What It Feels Like: I Rediscovered Myself After Battling an Eating Disorder
What It Feels Like is a series of personal essays written by individuals about their own experiences and the aspects of treatment and support that they feel have helped them. The authors are not mental health experts, and the information in the essays is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult a qualified mental health expert if you have specific mental health concerns or conditions. If this is an emergency, call 911 immediately.
When I was 13, my father, a Pakistani diplomat, was sent to work in Senegal, a French-speaking country at the western tip of Africa. Naturally, our family moved with him. This was his second ambassadorial posting, but the first since I had been a small child, and it meant leaving Sri Lanka, where I'd spent the previous five years and formed all my childhood memories.
As a sensitive child, I was distraught because I was leaving behind everything that had been part of my life: my friends; my grandma, who had always lived with us; and my art, in which I would lose myself for hours. Instead, I had to attend a French school even though I didn’t speak a word of the language.
I didn’t take it well. It felt distressing to suddenly be cast to the bottom of my class when I’d always been an academically bright student. It also felt hopeless because none of my efforts made any difference at all. But what upset me most was the feeling that I was invisible; no one bothered much with a girl they couldn’t communicate with.
I’ll never forget the pain of those endless breaks at school, when I'd hide under the staircase hoping no one saw me cry, while the sounds of fun and laughter filled the air. Nor will I forget the hot flushes of shame as I sat in class after class, being overlooked and sometimes made fun of, but not having the language or courage to express myself.
One day, as my French skills picked up a little, I heard one of the girls tell another that she admired my body. It was the first time I had even considered my body—but I remember it felt good to be acknowledged at last. And that’s when ED, the name I later gave my eating disorder, slid in silently through the backdoor.
The More I Tried to Control, the Less Control I Actually Had
Life changed rapidly soon after. I'd spend an hour every afternoon jumping rope in the afternoon sun. I skipped dinner most nights, pretending I’d fallen asleep while studying.
When my parents began noticing a pattern, ED became creative and sneaky. She forced me to hide or throw food in the garbage. She instructed me to wear my brother’s clothes so my parents wouldn’t notice the weight loss.
I was living a life of deprivation, but I felt like I was on a high. It was the feeling of control, which was ironic because ED had complete control over my mind. None of her demands felt weird or wrong. She told me nothing mattered more than my intake of food, and I believed her. I lost interest in my studies. I even lost interest in people. She was always by my side, and, to me, I needed no one else.
If I missed my life in Sri Lanka, if I felt ignored at school, if I got yet another bad grade, ED always had a solution: Skip lunch and do an extra hour of exercise. And it worked. The more I numbed my hunger, the more I became numb to my pain. But sadly, I was also becoming numb to joy.
When I gave in to my hunger, which wasn’t often, or was too depleted or injured to exercise, ED got very upset. She’d call me names and threaten to leave. I begged her to stay and promised never to upset her again. Within months, I became her poster child: a skeleton.
Slowly Finding My Way Back
I became so weak that I had to be flown to a hospital in London for in-patient care. Initially, the treatment focused purely on weight gain, because a starved mind isn’t strong enough to do the work of therapy. I was on a strict 4,000-calorie diet, and ED reassured me that we’d shed all of it as soon as I was released from the hospital.
She was wrong. The more weight I gained, the more I found my own voice and saw glimpses of the joyful, grateful, conscientious me that I knew so well.
ED panicked. She bullied me. She cajoled me. She reminded me of how good we had it together. I wavered many times. There were times when I believed her and complied with her demands. Other times, I managed to stand my ground, and ED mocked me for being so misguided. There seemed to be no way to win.
Those were some of the toughest years of my life. I learned to manage the emotional angst of the moment through a tool I picked up in therapy called riding the wave.
The “wave” is the emotion—the urge to hide, throw away food, exercise, weigh myself—and riding it means allowing these feelings to wash over me, rather than trying to fight against them, until they subside. Riding the wave becomes easier if you practice self-compassion, or dance, or listen to music, or pray, or play with a pet to distract yourself.
During my waves, I would go to my mother, who was my greatest support. She’d been completely lost and shattered in the year of ED’s reign. Now that she'd begun to see some of her little girl in me again, she became committed to bringing that girl fully back to life.
