When people hear me fluently speak unaccented English, they least expect me to say I am from Taiwan. And when my friends compliment my simple and nutritious eating and cooking habits, they are surprised by my traumatic experience with ‘the beast’ eight years ago. This disease is not uncommon, but everyone has a different story. Some double-lock it in a secret box and never want to pull it out again. Some live with it until they are buried deep in their graves. Others have the courage to speak about their struggles, challenges, and the fear of it coming back. I chose to uncover and tell the tale of how I fought against anorexia nervosa.
They say unpleasant childhoods spark unfortunate events. I learned the hard way this is not always true. My childhood was filled with love, care, attention and multiculturalism, but when I fell into depression at age 12, I began to mentally and physically abuse myself.
It began with disappointment. I had wanted to study in the international American school, but was not lucky enough to reach the top of the waiting list until high school. My parents went with the next best thing and placed me at a British International Middle School in Taiwan.
An average teenager spends more time at school than they do at home, but no matter how loving and caring parents may be, they do not have 24-7 control of what their child is doing or thinking. Every day was a drag for me. I detested everything about my school: the teaching and grading system, the rooftop drum of pounding raindrops, the blue-striped, collared uniforms, and the uncomfortable and irritable blue knee-cut skirts. Every day became a routine of waking up and dragging my physical body to class, while my brain was constantly thinking about home. I was the first one to run out the school gates the second the school bell rang. I could not wait to get my uniform off and shower. I was mentally obsessed. My school uniform, which came out of the dryer “fresh and clean,” was perceived by me as dirty and evil. I knew this wasn’t a normal reaction or way of thinking, but I closed one eye and told myself it was just a pet peeve of mine. But it was more than a pet peeve.
Depression and degradation
At the age of 12, I felt like a lonely child. My brother, who was one year away from graduating high school, barely paid any attention to me. He was never home and instead was always at school, hanging out with friends, playing video games, or clubbing downtown. My parents were extremely busy with the family business; though they did not neglect me, they missed the cues. I knew I would have hugs and kisses from my parents every day when I came home. But despite the warmth and love I received from my parents, I was already caught in a downward spiral. Unless someone caught me at the moment it all changed, there was nothing stopping me from sinking to the bottom.
I fell into depression and felt vulnerable. I did not enjoy my school, peers, or teachers, and did everything possible to escape these things. I made the “I feel sick today” excuses to my parents and exhausted my school absence allowance. Every day was a dull shade of grey, and eventually, my world turned black. Everything went from positive to negative. I felt helpless, hopeless, and then I found something I knew I could take full control of: my body. I devoted all my physical and mental energy into exercising and trying to create perfection within my body.
The gym became my obsession, and the mirror was my glimmering reward after a workout. I stopped myself from eating food, and went to the gym two to three times a day for one-hour cardio workouts each time with some weightlifting. I wanted to be skinny, and to attain a great shape, simply because I felt it was the only satisfying reward left in my life. I had a weight-loss goal in mind, and the number never stopped decreasing. Instead of giving in to my cravings, I went backwards. I cut out desserts, carbohydrates, juices, and other drinks. And I ate less than 500 calories a day. It was a vicious cycle of restrictive eating and exercising.
I tried to hide it for more than five months, lying to my parents that I was going to the park or to do an errand when I was actually working off calories at the gym. I felt in control of my body and felt proud to be able to see my skeletal structure through my thin layer of pale skin. But what I repeatedly saw in the mirror was the distorted truth. I saw a “fat,” “overweight” and “imperfect” body. My goal was to attain the perfect body. It was hard for people to pick up signs because I suppressed all of my emotions and feelings. I layered up to make my outer appearance look semi-normal. I lost my passion, courage, soul, and self-confidence. It is difficult to explain how you end up expending thousands of calories your body doesn’t have, and yet you continue because your brain tells your legs to keep going. Anorexia is a very mentally tiring disease to fight with—it wore me out.
Every day was a constant battle inside my head:
You are not skinny enough, not perfect enough.
One more hour at the gym. Two more hours. Three more hours…
One more lap around the school track.
You are not burning enough calories.
You can’t eat lunch today.
This has too many calories.
You need to portion your food sizes; eating too much is not
I don’t care if you are hungry; you are fat, and you cannot eat.
You are not hungry. You don’t need food.
It’s already 6 p.m.; don’t eat anything else.
