I don’t remember a time when I felt comfortable in my body. Thinking back to my childhood, I remember nervously tugging a tankini over my plump stomach. I remember looking at the thin calves of the other girls and wondering why mine didn’t look like that. I remember reaching the end of each summer, berating myself for not having lost weight. I was desperate to return to school and have everyone gush over how skinny I had become. It once happened with my friend, and I can still recall the immense envy that filled me as a teacher took her to the side to ask if she was alright. I wanted someone to ask if I was alright.
I thought about my weight every single day. Each meal was either a frantic joy or a cruel punishment. Food was never just food. The number of calories hung above it, taunting me. I can tell you exactly about the first time I intentionally starved myself, and the rush of elation it brought me as each hour stretched on without eating; the crash once food finally passed my lips again.
Weight has never just been weight to me. It’s always been an anchor as if every single kilogram can be distinctly felt in each step. My body has never been my way of moving through the world, it’s my shame. I have struggled with my eating disorder since as young as fifteen, but its roots travel further back.
I was twenty-one when my father was rushed to the hospital. I was twenty-one in the weeks that followed, as I navigated between real life and hospital visits. Then real life stopped, and it became about travelling from his home to the hospital and back again. My life existed in shifts, taking turns with my sisters and trying to reach each other in our grief. We were all grieving, even as he breathed, because he was essentially already gone to us.
I was twenty-one when he died. I wasn’t there as it happened. I got the call and felt like the world had just turned lopsided. I couldn’t stand as everything fell around me.
For the first time in my life, it wasn’t a conscious decision to eat less. There wasn’t a pride in skipping meals. There wasn’t a desperation to fill myself with sugar just to feel ecstasy. I didn’t even realise that it was happening. I guess it was the sum of all those hours spent in a hospital with overpriced food that I had no appetite for. I guess there had been no space for groceries on our list of priorities.
And then he was gone, and there was no room for hunger in all of my grief. There was no space in my eternally empty stomach because my breaking heart was blocking it. I walked around in a state of shock, and nausea became the only thing that could break through my numbness.
One day, I realised that my clothes were getting looser. I looked down, as if waking from the daze for a mere moment, and thought, “Huh, I guess I lost weight.”
I waited for the joy that I had always expected to follow this moment. Young Fleurine, who had spent countless hours praying to lose weight, should be thrilled. She used to dream that something terrible would happen so she wouldn’t eat. She dreamed of a stomach flu that would render us the perfect size. And here it was, everything I had ever wanted, served on an empty plate.
And yet there was no joy, no pleasure to my thinner body, only shame. I tugged at the space between my jeans and my hollow hips and hated myself for it. I had prayed to lose weight and now it had happened in the cruellest of ways. I had wanted this more than anything; what did that say about me? About my priorities in life? I had lost my father and spent a moment examining my thinner body as if it mattered at all. It was no Eureka moment but rather a settling of the truth. My obsession with my body was almost sadder than my grief. I had reached my goal post at the most devastating cost, and I no longer wanted it.
Give me back my father, and I’ll put on as much weight as you want.
The first time that someone else mentioned my weight loss, I froze with shock. She complimented how skinny I looked. It hadn’t even been a full month since the funeral, and an hour earlier, she had expressed her condolences. I was grieving, but hey, at least my collarbones looked ready to pierce my skin, right? I didn’t thank her, I didn’t respond, I just stared at her until someone uneasily changed the conversation.
I wasn’t cured from this moment onwards. My eating disorder didn’t evaporate at this epiphany. There is no moment that could cure it, for it is too deeply embedded in my DNA. I cannot see a pizza and not itch to grab a napkin and pat it down thoroughly. I cannot undress for a shower and not examine my body in the mirror. I will always worry that someone will be disappointed to see me undressed. I move through this world feeling like I am catfishing it as a secretly fat person. These things are a part of me as much as the snort when I laugh or the way I mispronounce ‘salmon’.
This moment of realising that my grief had given me what I thought I always wanted, and of seeing how meaningless weight was in the face death, will dictate what follows the initial thought of self-loathing. It reminds me to bring the pizza to my lips and enjoy it, because I am still alive to enjoy food. It reminds me that my size is not the worst thing in my life; it’s the absence of my father. I have to keep living and ignore the eating disorder screaming in my mind because I lost too much time to it, time that could’ve gone to him.
Eating disorders, or any mental illness, don't disappear in the face of loss or other traumatic events. They can work tirelessly in the background, and add shame and guilt to your overflowing emotions. But they don't speak to how much you care, or how much you're hurting from the other events. They might be a distraction to the event at hand, or even a consequence, as it was for me. If you're struggling, visit BEAT or other resources, and ask for the help you deserve.
I finally lost weight with grief, and I gained it all back with healing, plus more. I lost weight with grief, but with it, I lost so much more.
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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