For the first part of my story with an eating disorder, click here.
Fast forward half a year. I have now moved from Dubai to Switzerland and started uni there. Everything seems perfect on paper, but deep down I'm still struggling. In fact, I'm struggling more than ever. I am throwing up twice a day, the scale is my best friend and the mirror my worst nightmare. I know that food and negative body image are controlling every aspect of my life, but I feel too powerless to fight it.
During the first weeks of uni I met Phil, my boyfriend with whom I have been for almost five years now. Remember when I said that I was very sick yet functional at the same time? Well, I was so "functional" that I even managed to hide this side of me from the person closest to me. The shame of being locked into this lonely cycle of bizarre behaviour was driving me sheer crazy and I hated not being able to be honest to someone I cared about so much. I felt alone in a way that was terrifying and I felt like I was going to have obsessions and compulsions around food forever.
Every Monday morning I would promise to myself that this week would be better, but by that same evening all good intentions were out the window and I would give in to my drug of choice once again. Yet there were no empty alcohol bottles or used needles. The evidence of my dirty little secret was a pile of food wrappers around me.
My wake up call
I can't remember exactly how I reached the tipping point, but one day, somehow, it just clicked. I guess it was a cumulation of months of struggling and eventually I began to realise that I was so different and removed from who I once was. I was sick and tired of lying to family and friends, and even worse, to myself. The recognition of how much I was truly suffering from my eating disorder was creeping up on me - long overdue and stronger than ever. There had been one too many moments where I was bawling my eyes out thinking that things would never change and I began to understand that I needed help. I couldn't fight this by myself anymore.
So I summed up the courage to tell my boyfriend and family everything.
Normally, when you try to describe to someone how the urge to binge fills your every thought, they offer sympathetic reassurance that they, too, have been known to eat a whole Ben & Jerries ice cream in one day. It doesn't really seem like an option to reply that, in your case, the same amount is disposed of within 1o minutes in an act of fury. It just doesn't make sense to them and I struggled to put my emotions into words.
But with time I realised that people don’t have to understand, it is their support and unconditional love that matters. Thankfully my boyfriend and family reacted extremely comprehensive and have been supportive of me from the beginning. Being honest to them was the starting point of my recovery and that's when my self – healing truly started.
I was never officially diagnosed with an eating disorder because I never sought professional help (I tried two therapists but hated their non-holistic approach). Also, I didn’t really believe that I was “sick enough” to justify asking for professional help. I felt like I should be grateful for what I had been given in life; after all I had an amazing childhood, got to travel a lot, was financially stable and had a loving and caring family, friends and boyfriend.
I think that I'm not alone in this boat. A lot of girls with eating disorders try to convince themselves that they are fine and don’t need help. But just because you aren’t close to hospitalisation doesn’t mean your issue isn’t serious! In the end, the problem is the warped brain. The real measure is how distorted your thoughts are and not how skinny or overweight you are. It's a psychological disorder after all. No one could see the internal battle in my brain, but that didn't mean I wasn't miserable deep down.
My first steps towards recovery
As I was just about to move back from London (where I was doing an internship) to Switzerland, I decided to enrol in an online workshop for the time being. The workshop was created by an « eating disorder-soldier » who was helping girls like me out of their eating disorder. I didn't know it at the time, but this workshop and her support would eventually give me the necessary kickstart that I needed to turn my life around and I am forever grateful for that. Besides the online coaching we had weekly talks on the phone and her mentoring made me see my disorder as just that, a disorder. She made me understand that I didn’t need a professional diagnosis to have a destructive and unhealthy relationship with food and that I deserved just as much help as anyone else.
An eating disorder keeps the world small, you know. It ignores the big scary questions and creates a sharp focus in your life: your body weight and shape. But through this workshop I learned to look inside and identify the true causes of I why I felt the way I did. As much as my disorder was about weight and insecurity, it was even more about control and food being a coping mechanism for my emotions. Both her and my boyfriend’s support gave me the strength and courage to slowly learn to approach my body with love and acceptance.
And so I went on a journey to dive deep into my emotions and for the first time I got super honest with myself. All of a sudden it become crystal clear that I had been applying my all-or-nothing, black or white mentality to absolutely everything in my life. I was either super happy or super grumpy, super productive or super lazy, super excited or completely and utterly uninterested.
When you are an alcoholic or drug addict, there is a clear-cut solution - avoid alcohol and drugs at all costs. With food it's a bit different, because you can't just not eat for the rest of the life. Instead you need to (re)-learn to live with it and make peace. You have to understand your own eating patterns and understand why you want to restrict food or feel the urge to eat.
You have to ask yourself every single time: WHY do I want this food right now?
For a long time I couldn't really understand why I did what I did. I just needed to reach that point again where the food lulled me into a state of calm numbness. I didn't know it for many years, but research shows that eating large quantities of fat and sugar has a sedative effect on the body. It triggers the release of serotonin, which makes us feel good for a short time. A temporary high. And that's exactly what I was craving.
You might think that the workshop was all about food and eating, but actually it wasn't at all. Instead it encouraged me to go on a trip of self-discovery and it forced me to ask myself questions that I had ignored for so long. Along with that....
- I threw away my scale for good and promised to not weight myself anymore. (Scary, I know, but it was such an extremely important step and I think we should all stop weighing ourselves , eating disorder or not.)