Where did I end up? I literally began weighing my food behind my parents’ back. I weighed my dinner by putting a few leafy greens on the scale, and occasionally a few miniscule tofu cubes. If I was one milligram over, I panicked. With poor nutrition, my grades and concentration in class plummeted. My parents knew I was not enjoying school but did not know my brain was a controlling monster.
Many people do not realize anorexia has a powerful ability to take complete control of all of your psychological perceptions and decisions. For example, when I felt hungry and wanted to eat food, I was pulled back and slapped with a whip by anorexia, telling me my body did not need it, and that I couldn’t fail myself for a perfect body. I was constantly hungry, but never let myself give in because it meant I was setting myself up for failure. I turned into a skeletal being who lost all her emotions, and believed the only way to feel in control was through excessive exercise and starvation.
The final fall
The school bell rang, and as I ran towards the school gates, I tripped on a tile. The next thing I knew I was on the ground facedown, barely able to lift my fragile body up. When the nurse saw me, she called my parents.
“Do you know your daughter has barely any body fat left?” she asked my parents with concern. My parents took a close look at me, and realized they were not looking at the daughter they raised. My face was pale, and my weak and thin bird legs hung over the nurse’s bed. It was time. My parents took away the only perceived control I had in my life. My school decided to let me take some recovery time off. After a period of one month, I went back to school for half days.
“If you do not start eating well and gaining weight, we will hospitalize you,” said the doctor at Yang Ming Hospital. In the span of six months, I had lost almost 33 pounds. “I want you to come back in one week to go over your blood test results, and I hope to see some increased weight by then. If you keep losing weight, we will need to feed you through the tube.” The image of this terrified me, and I believe this is when I hit rock bottom.
The anorexic voice never went away, but my parents encouraged me. They prepared my meals and followed the doctor’s instructions. I was forced to eat two eggs every day for seven months. I was stubborn and told my parents I didn’t want to gain weight by eating unhealthy foods, and told them all my vegetables and meat had to be steamed or boiled. Everyone’s first reaction was that I would never gain weight this way. I refused to eat deep-fried or junk food, and still eliminated high-sugar items. “I want to gain weight, I promise!” I cried out to my parents, “but I want to do it the healthy way.” There was no doubt that anorexia influenced this decision, and I was still afraid of fats—but believe or not, I did it.
By my eighth recovery month, I had reached a normal weight, gained back muscle strength, and was close to being relatively sane again. It took two years of seeing a psychologist and taking prescribed pills. The only way you can begin the road to recovery is admitting you are sick and need help.
The little voice
They say it never goes away, and they do not lie. Almost 10 years later, the voice is still there, pushing me to be perfect in everything I do and making me constantly compare myself to others. I criticize myself because I am not good enough at doing certain tasks. I suppress my emotions, afraid to show any sign of weakness. I only let the tears spill out in front of close friends or family. Body image is no longer an issue for me; I maintain healthy eating habits and exercise moderately. I eat when I want and do not count calories. I am no longer afraid of fats or oils, because my body tells me I need it.
The little voice will never go away no matter how much I fight it. It still has the power to make me believe that I am not good enough. It has taken time and strength to fight this voice. I often try to encourage myself by asking, “What strengths, talents, and skills do you have that others don’t?” or “Life isn’t supposed to be perfect. We learn from mistakes and from each other.” I learned to accept that life itself is a roller coaster, with high and low moments, rainy and sunny days, exciting and mournful events. The most important thing is to appreciate each day and try to live it to the fullest. I taught myself to see things in brighter colours or shades of grey, rather than only in black and white.
I don’t know why it happened to me. It’s a question many victims with the anorexia diagnosis might ask themselves. My mother still feels guilty today, feeling it was partly her fault, when it wasn’t. My childhood was filled with love and care. Unhappiness simply stuck me in a web of depression, pushed me to the deep bottom, but now that it is in the past, I have to focus on the present.
I haven’t relapsed since it happened eight years ago, but I am aware that another depression in my life could possibly bring it back. I value having a close social support network because when you have people who care about you, they will be the first ones to notice a change in your behaviours and habits. They will notice the signs of a potential relapse. Every day should be a celebration, and we should encourage each other and the people around us. Support and love is what we need.
I am not going to define beauty, because I don’t know how to. I believe everyone is unique and beauty is a meaningless term. If you make it to perfection, that’s great, but I what I have learned is that life is not about being perfect.