We Need to Talk About Eating Disorders
Looking back now, it’s hard to pinpoint where and how my eating disorder grew, like a grimy infestation that took over my mind and body. I was left battered, bruised and counting every single calorie I ate and exercised, leaving me a sad mass of skin and bone.
When I was researching recommendations on how those suffering from anorexia should recover, it was suggested we see the disease as a separate entity from ourselves. But when an illness is inside your head addressing you directly, that is a lot easier said than done.
The siren’s hands had lulled me into a false sense of security with her song ‘One Less Meal’ and left me feeling as if I was in control. In reality, her hands were claws, and she was dragging me under the surface, drowning me as she went.
It’s impossible to explain that jump from “life’s not going well” to “lose weight to no end, that’ll fix it”. But why? It’s a fair question. Why would a substantially well-off, passably pretty, passably talented girl dream of destroying herself in the way that I did? After all, I didn’t have any problems. I wasn’t terminally ill, or physically bullied, or sexually abused or starving to death in a war-torn country. I was starving myself in Australia.
The years leading up to my eating disorder, I didn’t pick up on any warning signs, but how could I if I didn’t even know what they were? The thoughts that snowballed over the years had been in my head for as long as I could remember. You’re chubbier than other girls. Hold in your stomach! Maybe you shouldn’t eat that… People will like you more if you weigh less. They just became louder and more vicious as time went on, disguised as the voice of my only companion.
An eating disorder is talented at weaving the narrative in a way that makes you feel like it is you controlling it, but from the get go, it’s always the other way around. Anorexia is complicated in the sense that I saw my ribs with their thinly stretched coating of papery skin; I saw my razor-sharp hip bones threatening to burst out of my shell and my cheeks that were beginning to sink. I saw all of this, but I didn’t care.
Instead, I shifted my goal to what I could change next: the puddle my stomach formed in the middle, the fact that my thighs still touched and my arms wobbled. My eyes were a magnet to the fat on my body.
We all share the details of our physical lives so easily, but when it comes to the mental aspect, everything is under wraps. The shame and stigma surrounding mental health issues like substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and anxiety are the biggest obstacles when it comes to getting help. I simply do not remember there being an honest, open and public conversation about mental health when I was young. There was no one I could turn to or confide in. My school counsellor even admitted that there wasn’t much education on how to help those in the grips of anorexia, and though she tried her best, my eating disorder chewed me up even more.
Because I had to captain my ship alone, I was pushed to find solace on the internet, where I continued my dark, downwards spiral. During this time, I had a blog that garnered hundreds of followers. I used it to bond with other sufferers so we could try and navigate the murky waters together. Although our stories were different, the crux of it was all the same: we felt ostracised, and our disease was fighting with the part of us that was hidden inside, resulting in a constant mental tug of war.
When I was in the throes of my disorder, I constantly researched celebrities I knew had suffered from eating disorders. But instead of looking at how they achieved recovery, I looked to them for tips. I remember buying Portia de Rossi’s autobiography, my eyes scanning hungrily across the pages. How much did she eat in a day? How did she manage to eat less? What did she do after an accidental binge? At the time, I was only eating 360 calories a day and wanted to whittle it down to even less.
360 calories. That’s approximately one-fifth of the daily calorie recommendations for a toddler. It’s roughly three bananas.
Though I’d managed to work my food intake to a miniscule amount, because the progression had been slow, my anorexia made me believe there wasn’t a problem. I was shaving off 200 calories every few weeks, and with the help of a fitness app (which shouldn’t even let you set your daily caloric goal so low), it started to feel like a game. Can I beat yesterday’s score? Can I beat last week’s overall intake? If I accidentally binged yesterday, how little can I eat today?
Now that I’ve removed myself from the situation, I look at those who’ve spoken about their experiences with eating disorders differently. I no longer prowl websites for tips, and instead appreciate the strength it takes to seek help. Nevertheless, the conversation around mental health, particularly eating disorders, needs to change.
Though a growing number of celebrities have gone public with their experiences, meaning the issue exists in mainstream media, the discourse hasn’t evolved. Yes it is empowering to see the likes of Demi Lovato, Kesha, Zayn Malik and Portia speak so candidly about their disorders, but we need a richer and deeper conversation instigated by people like us. We’re the ones who need to steer the discussion – not stuffy old journalists who find it a shock that mental health issues actually exist amongst many young people.
An eating disorder is essentially an abusive partner. The two of you are so secretive, and you laugh about how you can outsmart everyone – it’s you two against the world! And one of the scariest things is that even if you’ve been recovered for 10 years, one small whiff of nostalgia can drag you back in to that secret world, a world no one else understands that once provided you with an odd sense of comfort. Instead of remembering the dinners with friends and family you missed, you romanticise your hunger and your control.
Treat those thoughts as poisonous, because if you give them any oxygen, they will spread like wildfire, burning all progress that you’ve made. The more you ignore that ugly, bitter voice, silence and solitude will soon follow. I know that you will miss her – I have at times, but you need to remember that she isn’t your companion. She’s trying to kill you.
If you’re reading this and are looking for a sign to break free of your personal hell, this is it. Reach out and grab any hand being offered, because it might save your life.
It gets easier, I promise you. Soon I was scoffing down meal after meal, my belly deafening the voice inside me that counted every calorie it consumed and dreaded every ounce that was going to be put on my 46-kilo frame.
Day by day, nothing changes, but when you look back, everything will be different. What was once chaotic screaming dies down to an echo which fades away once you throw yourself into life. No longer do I get caught up in how many calories a cough drop or a tea bag contains and how it’ll fit into my caloric intake. Yes, some days are harder, and the threat of slipping back into old habits can be strong, but overall, life is much, much richer – and tastier too.
Cover by Castles of Anger