Eating disorders come in many different forms, and more often than not they can’t be seen by simply looking at a person. When I was 28 I traveled alone for three months around the USA. I was happier than I’d ever been – every day was filled with positive interactions with people, I felt so alive, and I thrived on how wonderful the world is. I was so happy, yet I was struggling with something that I was yet to realise I’d carried for a long time.
During my trip I started to seriously obsess about what I was eating, and couldn’t control my eating behaviour. I had always associated my obsession with food with times of great unhappiness. To be out of control with my eating at one of the happiest times of my life was confusing and fairly disturbing; I started to become aware that perhaps this was a real problem.
When I returned from my trip and the behaviour continued, I felt so out of control that I started googling my behaviours. For me, being out of control meant being ‘good’, restricting my calories and starving myself during the day, and then uncontrollably bingeing when I was alone at night. I was lucky enough to stumble upon a local therapist who listed my behaviours as part of a mental illness in which she specialised. Up until this point I had spent a lot of time beating myself up for not being able to control my eating and weight better, but reading that the way I felt and behaved might actually be a disorder – something psychological that was bigger than me, that other people also suffered from – gave me a huge sense of relief that there was a way for me to move forward from the way I was living.
Beginning therapy was, as I’m sure it commonly is, really challenging. My obsession with eating healthily and, ultimately, with weight loss took up the majority of my thoughts. Each day was filled with anxiety over what I’d eaten, what I was ‘allowed’ to eat, and how many calories I was consuming and burning. This thought pattern had been part of my life for the best part of 20 years.
To change my behaviours I had to pinpoint where the behaviour stemmed from. When I quickly gained some weight at nine years old, I remember being ashamed and upset about it, and I told my mum. She did the best thing she knew to do and took me to a dietitian. At the time I guess this was considered the best course of action; now I’m aware that sudden weight gain at a young age is not in fact the problem – it’s the symptom of other issues. I started to believe that I was different from other people and, not knowing how else to deal with that at nine, I turned to food for comfort. My main cause of anguish was my teacher, who singled me out and criticised my self-expression. As a child I didn’t have the tools necessary to deal with such criticism of something that was (and still is) very important to me.
At the beginning of the recovery process I really blamed my mother. Though we’d always been quite close, I withdrew from her completely. I thought that her criticism of herself and of me, usually in the form of well-intended but often backhanded compliments, had been a large cause of my illness. It took me six months from diagnosis to realise that this way of thinking about food – as a way to control your body shape, as an ultimate means of happiness – was not her fault, this article by Kasey Edwards really helped me to recognise that. My mother is a product of a society that perpetuates these beliefs, and for most of her life this type of behaviour was deemed acceptable rather than being recognised as an illness. I am grateful that my beautiful mother raised me with the tools necessary to seek help and properly deal with my illness.
As part of my recovery I started to read and read: about the way women are portrayed in the media; about how 95% of women we see have the body type of 5% of women in society; about how our brains automatically think that what we see the most is normal; about how if you’re starving, your brain is programmed to think about food until you get it; that being called fat is not an insult; that skinny doesn’t equate to healthy; and about how to practise self-compassion. I suddenly, by default, became a pretty well-informed feminist (a word that I had been mocked for identifying with in my teenage years, so had previously distanced myself from). I made the choice to surround myself with images of real-sized women, which means women of all sizes, to reinforce that variety is what’s normal. Through this process I have become more aware and empowered. I’m a stronger human.
My wonderful therapist recommended I see her in conjunction with a dietitian that specialised in eating disorders, as well as a fantastic GP. My dietitian taught me how to eat normally, I had lost the ability to feel hungry or full, and within a few weeks of eating regularly, my body started to give me those signals again. She taught me to eat when I’m hungry, and stop when I’m full. She taught me that it’s okay to overeat or under-eat on occasion, and that I shouldn’t totally restrict myself from eating things I consider to be ‘unhealthy’. It turns out that, for me, being healthy has far more to do with not obsessing, and listening to my body, than with only eating ‘healthy’ foods, avoiding carbs, and counting everything I consumed.
I realise now that prior to diagnosis my moods were pretty unstable. They were up and down every day, and I don’t think I was very nice to live with. I am sometimes surprised that friends I have lived with over the years are still around. My moods are now stable, and it’s so nice to have that consistency. My recovery was aided enormously by the support of the people around me. I thought that perhaps when I told people, they wouldn’t take me seriously, but every person of the few I shared this with was totally supportive, and could see the importance of my dealing with it. I was also lucky enough to have a relationship last year – my first in years, after much self-hatred – and be told that I was amazingly attractive, and finally be in a place where I could believe it.
All up it took me around a year after diagnosis to find a place where I felt really good about food and about myself. I got the eating part of things to a ‘normal’ way of living within a few months; I think how I view myself improves every day. I still have to recognise and avoid any potential triggers, like people talking to me about their weight or weight-loss ambition, and so many articles, blogs and media, which feed the world of eating disorders. The most difficult part in this process has been learning to really love myself and accept myself at any shape or size, and to know that my value is far more than what I look like. I now feel a sense of freedom; having overcome such a burden, I feel as though I can devote all that time I used to waste thinking about food and weight to thinking about how I can make a positive contribution to the world.
If you think you or someone you know might be suffering from an disorder, you can find support by talking to your doctor or visiting the National Eating Disorder Collaboration website for more information on help in your local area.
Kids Help Line is also a great resource, and it’s completely confidential (and it’s free). You can chat to a counsellor over the phone or online. Beyond Blue is another free, confidential counselling service, with trained professionals available to talk through your situation.
Music enthusiast. Human enthusiast. Dog enthusiast. Recently left a dry government job in pursuit of greener pastures.