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Author | Photos Meiying Ng

Out Of Control: Living With An Eating Disorder

TW: Disordered Eating

I’m pretty much always thinking about food: what I’ve put in my body today, what will be best to consume later, new rules or allowances I’ve given myself. Sometimes it calms me down, other times it ramps up my anxiety to a debilitating degree.

I was first treated for an eating disorder when I was eleven years old. My mom started noticing my changing eating habits: her little girl who had always loved treats began to refuse dessert—that was the first clue. Then came a series of complicated and seemingly irrational rules, refused foods and mood shifts as my body noticeably shrank. My limbs became stick-like, and my round face thinned out way before it should have. People started to notice, especially family members and classmates. At first I was complimented, told how nice and “healthy” I looked. (Why is it that this is our first response to young girls? What is healthy?) Quiet concern soon followed as I continued to get smaller—literally and metaphorically.

I was raised in a family that focused on healthy (but in moderation) eating habits. My meals were well rounded and I was never denied a treat or subjected to anyone negatively commenting on my body. We played sports and were active. I can attribute my sudden urge to control my food intake to a stray comment about my baby fat at school, or a new obsession with my changing body, but really it was about control. I had always felt out of control.

I’ve been anxious for as long as I can remember. As a little kid even, I felt the crushing need to be perfect: the perfect daughter, granddaughter, niece, friend, student, athlete. I was crippled beneath the weight of my own worries and the projected expectations of others.

When my disorder was recognized, I did therapy for a bit (which was a terrible experience for me at the time) alongside my mom, and was put on a new regulated diet with protein shakes between meals. I was carefully watched. I got better, physically. I became a teenager, got my period, was by all means “back to normal.”

But the illness never went away; I just got better at hiding it. There were periods when I convinced myself I was healthy: the obsessive thoughts temporarily quieted or I got better at managing them. Staying busy always helped. As I got older it was easier to justify, or to fully just hide my habits from people. A break came in university when I moved in with a girl—who would later become a close friend—who called me out on my shit. She had also suffered and recognized my dramatic second year weight loss as a relapse. I repeatedly pushed her away and pushed myself into partying and school work (I didn’t sleep much).

When I moved to Toronto five years ago, I should have been so happy—I was newly and overwhelmingly in love, in a new city, making new friends and interning at a magazine. But I was at the beginning of a relapse (and subsequent downward spiral) and I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t want it to become part of who I was and how people saw me, what they thought of when they looked at me. I didn’t want to lose my new boyfriend, who surely would think I was crazy. I wanted to be the chill girl, carve out a new friend group and life. Faking it ‘til I made it worked for a while.

My body took a negative dip again. My boyfriend found out about my illness and promised to be there for me while encouraging me to talk and help him understand. Still, I refused to talk about it. I claimed I was fine repeatedly while I retreated more and more into my own head. I didn’t realize at the time how much it was affecting not only myself but also everyone who loved me. I wasn’t present—I was distant and obsessive, selfish and lost in my own thoughts.

When my boyfriend threatened to leave me, I began going to group therapy at Sheena’s Place (which was wonderful and helpful and introduced me to many incredible people and resources). But it wasn’t enough; I was attempting to heal, in a very surface level way, for someone else and not yet for myself. I was trying to put a bandaid on a giant, open wound.

When that relationship eventually ended, my disorder, my inability to talk about it and the stress that it caused both my partner and myself was a central reason for its demise. He saw no future with the me that was sick and refusing to get better.

Somehow, at arguably my darkest moment, I knew that I couldn’t fall back into my old habits—something in me had shifted and I knew things had to change in order for me to move forward for myself. Sheena’s had taught me how to talk and how to share, and I began to more actively reach out to the people that I loved for help. It wasn’t always easy: at the beginning of my tentative journey forward, I had a male doctor at an initial CAMH appointment say to me, “You say you suffer from an eating disorder, so why aren’t you thinner?” Despite that, I started one-on-one Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with an amazing therapist (Hi Ellen!) elsewhere. I felt lighter and clearer, but the obsessive thoughts wouldn’t go away.

I hesitantly went on medication a year ago, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made for myself. I was so scared that this illness would define me, that medication would make me foggy and take away from who I am, that I couldn’t acknowledge the fact that I was sick, and that sickness was preventing me from being the best version of myself. I couldn’t completely heal on my own (I had tried). I needed help. There was and is no shame in that fact.

I would be lying if I said I was 100% recovered, but I’m learning to manage and I’m learning to let people in. I feel good.

Because society places so much pressure on female-identifying bodies, the desperate urge to control your own and how it looks is seen as manipulative and self-indulgent. In my case, this overlooked the fact that controlling what and how much I was eating was a way of managing my extreme anxiety and feeling ownership over my body and my mind. This anxiety manifested itself in a way that is dangerous and obsessive compulsive. One of the most difficult parts of my recovery has been coming to terms with the fact that I am an adult woman dealing with what is too often classified as a juvenile illness, and navigating the shame associated with that.

I really hope that by opening up the dialogue—by recognizing personal journeys and how they vary and intersect—we can start to erase the stigma and the shame behind why so many people suffer (and starve) in silence.

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