My eating disorder had physical symptoms, but it was a mental illness


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A decade ago, my fears loomed so large that, in order to cope, I became small.

I developed a combination of anorexia nervosa and exercise bulimia, because it seemed easier to focus on tangible things, like food and exercise, than on my thoughts and feelings. When my attention zoomed in on these, I didn’t have to deal with the messiness of emotions and a mind that felt out of control. When I considered nothing but the next meal or gym session, I didn’t have to face the rage roaring within, or the perfectionism holding me hostage. Nor did I have to go through sharing this with others. I just had to think about the next bite, or step on the stairmaster.

Because eating disorders manifest through a fixation on food and weight, it can be tempting to view them as purely physical in nature. Yet what I learned through my experience is that the pain beneath the surface of an eating disorder tells the real story, and exposes a mental illness, rather than a physical one.

During this time, my daily routine included hours of exercise, study and a strict diet, at the exclusion of just about everything else. I adhered to this with such determination that I didn’t know what hunger was or wasn’t anymore, because I’d completely lost touch with myself and my body.

My pain threshold became seemingly infinite. While searing my thighs to smithereens on an exercise bike at the gym, I remember considering how the word “pain” was stupid, because it implied that there’s a point at which we need to stop. How ridiculous.

But these ideas and actions were symptoms, not causes. It took a life that was severely damaged mentally and emotionally to create them. A desire to get good marks had given birth to one of the most high-stakes, stressful situations I had ever encountered. I felt at odds with the values of my friendship group and became alienated as a result. The boy that I loved was busy breaking my heart on a weekly basis and rather than risk losing his presence in my life altogether, I pretended that it wasn’t happening and allowed him to treat me poorly.

My father was being treated for a heart condition, yet I couldn’t allow myself to comprehend anything outside my own regimented needs. I binge ate for the first time the night I went to see him in hospital after an angina attack and all I could think about was the location of the sink in case I had to puke. This felt more straightforward than confronting our vulnerability in that hospital room, as father and daughter.

Obsessing over food and exercise erected a wall between me, the world and other people. It undermined any potential for intimacy or honesty, because the priority was to control my mind and body. I didn’t want to need anyone. Besides, sharing my feelings only seemed to make people worried, or defensive. So when I was offered help, I refused it.

And disciplinary nature was applauded, which only added to the confusion. Women at the gym wanted exercise and diet tips. Strangers approached me on the street asking whether or not I was a supermodel. When people voiced their concerns about my physical health, it either felt invasive, or seemed like a mask for their jealousy.

Everything I read said the way I was eating and exercising was to be aspired to and admired. This often led people to believe that I was going my own way, but I was the biggest conformist of them all. I was dutifully following orders from outside myself and although those orders were betraying me, I couldn’t stop following them.

The struggle that took hold of me spoke volumes through the density of wheat, the gluggy-ness of dairy, the vital importance of resistance training, the perils of protein, the evils of sugar, the triumphs of cardio, the dangers of not enough or too much crunch … but this wasn’t the real struggle.

The real struggle couldn’t be found at the gym, or on a plate. It was inside me and it thrived off the broken heart and spirit that I refused to acknowledge.

I vividly remember a day in the middle of winter when I was 45 kilograms and pacing a shopping strip, at a loss as to what to eat for lunch. In the chaos of that moment, I wished that I didn’t have a body, so I didn’t have to eat. In the silence that followed this, I was astonished at myself. How had I gotten to the point where I would rather die than eat something I hadn’t planned to?

Disordered eating patterns represent a profound existential crisis. They expose a loss of trust in the universe, in the people around us and in ourselves. Only through reclaiming this trust and finding a way to express ourselves can we be healed.

Don’t be fooled by food, scales or distances reached on a treadmill. Because swallowed words and feelings are what to be mindful of, much more than swallowed calories.

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