restrictive eating

Learning to Be Honest with Eating Disorder

Making an exception to the art blog for a topic close to my heart.

To myself and to anyone reading this, I want to be honest that I have struggled with eating disorder for years, and I want to thank all the people around me for accommodating my dietary restrictions and for not judging me. I owe a big thank you to all of you, and to the events and circumstances that little by little taught me to be more honest with myself.

Last week, perhaps years overdue, I finally gathered enough courage to see a doctor specialized in eating disorder. I almost gave up scheduling an appointment and almost decided not to show up at the last minute, but I went because I was so tired – tired of instinctively seeing calorie numbers in every food in front of me and tired of hopelessly crying after each binge. Dr. G asked questions, listened, nodded, typed, and asked more questions. Those were questions that I had been too ashamed to ask myself. I could not see what Dr. G typed in her notes, but this here is my version of the notes.

eating disorder painting

Picture from reddit.

It started towards the end of freshman year in college. Moving to a new continent for college was a new experience, also a new experience in terms of food. I was very eager and curious to try new foods. Even the most mundane American foods seemed so novel to me. I had never had a peanut butter jelly sandwich or a bagel with cream cheese before, and was completely lost when people talk about lucky charm or fruit loops being their favorite cereal. Freshman 15 was real, and week by week I got more and more scared to stand on the scale.

Thinking about it now, I was at a perfectly fine and healthy weight, if not still slightly underweight, but it felt like a disaster to me coming from an Asian culture obsessed with 50kg/110lbs as the golden number for female weight. Growing up, weight loss hacks were a constant topic among female relatives and school classmates. Back when I was in middle school, my mom was using meal replacement shakes (think Soylent but half the calories) for weight loss under the influence of family friends, and I also followed suite for around a year in middle school. With the freshman 15, I turned to the meal replacement shakes again. I was ashamed to tell people that I was trying to lose weight, so as my excuse I always said that I needed extra protein as a vegetarian. With the shakes and gym classes and counting calories religiously on MyFitnessPal, soon in a couple months I had lost all the extra weight I gained.

Yet I still wanted to keep going, as of course thinner was better. This is where the slippery slope begins. It started out as just to lose the extra few pounds I gained, but quickly took control over me. There was an exhilarating “being on top of things” feeling about dieting, and my self-esteem started to be more linked to my weight. I did not have the most social confidence as a college freshman. As a non-native speaker, I was always self-conscious about using the wrong tense or wrong pronunciation, and felt excluded when people talked about Friends or Star Wars. It was quite a remarkable year of American culture crash course and trying to fit in, and I am very thankful to my friends for explaining all the “what’s this” and “what’s that”. With the lack of general social confidence, my ego turned to the numbers on the scale as an easier source for validation, thinking that people will like me more if I were thin.

Then, freshman year summer during my internship, I was still trying to eat restrictively and exercise, but sticking to the diet was significantly harder with all the free food around and social eating occasions. That summer I gained some weight back and tried even hard to lose it. The thoughts about food and calories occupied me more and more. I had a bike accident half way through the summer. Losing the ability to exercise made me even more frustrated, and the scars on my face made me more self-conscious about my appearance. I remember looking at my pictures that summer with the scars and telling myself I was fat and ugly. What also came with the weight loss and the malnutrition diet was more severe PMS (pre-menstrual symptoms) and heavier periods – bleeding through tampons after tampons and sobbing in bathroom stalls. As I only learned much later, hormones are formed from fat and cholesterol, and we all need healthy fat for hormonal balance.

One day during break in sophomore year, I passed out when standing up from a nap and fell right to the floor. My parents took me to the hospital and found out I was anemic, which in hindsight was no surprise given the heavy periods and the vegetarian diet. My digestive system was also taking a toll, with constant stomach pain and bloating. There were a couple months where I would always get bloated like 3-month pregnant after eating anything other than liquids, so I only ate apple sauce and soups. After being diagnosed with anemia, gastritis, and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), I focused more on recovering from these symptoms and put the vegetarian diet to a pause. Eating less restrictively and taking medications, I was in better health and felt more energetic, also thanks to my roommate who cooked delicious homemade food and always made eating together such a joy.

