While our past struggles do not define us, the past shapes our present self and our struggles make us stronger. I believe it is important to first share my story in order for all of this to make sense. I also decided to write about this because while not everyone ends up spiraling like I did, so many people have their own struggles when it comes to body image, confidence, diet, exercise, and finding a sense of balance in our world of excess.
For as long as I can remember, I felt chunky and uncomfortable in my own skin, like I was both too much and not enough. I was never really sure who I was or wanted to be – a good student or one of the cool kids; liked by the adults I respected or by the girls and the boys my own age?
For my 7th birthday, a friend gave me a gift of a book and tape set called “Get in Shape, Girl!”. Most likely, her mother knew we liked to prance around making up dances and thought I’d enjoy it, but for me, the message was loud and clear: I needed to “get in shape” , ergo, there was something wrong with my 7-year old shape. By no means did this gift cause my eating disorder, but I think it’s important to understand how early we can start to harbour negative feelings about our bodies. When I was in third class, we had to weigh ourselves in class – I think we were learning about statistics or units of measurement or something. I remember that I was tied for “second place”, above the class average by 1 or 2 kgs. At 9 years old, I felt ashamed and embarrassed about my (in reality, totally normal) weight. The fact that I was actually at a healthy weight was irrelevant – I wanted to be skinny.
At 15, I bought my first calorie book. I began watering down the milk in my cereal in the mornings and stopped eating sandwiches for lunch. Every night, I would plan my food for the following day based on the calories I had allotted myself. I swore off everything I deemed unhealthy and started going to the gym. I loved the sense of control I had and how I could monitor my progress (and my self-worth) by the number on the scales, my loosening jeans and the compliments I got from my peers.
Inevitably, a “bad” day would come along when I would slip up and go off the rails and eating everything I had forbidden myself. Each night, I would swear to be “good” the next day. I felt ashamed, out of control, terrified of being found out and unable to stop.
This was a pattern that was to repeat itself for over ten years. Cycles of restriction and overindulgence, starving, bingeing and purging, running myself into the ground and beating myself up for being “too weak” to keep it together. The swings became more and more extreme. I was either going to bed hungry or bloated and in pain from having eaten everything in sight. With each “cycle”, my weight would drop further and then subsequently rise more quickly. I never felt happy. I never felt strong. I was never enough.
It wasn’t only about weight or appearance. I learned quickly that my weight was something that I could control. This gave me a sense of security when faced with other things I couldn’t control. I had always been a really good student, at school and at university. But when I moved abroad to do my masters’ research in a very male-dominated environment, I struggled with feeling I had to constantly prove myself to show that I was just as good as the guys.
I then got a job where I was surrounded by high achievers, where I got little sense of accomplishment and with which I struggled to identify. My weight became my focus. Seeing the number on the scale drop gave me a sense of achievement that I was otherwise lacking. It gave me a feeling of control, even superiority. This was something I was good at.
Food was about calories, to be feared and then abused, to punish myself for not being ok and to numb the feelings of shame and guilt that accompanied this not-ok-ness. Exercise was about becoming less, burning fat and shrinking. Everything I did was driven by fear.
Without enough sustenance, I began to sink into a sort of emptiness and, eventually, depression. Friends and family tried to help me, but I was past the point of reason and couldn’t see anything clearly. I was great at justifying what I was doing, to myself and to others – I was just “eating healthily”, I couldn’t eat certain foods because they “didn’t agree with me”, I was “just stressed” and that’s why I was losing weight. I wasn’t fooling anyone but myself. My hair was falling out, my hormones were messed up, I was diagnosed with osteopenia (the first stage of osteoporosis). Yet I still couldn’t eat. I was so afraid that if I started, I would never stop.
We went to Budapest for a friend’s wedding. I can’t remember what the meal was like but I’m sure I didn’t eat it. All I really recall about the event was that I was so cold, I had to change out of my pretty dress and into jeans and a sweatshirt at the reception. I think it was then that I finally realised how ill I had become. I realised that I was out of control, that I had never been in control and that I would never have any control of my life as long as I continued to live in fear of food and my body.
I went into full-time treatment. I began to eat again and to rest. I began the long and difficult task of “finding myself” – I had been lost in the world of my eating disorder for so long that I had no idea who I was, what I liked or felt or thought, or how I wanted to live my life. I slowly learned to start trusting my body and its cues; to eat when I felt hungry and to rest when I was tired. As I healed, I went through a roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows. It was often a case of “one step forward, two steps back” though. After coming back from my lowest point, in terms of body-weight, I struggled with phases of binge eating and bulimia. For a long time, my eating disorder was always there, lurking in the background, it just took on different forms.
Eating disorders are horrible diseases. They twist up your self-perception, cause you to push away the people closest to you and overshadow everything good in your life. The battle against an ED takes place at every meal-time and with every glance in the mirror. After years of fighting, I feel like I have not just found and made peace with myself but, to paraphrase George Bernhard Shaw, have finally begun to create myself – without an ED.