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Don’t wait for an illness you cannot see

After locking myself up for a whole spring, moodier and more stressed than I had ever been, pounds shredding off my body like grated cheese, I finally sat the CFA level III exam. With every weekend spent at the office, and each work night dedicated to studying or packing (I was moving out), it’s needless to stress how eager I was for this period to be over. And so were my friends. They were all impressed by my perseverance in juggling my job in finance, the studying and the social. They were also very empathetic and encouraging, knowing it wasn’t easy, and showing tremendous support. They felt sorry for me, evidently buying into the perfected “I’m so overwhelmed and stressed I can hardly eat” pitch. Sure, I was overwhelmed and lacked appetite, but eating generated absurd amounts of anxiety.

Distanced from my eating disorder today, I can recognize how my existence revolved around it. My purpose was defined by fleeing food.

When the cramming ended, my good friend T. put together a surprise soirée to celebrate the completion of the exam. When she casually told me to come over, I knew there was nothing casual behind the invitation. I suspected there was a party in the making. Or rather baking. Before heading to T.’s I vividly remember giving her a well-projected call. In a nonchalant way, I needed to transmit the message that I was waiting for food delivery, before heading to her house. In my head, this premeditated way of making her aware that I was having dinner would enable me not to part take in food that night. While the scheme is clear to show how disordered my thought process and behaviour was at the time, I stayed oblivious to how severely it affected my life. That night, her friend, who happens to be a Chef, prepared a multitude of entrées, mains and deserts, even my all-time favourite tarte flambé. I was so “full” from my sushi delivery (which I hardly touched) that I refused everything from the buffet.

In recovery, as I sat to look back at the last two to three years of my life, I was unquestionably shocked about the amount of denial that preceded my chronic illness.

That night, my best friend’s sister happened to be there. Having struggled with anorexia herself, she recognized the demon and warned my entourage back home. People generally thought the comment came from a place of jealousy and believed that the stress of the last six months has taken a toll on my body. Some of those friends would tell me how good I looked, others would express a mild concern, but why would anyone think I had a problem when I’d acknowledge that “Omg don’t even tell me about it, I know I lost so much weight, I’m just never hungry, I’m always stressed, I can hardly eat”? Even my doctor bought into it. I wasn’t lying. It’s the nature of the illness.

Your brain becomes conditioned to making your actions feel nothing else but natural. That endorphin high when running on empty was so delicious; I couldn’t bring myself to eat. Undereating made me feel alive and full of energy, and in my chronic state of stress, it made everything nice and calm. As long as I kept my eating rigid and under control, I was numb to the uncomfortable feelings that came with fullness, all while feeling rather disconnected from this messy life.

Mastering food to the point where I no longer craved or needed it trigged a reward mechanism in my brain, whereby I felt accomplished. The stricter the rules, the greater the elation. I was surfing a constant high until one day, roughly two to three years later, I saw myself in the mirror and realized that blissful energy was long gone.

 As I could hardly make it outside my house, there and then I admitted to myself this disorder had come to stay. Breaking any food rule, by eating something I cut out, consuming something I no longer “needed”, allowing myself a bite when I wasn’t absolutely starving, came with indescribably tormenting anxiety. And so I avoided any and all circumstances that could jeopardize this control. Little did I see, that my rules were controlling me.

When was the last time you saw a friend? When was the last time you managed to get through a movie? When was the last time you thought about something else than food? When was the last time you allowed yourself to eat something different? When was the last time you didn’t step on the scale in the morning? When was the last time you didn’t check your stomach to make sure it’s as flat as or flatter than yesterday? As I found myself contemplating things that didn’t seem normal about my life, I admitted I needed help.

In sharing this story, I am targeting those who display disordered behaviours around food, for it is sufficient a trigger to set up a deadly illness. In this day and age, we are all too vulnerable to controlling our diets, be it in anticipation of a wedding, a well-intentioned decision to “eat more healthily”, or an ingenuous desire to bond with others over the latest fad diet. What we are less aware of is the imminent danger that this may trigger what is first and foremost a biological illness, in those who are genetically predisposed.

My friends, family, and colleagues all recognised my anorexia, but when trapped in the delusions of the disease, the alarming comments about my weight loss and their expressions of worry all turned pretty useless. I had to realize it myself and I needed to want recovery. But because I often wonder if more awareness about eating disorders and how they present themselves would have prevented me from hitting rock bottom, I decided to share this story with you, today. If some part of it hits home, don’t wait. Please, seek help now.

Contributed by AK

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