‘If you keep eating, we’ll have to buy you maternity clothes.’ I felt disgusted. Everything I hated about myself was because of food.’: Woman raises eating disorder awareness, ‘Don’t turn a blind eye’
Trigger Warning: This story contains descriptions of eating disorders, sexual assault, and suicidal thoughts that may be triggering to some.
“When people ask what my story is, my best answer is a work in progress. Recovery is not linear. There is no transformation photo that could do justice to the amount of mental and emotional change I’ve undergone in the last decade, both positive and negative. I get teased for being a know-it-all at work sometimes, and I always pin it on having a good memory for detail. But every time I say this, my subconscious can’t help but laugh at my poor attempt to convince people this is a skill rather than a curse.
If I told you I remember every single negative comment anyone has ever made about my physical appearance from as early as I can remember and that sometimes that dark side of my brain replays them, over, and over, and over again in excruciating detail, you’d begin to understand why I approach words like ‘recovered’ and ‘progress’ with caution. I have been discharged, both officially and by circumstance, about three times, but really, I just got better at faking it. On occasion, I could even convince myself this was recovery, but it just took one misstep down memory lane, and I’d be back on that downwards spiral. Sometimes, it was so slow and subtle, I didn’t even notice until I was at rock bottom.
I want to make it emphatically clear, this isn’t me trying to blame any single event for the deterioration of my mental health and the effective loss of my childhood. However, if I was asked to pinpoint exactly when and why I made the decision eating just wasn’t an option for me anymore, there is only one defining moment that comes to mind. It was my twelfth birthday and I’d just had my party. We were in the shopping mall, headed toward dinner when we walked by a maternity shop. My dad turned around to my friend and said, ‘If Anjali keeps eating, soon we’ll have to buy all her clothes from there.’
A part of my heart withered away that day, though I wouldn’t realize it until almost 10 years later. I think that’s when I made the mental connection eating was bad. Eating resulted in me being teased at school for years. It resulted in someone I barely knew calling me ‘the girl with the fat neck,’ and why I was told I had the arms of a pregnant woman. Eating was why my parents wouldn’t let me wear shorts in the 40-degree heat because they were too tight and vulgar on my thighs. It was why my skin was bad and spotty, why boys didn’t like me… everything I hated about myself was because of food. Or did I always hate myself and by shrinking, there was less to hate? To this day, I’m still not sure which came first, only that now at 22, I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt anything except all-consuming disgust when I look at myself.
Eventually, the lack of food caught up with me. I was taken to doctors, who ran tests on me for what felt like months at the time but was really only a week. They couldn’t find a single thing wrong with me. Here I was, a seemingly healthy girl, blacking out when I sat up, complaining of bodily pain comparable to that of a patient eight times my age, freezing cold all the time but with no sign of fever. It took a particularly perceptive doctor, with a daughter around my age, to ask enough questions and realize this wasn’t a virus. I was sick, but it was mental and not physical.
For my parents, this was a cop-out. Mental health was not discussed in my family. When the doctor warned, ‘You need to observe her carefully,’ his words were swiftly brushed under the carpet. My parents simply said, ‘You need to catch up on the work you’ve missed.’ I continued, trying to moderate my approach so I was functional but still reassuring myself I was doing my bit to make sure I was never in those maternity clothes. I want to make it clear I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder. My parents were just warned I may be at risk of depressive episodes as a result of traumatizing events from the perspective of an 11-year-old.
I remember feeling dismissed and like it was my fault I felt this way. My parents refused medical help and instead insisted I visit a homeopathic practitioner, recommended by a clinical psychologist with a similar old school South Asian upbringing. While I appreciated the effects of placebo pills, even at that age, I had done enough Google searches to cement my opinion homeopathy was as good as doing nothing. Simultaneously, the psychologist said, ‘You need to be more ‘understanding’ of your parents. They’re just trying to help and there’s just a generational divide causing a miscommunication.’