However, the momentary recovery was short lived. Towards the summer, I had an emotional breakup that I felt very terrible about and was then in another somewhat abusive relationship. Academically, I was burnt out trying to push for two research projects at the same time. At this point, restrictive eating was no longer about trying to lose weight and became a coping mechanism in search of a sense of control. On top of restriction, I newly started binge eating chocolates and ice cream and baked goods. The temporary comfort in binge eating quickly became addictive, and hit the peak when I studied abroad that fall. Studying abroad was some of my best memories, but it also came with stress moving to a new place, managing traveling logistics, and dealing with a manipulative study abroad program director. I had a lot more alone time living in a single and surrounded by mostly strangers, which also meant more opportunities to freely binge in private. One afternoon after eating one slice of carrot cake and another slice and another slice, I felt hopeless and disgusted with myself, and tried to make myself puke in the restroom, but failed. Looking back, I was very lucky that I failed and never went down the purging path. Even without purging, I was still stuck in a cycle of binge eating and feeling guilty and heavily restricting the next day. I was constantly comparing my own body with other women around me, and seeing slim women in tight-fitting party dresses made me feel fat. Despite all the cake eating, I still hit my lowest weight ever, and for a long time I was secretly proud of the weight as an achievement, even though I always maintained to others that the weight loss was completely unintentional.

I started to suspect gluten might be causing my bloating, upon googling “common causes of bloating” and coming across articles describing wheat as a culprit. I experimented and went back and forth eliminating and reintroducing gluten to see if I would feel any better without. I did feel less bloated without eating bread, and hence I concluded a gluten-free diet was needed for my stomach. It was difficult to say no to gluten, as I loved baking. From time to time, I occasionally could not resist cookies and cakes, and what I thought would be just one tiny bite often turned into a binge, leaving me horribly bloated afterwards each time. I was so convinced that gluten was the problem that I never sought medical tests. Eventually I was more at peace with a strictly gluten-free diet, thanks for all my supportive friends and colleagues, and ate gluten-free for nearly three years, well, until last week. Dr. G pointed out that it is a very common pattern among eating disorder patients to get bloated due to a messed-up digestive system and go gluten-free as a more hidden form of restrictive eating. Half convinced, I headed to the bakery for some rolls, told myself it would all be fine, and surprisingly it was all fine. After all, it was mostly psychological. I got bloated because I believed I was going to. It is a powerful and beautiful feeling to realize that, and perhaps so it is for lots of other fears in life.

All this time, I was not aware of eating disorder, and always thought that the solution was to stick to my diet plans better with stronger willpower and stay thin. Anorexia felt far away as I thought I was not nearly thin enough to qualify. It was only till around a year ago that I stumbled upon eating disorder stories when desperately googling what to do after a binge. Since then, I have read more blogs and books to educate myself, and I am very grateful for all the resources available. I turned away from Facebook and Instagram, as those are often triggers for body comparisons. I started eating more and exercising more, and slowly came back to a healthier weight. I started out in a very fragile physical state – evening running a mile was unimaginable, but slowly starting from daily stretching and yoga, eventually in a year I was proud to run my first 10K. Thanks to friends that took me to yoga and running and volleyball and squash, I genuinely started to enjoy exercising.  Until recently, I still felt too ashamed to seek professional help, but a kind email from someone who noticed my low spirits reminded me that there is help out there.

The recovery phase comes with its own challenges. While rationally I know gaining the weight back was the healthy thing to do, emotionally I still struggle with seeing the numbers on the scale. Even when I avoid weighing myself, the deep sense of worthlessness still creeps back from the mirror and from the skirts that no longer fit. The restriction and binging thoughts never go away completely. All I can do is to acknowledge the thoughts and cope with them better. I am grateful to eating disorder for teaching me to be more honest with the negative emotions that hide behind it, whether it is stress, anxiety, loneliness, self-doubt, regret, or feeling homesick. Last week, just a few hours after my appointment with Dr. G, I was nervous about a final and turned to chocolates and peanut butter for relief, only to end up heading to the final ashamed and distressed. Just today, as I wrote down this piece on a long flight back home for the holidays, I was feeling guilty about eating whole portions of airplane meals. But, at the very least, even though sometimes that voice is still not strong enough to shut down the eating disorder voice, now I could hear another voice in my head telling me to do the next right thing.

Thank you for reading till the end. If you notice someone with warning signs of eating disorder (understanding the warning signs), be kind to them and listen to them (what to say and do). If you or a friend want to learn more about eating disorder or need someone to talk to about mental health in general, I am happy to listen and to share more. Lastly, you are beautiful, and life is beautiful.