An eating disorder, a relapse, and 8 thoughts
This is one of the toughest things I’ve written, and it’s taken a while to put this down. Many ED survivors have told their stories and I thought I should try.
But sometimes narratives are messy and don’t have any sense of finality - mine’s like that. So here’re eight things I learned from my ED.
Very roughly, my story goes like this (and feel free to skip):
I grew up an overweight kid. When I was 14 I had a little success losing weight and somehow this spiralled into anorexia. I was crying half the time and I stopped talking to friends. My dad dragged me to the hospital, personally administered a blood test and an ECG, and told me that unless I wanted to die, I had to go to therapy.
I (resentfully) followed through with therapy. I switched schools - from Dunman High to VJ (IP) to try to start again. I picked up sport and made new friends. Eventually I was doing okay again.
When I was 18 I broke my leg playing soccer. I felt helpless and angry because I hated feeling vulnerable. Once I got off the crutches and was walking again I quickly relapsed. I don’t know why, I felt like I was in control again. I wish I could explain this part, but I’m comfortable with messy stories and I don’t like psychoanalysis. This time I recognized the problem quickly and got help before school started.
I was in a pretty bad place again last summer, but I’m happy that I handled it very well and felt on top of things.
It’s all good now.
1. Insecurity is not size specific.
When I was overweight I shuttled between thinking “Fuck you, my body’s fine and I’m going to Harvard”, and being acutely ashamed that “fat” was my most distinct feature. When I was 14 years old and half as heavy, I was weighing myself every day, and breaking down as long as I wasn’t lighter than the day before. I hated the things I could change, and I hated the things I couldn’t. And at 20 years of age, and after years of body positive feminism, I still catch myself apologizing frequently for my height, the size of my feet; I still make pre-emptive jokes about my stubbornly un-curvy body and flat chest. I still pick my clothes based on an Internet definition of flattering, because I’m afraid that I need to look the thinnest I can manage to have dress sense.
2. Yes, thin privilege is a thing.
This piece, “Let’s Talk About Thin Privilege” by Melissa Fabello, should be compulsory reading.
Because here’s the thing: Can a thin person have body image struggles? Can a thin person be at war with their self-image? Can a thin person hate to look in the mirror? Absolutely. And does that suck? Absolutely. But the difference between these negative feelings and fatphobia is this: The only person worrying about whether or not I’m meeting beauty standards is me.
Being pre-occupied with my body all day every day sucked. So much. But guess what sucks even more? People giving me unsolicited lifestyle advice at the dining table, so everything I put in my mouth is either sin or repentance. Looking my direction in Health Ed, as if fat-shaming rhetoric and pictures of sad, spoiled fat children weren’t already a thing outside of the classroom. A classmate once yelled at me in front of the entire class because “fat cow” was easier than “you made a mistake”.
Now the loudest comment I ever get about my food choices is “You can afford it” (was my 12-year-old self supposed to feel so much poorer?) My ED was always more of a virtue, than a state of mental well being. A friend who was (back then) going through bulimia told me “I wish I were anorexic.” Even if you’re too weak to move, at least you’re not lazy.
3. Mental illnesses suck.
So much. I could never be upset with my parents for handling me the best way they knew how. But yelling at a person with mental illnesses to “change”, “snap out of it”, “be normal” hurts. It hurt when they implied I was anorexic on purpose, that I was trying to make a statement, throwing a very extended tantrum, and trying to punish them. It hurt even more when members of the church I used to go to sat me down and told me I was committing the sin of vanity, that I could fix myself if I just prayed more and worked harder at my faith.
I don’t know how to say this better. But I wish we didn’t always talk about EDs (mental illnesses in general) in a cause and effect way, or assume that our stories are a straight line from trigger to problem to cure. If I say “I grew up overweight, and I just wanted people to like me”, then I should’ve been okay once friends I barely talked to were almost dragging me out at recess. If I say “I just wanted to be pretty”, then I should’ve been okay once I’d attained everything from the bikini bridge to the elusive thigh gap. But I wasn’t - the “root cause” of my ED was all of these things, yet none of them. Mostly I didn’t feel like I deserved to occupy space.
