Living with an Eating Disorder
An abusive childhood leads to a lifetime of trauma and moments of triumph

Photography by David Michael Howarth

For years, Melissa Young had learned to live with – and manage – the trauma from her abusive childhood. She no longer hated food. She wasn’t anxious or depressed. She had even started running triathlons. Melissa, 49, wouldn’t have described her life as wonderful, but it was really good. For her, that was all she needed.

Then Covid hit. And the passionate ICU nurse relapsed, struggling once again with complicated mental health issues so many face.

Melissa asked SJ Magazine to share her story so others could be helped. Here is an excerpt from our video interview with her.


My mother was an alcoholic. She started slowly – just drinking at night, and it got worse as the years went on. I remember being 6, and she’d come into my room yelling that I wasn’t worth anything, that I was never going to amount to anything, that she wished I was never born. That went on for years.

By high school, I was making some bad choices. I had no parents to teach me right from wrong, no love, no support. I didn’t feel like I had anywhere to turn.

By the time I turned 20, I was at a crossroads. I knew I couldn’t keep going down the path I was on, and I decided I deserved a better life. That’s when I met my now husband Jon. We were married 3 years later and had 2 wonderful boys. I spent the next 10 years giving them everything I had in me, but I knew someday I’d want something different for myself. I had always wanted to be a nurse, but my mom told me I could never do it. My husband encouraged me to go back to school.

I loved it. But at the end of my first semester, my mom passed away. My dad called me – they were divorced by then – to say my mother was dead. I don’t remember ever feeling emotions – I shut them down to deal with the abuse. I never felt happiness, but I never really felt sadness either. So when she died, I froze.

My dad gave me 2 weeks to clean out the house. I was 36, in nursing school with two young kids and a husband – and my mother who was so mean to me my entire life had just died. I didn’t know what to do. I threw it all in the dumpster: her life, my life, it all went in the dumpster.

I had never fully processed her abuse. Then, on the first day of my nursing rotation on the mental health unit, I was working with several women who were alcoholics and drug addicts who had children taken away from them. And they were mad. All I saw was that they wanted to do to their kids what my mom did to me.

That day, when I realized the trauma that my mom and dad caused me, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I always just thought these were just the cards I was dealt.

I was noticeably different at school. My nursing instructor reached out to ask how I was. That was the first time in my life I ever told anybody I was not okay. My whole story just started pouring out to this stranger. Depression hit me.

I couldn’t eat. I was too full of emotions, and I didn’t know how to deal with them. Before I knew it, I lost a lot of weight. I became addicted to the scale, to restricting myself of food. It made me feel good to buy smaller clothes or get attention from people who noticed I had lost weight. Then it took on a life of its own.

I was hospitalized several times. In 2010, my husband sat me down and said, “Honey, I’m afraid I’m going to come home and find you dead on the floor.” That was an eye-opening moment.

I spent a year going from one treatment program to the next. I found an amazing dietician and a therapist who gave me some form of acceptance and forgiveness for my mom and helped me treat myself better. I was getting better.

But in 2014 I started to backslide. My therapist threw her hands in the air one day and said, “I don’t know what to do. Maybe I just can’t help you.”
And with that, everything cleared. I looked at her and said, “You know what? I’m just going to eat the food.” For weeks, I sat at the table for every meal by myself – I wouldn’t let anyone be with me – and cried my eyes out with every bite. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.

When you restrict eating, your brain changes. You don’t focus on your problems or emotions anymore. All you focus on is not eating. But when I started eating again, everything from the past 36 years came up at once. The first year was really hard. In my sickest moments when I thought I just couldn’t do this anymore, I asked God to help me come out on the other side so I could help someone else.

Now, I have my good days and my bad, but it’s not what it once was. I have more confidence in myself. I started to really like myself. Almost love, but not quite. I started working with a trainer. She helped me find the food, drink and exercise I needed to stay healthy.

Now, I run triathlons. I remember crossing the finish line at a half ironman, falling into Jon’s arms and crying. It’s something I never thought I could do.

But it’s still a battle. Working as a mother/baby nurse on the front lines of the Covid pandemic was my breaking point. My anxiety was awful, my OCD was out of control. I couldn’t treat Covid patients because I have asthma, so I felt guilty that my coworkers were treating them and I wasn’t.

I reached out to my doctors because I needed someone to help me. I’m currently in an intensive outpatient program 3 nights a week with appointments in between.

Going back into treatment made me feel like I failed myself. But I have more empathy for myself this time around.

I always tell people there is help out there for you, no matter your age, sex or financial status. What’s important is finding the help you need, when you need it, as many times as you need it. It’s still a battle, but it’s one I’ll continue to fight.

Click here to see SJ Mag’s video interview with Melissa Young.

September 2020
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