Your Stories: Overcoming an Eating Disorder (Part Two)

This is Part Two of A Guest Post on Developing…and then Overcoming an Eating Disorder

You can Read Part One Here

(Trigger Warning: Eating disorder, Food Addiction)

The New Year’s Eve celebration was the biggest for all of a century. It was the day to enter into a new millennium, not just a new year. The age of a new era, one paralysed at that time with the fear of the Y2K bug, was a time of hope and change. It was a time when I made a reappearance to the club where we went to on New Year’s Eve ever since we were children. For the past few years I had stopped going. I just could not bring myself to going there. I would feel that the whole world would be staring at this unnatural creation that was defying all laws of normalcy.

This year was different. Dressed in a suit, and with old school friends I made it to the club which was done up with its usual splendour, the customary DJ belting out hits, the sound of ‘cheers’ and small talk being drowned in the clink of glasses and the waft of sumptuous food. The first person I vaguely knew from school walked right past me. I thought she probably didn’t see me so I kept walking, making my way to the centre of the gaiety. The second group of friends too walked past me and went straight to the other people I was with. I hadn’t met this lot ever since I was out of school, which was close to over a year now. As they spoke, a friend of mine pointed out to me and said, “Why haven’t you said hello?” It was at this time, that I saw a reaction that I hadn’t seen before, but became used to as the evening drew on. There was a collective gasp followed by a quick succession of “ooh-ing” and “aah-ing” by the group. “My God, bro what happened to you?”, “You don’t look the same, man!”, “You’ve shrunk!”, “You look good ya”, “How much weight have you lost – like 20 kgs?”. “No,” I said, “40 kilos”.

The proverbial penny dropped. I was the toast (whole wheat preferably) of the party. All was forgotten. The young ladies who sneered previously asked me for a dance. The now young men who (had) laughed, went about showing me off, as if they had accomplished something in my looking the way I did.

Maybe they did.

My mood elevated. The attention was tremendous and it did my confidence a whole lot of good. I was under 20 years of age, into medical school and most importantly weighed 77 kilos.

The sense of being part of a once shunned group made me feel accomplished. But it also taught me a valuable lesson. I felt the attention and my craving for it now as shallow. I realised that just the way I looked changed the way people saw me. I was still the same person. Only in a new packaging! But I realised to the world that’s what matters. It made me value my friends who had stuck with me through thick and thin (pun intended) even more. It made my look at those who had a newfound love for me – platonic and other variants – with a minor sense of disdain. All that matters is what you look like, not what you are within.

Writing back as I am now in my mid-30’s, this realisation should have made me more ambivalent towards how I looked or weighed, to being more comfortable in my skin and being healthy. But when you are 20, “acceptable” and wanting to make up for lost time, it had disastrous consequences. I became determined to ensure that I continue to look like I did the day we entered the year 2000, lest I go back to being shunned and shabby.

The journey from being an overweight teenager, unmindfully addicted to food, to one who was ‘normal’ was arduous. When I look back at what I did, I do feel a sense of accomplishment. I began slowly. It was something which was not going to be a flash in the pan. The reason was not so much as scientific enlightenment as the twin trouble of not being able to exercise beyond 20 minutes to begin with and not wanting anyone to find out.
Anytime that I did refer to my wanting to lose weight or to start to exercise, friends would tell me that I shouldn’t bother, “be yourself, everyone is unique” and so on. My parents thought it was a good thing to do, but didn’t really look sure if I would see the fad through. We had a lovely park at the back of the house. I began by walking gradually, a steady pace for 20 minutes everyday. The result of which was increased hunger pangs. I decided that I must curb some this urge if I was to be realistic in what I wanted to achieve. My saviour cam in the form of the simplest element known to man — water. I began drinking water like a medicine. Gradually from a litre a day, it built up four times that amount. I started reading up on proteins, carbohydrates and concepts like Basal Metabolic Rate and such like. It helped.
Month on month, the weight started shedding. Gradually, the hunger pangs also abated. I reached a point when I became obsessed about not wanting to eat, but wanting to exercise incessantly. I walked more often that earlier. I began running on the treadmill and hitting the gym. The accelerated loss of weight hurtled on. In a year I lost over 30 kilos. The clothes stopped fitting and people began to notice a considerable difference in how I looked. I will never forget the day when I walked into the same clothing store — shunned out of self-shame a year ago — and buying clothes off the rack. The store salesman didn’t recognise me, but I did. The biggest fillip in doing so was also to my mood. Gone was the gloominess of the past. A new cheery self developed from within. As I got on with my routine and regime, I would invariably hit plateaus – weeks and months would pass without the needle moving any further on the weighing scale. It was then that I would further reduce my food intake and exercise even more. Little did I realise that my aversion to food was becoming the new problem in my life. I went from an addiction to food … to being addicted to no food.
As the weight shed, my confidence grew and my attitudes changed as well. Regrettably, being overweight once did not make me empathetic towards people with a similar plight. I would often look at obese or oversight folk and wonder why didn’t they do something about it. From complaining about being just a label – fat – for so many all my life, I began doing the same with others. But the biggest physical damage I did in this warped obsession with food and weight was to virtually starve myself of nutrition. It worked till the time the body and mind could hold up. It was a race to the bottom, but I was convinced that I could manage and that if i ate, I would become fat. Today, I look back and would neatly label that as anorexic behaviour. But a state of mind is not a label. It is a state. It is a being, an existence.
The inevitable did happen. My friends and I were out one evening. I remember not having eaten a solid meal for over 24 hours — a new normal for me. I looked gaunt, bones jutting with sunken eyes – but mentally feeling great at being “thin”. I remember eating something along with the beer that I had ordered. Immediately, my heart began to race, I broke out into a cold sweat and a hazy curtain feel in front of my eyes. I shook myself up and drank a little water. I decided to head to the restroom to check what was wrong. As soon as I was in, i bent over the sink to wash my face. The next thing I remember was a few people hollering over me – throwing water to wake me up. I got up – dazed and confused (but still thin thankfully). My friends had gathered around by then, being called out by the Good Loomaritans.
“Dude what happened”, I asked profoundly.
“You passed out!” “Are you ok?”
I gave a vague yes and said I think I need some rest. I drove home and sat up till late at night wondering what and how it happened.
My aversion for food did not change. I would pick on my food, then drink enough liquids to keep me going and get through the day. Breakfast was meaningless and dinner best skipped. The medical school curriculum meant that lunch was a blink and miss it experience. I never realised the damage I was doing to myself by doing what I was doing.
Then it happened again.

