Features

Part 1: An Eating Disorder That’s Part Of Me

Natasha Phang-Lee

**TW: Eating disorders, bulimia and excessive exercising**

WHERE TO START?

Well, maybe I should explain why I’m writing this, despite the fact that the thought of others reading this terrifies me. Eating disorders are complex, completely unique to everyone who suffers from one; it’s a common belief that body image is the sole initiator of an eating problem, but it’s so much bigger than that.

It’s an intertwining mess of all other aspects of your life which amalgamates to form this ‘thing’. A ‘thing’ that’s constantly there, in your head.

On a good day, it’s like most people’s inner voice – just there, plodding along, commenting on life. On bad days, it’s like there’s something gnawing away at your brain; a spider nestled deep inside, a permanent resident.

I wanted to write about my personal struggles so more people can understand what goes on behind the ‘façade’, what thoughts mingle, what actions are subsequently taken, and just how mentally draining it all is.

I’m writing for the friends and family of sufferers, for those who may never have known this issue existed but, most of all, for those who can perhaps relate to aspects of what I talk about.

If there’s the possibility of helping even one person feel less isolated, or feel that they can recover, then me opening up is so worth it.

I cut out whole food groups like fats or carbohydrates and developed the thinking that there were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods

I guess I should start at the beginning (or what I remember to be the beginning). I had always eaten pretty healthily as I did a lot of sport when I was aged around 9-13. But when I was 16-17, this ‘healthy eating’ mentality became more extreme.

I cut out whole food groups like fats or carbohydrates and developed the thinking that there were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods.

Looking back, I had what is called bulimia but, instead of throwing up after eating (one type of bulimia), I would over-exercise. I swam excessively, had hockey training and did other exercise on top of this too.

This doesn’t seem like a crazy amount of exercise, and it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if I had been eating a subsequent amount of food to sustain these activities, but I was probably only eating half what my body would normally need, insufficient even without the exercise.

To make things worse, as I went to boarding school, at 18, we cooked for ourselves, meaning I had complete control over what entered my body. These combining factors meant I lost a scary amount of weight, which I can appreciate, now looking back, was extremely dangerous.

But because the change was gradual, I barely noticed the weight loss. Even more terrifyingly, in retrospect, was that I believed there was still more weight I could lose.

At this point, I think I knew my relationship with food and exercise was bad, but I’d never admit it to myself because you never think anything like this will happen to you.

I would be mentally exhausted from constantly worrying about if I’d done enough exercise to warrant the amount of food I’d eaten

You hear about it loads and see it happening to others but it’s so hard to ‘see’ when you’re within it yourself. I would use swimming as an excuse to miss house dinners so I could cook for myself and again ‘control’ what I ate without others seeing.

I would become extremely quiet in a group setting because I would be mentally exhausted from constantly worrying about if I’d done enough exercise to warrant the amount of food I’d eaten.

The longer it went on, the more it encroached on other aspects of my life and the harder it became to get out of the vicious cycle. I attributed my self-worth to whether I’d had a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ day.

If I hadn’t exercised that day, I felt I didn’t ‘deserve’ a ‘normal’ (already small) portion of food. If I had eaten a ‘bad’ food, like chocolate, I would cope with the ‘slip-up’ by mentally planning exercise for the following day, or eating less at the next meal to compensate.

The pain of going to bed hungry became a ‘good’ thing and feeling full, the opposite. Having ‘worked’ for my food, I showed myself I could survive the pain and therefore, ‘deserved’ to eat.

Birthdays, Christmas, even going out for a meal made me anxious. I would never be forced to eat cake or have a three-course meal but, afraid of sticking out or that others would notice something strange, I forced myself.

To save myself from the inevitable, overwhelming guilt and the feeling that I’d taken on the full weight of what was on my plate, I would either exercise in anticipation of the date or exercise after.

The pressure to attain perfection, possibly, subconsciously, overflowed into other areas of my life, including my body image

Accordingly, in a private setting, I would never eat these ‘bad’ foods because the amount of headspace the overriding guilt occupied afterwards just wasn’t worth the small, short-lived pleasure I might gain from them.

Only once some of my best mates started approaching me, because they’d noticed I’d lost a lot of weight, did I fully accept this was an issue.

I’ve thought about the reasons and triggers that started this deprecating mentality many times and, although I’ll never really know why, the following are some things that could have contributed.

At 18, I believed the decisions I made then would impact everything I went on to do in the future (crazy, I know). But this pressure to make the ‘right’ decision and the feeling that there were so many uncertainties I couldn’t control meant I perhaps turned to food as a way to control something.

Also, being in a high-achieving school environment, where academic excellence is strived for, the pressure to attain perfection, possibly, subconsciously, overflowed into other areas of my life, including my body image.

I became fixated on the size of my tummy, I would wake up and have a nice, flat stomach then, once I ate, that little food baby would be out in full force.

It’s mad that I thought like this, because bloating is flipping normal. But, in that strive for perfection, I conflated eating with a bigger tummy, so rational me was like “less food will lead to ‘perfect’ body” (whatever that is anyway!).

Continue Reading in Part 2: An Eating Disorder That’s Part Of Me

Natasha Phang-Lee


Featured image courtesy of i yunmai via Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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