*This article discusses eating disorders in detail, and could be potentially triggering. If you or someone you know are struggling with an eating disorder, visit BEAT or speak to a trained professional.*
When friends scroll too far on my Instagram, they come across the photos of then. They often gasp, asking if that’s really me. Maybe they’ll say a joke or tease the incessant hashtags - #summergirl. Maybe they’ll frown or look slightly uncomfortable. They never really say what they’re thinking, what we’re all thinking. Instead, it’ll be something like, “Wow, you look really different!”
I do. I’m likely twenty-five kilograms heavier. I have to guess, as I haven’t owned a weigh scale in over five years. If I get weighed for a doctor’s appointment, I ask them not to share the number with me.
In that situation, it depends on how close I am to the person. I’ll either laugh it off and say I used to be really into exercise. You know, I’ll pretend to be that girl. Miss I just really like running and this body is an accidental outcome of that. Or I’ll be honest, and say I was really sick back then.
It’s taken me a long time to realise that this is what I was: sick. Because, back then, I thought I was as healthy as I could be.
I began exercising frequently from about the age of thirteen, but fifteen is really when it ramped up. I would go to the gym most days, attend spinning classes, and go for runs if the Dubai heat allowed it. That’s the thing, I was living in Dubai, where this really wasn’t out of the ordinary. I say frequent exercising, but eating disorders too, I suppose.
It was normal to change into your gym clothes right after school and work out for an hour. It was normal to pick at a salad at lunch. So that’s what I thought I was: normal.
As time progressed, the exercise increased. I started waking up at 5:30 so I could work out before school as well as after. I started doing sit-ups right before bed. I started doing exercises as I brushed my teeth. I had abs, a tiny waist, and little shoulder muscles that peeked from the thinness. I had it all.
What I also had? An alarming eating disorder.
Not only was I pushing my body to extremes in workouts, but I was starving myself. I had reconditioned what an appropriate amount of food was. I had completely villainized carbohydrates, with the help of women’s magazines at the time. And when this didn’t prove to be enough, I taught myself how to throw up. If I ever, god forbid, ate some pasta or a piece of bread, I now had a neat trick to fix my mistakes.
It seems crazy now to say that I didn’t know I was ill. It seems crazier to say that other people didn’t know. When I open up to friends of the past, they seem genuinely surprised. I’ve gone through the stages of feeling sad, feeling mad, feeling like something was taken from me. I’ve done it all.
I was living in a society where your body was your currency. I was surrounded by equally thin and ‘fit’ girls, and so I felt like I was always chasing to keep up. I was absolutely miserable in my body. I hated it more than anything in the world.
There’s no epiphany moment for my eating disorder, nor will I call it cured.
I moved to the Netherlands for university, and I was shocked to realise that other people didn’t see bodies, food and exercise in the way I did. Other people didn’t exercise every day, or measure themselves each evening. Apparently, this wasn’t acceptable behaviour.
I struggled with my bulimia for years after I had stopped starving myself, as I still couldn’t see food as anything but reward or punishment. I reached a place where I could ignore the thoughts telling me to throw up after eating too much. I reached a place where I didn’t have to earn my food intake each day.
But exercise still confounded me. I still struggled to exercise for health or enjoyment rather than burning calories. I couldn’t help but check how many calories I had burned after each run. Even though I never acted upon the amount, it stayed in my mind.
I went through phases of exercising frequently and then not at all. I couldn’t understand how to enjoy it again. I managed to run a half-marathon and raise money for charity, and yet I still finished wondering how many calories I had burned, and how I would keep up the weight loss.
I stopped running and started walking, and it was the best thing I’ve done in years. Each day, I would walk for half an hour or more, sometimes up to an hour, and it cleared my soul in a way I’d never found elsewhere. Movement finally became about more than calories. It became a chance to use and feel grateful for my legs. My depression was worsening at this time, and these small walks became moments of light in the darkness.
Two weeks ago, I entered a gym for a fitness class. I hadn’t done this in years. I had avoided these fitness spaces as they felt too familiar. The last time I had been in this environment, I was thin and looked like I belonged. Now I was soft and healthy, and struggled to keep up.
I felt like everyone in the class was wondering why I was even there. I felt like the instructor was surveying my body in disapproval.
But it was me coming up with all of these thoughts. It was me, projecting my own beliefs onto them.
The class was difficult, and I felt nauseous at one point. But I stayed, I embraced the fear of being there, and I actually enjoyed myself. As I left, it seemed to open that familiar door for thoughts about weight loss, abs and burning calories. But I managed to close it firmly. I had worked out for me and my love of my body, not hatred of it.
It’s still difficult, and something I need to remind myself of every time. But I’m looking to carve out a place in the fitness space where I can exist as I am. One free of fitness influencers or any talk of diets. One where my body is celebrated in its imperfection rather than edited as a before picture. I am not that before picture looking to be transformed. I have already transformed from sick to healthy, and here’s where I choose to stay.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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