Almost everyone goes through a period of desperate self-improvement. You’re in a rut and you need a change. You don’t like your job, where you live, or maybe it’s more personal… maybe like me, you decided one day to start working for a better body. When I moved from dieting to fighting a full blown eating disorder, I remember telling myself it wouldn’t be like others who went down this path.
I was smarter, stronger-willed, and wouldn’t let this become a problem. I could control this. That was the problem right there. And I should have known about it then – it was always about control.
Here’s the most ironic thing about me having an eating disorder: contrary to what you may believe, I love food. My parents grew up during the Vietnam war, and food was often scarce. So with me and my brother, they always made sure that there was plenty at home. When I was younger, my favourite day of the week was Saturday – we would make a trip to Chinatown and the Vietnamese shops to get something to eat for dinner. I also looked forward to large traditional meals during family events – celebrations of life, holidays, birthdays… any excuse to eat copious amounts of food that were prepared with so much care. Growing up in a Vietnamese household, the food was made with love and showing love was sometimes done through feeding. Looking back now, it isn’t surprising that when I decided to cut off food – one of the biggest loves in life – it was a sign I was looking for self-destruction and punishment, not for improvement.
I am an overachiever. Be it from a combination of my culture and upbringing, I believed that perfection was a duty to myself and my family. I was enrolled in an accelerated high school program and involved in almost all school clubs. I always got good grades. On the surface, I was successful. However, there were tell-tale signs early on. I had an existential crisis at 14, where I believed I was evil and was only doing “good things” to hide my dark side. This lead to a major depressive episode, including contemplating suicide. I suffered from anxiety at home as I began fighting more and more with my parents. My anxiety also began showing up at school as classes got harder, and I had to work extra to stay at the top of my class. And then, finally with a series of events over less than a year – I began to crumble at 16.
My depression and anxiety spiraled to an all-time high as I hit my all time low. I wanted to sleep all the time, I broke down crying almost daily, I felt alone, scared, and had a constant inner dialogue that told me I was going to fail at everything and couldn’t change anything even if I tried… After a particularly long, heavy crying session, I decided I needed to take a stand; I needed to take control of something in my life. There must be something in my life I could fix… and it needed fixing, stat.
It was just a “diet”
It started out innocently enough. I wasn’t particularly healthy or active growing up, so under the banner of “health”, I decided to put myself on a strict diet and rigorous exercise. I felt like I couldn’t control my social life, what people expected of me, or if they felt disappointed or let down by me. I felt I had little ability to improve my family life. But, I could control my body. If I could make myself be leaner and prettier, then maybe I wouldn’t be such a failure. I would at least be able to say I made myself healthier.
And it did start off in a healthy way. Over a few months, I was waking up early in the morning to exercise and cut out most of the fat and sugar in my life. I did lose weight. My friends and family noticed and congratulated me. For those brief moments, I felt better. But that alone didn’t quell the uneasiness I felt. Fights with my family continued, and academic and social pressure continued at school. I could still feel that sadness, anxiety, and self-doubt lingering. I thought if I could only make those brief fleeting moments of “better” last. So I decided that it was because my appearance had not changed enough. And here, this is where I started my rapid downfall.
I started researching online the minimum number of calories it took to survive a day and the number of calories each different activities (from daily routines like walking to full blown cardio workouts) would burn for a person my size and weight. With all my research, I decided that I would eat a maximum of 800 calories a day while trying to burn 1800-2000. It would be only a short period of time before I would reach that ideal body shape and size and then return to my ‘normal’ self. If I do it only for a short period of time, and consciously do it, it’s not an eating disorder, I told myself over and over again. No one needed to know. I could do this on my own.
Looking back, I realise now I wasn’t addressing my real problems: that lack of feeling of control in my life, my low self-esteem, my depression and anxiety. My eating disorder became a response mechanism: anything that would trigger any of my deeper seeded issues, I would immediate retaliate on my body.
I became a master of counting calories; I memorised calories of various foods and even the difference created between cooking processes, from boiled to fried chicken breast to individual strawberries. I would subsist on small portions of vegetables and fruit, a spoonful of rice, and a few bites of meat. I kept a record of how many steps I took as I paced for hours in my bedroom, as I did school work or studied, which was meant to be exercise without anyone being able to see. I was obsessed with every step and even standing instead of sitting if it meant I burned more calories. Every night before bed, I would use the internet to do calculations to see if I was on track. If I wasn’t the cook, I would restrict my portions, and overestimate how much I ate in my calculations.