A second and a third fainting and blackout episode when I was out with friends and company meant that I decided going out was the problem.

I  became averse to stepping out of the house – lest it happen again. The mild agoraphobia made me housebound for a month. No one noticed because exams were on, so staying at home was the done thing. But deep inside I knew, stepping out of the house could be dangerous and embarrassing. I was scared still, period.

It was well after the exams got over that I had run out of excuses to not go out and meet people. I remember being terrified at the very thought of going out and meeting friends. I decided that I will not eat or drink, lest it happen again. The veining was a dull but uneventful affair. I decided to concoct a story of how I had given up alcohol and therefore could not go out with my friends anymore. Deep inside, a gnawing reality began hitting me.

I was 23, just become a doctor, managed to win a huge personal battle over food addiction and weight – and was now heading towards another “man-made” crisis. It was time. 

I decided to confront the problem head-on. I decided to start becoming more aware of what was happening to me – physically, physiologically and psychologically and more importantly – why was it happening. I started reading on behaviours and attitudes, addictions and their origins. A basic text book on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy was very useful. It offered simple yet effective techniques around thoughts, feelings and actions. Reading about people who battled afflictions helped to bring some sense of normalcy to what I was undergoing. But these were all time consuming measures. CBT takes 2-3 months of daily practice to be effective.
Similarly, breaking old thoughts and habits is like effective exercise – needs to be done daily. Changing one’s outlook towards life, one’s body image and to feel normal takes probably a lifetime. So while the acute problem has been addressed, the chronic is a work in progress.

It’s been nearly a decade since I had to battle those demons. 

Looking back at that time, I find some of it scary, some even funny, some fascinating and many upsetting. Has it made me a better, more balanced person? Yes. The biggest challenge life threw at me was to make me fat. It helped me understand myself and become a better person — in more ways than one. It helped me to explore the workings of the mind like no other experience could have.  I continue to weigh as much as a person of my size should. I exercise regularly, have taken to naturopathy and organic foods and am happy with the way I look. I maintain a love-hate relationship with food, but it is more a friendly fight than a fight to the finish. I still am concerned about putting on weight, but don’t feel it like an all-consuming fixation that will define my life. My friends still hold me up as an example of someone who battled weight issues and won over it. Many relatives, refer to it as a something in the distant past, which was a “phase”. I have internalised it and moved on.

But what worries me is how we have moved as a society. There is more awareness on mental disease, body image, food addiction and other issues than at the turn of the century. But the progress is patchy and uneven. School children are not taught about body image, about what constitutes “normal”, about mental disease and what to do if you have issues.

Yes, we now find counsellors in most schools, but there needs to be a deeper integration of these issues into the curriculum itself. Reaching out for help on mental disease and addiction is still taboo and has many barriers. As a society and culture we are witnessing a stereotyping of what is a normal body type, glamourising size zero-ism and body shaming. Our selfie obsessed culture means that teens and those who don’t fit the stereotype are adopting means to hide as much as they show. We are ingraining a sense of normal and abnormal when no such thing exists. Conditions like anorexia, mood disorders, body dysmorphia and others are real. But they can be transitionary if managed and contextualised. We need to help arm people with the tools to fight the battle with themselves. 

There is no greater accomplishment that winning over the self. And there is no better time than now. 

If you or a loved one suffer from an eating disorder, please do reach out for help. A partial list of resources is here
Disclaimer: Material on The Health Collective cannot substitute for expert advice from a trained professional