What my Eating Disorder taught me
28 July 2022
I am grateful for my childhood.
I was able to sleep well, study well, and had a loving family who cared for me. More importantly, I also ate well. I was happy eating. I actually enjoyed eating. I devoured a lot of things, without much thought.
Everything about that changed in my second year of secondary school. (though the warning signs had been there since the end of the first).
My obsession with exercise began during circuit breaker, when I first picked up the concept of “working out regularly” (which I’d not been doing much of before). It felt good. I felt good. I felt disciplined, and athletic, and satisfied - even though the motivation for working out was borne out of dissatisfaction for my body, but of course I chose to ignore that part.
I suppose at some point the exercise was still done at a healthy level. But soon enough it spiralled downhill. I’m not too sure exactly how it did, but by January 2021, I was in the worst possible stage. I regularly locked myself in my room for over an hour to do gruelling workouts that only took a toll on my ever-weakening body, after which I would permit myself to only the most measly portions of food that left hunger pangs in my stomach for the rest of the night. I counted calories down to a tee, and felt excessive guilt, or even fear, if I ever went over my self-set limits. And yet, I never believed anything was wrong.
Of course, something was wrong. Something is definitely wrong when your body weight has dropped to the extremely unhealthy level, something is definitely wrong when you feel guilt just by eating that little bit more. Something is definitely wrong if you are exercising to the point you feel like you taste blood in your throat, something is definitely wrong if you count calories down to the very smallest decimal.
The diagnosis for anorexia came in March 2021. Of course, my family and I had suspected it for…a pretty long time. But it was still shocking. And it still felt like a very heavy burden to carry.
What followed was a tumultuous journey of recovery. It involved visits to KK Hospital, where I took my blood pressure more regularly than I have ever done before in my life, as well as treatment at the psychological clinic, and then there were the sessions with our family therapist. There was quite a lot of trial and error, there was discomfort, and there was mostly a lot of eating. I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say the recovery process that followed my diagnosis in March, and took about a year or so, was something that really made me sit down, think about life, and have more time to think about how exactly I felt about myself.
And actually, I learnt a lot from it. It was one of the most trying times, but in retrospect - can I say this? - also one of the most enriching experiences. Because it taught me a lot on how to live life.
The first thing I learnt was to seek help. To be perfectly honest, I initially didn’t want to seek help. In fact, I was completely averse towards it. I remember sitting in the study room, having a long conversation with my mother. At that point, I was at a pretty dangerous state (losing weight rapidly and with an abnormally low heart rate), but I don’t think my exercise had stopped yet.
“You should see the school counsellor,” was what my mother suggested.
And I didn’t want to. I hated the idea of something other than exercise and food taking up my schedule.
Also, even after my parents insisted putting a stop to my exercise, seeking help felt kind of scary. I attribute this to the “ED voice” - the voice in my head, the eating disorder, that told me not to seek help, that it wanted to stay in my head for a long long time. It was that inherent fear that kept me from seeking help.
However, I soon learnt that seeking help was quite possibly one of the best decisions I had ever accepted (“accepted”, not “made”, because technically my parents really made that decision for me) and it saved my life, frankly.
So if there’s anything I’ve learnt, cliche as it sounds, seeking help really is a form of strength. It is never a weakness, because it shows you want to change. You are accepting of change for the better when you seek help. Therefore, seek help when you need it. You will never know how much you needed it until you’ve actually sought it.
Find people you are comfortable with and can trust. I am incredibly grateful that I clicked with my therapists and counsellors, but I know that will not always be the case. Find someone you can really confide in, whom you know has the capacity to help, and open yourself up to that help. You can do it.
Find something that helps you cope
I used to think eating disorders were just about food. They are not. They may also involve an obsession with time, and I had that obsession. Basically, while I was in the refeeding process (eating according to the prescribed diet that would help me recover), my eating disorder “inner voice” manifested in the form of time obsession. I had to eat my breakfast by a certain time in the morning. I had to have lunch at 12:30pm sharp. Or even, I had to reach home by 6:30pm latest. If I didn’t, I would have an anxiety attack.
