My eating disorders started during my first semester at university. I’d gained a few pounds the previous year, which I’d spent in the Netherlands as an exchange student. When I returned to Australia I heard a few snide remarks about my weight. They stung.
First, I upped the exercise. Next, I became controlling about what I ate. Then, I started throwing up after meals.
I distinctly remember sitting on the edge of a friend’s dorm bed as we discussed the pros and cons of bulimia, like it was some kind of casual experiment. “I might not lose weight, but I won’t gain any, right?”
She nodded and agreed. “I think that’s how it works.”
And so it began.
Within a couple of years bulimia made way for anorexia. I shrank. The thrill of control was addictive, as were the compliments on my skinniness. Once, as I strode across a sunny quadrangle in front of the law school, a smug girl from my French history class stopped me.
“You look amazing. Don’t ever put it [the weight] back on!”
She didn’t stop for my response. I watched her walk off towards her friends, stunned, thinking, “you bitch. You have no idea what I’m going through.”
Anorexia was self-imposed hell. I felt trapped, a prisoner to the voices in my head telling me not to eat, that I was fat, and bad. Starving was the only thing that kept me good.
Anorexia numbed my feelings, the way chocolate cookies had numbed my feelings during high school, the way appelflappen numbed my feelings as an exchange student, the way that throwing up large amounts of rapidly ingested food numbed my feelings when I was bulimic.
Anorexia meant my breasts were smaller and I stopped having periods, which suited me fine. I hated these markers of womanhood. I loathed the way men would stare mindlessly at my breasts. Getting my period always felt like my body was betraying me – I was glad to be rid of it.
I didn’t want to take up space. I aimed to be invisible.
Anorexia meant I was safe on my own island, while my concerned family and friends waved to me from across the moor, worriedly, powerless to help.
All my relationships were compromised. But most of all, these eating disorders were a manifestation of the damaged relationship I had with myself: with my own mind and body.
Between the ages of 17 and 32, there was not a day and barely an hour that I didn’t obsess about my weight and my appearance.
That is a fucking gigantic waste of 15 years.
I finally decided to go into therapy specifically for eating disorder patients when I was doing my yoga teacher training in Utrecht and could not reconcile standing in front of people asking them to be their authentic self, while I was also a bulimic.
Therapy slowly unwound the tight grip eating disorders held on me. It helped me broach those feelings I had spent my life desperately avoiding, blocking, ignoring.
During group therapy, my heart would sail across the room to the tiny, teenaged girls sitting opposite me. I’d see that nervous look in their eyes, “don’t take my eating disorder from me,” and want desperately to pull them aside in the hallway afterwards and beg them to stop.
“It’s a thief. It will steal all your time, your energy, your focus, your love, your power. Don’t waste your life on this shit. You deserve better. I promise.”
Looking back, I wish I had. But I remembered how people – psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors – told me those things when I was a teen. My response? I smiled, nodded and kept doing exactly what I was doing.
Sometimes, we need to go through the lessons ourselves. Sometimes, we cannot be told.
I’ve not slipped back into anorexic or bulimic behavior since I walked out of the Novarum building in Amstelveen nine years ago. Still, loving myself exactly as I am is an ongoing battle. Some days are harder than others.
Therapy did not rid me of the mean voices in my head. I judge myself and body harshly and struggle to believe my fiancé when he says I am beautiful. At times a deep, dark, nasty belief surfaces, that I’m ugly and therefore worthless. It takes a lot of effort to overcome notions that I’ve had for so long that they’ve rusted onto my psyche.
At the same time, I ferociously resent the shame and judgment women hold about what we eat and how we look. We don’t just succumb to the patriarchal pressure to look and act a certain way – we internalize and put this pressure on ourselves and each other.
Post-eating disorders, I’ve become allergic to all discussion of weight loss and dieting. Even juice fasts and cleanses make my eyes narrow with anger. Dieting-disguised-as-health enrages me. If someone starts up about this stuff, I walk away, or turn to someone else at the dinner table. It also garners a fast ‘unfollow’ on socials.
I wasted 15 years entangled in eating disorders, judging every bite I eat and feeling guilty for enjoying and nourishing my body.