How healing from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea became a search for freedom and wholeness…
I have always been a classic “Type A” personality – driven, a bit competitive, sometimes impatient, motivated and organised. These traits can be great for being productive and getting things done. They got me through university in the top 5% of my cohort, they helped me to excel in my various jobs and subsequent foray into teaching. They enabled me effectively work a second job for a not for profit education trust in the evenings and weekends alongside my teaching for a number of years. But, the downside of this type of personality, is that if it becomes imbalanced, it can spiral into compulsiveness, the need for control and extreme behaviours. For me, this manifested in deepening insecurities about my body, constant multi-tasking and planning, obsessive exercising and increasingly restrictive “dieting”. The net result? Burn out. My body screamed at me to “stop” … and so the journey to healing began.
I first dabbled in a serious way with “dieting” and losing weight in the lead up to my wedding in 2010. I joined the gym and began working out pretty hard 5 days a week and restricting my food intake significantly. I hate to think how undernourished I was during this period, as I had little understanding of what I was doing and often felt fatigued and lacking in energy. I was eating foods labelled “99% fat free” and “low calorie”. A typical meal might consist of a tin of Watties Soup and a Weight Watchers muesli bar. However, the praise I received from the trainer at the gym as my fat measurements decreased, and compliments from others, seemed to confirm to me that I must be doing the right thing. The feeling of “seeing” results begins to supersede any hunger or tiredness and becomes quite addictive.
After my wedding, I certainly let go of the reigns in terms of diet. I was still exercising at least five days a week, and I’m sure the thinking behind my exercising was probably tied to the idea of “counteracting” my bad diet. But things were ticking along okay and my hormones and menstrual cycle, to my knowledge, were all okay at this point. Fast-forward to around 4 years later, I began to develop a genuine interest in cooking and baking with alternative ingredients. It began as an endeavour to cater for the various food intolerances and allergies in the extended family I had married into, but as I learned more about how important food is to health and the biological and chemical effect on your body, I began to try to eat more “clean” and “whole” foods. Somewhere in this time I also discovered podcasts and began to listen to various bio-hackers like Dave Asprey (of Bulletproof coffee), Tim Ferris and Daniel Vitalis. I began to cut out carbs from my diet once again, I started experimenting with a paleo diet, and eventually got onto the ketogenic diet and low carb, high fat principles. The new knowledge and understanding was intoxicating to my “type A” personality and I would get almost a “high” from learning all this “groundbreaking” stuff and trying to implement it. It began to spiral into a bit of an obsession with eating “clean” and trying to achieve a certain body shape. There is a term for this: “Orthorexia: an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy”. This is not officially considered as an “eating disorder” by the powers that be, but I believe this should change. Can it be harmful? Yes. Is it “disordered eating”? Yes. Over this time, my love for high-intensity exercise also increased and when I paired this with intermittent fasting and more and more calorie restriction, I began to see the results I had so-long desired in my body. I, like so many others, had totally bought into the idea that to be “healthy” was to have low-body fat, visible muscles and to only put chemical-free, sugar-free, carb-free foods into my body (and even then, to do so as little as possible).
This physical and mental cycle of restriction and nutrient deficiency on its own would have been enough to start wreaking some havoc with my hormones and various biological functions I’m sure – especially as a woman. But, on top of all of this, I was also suppressing quite high levels of stress around my “second” job and what had turned into quite an exploitative and abusive relationship with the director of the project. I was going full-throttle every hour of the day, working late into the night and punishing myself at the gym early in the morning … and effectively trying to do all of this while “running on empty”.
Around this time, I started a blog “Little Green Spatula” as a creative expression and outlet for my new found love of cooking and experimenting with “healthy” recipes and primarily sugar free “treat” alternatives. I loved creating and having somewhere to post the recipes. I fantasised about this becoming a jumping off point for possibly moving into some sort of health-coaching pathway in the future. But there is a time and a season for everything, and I am glad I didn’t go further down that route at this stage as I’m sure it would have only perpetuated faulty mindsets around diet culture, “health” and food morality for myself and for others.
