Recently I admitted something to myself that deep down I have probably always known; I have an eating disorder. After years of purging, excessive exercise, extreme diets and obsessive thinking I finally reached a tipping point where I realised my behaviour was neither normal nor healthy – in fact it was significantly impacting my relationships, physical health and overall wellbeing.
As someone who has an extensive family history of mental illness, has supported friends and family through difficult times and has even promoted initiatives in the workplace to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, it seems ridiculous to now admit that I have been battling a cycle of bulimic and anorexic behaviours for years. Surely, someone who has a high awareness of the importance of mental health would be able to recognise that forcing themself to throw up every meal is a huge red flag!?
Alas, no. Sure, I saw the signs. I felt the anxiety build in my chest every time someone suggested a spontaneous meal out when I had already carefully planned my meals down to the last calorie for that week. I heard myself making excuse after excuse to run to the bathroom constantly in order to purge, I developed strategies for declining food at every opportunity (citing extensive dietary requirements and intolerances) but I never actually viewed myself as sick. I never saw my “healthy lifestyle” as being an obsession that was controlling my entire existence.
On reflection I can’t honestly remember a time when I wasn’t on a diet. I don’t remember a meal out that didn’t involve either purging, justifying every mouthful or making excuses not to consume food. I barely remember a time when my life wasn’t coordinated around my workout schedule, where I didn’t feel obliged to exercise at least twice a day in an attempt to counteract my (minimal) food intact.
Listen: A woman who suffered atypical anorexia nervosa when she was younger talks about how she perceived herself when she was going through the eating disorder. Post continues after audio.
The thing with these habits is that they develop slowly over time. What started as a distraction, or an interest in being “healthier” and “better” turned into an all-consuming force. Those around me grew to accept my behaviour as just a part of who I am; colleagues would comment on how “good” I was for going to the gym every morning and lunchtime without fail, friends would accept that I wouldn’t eat when we went out to dinner as the restaurant didn’t cater for my vegan, gluten free and restricted diet, family members would learn to accept my refusal to be photographed. They accepted this all because looking at me you wouldn’t guess I had an eating disorder.
In a society where eating and fitness are consistently promoted as not only components of a ”healthy life”, but also as a meter in which we use to gauge others level of self worth, eating disorders like mine are able to fall under the radar – masked by the guise of “self improvement”. This is why some of my behaviours seemed not only socially acceptable, but also commendable. People constantly praised me for how “amazing” I was at sticking to my diets, and even cited jealousy at my commitment to my “health” – never knowing the constant battle being raged in my head around what to eat next, how to get out of an event where I knew I would be tempted by food or how long I needed to exercise to work off my green juice “lunch”.
To the outside world, despite my compulsive behaviour, I looked exactly like I always had. To this day I still (much to my distain) am not what would be considered “skinny”. I am far from underweight and although I am a size 6 (something that is an obsession of mine as I refuse to buy anything but the smallest size in every store), I still have a “curvy” figure - which has, on more than one occasion, been described as “voluptuous” (again, much to my distain).
The fact that I wasn’t losing weight in a dramatic way or fast enough only fuelled my disorder more. I saw myself as a failure and agonized over why I couldn’t achieve one of these “body transformations” that flooded my social media accounts. I became jealous of friends who lost weight and received positive affirmation for it, which only reinforced the idea that I wasn’t working hard enough -I was still the same old person and still not worthy of a break as I hadn’t reached my “goal”. I would say to myself “I don’t have an eating disorder, I’m still not skinny yet”, “if I was bulimic, how come all these people on instagram are still smaller then me?”
In the VERY early days of recovery this is one of the things I struggle with most. I have so far only admitted my illness to a couple of people, as I am terrified people will judge me for it. I’m terrified that they will look at my “shapely” thighs and think “are you sure you have bulimia?” I’ll admit I also feel cheated that I never received the positive attention/ satisfaction from losing weight; I always thought if I could just push a little harder people would see how much I had changed and evolved.
Some of the Australian services offering mental health support. (Post continues after gallery.)
A few months ago I admitted I needed to do something to break the cycle, I may not be “skinny” but my disordered eating was taking its toll on my body. My hair has thinned to about a third of what it was, my teeth are damaged, my throat is constantly sore, my nails are brittle and breaking and my abdomen is in consistent, and sometimes debilitating, pain (something I spent a year seeking specialist medical advice for without ever linking it to my bulimia). The final straw was when I started bringing up blood during my purges, it wasn’t a significant amount but it was enough to scare me into admitting I had to do something. I made contact with a specialist and although I have a long way to go, I feel hopeful that I will be able to manage my relationship with food without having it control my life.
As someone who has struggled in silence for years, and is only just scratching the surface of recovery, I now realise the importance of removing the stigma around what disordered eating looks like. Although I have a support network of incredible friends, family and colleagues, my illness continues to go unnoticed and unacknowledged, not because people don’t care about me, but because I don’t look like what people think an anorexic or bulimic person looks like…