What would a life without and beyond anorexia look like?
Anxiety first came into my life right before kindergarten when I was diagnosed with selective mutism. When I was 8 years old, I got my voice back, but that’s a story for another day. During that time, I discovered my love for books and characters that made me feel less alone. When I started speaking again, my voice was a gift I took for granted. I didn’t think about the delicate power that is being the champion of my own story. Being my own advocate.
That’s a power that I’m still learning to wield. I’ve been deliberating on how to tell my story. Which words to use, in what order. I don’t only want to advocate for myself, I want to join the dialogue on mental health. The UK reports a 128% increase in patients waiting for treatment during the past year of the pandemic, and the NEDA hotline has seen an 80% increase in calls.
Our vocabulary has been replaced with I’m so bad, I’m such a pig when eating birthday cake or celebrating holidays with loved ones.
These words betray the true meaning of food, a basic necessity to fuel our energy for a full life. But food is also importantly synonymous with culture, tradition, and human connection, something I truly understand after living in NY, LA, Hong Kong, and Milan.
What does anxiety have to do with it?
Anxiety has walked with me through every step of life, all the constant moving. Anxiety tricked me into thinking my symptoms were manageable, and it was normal to be stressed all the time. I didn’t understand that the toll stress and anxiety take on the human body is far worse than suffering in silence. When this stress manifested into a very real and life-threatening physical illness, I spent years unable to identify which voice was mine and which was anorexia’s.
Anorexia nervosa means having a life-destroying narrator in my head, relentlessly bullying me into self-destructive compulsions and chronic starvation.
It’s watching my brother and Dad share ice cream, and writing in my journal after, “I feel happy, life’s too short to deprive yourself!” As if watching them savor the creamy dessert left me satiated, sugar high. Last fall, my eating disorder reached rock bottom on a trip to Tuscany with my classmates. My self-loathing and excessive worries reached their respective peaks during each panini in Florence and wine sip in Siena. The unreliable narrator unnecessarily counted calories, threatened me, and left me with panic attacks, the highest degree of anxiety. When I returned to school, I decided I had enough of my eating disorder. I did not want to starve to death. I wanted my life back!
Dealing with stigma
The most challenging hurdle in my coming out was that eating disorders, like most mental illnesses, are terribly stigmatized and misunderstood. I was ashamed to admit I needed help. Since November 2020, I have spent every moment battling anorexia nervosa, fighting to achieve recovery with a contradictory vengeance. During this time, even sleep was interrupted with night sweats as I renourished my body.
I am simultaneously emotionally exhausted, yet more energetic than I have felt in years. Through mechanical eating and the healing advice of my team of doctors and professionals, I have managed to achieve full weight restoration plus overshoot. Essentially, recovery is all about trust and trusting that my body will be smart enough to heal. I have to trust that my body will use the added nutrition to restore my shrunken body, to free myself from the emotionally void and emaciated shell where I was trapped.
In recovery, I have awoken from the emotional numbness, brain fog, and physical demise that have characterized my entire university experience.
In recovery, I’ve learned this: There is no such thing as “sick enough,” no perfect time to ask for help, no definitive rock bottom. When I felt like I was hiking on a mountain with no way of knowing which direction was up, I found a path. But I could not have started this upward trajectory alone. This bewildering and all-encompassing struggle is my truth, and I’m never going to be quiet about it ever again. Not when it could mean people I love might seek help sooner. Nor will I compromise my authentic self for anything.
Where to begin
The first step is education, and understanding how pervasive and normalized disordered eating has become. The butterfly has been the symbol of my weight restoration, healing my brain, and approaching graduation and life beyond anorexia… Beyond constant coursework, calorie counting, scale stepping, passport stamping, Google Translating.
It represents my life beyond— where I am in remission. I welcome the unknown, something my eating disorder would have never allowed. I take comfort in this certainty. My endless gratitude for my global perspective on food and health, my support system and my healing. This is only the beginning of what’s next—my advocacy for eating disorder education and destigmatization. I am always here for questions or open conversation, as an ally for NEDA and Project Heal. Consider joining the dialogue on mental health, start with using your voice.