In early 2015, my husband and I decided that we definitely wanted to head towards starting a family. My periods had already become irregular at this point, but I thought that perhaps it was related to the contraceptive pill I was on and had read that things can take a few months if not years to return to normal. Over the next year, I got a couple of light periods, but certainly nothing that would be considered a healthy and fully functioning endocrine system. Blood tests showed that my progesterone and estrogen levels were virtually nil. My body clearly felt “starved” and the result of being “fight or flight” mode for so long, means that any functions not deemed as essential to survival (i.e. fertility) are ‘switched off’. Progesterone is interesting, as it is hormone that will convert into something else if the body feels it needs that more, for example cortisol to help deal with mental, physical or emotional stress.
It took me a while to accept that my so-called “healthy practices” might be the cause of my infertility. I had seen a nutritional herbalist, chinese herbalist and acupuncturist, gynecologist, the regular GP, hormone therapy specialist, nutritionist and explored some options with Fertility Associates, New Zealand. Physically, things were okay, so the consensus was that the issue must lay in the brain – I was given the diagnosis of Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA) – the prolonged absence of a period as a result of the part of the brain controlling the release of hormones not working properly. My doctor with Fertility Associates said that it wasn’t often that he dished out this advice, but that he would recommend I stop exercising as much (or at all), to eat more and to gain weight. I really resisted taking this advice for a good few months further. Although I was at the lightest weight I had ever been (between 64 – 65kg), I was still technically within a healthy BMI. Although I was regularly fasting for days at a time, I was still eating … I didn’t have an “eating disorder” (or so I thought at the time). Yes, I did reduce my exercise a lot but was terrified of weight gain and losing all my “progress”. So I counteracted the lack of exercise with continued fasting practices. I told myself I wasn’t being “restrictive”, just healthy. Surely being healthy is what my body needed to get pregnant. But things weren’t changing and my period was not returning.
I am thankful to my mother who played a key role in helping to open my eyes to the situation. Despite her concern at the demands and pressure on my life for years, she had managed to patiently support me and love me through all of this, largely silently, knowing that I would not have been able to “hear” her observations. She was (and continues to be) one of the few people though, who could see the fullness of my restrictive and unhealthy behaviours for what they were and confronted me on it. Through a number of conversations, she delivered some truth that I needed to hear and eventually did. My husband, bless him, was very busy at work at the time and so I was able to fly under his radar quite a bit with how little I was eating and if he ever commented about my exercising too much I would be at the ready with a combative response. But things were coming to a head and the final impetus for my “turning point” came in the form of the book, “No Period. No What?” by Nicola Rinaldi, Stephanie Buckler, and Lisa Waddell.
I had been doing a “Dr Google” deep dive to try to find articles that reinforced the idea that I could continue to intermittent fast and low carb or keto, AND heal from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. What I found instead however, was science and testimonials that conclusively re-iterated just the opposite. This was the game changer. The book “No Period. Now What?” laid out a recovery plan that required me to go “all in” in committing to recovery from HA. “All” = eating everything and lots of it. “Nothing” = cutting out all exercise (other than gentle yoga, stretching or walking). The stories in the book were so incredibly similar to my own. Woman after woman who had dabbled in recovery, eating just a bit more, exercising just a bit less, but not seeing any results until they said “stuff it”, I’m going to overeat, including “forbidden foods” and embrace the weight-gain, because the goal of having a baby at the end of it is worth it.
A common thread in the testimonies from the women, was a deep gratitude for the journey. Not just because it healed their HA, but because it healed their thinking and mentalities around food, diets, and “weight”. Over and over again, those who found themselves with a diagnosis of HA, could identify a similar root cause: a dissatisfaction with their body, a desire to be “thinner”, an addiction to being fit and strong, and a fixation on “clean” eating. To truly be healed, they shared that they had to come to a place of acceptance and appreciation for their new “softer” body. A statement that became a mantra for me was, that my goal in this season had to be to provide a future baby with a 5-star hotel, not a rickety ol’ backpackers. I knew what I had to do, but I dreaded weight-gain and loss of my gym routine. All of the insecurities about my body that I had largely been in denial of began to rise to the surface and I had to confront them.