Unfortunately, I can’t credit therapy for the return to what had always been the closest relationship in my life. In those days, it was common in therapy to project parents as the reason we were struggling in any way. Something inside me always rejected that, and with my physical recovery, I could think with more of my own mind.
My mother was my fiercest advocate and biggest booster. She refused to make compromises with ED and would sit with me for hours, cheering me on one meal at a time—sometimes one bite at a time. Slowly, I learned to do the same.
I was also able to call on my internal resource: spirituality, a virtue I have in plenty. Even as a fear-stricken 16-year-old petrified of food, I could appreciate the preciousness of life. I prayed a lot. I asked for help from a higher power. I begged the universe for courage because I feared I would become tired of fighting.
Looking back, I was building courage at every meal and snack time, because courage, says psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener, is the willingness to act despite the fear.
I also found great strength in gratitude, another prominent virtue of mine. It enabled me to appreciate my mother’s relentless commitment to help me return to life again.
I was also able to appreciate the preciousness of life itself. When ED would tell me to lie to my mom or to throw my food away, I'd invite gratitude to the conversation. I'd ask myself, “What does Big Me want me to do?” (Big Me was the version of me that was driven by values.) It’s a practice I use to this day for all kinds of decisions and to work through all sorts of fears.
Setbacks and Relapses
Unfortunately, ED didn’t leave once I was fully restored physically. Instead, she hung around in the backyard, waiting.
I relapsed many times in the years shortly after. Every time I faced a challenge or life wasn't perfect and under control, ED would rush to the scene. “You know it’ll all be fine if you start exercising; it’ll relieve some of the stress,” she'd advise.
If I was overwhelmed by school, she'd pretend to help: “Your meals are taking too long; you should just grab a yogurt or something.” If someone said I looked good, she'd present herself as having my best interest at heart: “You’re slightly overweight now; you should drop just a couple of pounds.” A couple of pounds invariably meant the downward spiral.
The thing about an eating disorder is that it's like a chameleon: It constantly changes its approach, making sure never to say something that will shock you outright, but always looking to catch you unawares. Every time I didn’t recognize it, I slipped up pretty fast.
What helped me when life threw me darts was making a list of healthy coping mechanisms so I didn’t have to turn to ED. If I was overwhelmed, I learned to ask for help. If I thought I needed to lose weight, I would check with a trusted friend who knew my history. If I faced setbacks or received criticism, I learned to practice self-compassion until I was ready to bring perspective around the situation.
More than anything, I realized that if my coping mechanism had anything ever so slightly connected with restricting my diet or exercising more, that was the work of ED hissing in my ears.
I’m 53 now, and it has been 35 years of complete remission. In between, I married, had four beautiful children, continued my education, and did postgraduate research on women and confidence.
My life is full. My heart is full. I see my children having a beautiful relationship with food and their bodies, despite a society that doesn’t make it easy, and despite the fact that eating disorders do have a genetic component. I think being open about my story has helped them stay aware of what health is all about: living our lives fully.
Even though ED is now a distant memory, there are a few things I still keep in mind. ED “pickled me,” as they say of addictions, and a pickle can never be a cucumber again. I try to stay mindful of that.
I don’t go on “healthy eating” websites. Nor do I take part in fitness programs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either. But in our societies, they’re colored by body image and messaging around weight loss, and I don’t want to entice ED in any way.
I also became committed to taking even better care of my health when I’m under stress, because I know those are the very moments ED lives for. When I hear a voice in my head say, “I don’t have time to eat,” I double down on my intake. It’s a little kick in ED’s butt, and it still feels good!
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, I want you to know that there’s a beautiful life that awaits you. Something deep inside you already knows that. Start befriending that part of you. Start asking yourself, What does Big Me want right now? Start finding your real friends, the people who can see the Big You and who are committed to bringing that person to life.
Slowly, you’ll see yourself moving closer to the day when, as Anaïs Nin wrote, “the risk to remain tight in a bud [is] more painful than the risk it [takes] to blossom.”
Where You Can Find Help for Eating Disorders
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, the following organizations may provide assistance:
- Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment for Eating Disorders (F.E.A.S.T.)
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
- Project Heal
Homaira Kabir is a confidence researcher and a women’s leadership development and self-actualization coach. Her new book, Goodbye, Perfect, will be released in 2023. Her personal development program Meet the Matriach is open for registration.
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