It was really difficult for me to start writing this piece. I put too much anger in the first draft. In the second, I sounded too detached from what I was writing. After the third and fourth attempt I almost gave up. Then I realised that the only way I could have do this was by being totally honest and telling things the way they are, simply starting from the beginning.
When I was 14, one of my closest friends suddenly told me I was a horrible person and proceeded to walk out of my life with no further explanation. Being the insecure teenager I was, this minor incident kept me awake at night for a very long time. It got to the point where I perceived this person’s absence so badly that I could actually feel a hole in my body, and unconsciously decided to try and fill it up with food. That’s when eating started to become an obsessive thought. I decided I really wanted to put on weight; a lot of weight. But to my great disappointment and surprise, I soon realised I was actually getting skinnier. Going from one irrational thought to another, I convinced myself I actually did want to lose weight. I wanted my body to reflect the emptiness I was feeling inside. I wanted to be repulsive. I wanted people to stay away from me. This train of thought was like a broken record, constantly playing in my head.
One of the generally held beliefs about eating disorders is that they’re always caused by a superficial aspiration to look thin and pretty. In actual fact, stressful situations and traumatising experiences can often trigger the onset of an eating disorder in predisposed individuals. Yet, thinking about my experience now, I can’t help but feel deeply ashamed. There are many misconceptions surrounding eating disorders, and people’s perception of this kind of mental illness makes opening up about it and asking for help extremely difficult. Society has come to place food right at its nucleus, and so those with a complicated relationship with it are often estranged. Refusing food offered by a friend can be interpreted as a sign of mistrust. Repeatedly refusing invitations to meals out can drive people away. There seems to be very little acceptance of or accommodation for this kind of disorder, which is probably why I still haven’t fully processed what I’ve been through and never really talked about it to anyone.
Another misconception that people have about eating disorders is that it’s a choice. After all, you choose to skip your meal; you choose to eat all the food in your flat; you choose to throw it all back up. I personally wasn’t even sure exactly what was going on, but looking back now it still feels in some way inevitable. With my parents’ divorce, my crush being hooked up on drugs, my best friend also suffering from anorexia and my growing anxiety, I felt like I was just following a script that had been written for me way before any of this happened. I never actively decided to drive people away or cause my mother to worry to the point where she would hide cake from the rest of the family in the hope I would eat it. She probably knew I was throwing it all up, but it’s something we have still never talked about.
What people also seem to ignore is that the term “eating disorder” includes any condition that involves abnormal eating habits. Disorders such as pica (eating non-edible objects) and orthorexia nervosa (obsessively avoiding unhealthy food) are often overlooked. We even seem to be lacking a general understanding of better known conditions such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia and bulimia are often experienced together. Days of starving yourself and practicing strenuous exercise are alternated with days of uncontrollable binge eating and purging. The symptoms can vary a lot and although weight loss, fatigue and a general obsession with food are the obvious ones, there are more. I experienced hair loss, lack of menses and lanugo (very thin hair growing on unusual parts of my body). Even with such drastic symptoms, chances are that if someone affected by an eating disorder doesn’t want you to know about it, you’re probably not going to find out or it might take you longer than you think. Nonetheless, you should always look out for your friends and the ones close to you, never underestimating why they might be refusing a portion of their favourite food or spending so much time in the gym.
The thing I personally really struggle to tell to the people I’ve briefly mentioned my eating disorder to is that I’ll never be “cured”. There will forever be a voice in my head whispering to put that slice of pizza down; my eye will always fall on the nutritional information on food packages and labels; I will always inevitably think about purging every time I feel angry or hopeless. But things are definitely better now than they were six years ago. I sort of snapped out of it when my best friend at the time told me I was her “thinspiration”. She was hospitalised shortly after and that’s when I finally realised what was happening to me. It took me about 4 years to gain the weight I lost over the course of 10 months. During this period of time, I received so much love and support from my friends, even if they only vaguely knew that something was wrong, because I never felt comfortable enough to open up about it. Being close to someone with an eating disorder can be extremely painful and difficult, but remember that showing them your love can really make a difference.