With the echoing taunts as a backdrop, I walked towards my parents’ bedroom. My mum had just come out of the bathroom, and I caught her arm. I whispered that I needed to lose weight. Fast. I was ten years old, and my existence of being in a bigger body was commented upon daily by my peers. There was no way out, except down. My parents discussed it that night. They were wary, with the idea of dieting at such an age concerning at best. But I was persistent, as were the bullies. Eventually, my mum and dad made the decision to turn to a professional for help.
By trusting a paediatrician, a member of an esteemed hospital, my family were sure of the safety attached to such an attempt. Nothing bad could happen, under the gaze of a doctor. At that first appointment, I was given a list of safe and unsafe foods. My weight was recorded, and its magnitude brutally acknowledged.
It was the Spring of 2005, and by Christmas I had lost a little weight. But as it happens during the festive period, I enjoyed food. I went to family dinners, friends’ houses. Food was, and remains, an incredibly social feature. By the time I returned to the clinic in the new year, I had regained the kilograms. I was back at square one, but worse.
The return to a past state was met with anger. My doctor was disappointed, and I, as an eleven-year-old, felt the full force of such emotion.
Over the next six months, I decreased my food intake and increased my exercise. I participated in organised sports, but soon, that simply was not enough. At school camp, I would perform a sequence of sit ups on my bed. My friends watched on, perhaps impressed by my dedication. Or perhaps, confused. For it wasn’t a normal response by a child of my age, to exercise compulsively in the wake of food.
By August, I had lost too much. I was medically unstable, but could not imagine stopping. The exercise had progressed to using a skipping rope each night, with the sit ups becoming more and more rigorous. At this point, I was burning calories in secret, a set of behaviours that would continue throughout my experience. Eating disorders grow through secrecy, and it is very difficult to ask a person to openly talk about it.
One Sunday, my mum had to put me into a warm bath. I had frozen myself through a lack of nutrition, and my blue limbs needed to be covered by water. Soon after, I wasn’t allowed back to school. On the morning of my first hospital admission, I stared at my cornflakes. The recent diagnosis of anorexia nervosa meant nothing. All I wanted to do was lose. It was instinctual, the only thing I knew.
The following months are a blur of tube feeding and instability. I would be discharged from hospital, only to return in a worse state. Not even being told that I was hours away from a coma shook my resolve. The emphasis on weight loss from one medical professional overshadowed all other advice.
Those few months in the latter half of 2006 signified the beginning of a thirteen-year struggle.
I am writing this in the afternoon, after attending a day program for eating disorders, as a twenty-four-year-old. The importance of weight loss, the positivity attached to it, has never left me. I have relapsed multiple times, with my months in Year Twelve perhaps the only period of stability.
No matter how many times I have been told by health professionals that I need to gain weight, the message that an increase of kilograms is a bad thing is etched into my brain. And that is how eating disorders remain so strong. They choose what to focus on, ignoring messages that suggest that health may exist with food.
Even now, after several months of being at a stable weight, I still yearn for the comfort of restriction. I know how bad it is, I have years of evidence that point towards anorexia as being a destructive force. And yet, the desire remains.
Over the past five years, I have spent more time in hospital than at home. I have had to stall my university degree several times, have failed a unit for being in a clinic for months on end. I have been medically unstable, mentally unstable, life unstable. My eating disorder has stripped me of my will to live, to the point that I would refuse water in a bid to hurry up the process of destruction. There was a time when my parents would have to lead me around a shopping centre, when I was so absent from the world that I would run into things.
I left hospital for the last time in December 2018. I am healthy, in the way that I can go to university and be trusted to eat my lunch. I no longer exist on black coffee. I can move my body in a mindful way and follow it up with a dinner out with friends. I am better. But I am not cured. Eating disorders cannot be ‘managed’.
A parent’s desire to help their child lose weight is out of care, but no amount of care can protect a young person from the claws of a disorder sinking in. Despite my parents warning the paediatrician of my perfectionistic nature, she visited me at eleven, in hospital, blaming me for my decline. She encouraged my weight loss, to a point. But such a diet-culture infused message cannot be simply turned off when one has reached a ‘healthy’ BMI.
Starvation, at any weight, is incredibly dangerous. I would’ve been healthier remaining in a bigger body. By losing weight, I experienced complications with my heart and liver. I had critically low blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar. There are months that I cannot remember, years wasted over a mere number. And at the time, none of that mattered. I didn’t care that my organs couldn’t function. I didn’t care that I was too scared to swallow my own saliva, should it contain nutrition. All I cared about was how much I weighed.
It wasn’t vanity. It was self-preservation. And that is learnt from following clinically-approved starvation. Weight loss becomes the sole purpose in life, and the only guarantee of this trial is disorder. Diets don’t work, but eating disorders are incredibly effective at ruining lives.