A simple remark changed my life.
When I was 15, I was chubby. Not hugely overweight; just rounded.
I’d grown up with naturally toned, taut bodied girls driven by a collective obsession with competitive dance. However, a change in my epilepsy medication saw my adolescent body transform. I was no longer the athlete with the physique all my friends envied; my edges were softer, my face rounder, and my self-confidence was rapidly waning.
All medication has side effects; anything from mood swings to insomnia. The particular drug I was on increased my appetite. And not in the way of prompting me to go for an extra helping of banoffee pie every so often. I suddenly felt an urgency to gorge myself with three times the amount of food I used to consume.
It was an addiction; an inexplicable drive that eclipsed my passion for fitness. I remember one night eating five helpings of oily pasta for dinner, and still feeling unsatisfied. My parents tried to gently guide me away from the excess of food, but I didn’t listen. What teenager does? I was just a kid; naive to the toll over-eating was taking on my body.
I didn’t notice what had happened until a year later. As if by some black magic, my school uniform had gone from a size 10 to a size 14. I refused to wear jeans because I now hated the way they looked. I had a collection of board shorts a pro surfer would envy; my bikini bottoms always covered by the sack-like material. And, in a cataclysmic revelation, I was jolted into the harsh reality that my level of dancing had slipped far below an easy fix.
Although my confidence took a hit, the amount of family support I had meant that most of the time I was actually fine. They made sure I didn’t take it all too seriously and kept me buoyant. That is, until a checkup with my specialist changed everything.
It started out innocently enough; we discussed the change in my medication, my seizures, and my general health.
Then he put me on the scales.
“Hmm…the new medication is working, but she’s about 20 pounds heavier than she should be,” he mused, looking at me quizzically. His eyes were gentle, and full of concern.
“Sweetheart, you need to lose some weight, okay?”
I froze. No one had ever uttered those words to me. I’d seen the ads for diets on TV, was that my fate? Would I have to go running every day and never eat anything nice? Would I be pulled apart and measured regularly? Had everyone already been thinking this about me, but been too polite to tell me?
I forced a smile and stepped off the scales, trying to shake the feeling of unease creeping over me as the doctor continued to talk. My mother said nothing about it during the car trip home. She seemed to be thinking intently. As we pulled into the driveway, she looked at me for a moment and said,
“Darling, no matter what, you’re beautiful. You just remember that.”
What followed was a string of carefully controlled meals, with the occasional weigh-in on the bathroom scales. My parents never told me what I weighed; determined to keep my self-esteem intact. But adolescent hormones can be cruel. I wasn’t losing the weight. My eating habits had been badly damaged by the drugs, making it impossible for me to stick to a healthy eating regime.
Thinking about food made me stressed, and when I was stressed I wanted to eat. My parents were trying so hard to keep me healthy and happy, but I would sneak Freddo Frogs, white bread with Nutella slathered on both sides, anything I could get my hands on when they weren’t looking. This was followed by guilty phases of eliminating every sweet thing from my diet to make up for my clandestine feasting as I ventured further into the murky waters of restrictive eating.
Soon enough, my dance teacher joined the ranks of my weight loss cheer squad. And then eventually my dance friends. It seemed like the entire universe was clamouring for me to lose weight, get fit again, be the top-level dancer I used to be. Looking at photos standing next to my sisters and slimmer friends became a torturous experience. I knew I was ‘the chubby one’, and everyone thought so.
By the age of 17, I was a nervous wreck. On different medication, convinced I still had extra weight clinging to me, I constantly lamented my size, much to the bewilderment of my school friends.
“You’re not fat, babe! We swear, you’re the same size as us!” was their mantra.
But they didn’t understand. I couldn’t be like them. I had to be lean and fit, not average sized. I defined myself by dance. I lived, breathed, and craved it. I was desperate to be national champion, and had worked towards it from the age of four. Prior to that fateful change in medication I was well on the way to clinching the title. To have that ripped away, and feeling powerless to regain it, was nothing short of hell.
So finally, fed up with the anxiety of being ‘the large one’ in the lithe world of dancers, I did the extreme. I cut all carbs except fruit from my diet, most fats, and forced myself to go on daily runs in addition to my rigorous dance regime. And like magic, the weight dropped off.
I don’t know where I found the mental discipline, especially during my final year of high school, when stress eating was a hobby and chocolate was a currency. But by the end of the year I was as lean and fit as I had ever been, and although I didn’t win the Nationals, I regained my place in the top five dancers. I couldn’t have been happier.
The only problem was, I didn’t know how to stop. I’d begun counting calories instead of counting sheep, tallying the content of everything I’d eaten that day as I stared at the ceiling, willing my eyelids to fall shut. I counted every grape in my morning fruit salad, every mouthful I took each day. And it showed.
Before long I was a diet-driven, emotionally dysfunctional mess. I could no longer relate to anyone. I avoided going out to dinner with friends because I’d have to deviate from my eating regime. Any and all conversations were about food, even with people I barely knew. Looking back, it’s embarrassing.
Inevitably, I began bingeing when the feelings of deprivation became too much, and my body weight yo-yoed back up, leaving me heavier than I’d begun, sending me into panic and ultimately setting off another dangerous cycle.
Eventually, with my mind in tatters, I sought help. My long suffering parents, always so patient, finally convinced me (after several years of trying to) that what I was doing wasn’t normal or healthy. Six months of therapy and a dietitian put me on the right track…mostly. All I have to do is glance at a set of bathroom scales and I feel the familiar bone-chilling, nausea-inducing fear in the pit of my stomach.
I haven’t weighed myself for five years now. I don’t think I ever will again.
Dieting is so dangerous; I see that now. I lost over a decade of my life to anxiety and obsessive thinking because I bought into the fallacy that being a certain size makes you healthy and happy. It never did.
The path to recovery after an eating disorder is a beaten track fraught with dark detours, foothills and bear traps. If I could go back, I’d take the highway, every time.
Images via europe.newsweek.com, blog.lolofit.com, southasianhealthsolution.org and doulaspot.com.