- I started journaling every day. It was incredibly hard in the beginning, but over time I learned to open up and pour out my emotions into that little leather book that I soon learned to carry around with me everywhere I went. Over time it has become a type of meditation that allows me to connect to my inner thoughts on a deeper level and I think it was one of the most crucial steps towards recovery. I actually still remember the first day I wrote, on the 11th of March 2012.
- I tried to spend me-time once a week where I did a calming, relaxing or fun activity for two hours just by myself. I did things like going to the museum by myself, going to the park with a book to read, discovering a new area I hadn't been to or having lunch in a café by myself. I had been my worst enemy for years and these field trips with me, myself and I would eventually help me to rekindle the romance with myself that had stopped so abruptly the moment I decided to go on a diet.
If you are still reading at this point, I would venture that you are struggling/have been struggling with emotional eating and body image issues as well or that a loved one of yours is dealing with it. I can only encourage you to try these three things out for yourself too, and I promise that they will make you feel better. Not healed, but it's a start.
The roller coaster ride of recovery
I thought that admitting my eating disorder was the easy part. But oh how wrong I was...Recovery is anything but linear, instead it's constant ups and downs. You take two steps forward, one step back, one forward again. It's a constant battle. I tell you, there were endless moments where I thought I would never be able to have a normal relationship with food. All I wanted is to figure out why why whyyyy I was binging/restricting and to make it stop. I just wanted to be normal again.
(Understanding your eating disorder is one thing, but then being able to act on it and actually change your behaviour is a whole new game field. I'll get to that in part 3..)
During "classical" treatment there is an emphasis on breaking down the good/bad-food thought process, removing any limitations or rules connected to eating and letting go of any fear, anxiety, self-loathing and judgment when it comes to food. So, one of the first things I learnt to do was to not have "off limit foods". To not categorise food into good or bad, but simply see it as fuel. I actually used to sit and note down all foods I wasn't allowed to eat every-single-damn-day just to remind myself of it, so you can imagine how hard it was to rewire my brain. The moment I would think of food as "bad", I was basically pre-programmed to eventually break and binge on it to satisfy the craving.
Most therapists think that the only way to recover and to experience true freedom from a disorder is to have zero restrictions. So I was willing to give the no-rule diet a try and for a while it was very healing and exactly what I needed. I allowed myself to eat (and drink, see picture below) whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, without the binging. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn't and I would be overwhelmed with a wave of guilt that had me wanting to run to the bathroom to relieve myself. At times I felt like I slowly became somewhat liberated from my food obsession, but other times I still felt incredibly guilt-ridden. I still didn't seem to have it figured out. The more I gave in and let myself eat what I wanted, the more guilt I developed and again became obsessed with "starting fresh" the next day, next week and so on. Even though things were moving in the right direction, I was still far away from finding balance and every day was burdened with guilt, shame and confusion around what to do.
What the heck is normal eating anyways!? Is it to be able to eat all the junk food in the world and not feel guilty? To not care about what you eat at all?
Let me just say: I don't think that there is a 'right' way to recover from an eating disorder, no one-size-fits-all approach. But I have seen two recurring opinions from opposed sides of the spectrum - one that encourages a healthy diet as part of recovery, whereas the other side argues you should have zero restrictions around food and not care about what you eat - the acts of "healthy" eating and exercising are labelled as signs of unsuccessful recovery or even orthorexia by this side. My coach was more on the eat-whatever-you-want spectrum and, in fact, parts of her recovery included going to McDonalds once a month.
This approach might work for some, but it didn't seem to do the trick for me. Yes, in a way I just wanted to be free from the daily thoughts around food and be able to eat without emotions attached. But I had this little inner voice that kept on whispering to me that there had to be another way and that food should remain to play a major role in my life.
I wanted food to be meaningful and important, but the question was wether I would be able to channel that meaning into positive, healthful, and self-loving directions?
I think that choosing to keep food and fitness as a priority in your life was somewhat the tougher road to go down, because the act of balance is much more difficult. How do you know that you aren't being too restrictive, after all? Can you even be the judge of that, after years of having a distorted relationship to food? How can you be free of obsessing over food choices and still take the decision to eliminate a significant number of foods from your diet. Is that even possible?
For three years I struggled to find that balance (and am sometimes still struggling now). Recovery felt so fragile that every food decision could impact how the rest of my day and even week went. I thought I was doing things right, but looking back at it my eating habits were still far too restrictive.
I was still beating myself up whenever I indulged. I hadn't let go to the diet mentality. I was stressed and anxious. I was out of touch with my body. I was having half a kiwi for breakfast and thought that I was nourishing my body. I was a far cry away from listening to what my body truly needed.
It was only with time and more education (I literally inhaled every self help book on eating disorders, wellness and nutrition that I could get my hands on) that things started falling into place one by one. I became more and more aware of the mind-body connection and the importance of a nourishing way of eating and living. I began to see how I was a happier person when I ate well, not just because of the emotions attached to eating healthy, but because of the endorphin release and the chemical reactions in my body. I was a better person when I ate healthy and felt more clear minded, conscious and calm.
It suddenly was no longer about being skinny, but about how food could affect my health in the long run. It was the first time I realised I could use food to love and nurture my body. When I realised that I had the ability to change my life through proper nutrition and self-care, I began to feel myself come alive! My mentality shifted and I started to view food as a source of nourishment, not the enemy. I ate in a way that healed my body and slowly started to make peace with my plate.