I'm finally ready to talk about my eating disorder
There’s something I want to tell you. The thing is, it’s a secret. It’s been my biggest, darkest secret for over a decade. I’ve kept it so close to my chest that at times I’ve felt like I might self-combust. I’ve tried to make sense of this skeleton lurking in the closet. I’ve tried so hard to find an explanation for why it happened, how I came out of it, or why it comes back. But the truth is, I don’t think there will ever be a revelation. I think there are so many different elements that caused my brain to forget what it means to live and instead to diverge into a bunch of contradictions—a desire for power that stripped me of all power, and a want of strength that stripped me of all strength. They say that talking saves lives, so I’m gonna talk to you. I will not allow fear or shame of my story to stop me from sharing it with you, the world, and advocating for change. My secret could’ve killed me, and yours could kill you, too.
Before I begin, I want you to know that I love life and I love to love. I love hard and with everything I have. But at times, I’ve lost the love I have for myself and my body, and I’ve lost sight of my soul.
My secret is this: I’ve suffered from disordered eating since I was thirteen. This doesn’t mean I’m skinny, never eat, and exercise all day long. It means that at certain times in my life, I’ve been fully consumed by an obsessive, dysfunctional, and irrational voice in my head that constantly says “you’re not good enough.” To people reading this who are relatively new friends, I’m probably the last person you’d imagine these words to be coming from. The thing is, I love food—and the passion is genuine. It’s just taken a long, long time to get to the stage that I can enjoy it to the extent that I do. I eat when I’m hungry, which is often. I think I’m almost afraid of hunger, or at least afraid of liking it again.
Why am I telling you this? I finally feel I’ve come out on top of the war with myself, and I want anyone else who may be fighting a similar battle to know that they’re not alone, and there is a way out. Did you know that almost half of the people with eating disorders also meet the criteria for depression? And that only one in ten people with eating disorders get treatment? I wasn’t that one, but I’m here to tell my story.
The first person to confront me about my eating issues was my male English teacher at the start of my school trip to France at 13, whose first comment to me was, “This isn’t that stupid teenage girl diet, is it?” By the end of the week, my female French teacher turned to me in front of all of my friends and peers in the dining room and accused me of not eating. When I said that I was, she threatened to take me to the hospital on the way home if I didn’t eat the meal we were about to receive. Gobsmacked and humiliated, I ate. Long story short, the situation was handled badly by all teachers involved, and I slipped through the net.
At 17, I was sitting on a bench at college next to my best friend, who said I needed to eat. It was lunch time, and I was drinking coffee. When I asked what she meant, she exclaimed about the size of my legs and the gap between them. I said I was OK. In reality, I wasn’t: I was constantly cold; I had headaches; my periods had stopped; I had heart palpitations and difficulty sleeping; I was always dizzy and light-headed; my skin was dry and my hands and feet were always extra cold. At the time I was eating one small meal a day with my family, and I was socially withdrawn and spent most of my free time in college painting in the art room. When I tried on the smallest size dress in Kate Moss’ Topshop range and found it too loose, I was frustrated at them not having a smaller size rather than alarm bells going off in my head. I had all the symptoms of anorexia and I had no idea.
At one point during university, my tutor gave me my autumn semester feedback and told me I was talented and capable of achieving a First Class degree. I wanted to ask how, when my head couldn’t focus on anything other than the amount of calories and the contents of every food and drink item that passed my lips, or about what I could do to lose them. Instead of reaching out, I left the room awkwardly, struggling with the weight of the bag on my shoulder and the force of the worries on my mind. As a result, my degree suffered.
