Starving to Survive
I’ve always been small, underweight, lanky, whatever adjective you’d use to describe. It was never a desire of mine to be thinner nor was it a desire of mine to be any more than I was, nor was it truly possible for my frame and biology. I was indifferent. Some would remark that I looked malnourished, anorexic, that my mother wasn’t feeding me enough – I even recall my dance teacher telling me I could use a burger every time I walked into class. On the other hand, I was told that I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones, the ones who didn’t need to care about my physique. I was and would always be thin, the thin that models would aspire to, the dainty bones, the pointy shoulders, the fast metabolism. I could eat multiple dinners in a sitting without the consequences and I didn’t understand what it meant to feel full.
As I was just about to turn 17, my life altered significantly. Although trauma has fragmented my memories and the chronology of events is blurry, what I do know is that my body shut down and my brain couldn’t keep up. I became very unwell out of nowhere, a mystery that still baffles me and specialists to this day. Regardless of whether it was the emotional that fed the physical or the other way around, is now irrelevant. But all I know is that I was once an active, hyper, funny, fearless kid whose world suddenly shattered due to something I’ll never fully comprehend. One day I woke up and I couldn’t move, couldn’t eat, couldn’t leave the house without wanting to throw up; I was chronically exhausted and suddenly I was allergic to everything. And although I was already small, my body began to wilt into skin and bones.
During the same year the target of bullying, loss of a loved one, family illness and a sexual identity crisis which wasn’t well received were all my firsts too. Whilst these would be classified as small traumas to some, my physical health wasn’t sufficiently equipped to handle the circumstances that were presented to me at the time. I was too sick to unpack the emotional and consequently, those ‘little’ traumas accumulated; suddenly I couldn’t trust anyone or anything. My self-concept deteriorated and my beliefs saw life as harmful. It took about two years for my health to slowly but surely recoup, but unfortunately, my brain didn’t want to catch up. And here the cycle perpetuates. I was so scared of my body breaking down again and that in order to feel safe I needed to find ways to regain control over my life. So many things were making me sick that I began a process of elimination. I found what agreed with me and what didn’t. I discovered what did and didn’t exacerbate my anxiety. I labelled places, food and people as safe and unsafe. Restriction became my coping mechanism. I was finally diagnosed with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. And this is what would ultimately save me but also be the thing to most likely kill me.
On a subconscious level, I was unintentionally harming myself. The more I restricted and the more I starved, the safer I felt. I was so hungry that I didn’t have the energy to think or allow my brain to spiral. I was so tired that all I could do was sleep and I had so much adrenaline from lack of sleep that I was attempting to overachieve at all ends with great consequences. My body was wasting. I went to specialist after specialist and after no cause could be identified for my presenting symptomology, each one would tell me it was because I wasn’t eating enough. I would argue back that I couldn’t eat because I felt so sick and the food was the thing making me sick. I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t know anymore what it meant to be hungry. I wholeheartedly believed this to be true. Since I was already at such a small weight, I lost capacity to see how small I was actually becoming. I was shrinking in order to survive and the starvation deceived my brain to think that how I appeared on the outside, was in fact, normal. And eating more became the scariest thing, every meal, a heart palpitation, a nauseated nightmare. Although it doesn’t make sense, every time I ate, every thought I tried to suppress would ultimately begin to surface and my body would somatically respond. I shrunk my appetite, my stomach, and basically my will to live. After fainting at the start of 2021, I entered my 30th birthday in bed, at a very low weight. I didn’t want the next decade of my life to be dictated by fear. My comfort blanket needed to be removed and I needed to face my demons in order to live the life I deserved. We all know it’s much easier to stay safe than face your demons. It was time to speak up, admit my truth and ask for help.
My eating disorder was a form of unintentional self-harm. Indeed, eating disorders do not have to be associated with weight loss, mine wasn’t. It wasn’t my intention, but it was my intention to starve myself in order to survive. At first, I thought I was protecting myself, but after a few years, I was self-aware enough to know that this wasn’t the case. Eating disorders are also not black and white and everyone’s story is unique. I associated food with pain. If I avoided, I’d be safe, but I failed to realise that I was slowly killing myself. I also began to recognise the devastating reality that how we treat our food is usually how we treat other aspects of our lives. I was living by control and fear and choosing the easy option, the option that kept me safe, the relationship that would facilitate my behaviours or the ones that didn’t love me enough. I was staying sick to stay safe.
My recovery started full throttle. Re-feeding started in March and luckily only lasted a month. Re-feeding is when the body begins to adapt to consistency and an intake of adequate fuel. The symptoms associated with re-feeding are severe and confronting. I cried with every meal, every new food, every kilo that didn’t come on the scale soon enough. Memories were resurfacing and anxiety was at an all-time high. Was there even a point to any of this when the anxiety was getting worse and not better? Of course. What I realised, was that life is too short to eradicate pleasure, avoid and restrict. Pain is inevitable, but nobody should inflict pain upon themselves due to unforeseen circumstances and events that initially caused the trauma in the first place. Everyone is deserving of a fulfilled life and I wasn’t ready to give mine up because I refused to eat breakfast. It is now almost July and I’m almost at my goal weight, considered to be healthy from a western perspective. That’s the physical gain. But it’s not really about that. What’s happened is that I’ve had to face my trauma head on. And that’s been the scariest part. And once you start healing, and your body begins to work again, that’s when you realise it never was and never will be about the food. Why would I blame nourishment for my pain? At some core level I didn’t believe I was worthy enough of such a fate. Today, my brain is finally getting the calories it requires in order to tackle my past head on. It’s hard but with the immense support I have around me which I will never take for granted, I know I will see the end of this. Will I ever be fully recovered? Yes, I believe so.
Yet, I still question, who am I without control? Or who am I without an Eating disorder? It has been so many years that I lost sight of who I was. I knew my hobbies and my safety nets, I knew how to read a room, but I didn’t know at the core level, who I was and what I truly loved about myself and the world at large. I still don’t exactly know, and I don’t think anyone truly knows themselves. But the most beautiful thing is the quest of self-discovery; the choice to be fearless in the face of my particular circumstances; the choice to love myself. Although the process continues to be unpredictable in all its fluctuations, ebbs and flows, the taste of freedom will always be greater than the imprisonment of control.