with the world?”, I thought.
I looked at my story and felt ashamed.
Ashamed that I was a dietitian whose diet was anything but perfect.
Ashamed that I was a CrossFit coach whose body was broken.
Ashamed that I couldn’t control my thoughts and emotions.
Part of me wanted to hide.
But I also looked at my story and felt hopeful.
Hopeful that I could heal my body from within.
Hopeful that I could use my voice to save other women from travelling down the same road.
Hopeful that I could overcome the spiral of negativity and self-loathing.
After sharing my story I decided to take the year to travel (still working, though!)
Travelling wasn’t about running away from my challenges but to find space to heal…
The past 6 months travelling I have…
Nourished my body with balanced meals and movement
Nourished my soul through connection with culture, friends, and family
Nourished my mind through inner work and support from therapy and mentors
But I had no physical evidence of the nourishment I felt from within...
I can finally share this with you…
I GOT MY PERIOD BACK!
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