At home, we never really ate any meals together as my parents didn’t get along (and divorced later), and I was so busy with school and activities, that it was normal that I ate alone, so it was easy to hide what I was doing. When my parents finally did express some concern about my eating habits, I changed tactics and I hid food in the trash under napkins or wrappers around the house or brought the food to school to throw out.
At school, I was often so busy running between clubs or band practice, most of my friends never really saw me eat anyway. Before I was notorious for eating my lunches in less than 10 minutes so I could run off to a meeting, event, or practice. Once, one of my teachers made a recommendation and I was called into the counselor’s office, but by then I was already well practised at pretending that everything was fine and that the weight loss was just stress-related. I made a fake diary of what I ate to show the counselor at regular meetings. I would be honest about any pressing emotional issues – fights with parents, stress at school, but I never delved into details and never once admitted my eating disorder. I ate small snacks of fruit in front of teachers in class so they’d never call me in again.
When it was unavoidable to eat in front of my friends or family, I allowed myself to binge on whatever meal was prepared for me, in an attempt to fool them about my secret. But the next days, even weeks, my restrictions would be extreme. At my worst, I got away with eating less than 600 calories a day. I would make myself throw up and abuse laxative pills (which I purchased on the way home from school). By the time I was in my senior year, I had lost almost 1/4 of my body weight. You could count my individual ribs and my arms were almost the same size as my wrists. Here’s the scary thing about it: I never really did feel like I was small enough. I remember everyday looking at and poking the remaining bumps and folds, being disgusted with myself.
Breaking the Cycle and Saving Myself
It took interventions from watchful friends and moving to a new city for university until I was able to break the constant cycle. At the urging of a close friend, I began seeking professional help at university and sought regular counseling, realising where my real issues lay. I was taught that my anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem were all factors that made me vulnerable to my eating disorder. I’ve learned a variety of techniques to deal with my depression and anxiety. At the suggestion of my counselor, writing became my main release; I began to write poetry to express my sadness, loneliness, or anxiety. For close to a year, I also forced myself to write down every day at least one thing, even if it was mundane, that made me happy – watching a friend’s concert, seeing an elderly couple holding hands down the street – and I wrote them in small letters on a single large sheet of paper. When it was full and later I felt anxious or depressive, I could remind myself of all the wonderful things that can happen in a day. I still have that paper almost 10 years later.
Being in a new city meant I moved away from a family and school environment where I felt I couldn’t be myself, couldn’t live up to expectations, and had a restricted social life. New people meant no expectations based on my past. I could go where I wanted to go and be where I wanted to be (more or less, I was still in school after all). I surrounded myself with supporting people. I learned to go see friends if I started to feel my sadness or anxiety became overwhelming. I consciously chose to cook and eat with friends almost every day, and I was lucky enough that they were willing to do that with me even when they didn’t know about my illness. I learned to associate food with more than just love, but to laughter, friendship, and community. And it really took a community to raise me back from the depths of my self-hatred. I’m thankful for these amazing people in my life who have kept me at my highs and carried me through my lows. They saved my life. Period.
On my quest for control over my life, I have learned this most important fact: my mental illness will never go away and I will never completely control it. Even now, after a decade of practising self-care and self-awareness with professional and social help, when I fall back into depression or feel overcome by my anxiety, a part of me will not want not to eat. Now, I can pinpoint the real battle and most days fight against it. However, there are also days where I will fall back into old, dark habits.
My mental health will always be a constant battle. I’ve gained back a lot of the weight that I lost since my eating disorder began. Looking at old pictures of myself – at the height of my sickness – is a tough exercise and a mix of emotions. I am both envious and embarrassed at the person in the photograph. But looking at her, I can see also how far I’ve come. I realise I don’t always have to be in control. I don’t have to be perfect or achieve it all. I especially don’t have to try and manage anything on my own. All I can do is surround myself with support and try my best to have more success than sadness. And what a relief that finally is.