I have friends in my life with anxiety, PTSD, and depression. I don’t know what it’s like to have any of these, and I never will. Whenever we talked about sadness and wanting to die, my brain used to try to think of happy things to say, or it scours for a solution. I’ve since learned that it’s okay to be tired, and it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay that we don’t always want to talk constructively. It’s okay that all we want is solidarity.
4. I am allowed to occupy space.
This point is a personal one, and one less specific to EDs. I used to think that I didn’t deserve to talk to people, have friends, be honest with my feelings, or be treated with respect, as long as I didn’t have a halfway acceptable body. My mother used to tell me, “If you want people to stop treating you like that, do something about yourself.” I used to snap back at her, “I spend more time outdoors in a day than jiejie (older sister) does in a week.”
But I shouldn’t have had to say that to feel like the name-calling was not okay. I shouldn’t’ve had to dig up proof that I wasn’t a lazy fat stereotype to justify my anger.
I get to be angry. I get to say no to sex, and I don’t have to feel like I’m disappointing someone who was kind enough to find me sufficiently fuckable.
I get to occupy conversational space.* I get to write about these things even if I’m only speaking for myself, because I’m actually worth speaking for.
5. Surviving is not about my feelings.
I get a nice feels trip whenever I see Dove ads. I see brands trying to milk the Dove Blueprint for its worth in advertising, and I still like them. I like validation.
But survival is not about my feelings. I’m not going to feel pretty every day. Some days I don’t feel like stepping out the door at all. On those days I go about my day and minimize contact with the mirror. People don’t have to like my body for me to do shit. I don’t have to like my body to do shit. Fuck pretty, it’s a nice feeling to have but no number of #bodypositivity selfies is going to make that feeling any less fleeting. Pretty will not disrupt me.
6. Surviving is also an everyday thing.
I think there are people who’ve experienced complete recovery and written about it, and I’m happy for that. I only just recently learned the keyoard shortcut for undo. I desperately wish I could command + z an ED. But I’ll never be able to disable that part of my brain that registers edible things and sees numbers instead.
And this is probably the fact that alarms most people - that I’m trying to talk about an ED history in present tense. Like I said in #5, I accept that I don’t get a perfectly happy ending. But if you think about it, “survival” doesn’t exactly sound happy, anyway. It sounds like you have to go through a lot of fight, and all you get in return is to pass by the skin of your teeth. That’s exactly what it is.
7. An ED is not a look.
You don’t look anorexic anymore, yay.
Never say that to a person, because it’s:
a. Fucking annoying.
Being “clinically underweight” is a symptom of anorexia, but it’s just one, and it’s usually the only one people pick up on or care about. I suspect it’s because people prioritize policing bodies over caring for their mental and emotional wellbeing.
b. Really dangerous.
When the doctor told me she was pretty sure I needed therapy, I told her she was wrong because I didn’t look anything like the anorexic people in pictures. The poster children of anorexia were probably chosen to get the above people to give a shit about other people who look “disgustingly thin”. I don’t have a solution for this. But I think that as long as we’re obsessed with fixing bodies, we’ll always do too little, too late by people with EDs.
8. Yes I’m okay.
I was initially terrified of writing this because my friends might never look at me the same way again. I don’t want people to look at me and just see “that girl with her issues”, as much as a queer person coming out doesn’t want their best friend to only ever see “queer”.
I’m admitting that some things and some days are hard, and I’m confessing that I still can’t look at a scale without feeling my chest tighten. But I’m writing this not because I want your help or sympathy. I got this. Before you ever read this I’ve been okay.
I’m writing this because I feel that visibility is powerful help, it’s one of the best things I can do to help another kid going through the same thing, and I’m finally comfortable with sharing.
This doesn’t have an ending, but thank you.
*“I get to occupy conversational space” - I mean that I get to speak for myself where my experiences are relevant. I don’t get to occupy this space when, for example, I’m in a conversation about trans issues as an ally. In this context it’s my responsibility to occupy minimal space, and amplify trans voices instead.