To this day, when I bring up what happened to my father, he looks me up and down and says, ‘Well, it worked, didn’t it?’ My heart breaks for that version of myself who just wanted someone to tell her, ‘You are allowed to feel.’ It sounds ridiculous coming from my mouth now, but I truly mourn the childhood I should have had, one where I didn’t feel the crippling guilt of being such a nuisance to my parents, who constantly reminded me of my privileges: having food, shelter, a good education. I spent years convinced I was unworthy of praise of any sort because I was too big and that I was ungrateful and spoilt for being depressed. The idea my eating patterns in themselves were problematic didn’t even get thrown into the mix at that stage. To be honest, it probably would have been too much. There were days when the weight in my chest from the guilt and self-loathing would make it hard to breathe. I would have done anything to make it stop.
What people don’t realize is this approach isn’t like letting a baby cry in its crib. It has actual long-term consequences on the decision-making process of an individual. There I was, desperate for any kind of approval, someone to validate my feelings and tell me I was good enough, and that left me vulnerable.
We met in April of 2013. He was 4 years older than me and home-schooled. He listened, giving me constructive ways to deal with what I was feeling. He was like a life preserver to me and in the way of teenagers, I had a crush on him that made it seem like the world was ending. And then it did in October of that year. He told me he was moving to America, and so I assembled all of our mutual friends for a send-off. One by one, they were all picked up by their parents, until it was just us. He suggested we go to a park, and why would I say no? It seemed perfectly normal. I should have said no.
I went a whole year without properly processing what happened in the park that day. I just knew I hadn’t wanted it and that I’d froze, locked out of my own body. My self-worth deteriorated. I had spontaneous breakdowns in school, my grades slipped, and as I was scrambling for something to anchor myself, I settled on the one thing I could control: food.
During that year, in 2014, I went abroad with school twice, once to Russia where it was easy enough to avoid food, and then to Vietnam. I genuinely cannot remember what set me off on the trip to Vietnam, but there was a snap decision. I decided I didn’t want to eat anymore. We were hiking with heavy bags and people were catching food poisoning. This made it easy enough to slip under the radar. In those 3 weeks in Vietnam, I lost 17.5 pounds. The high I felt stepping on those scales, malnourished with fragile breakable wrists, was like no other to me. It became an addiction.
I used to distribute my lunchbox items on the bus to and from school. People liked me for it, and I stayed skinny. The breakdowns continued, and I got more and more miserable until I was referred to the school counselor. All of this personal strife was happening with the backdrop of a highly competitive, selective high school. They demanded excellence from their students, be it music, drama, sports, debating, and everyone had their place.
Mine was firmly in the music department with a particularly temperamental headteacher. In chastising me, he used to tap directly into my deepest insecurities, calling me a disgrace and lazy and other things I’d already been drilling into myself for years. The school counselor had to hold me in her office until my mum arrived, fearing the harm I may do to myself or others.
This began my second foray into therapy, but this therapist was different. She didn’t blame me for my feelings. She encouraged me to feel and identify them for the first time in my life. She also always said, ‘Try to look for the positives.’ But this was a time when I just couldn’t see any. We made the decision together I needed medication to tide me over while we worked on my issues, and for a time, things were okay. I was still depressed and not eating, but the pain subsided.
Things were difficult for me socially. I craved approval and validation and often bent over backward to get it. I made mistakes, pushed away people who cared for me in an attempt to convince myself I was getting better. My grades continued to slip, and as I appeared more healed on the outside, that deep self-hatred only grew. In November of 2016, about a week before my 18th birthday, I attempted to commit suicide. My mother’s face, as she was tried to convince me to get off that roof, will remain carved into my memory for the rest of my life. It is no exaggeration, the panic and desperation in her eyes, as she realized my pain was, in fact, very real and very dangerous, is something I’d never seen from my usually cold mother. This was a transformative experience for our relationship, to say the least.
