I Was Scared To Go To Dinner, And I Knew I Couldn't Be Like This Anymore
When I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, I thought everyone else was crazy.
I was 13 when my doctor sat across from me and delivered the news. I can still see the words scrawled on a form on his desk. They glared at me amongst a sea of papers.
I vaguely knew what it was. Anorexia was what happened to people who didn’t eat anything and looked like they’d been in a concentration camp. But the words made no sense when they were associated with me.
How could these adults believe I had anorexia? I wasn’t thin enough. Sure, I’d lost some weight. But this anorexic business? Ridiculous.
Now that I look back, I can see how sick I was.
I had lost more than 10 kilos in the space of three months. I was exercising several times a day until I felt faint. I had cut certain food groups completely out of my diet. I planned out every meal, every mouthful. If it wasn’t in my plan, I wasn’t having it.
I wore baggy clothes to hide my bones and bruises, to conceal my condition from my parents.
I checked my body every hour. It was the first thing I did in the morning when I woke up and it was the last thing I did before I went to bed. I gently ran my fingers over my shoulder blades, my hips, my ribs to make sure everything was the same as it was yesterday.
Then there was the scale. I stepped on it compulsively, to make sure I wasn’t gaining weight. If I saw the numbers go up, even by 50 grams, my day was ruined. My week was ruined. My life may as well have been over.
Losing weight and maintaining my toxic eating and exercise habits became the focus of my entire life. I lied to people I loved, pretending I was happy and energetic, when I felt dizzy and cold.
For years, I experienced anorexia on and off. It wasn’t until I was 18 and in my first year of university that I decided enough was enough.
I remember that moment of clarity so clearly. My partner and I had finished uni for the day and we decided to go out for dinner. We were walking through Chinatown in Sydney, hand in hand. I should have been enjoying his company, his conversation, but instead I was worrying about where we’d eat and what I “could” have. I was worried about whether I’d saved enough calories for the day; whether I’d exercised enough that day.
My heart was beating ferociously in my chest. I felt that familiar, deep sense of dread in my stomach. My empty stomach.
I turned to him, looked him in the eye, and told him I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t be like this anymore. I was done and I wanted to change.
It was time for me to try recovery.
Slowly and steadily, with the help of a dietician, a therapist, a doctor and my family and friends, I dipped my toe back into “normal life”. I had never felt so exposed and so out of my comfort zone.
I had to embrace and accept the feeling of gaining weight, something women are accustomed and conditioned to avoid at all costs. I had to go out for meals, without checking the menu online first to make sure there was a "safe" option. I had to eat “difficult” dishes at restaurants, like plates of pasta, noodles, hamburgers. As my heart made its way into my mouth, I’d stare at my plate and will myself to keep going. My boyfriend would put his hand on mine and tell me how proud he was of me.
But every day, every week, and every month, the challenges that once seemed impossible got easier. There were setbacks along the way, I won’t deny that. There were days when I wanted to revert to my old ways, my comfort zone. Restriction was what I knew. And some days, I slipped back into bad habits. But eventually, I’d come back. I remembered what that hunger felt like. And how disgusted I was with the manipulative, deceptive, aggressive person I’d become.
I’ve been in ‘active’ recovery for four years now. In that time, my relationship with food, exercise and my body has completely transformed. Sometimes, when I think back to that teenager -- who couldn’t make it through a meal without crying -- I’m astounded by how much has changed.
When I was at my worst, I believed a life of deprivation, restriction, pain and deception would be my reality forever. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be able eat three full meals again, let alone do it without feeling guilt so extreme I wanted to be sick. Never did I think it would be possible for me to find exercise enjoyable again, to not think about calories being burned or the pain I was in. I find so much pleasure in moving my body these days -- it’s freedom I feel grateful for.
When I was in the depths of anorexia, never did I think I would be able to:
- Eat without feeling panic
- Eat cake for a friend’s birthday
- Eat cake for my birthday
- Order what I wanted off the menu
- Look at my body and genuinely not care what it looked like
- Look at the scales and not care about the number
- Go for days, weeks, months, years without weighing myself
- Gain weight and not care
- Feel beautiful again
- Experience real, unencumbered joy
- Find someone who really loved me, for me
I thought recovery was something that would never be possible for me. I believed, wholeheartedly, that anorexia would always be a part of my life and recovery happened to other people.
But with some support, professional help, love, and dedication, I’ve been able to do things I never imagined would be possible.
I can eat the cake -- except I’m still not a big fan of fruit cake (don’t email me).
I can do the exercise -- except I really don’t like running.
And I can live without a constant swelling of fear in my belly.
It’s liberating. It’s possible.
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about eating disorders contact Butterfly Foundation on 1800334673, or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.