I would get hysterical, start crying, start feeling physically awful all over, and it was all very irrational. I remember it really, really scared my parents. It scared me, too, but I knew it came every single time things were “not on time”.
In situations like these, how should one cope?
I remember we told my therapist. I told my school counsellor too. And she suggested a pretty life-changing method: box breathing.
Box breathing is a method of calming down whereby you breathe in and out according to the timings of drawing a box. For example, as you breathe in for 3 counts, you slowly draw a line forming the base of the box in that same amount of time, and keep forming boxes over and over
Surprisingly, calming methods are not always all that “calming”. In the early days, it took quite a lot for me to shove the anxiety whirling in my head somewhere else, and force myself (quite literally) to do the box breathing. It didn’t always work, but I knew I had to try. I had to try to help myself. When everyone else - my family, my doctors/therapists - were making an effort to help me, I had to try too.
I think that’s what it means to find something that helps you cope. Not every method works for everyone, but once you have found something that helps, try it. Stick with it, and actively use it. Use it to fight against whatever is in your mind that is telling you not to calm down.
And actually, these methods do not need to apply to only extreme circumstances. They can apply to daily life too. I still use box breathing before an exam, or when I feel an uncontrollable surge of adrenaline or nervousness that gives me a stomachache. And it helps. That’s why finding a way to cope really is very important. If you’re unsure of where to start, remember step 1! :) seeking help.
This feels like a strange word to use, but fighting battles in your mind is actually a very real and important thing (at least in my anorexia recovery journey).
As mentioned earlier, the eating disorder itself has a voice. That is what my therapist told me, and I do think it’s true. In the early days, you can’t discern the ED voice from your own voice. That is why you are so sick. But later on, as you get better, you learn to tell the two apart. And then, that is where you learn to fight.
Honestly, there is no clear-cut way of describing what “fighting” is like. For me, I often visualised me and my family holding spears or cannons or something of the like, fighting against something in my head (that something was anorexia).
Fighting is an all-out war and it comes in many forms. It can come when you are trying to seek help and when you are trying so hard to push away the voice that tells you not to seek help. It can come when you are trying to calm down using box breathing and the voice is trying to tell you irrational things to give you an anxiety attack about the time again.
It is not always visible and that is what makes it hard.
There is no true way and no true form of fighting, but to anyone who is fighting right now, this segment is meant to tell you that you can do it.
I don’t know who needs to see this, but if there’s anything that I’ve learnt from fighting against the ED voice, from resisting it in order to take more bites of nutritious food, it’s that you are stronger than you think. The voices in your head that make your life, well, worse, are not you. You are separate from them. That is why you can fight them!
Recovery is possible. It is always possible, as long as you fight and you believe. I never used to believe it, especially at my lowest points. But I’m here now and it’s been around 2 months since my KK doctor “discharged” me, 5 months since I was officially sort of discharged as well from the psychological clinic. I really wish I could go back in time, give myself a hug, tell myself. You can do this. There really is a silver lining.
I know saying “fight” feels like just talk, but sometimes, it can help. When you feel like you can’t fight anymore, tell yourself, fight. People are cheering you on. I am cheering you on, too!
Woah…this turned out longer than expected. (ahaha)
But I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say - three key points from my recovery journey battling against anorexia nervosa. These can apply to anyone else who is struggling from an ED too, and maybe also just anyone who needed to see this.
Whatever it is, I hope you know you are never alone. I am so, so grateful for all the support, guidance, and endless love and care my family, doctors and counsellors gave me, because without them, I really wouldn’t have made it!
I cannot say recovery will be linear because more often than not, it may not be. But one thing remains certain, and that is the strength of the human spirit. No matter what, you never walk alone, and you are never too weak to face whatever comes your way.
This picture was taken during a meal that I had with my family (some months after being discharged from the psychological clinic).
I enjoyed it a lot :)