My specialists knew I’d thought about it, but I’d never had a plan, and to be honest, it all happened so quickly I don’t think I ever did. It all just became too much and I needed it all to stop immediately. The rest of that year flew by. I retreated inside myself, drank a lot, didn’t commit to therapy as I should have, instead just faking I felt so much better after my ‘little blip’ as I called it. I went off to university as expected. Summer and my first year was an alcohol-fuelled blur. I stopped taking my medication and barely ate, but I made a tight-knit group of friends. I went vegan to justify subsisting on lettuce and hummus. Things were far from ideal, but they were the best they had been in years.
I had another realization I hated myself to an intolerable point in April of 2017. However, this time, as a university student in London, I had options. Instead of seeking help, like I definitely should have, I related my unhappiness to gaining the ‘Freshman 15’ and decided the best way to fix it was by joining a gym. It became my new obsession. I went on a diet consisting of mainly greens and tofu. I gained muscle, lost fat, I looked and felt so much better. I made friends who I thought were like me… until I realized it was simply my new addiction. It was the serotonin boost I should have been getting from my medication. I reinforced my belief: ‘Exercise makes me skinny, and exercise makes me happy, and so to be skinny is to be happy.’
I went on with life without realizing the problematic implications of this association. I even felt well enough to get a job in September of 2018. I continued using the gym as a mood booster, often attending two or three HIIT classes a day. But my weight loss wasn’t apparent enough for me. Surrounded by petite cheerleaders and gymnasts, I felt the overwhelming urge to do more. I distinctly remember, during the winter of 2018, I let it get so bad under the guise of being busy at the new job I survived only on pre-workout and a Tesco pot of edamame beans with sriracha.
In that period, I worked out twice a day, as well as being on my feet for three 7-hour shifts a week. Normally, this is where I should say, ‘I see the error of my ways and I’ll never do that again,’ but I can’t. I still have days where I look at photos from then and wish with every fiber of my being I could be that small, so dainty and waif-like.
In reality, this is what progress in eating disorder recovery means. You don’t stop having those thoughts, you don’t look at those photos and say, ‘Wow! Look how skinny I was, I looked so unhealthy, I’ll never do that to myself again.’ Instead, there is this insidious thing inside you that always asks, ‘Well why did it stop? You like how you looked, don’t you? You failed. What can you do better next time to make it last longer? How can you escape notice? Do better.’ It becomes a new extreme sport, a hobby, everything you do becomes modified slightly. My routes to university got longer. I started throwing away that already tiny amount of food. I got an extra gym membership to use on top of those two classes a day, telling people it was just for yoga so I could ‘destress.’ Sometimes, in therapy, I catch myself smiling when I talk about all of the things my brain came up with to let me fly under the radar. There is this sickening pride. I said to myself, ‘My eating disorder is stronger than every specialist it has encountered thus far.’
The second problem with attempting recovery is disordered eating and exercise is so normalized in our society. Skipping a meal to look skinny for an event, switching from noodles to zoodles, cutting out entire food groups for no scientific or medical reason, the phrases, ‘I’m going on a run tomorrow to burn XYZ off’ or ‘I need to earn my weekend.’ We have made the decision somewhere along the way food has a moral value, it can be good, bad, junk, guilt-free, and as a result, we have based our opinions of ourselves on it. I received the most compliments I have ever had on my appearance when I was eating less than 500 calories a day, my stomach was in agony and my thoughts felt like I was swimming in cement. Obviously, I was cripplingly depressed, but I still didn’t even consider I had an eating disorder. I continued as before, drinking, seeing my friends, going out. Funny how life has a way of humbling you.
I say funny, because to this day it still seems like a cosmic joke. In February of 2019, I was sexually assaulted for the second time in my life. This time I was under no illusion nothing had happened to me and my response was immediate. I didn’t eat or sleep much for a week before entering the most extreme binge-restrict cycle I think I’ve had in this entire journey. I went from months of eating whatever I wanted to months of obsessively tracking every single morsel of food. On paper, it worked. My muscle mass was up, my body fat was down. People saw me eating on social media. The illusion was complete. It was at this point I realized my grades were slipping, signs I was about to undergo another depressive episode.