I realised I was also afraid of what people would think. It is funny how comments people make over the years can become a “splinter in your mind”. For example, once when our family were sitting around for a birthday celebration, my dear brother – who is a personal trainer and very good looking guy – made a comment about women “letting themselves” go once they have gotten married or had children. He was commenting that he saw no need for that. I know that his thinking around that has certainly evolved now, and I share this not to throw shade on him. But, because that statement still rattles around in my mind until this day. People will think that I’ve “let myself go”. Remember, “being in control” is a big one for is Type A personalities, and the thought that people would think I didn’t have control of myself, my eating, or my body was at the core of my fear about fully committing. But, through a lot of prayer and conversations with my loved ones, I committed 100%. I also resigned from my full-time job as a secondary teacher to give myself the best chance at a season of true rest and recovery, and we got a Spoodle puppy to give me a healthy and positive focus.
Slowly but surely, my body began to respond and thanked me for nourishing it and making it feel “safe”. My hormone levels began to increase and just three months after going “all in” the ultimate sign of my fertility “switching” back on, was the appearance of my period in late February 2018. The following month I did not get another period. Initially I assumed this was just par for the course, with things still returning to a normal rhythm. But to my great surprised, it turned out after just three months of going “all in” we had conceived on my first “normal” cycle since. Unfortunately 6 weeks in, we found that the pregnancy was not progressing and it resulted in miscarriage. I had only just really allowed myself to believe that my goal of having a baby was actually “happening”, so this was a bit of a blow. But, my husband and I resolved to look at the positive; with a bit of TLC, my body is clearly capable of being fertile and conceiving. If it happened once, it can happen again.
The battle with my mind over eating more, exercising less and being okay with a “softer” body continues though. I have backslidden a few times, starting to restrict again – trying to convince myself that my body can remain in harmony and balance if I perhaps start to restrict my diet a little bit, increase exercise just a tad and lose just a little bit of weight. In August 2018, I listened to the audiobook “Brave”, by Rose McGowan. Through telling her story, she delivers a scathing critique of the cultish “systems of belief” we have all been duped into buying into. She is angry… and that lit a fire in me. I envied her level of confidence to completely disregard the opinions, judgements and unrealistic standards presented by mainstream culture and ideologies. How would it feel to truly not care what others thought? To just accept myself wholly and completely how I am now and for who I am? This is not a revolutionary idea, but it is one that it is easy to pay lip service to, and harder to actually deeply and transformatively imbibe.
And so began my deep dive into the body positive, intuitive eating anti-diet and healthy at every size movement. I am seeking permanent change in my own thinking. But, bigger than that, it is clear that the fall-out of the accepted faulty ideas around “health”, “weight” and “self-improvement” perpetuated at a societal level is too big for us to ignore. This is why I have begun to incorporate messages around anti-restriction, self-compassion and body positivity into my “Little Green Spatula” blog. I believe that we need to pursue nourishment and vitality, but not just through food. We need to share our stories, our struggles and our triumphs. We need to know that we are not alone.
In the words of Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor from their book Body Respect (2014),
“It takes a strong sense of self-worth to feel safe in your skin in a world where some bodies are dubbed “good and acceptable” and others are dubbed “bad and unacceptable”. We need to make a world where all bodies are good bodies…By becoming aware of the impact of our words, behaviours, and attitudes around these issues, and the deep structures that underpin them, we can begin to shift narratives and create spaces where [people] of all sizes know they are loved and respected just as they are” (p.36)
I am more than my body. My body is doing its best to serve me and enable me to live. Im learning to thank my body by nourishing it, not punishing my body by depriving it. I am a unique individual with the capacity to create and express creativity in a way unique to me. My body helps me to do this and that is beautiful!
List of resources and people that have helped me so far:
- Body Respect, by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor
- Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong, by Michael Hobbes, Huffington Post
- Little Green Spatula Blog and Instagram, Facebook
- Hypothalamic Amenorrhea
- No Period, Now What, by Lisa Sanfilippo Waddell, Nicola J. Rinaldi, and Stephanie G. Buckler
- Fertility Associates New Zealand
- Natural Hormone Therapy, by Patient Advocates Tauranga
- Mikki Williden Nutrition
- Dr Jenny Li – Acupuncture for Fertility
- The Drive, Peter Attia Podcast: Trauma, Suicide, Community & Self-Compassion
- World Organics Make-Up