During darker times, I’ve cried at the thought of eating a banana; I’ve carefully weighed out a measly amount of muesli and meticulously spooned fat-free yogurt into a ramekin before slowly eating it with a teaspoon; there were times when I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything but a “Slim-a-soup” for lunch; there were times when I’d spit my dinner straight into a paper napkin; and there were other times I’d try and throw my dinner up in the toilet bowl. There were times I would use laxatives to try and feel empty, and there were times I’ve religiously gone to the gym at opening hours, when it’s still been dark, to run on the treadmill for an hour. Whenever I’d feel faint, I’d speed the machine up. At 58 minutes, the machine would kick into automatic cool down and I’d spend the final two minutes walking briskly. I’d always be angry—angry at the machine for cooling down, and angry at myself for not managing to run as far as I did previously—and I hated myself for it.
One of the things about eating disorders is that they are so exhausting. They’re all-encompassing, egotistical, and narcissistic. In one of my diary entries from a few years ago, I wrote about weighing myself on my Wii Fit, fully clothed, bloated, and in the middle of the day after upping my intake. I was setting myself up for a fall before I even began. And while my Wii character jumped with glee at the sparkling sign that I’d lost 6 pounds in a short space of time, I flopped onto the sofa, feeling impartial. I still felt too big, and I still wanted to work out—but I was tired, sore, achey, and with blistered toes and feet. I knew I needed to rest, but I wanted to lose more weight. I wanted to feel hunger. I wanted to be so hungry that I didn’t want to know what hunger felt like. I wanted to feel weak. And by the same token, I didn’t want to want all of those things. I was tired: tired of being torn between the two things that cannot exist in tandem; tired of waking up to see which one I wanted for the day; tired of deciding halfway through a “healthy” day that I couldn’t possibly consume everything that I had done already without working out excessively. I was tired of multiplying, dividing, adding, subtracting, and measuring. I was tired of writing everything down. Tired of saying no. Tired of running in circles. I wasn’t just tired—I was completely and utterly exhausted. I was trying not to cry. I wanted out. I had an incessant need to be smaller, an uncontrollable desire to shrink. I was drinking water from a fountain whose source was the ocean.
Eating disorders are addictions. You become addicted to the adrenaline that kicks in when you’re starving: the feeling of emptiness, the light-headedness. You become addicted to the numbers on the scale. You become addicted to the numbers on the tape measure. Unlike other addictions, of course, you have to eat to survive. That’s the reason I avoid numbers now. I don’t ever want to know how many calories is in a food item, or how many grams of fat is in it. I can’t let myself be pulled in by the numbers again.
When you develop an eating disorder, you think you’re in control. The harsh reality is, the eating disorder is in control of you. It has its grubby claws clasped around you so tightly that what you think is your best friend is in fact your worst enemy, who will stay in your life long enough for it to take it from you. There’s nothing special about you and your disorder doesn’t care for you. It doesn’t care how you feel or, ironically, how you look. All it wants is everything you have. It’s the worst of the worst. It turns you into your own worst nightmare. And you have to kill it before it kills you.
There inevitably comes a time in an eating disordered person’s mind when enough is enough. The exhaustion becomes too much. The self-hatred becomes too much. Maybe you’re harming yourself in more ways than just starvation. Maybe you’re drinking yourself to oblivion. Maybe you’re spending hours at a time sobbing at the bottom of the shower cubicle. Maybe you can’t imagine living anymore. Whatever which way, you’ve hit rock bottom. You realize you will never reach your goal weight, because it keeps on lowering as you shrink. It’s like you’re running towards the horizon. “Just a few more pounds,” you’ll say, “Just another dress size, just another inch.” You will realize you will never be happy with your body, because you can’t see it for what it is. And that is why anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and why 1 in 5 of the people suffering from anorexia will die prematurely from complications relating to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems (did you know an anorexic is 32 times more likely to commit suicide than someone who doesn’t have the disease?).
I was lucky enough to hit rock bottom and accept that I did have a problem. It had taken me 8 years. And yet, I was terrified to seek medical help. In my mind, despite being classified as “underweight,” I didn’t see myself as thin enough to have an eating disorder.
That’s when I realized that while I was my own problem, I was also my own solution. I decided to enter a half marathon to raise money for a charity close to my heart. My logic was that once I publicized the fact that I was running a half marathon for a charity and therefore requesting sponsorship, that I couldn’t let anyone down. I had to do it. I also knew that I had to train, and in order to train successfully, I knew I had to eat. It was an attempt to create a path to a healthy body and mind—and it worked. But it wasn’t easy.