I went to see my doctor, hoping to be prescribed whatever I was taking before and be done with it. I listed the same symptoms as before and was irritated the doctor kept asking about my gym and food habits. I ate clean and exercised, potentially the only two healthy things about me. Before I could protest and say, ‘I just want the unhappiness to ease,’ I was referred to an eating disorders specialist unit, put on a different medication, and sent on my way. I started weekly therapy with very low expectations, but again, this therapist was different from the first two. She had all the empathy of my second therapist with the no-nonsense approach of the first. To this day, I still haven’t been able to get away with talking my way out of a diagnosis or a hard conversation. She never judged me or made me feel like a bad person. At the same time, she didn’t try to make everything positive and okay. We often spent a whole hour just with me explaining why everything was not going to be okay and her just nodding. Once it was out of my system, I’d suddenly feel free to start pursuing a solution, albeit tentatively and with a lot of skepticism.
I decided to really commit to recovery in January of 2020 because my mom was diagnosed with upper GI and pancreatic cancer. We later learned it was a misdiagnosis and thankfully, she is in good health. However, at that moment, what could have been our future unfolded in my brain: the hospital appointments, trying to make peace with goodbyes and the idea my mom wouldn’t be there anymore, and the overwhelming pain from what I can only describe as my heart physically shattering.
That’s when it clicked. What my mum felt when she saw me on that roof, what she felt when she googled eating disorders. What she felt when I told her, in a fit of despair, ‘I don’t see a good enough reason to not try and end my life again if my brain is going to do it slowly anyway.’ I started to force myself to eat three meals a day, with no restriction. I stopped being vegan, I had snacks, I worked out just once a day, progress was being made slowly.
Until March, when the world shut down. I knew lockdown was never going to be easy, but for someone who was so reliant on seeing friends during mealtimes to make myself eat, being forced to return home where my disordered habits were always subtly encouraged to thrive was terrifying. I convinced myself I didn’t need the three meals. I started mitigating skipping meals, sleeping in till noon to miss breakfast, and then having dinner with no carbohydrates. I graduated in the pandemic, and something which 11-year-old me would have been insurmountably proud of was taken from me. I’d dreamt of the day I could look back on everything I’d been through during my walk on that stage and hold my degree, proof I’d defied the odds. That day was replaced by an envelope arriving with my degree neatly deposited inside. There were no last nights with my friends who’d become my family. I was at a loss and it began to manifest itself in more disordered habits.
That’s when I started my recovery blog in the hopes it would keep me accountable. I never realized there were so many people who I knew who resonated with parts of what I shared. The awkward dichotomy of wanting to be conventionally attractive while still ‘woke’ and ‘body positive’ was a difficult one to negotiate. I felt a responsibility to my small audience to wipe the polish off of the surface and show that recovery was uncomfortable and ugly and by no means was I even near it.
After nearly 20 years of being this way, I have come to realize my eating disorder was the motivator of all of the defining moments in my adolescence. It has become as much a part of me as any constant in a child’s life. I’ve made peace with the fact recovery for me may not mean I no longer have an eating disorder. It may mean learning the things about myself that are true even in its absence. I can still be selfless and eat a slice of birthday cake. I can be committed without having to exercise myself to exhaustion daily. I can rest and do nothing and not be lazy.
My aim is to reach as many people as possible. Living with an eating disorder alters your life and the longer it goes unnoticed, the more severe and subtle the damage is. I’ve often used the metaphor I’ve built my identity with bricks made of self-hatred, and I do wonder if I’ll ever have the strength to demolish that structure, risking the idea everything I’ve ever known about myself is a lie. By talking to people, educating each other and our children, removing the stigma, and opening the conversation, there can be a time when unhealthy relationships are noticed and handled. Disordered eating is not a fact of life, although it seems to be. Look around you, and when you see it, don’t turn a blind eye. Someone will thank you for it.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Anj Magecha. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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