In all honesty and with great pride, I can write this and tell you that I’m genuinely OK now. I still don’t like the way I look or feel sometimes, but who doesn’t? What’s changed is the choices I’ve made to give myself a fuller and healthier life. I’ve chosen to ignore the numbers and listen to my body instead. I make myself have breakfast. I try not to compare myself to others. I resist having celebrities as my profile picture instead of myself. I stopped putting myself down. The only time I ever weigh myself is at the gym, in front of a trainer, for a “well-being” session, which is about once every 6 weeks. I stay impartial to the numbers on the scales, tape measure, and cardio machines. I swapped goal weights for goals around health (like drinking more water), calorie counting apps for water logging apps, and women’s magazines for magazines like Runner’s World and the National Geographic. I eat foods that, for a long time, I wouldn’t dream of even buying. I enjoy eating meals out and I often eat more in one sitting than I’d ever imagined I’d eat in a whole day. This is my recovery, and although it’s not all plain sailing, it’s my middle finger to the world’s media telling me what I should look like.
When you’re in the hands of an eating disorder, your biggest fear and biggest dream are one and the same: recovery. Here’s the thing about recovery: it’s never a done deal. It’s making the decision that your life doesn’t have to revolve around constant guilt, measuring, and restriction day in and day out. It’s making the decision every single morning that you are a worthy, valuable human being at the weight you are at right now. It’s making the decision that your life has meaning without an eating disorder. Not only that, but you have to keep on choosing recovery with every waking moment. That’s why the start is always the hardest—because there are two voices battling inside of you, and the evil of the two doesn’t want recovery. It’s really, really challenging. It’s the hardest thing you will ever have to do, mentally and physically. You will feel disillusioned by where you are. Some days it’s easier to relapse, and you do. You so often feel alone, and no one around you understands.
You will have good days, and you will have bad days. But you have to believe that the bad days will become fewer, because they will. Your problems won’t go away, but they will shrink. Although it feels like you will never be able to put anything past your lips again without feeling guilt, that guilt will fade. Sometimes, the voice will come back without notice. It will tell you again that you’re fat or that you’re not good enough. It will make you change your meal choice, or maybe it will stop you from eating a meal altogether. It might even ban you from eating something in particular for a while. But you will have the courage to climb and you will see that recovery is worth the struggle it takes to conquer the mountain. Recovery is living in color: it’s enjoying every moment on earth; it’s enjoying every meal; it’s overcoming negative thoughts; it’s having enthusiasm for life; it’s taking one day at a time; it’s living a life full of laughter; it’s a path to freedom; it’s never giving up. Most of all, recovery is not about existing, nor surviving, but living. It’s about remembering who you are, fighting for your life and using your strengths to become everything you were meant to be.
If you’re reading this and you think you might have an eating disorder, please keep hold of that little rational part of you that wants to reach out for help and reach with all your might. Even if you think you’re not thin though, even if you think you don’t have a problem, if you’ve got just a little inkling that you’re forming dysfunctional eating habits, get help straight away. You don’t need your pain to be worse for it to be considered real. The sooner you get help for an eating disorder, the better the chances are of recovery. The road to recovery will only begin once you admit you have a problem, and this admission will probably be the toughest of your life. Seek help. Click here. Talk to someone. Go to the doctor. Do whatever you can. Never give up on yourself. And remember, you’re worthy of the life and body you’ve been given; and don’t let that evil voice tell you otherwise!
Tamsin Thompson has an almost overwhelming love of life, food, travel and coffee, living nomadically for the last three years and currently situated half a world away from her native homeland. During daylight hours, she can be found either jogging besides New Zealand’s majestic mountains or filling coffee cups with love in a world famous bakery, keeping her starlight hours free to dream up her next big adventure.
(Image via Angie Wang.)