Eating Disorder Healing and Changing Our Narratives Around Them
by Ziba Redif
“Sometimes, I make myself sick.”
The first time I spoke about my eating disorder I was eighteen. I’d been shuttling between restricting, binging, and purging for over five years. My food intake had become an all-consuming obsession, and this was my first attempt to get help.
I felt so ashamed by my admission that I didn’t even bat an eyelid when the doctor simply noted my “healthy weight” and sent me away with a brief cautionary warning. My tumultuous relationship with food continued for over a decade, but the experience of being dismissed by the first person I confided in—a health professional—only validated the belief that my problems were self-inflicted. I never mentioned it again until much later.
Living a Double Life with an Eating Disorder
An eating disorder is savagely complex. The deeply ingrained perception of what it’s supposed to look like means it’s sometimes missed or misidentified by primary care doctors. Even survivors can struggle to recognise their illness. As a research assistant within an eating disorders service a few years ago, I helped conduct research geared towards demystifying the illness, but for a long time, my own experience had been coated in secrecy, and my understanding was driven by cliché narratives embedded in society.
At different stages, I met criteria for bulimia, atypical anorexia and various diagnostic categories across the spectrum, but most of my disordered behaviours took place behind closed doors, literally. I’d lock myself in bathrooms to silently purge. I’d stealthily retreat into my bedroom to binge, sneaking food in bags, napkins, and pockets. I achieved good grades, worked full-time jobs, and had an active social life, but underneath a façade of optimism and self-sufficiency, I privately battled a life-threatening illness that no one, not even my close friends and family, suspected.
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Finding Relief and Control Through Restricting
From a young age, I struggled from depression and turned to food for emotional relief. I’d unthinkingly scoff down five or six chocolate bars at once to make me feel better or aid concentration while studying for exams. Recurring binges were followed by a desperate scramble to lose weight, usually by fasting or running on the treadmill for hours. Food became a source of familiarity and comfort, while restricting provided a false sense of autonomy and power that often felt out of reach.
The myth that eating disorders stem from an infatuation with thinness is perpetuated by the media’s one-dimensional representation of a prototypical sufferer: young, female, emaciated, and on a quest to lose weight at any cost. While partly precipitated by thin-ideal internalisation, my problems evolved out of something more than a desire to be skinny. From as early as I can remember, I had existential discomforts that couldn’t be resolved, questions that couldn’t be answered: Who am I? Why am I here? What does it all mean? The world sometimes felt like a confusing, unsettling place, and I somehow harboured the illusion that by controlling my physical self, I could “control” the things that happened around me.
The Unrelenting Cycle of Restrict, Binge, and Compensate
At around age fourteen, I gave up on counting calories to lose weight and resorted to cutting things out. At first, I only ate “clean” foods. Then I stopped putting butter on my bread. Soon after, I eliminated bread all together. I began to miss breakfast, sometimes lunch, until eventually I was down to one meal a day. “Dieting” surreptitiously escalated into starvation, and it wasn’t long before I was clawing through each day on a biscuit and coffee.
My thinking grew more and more distorted, leading me down a rabbit hole of obsession and compulsion. I used crazy tricks to curb my appetite. I scribbled down absurd calculations into notebooks about how many calories I could lose in a week.
Trying to subsist on minimal food eventually sent my brain into survival mode. Weeks of severe restriction erupted into an uncontrolled binge. I raided the fridge and cupboards, devouring anything that made my dopamine levels spike: cakes, biscuits, crisps, ice cream. I often consumed several days’ worth of calories in one sitting.
The next morning, panic would set in. What had I done? Who was this person? I felt like a failure as I ruminated on the idea that so many months of restriction had come undone in a mere moment of “weakness”. My mission for the next few months would be to reverse the damage using all sorts of compensatory tactics: fasting, excessively exercising, abusing laxatives.
After every binge, I sat alone, staring at empty packets and containers, wondering how I’d lost control. The sensation of fullness was so punishing that one day I rammed my fingers down my throat and made myself sick. I felt disgusted. I hated the acidic taste in my mouth, but it became something I did sporadically to “get back control”, promising myself each time that it was the last. The unrelenting cycle of restrict-binge-compensate continued throughout most of my twenties, punctuated by bouts of “healthy eating.”
I Never Felt Sick Enough to Get Help
Despite the physical and emotional toll of my illness, I never believed that I was sick enough. Anorexia was the only eating disorder I grew up learning about, and unlike the “heroin-chic” imagery that was associated with it in the media, I wasn’t dangerously skinny. Instead, my weight continued to fluctuate. My symptoms shifted over time, which meant that my eating disorder never felt “real”. I kept finding ways to defend my behaviours, since many of them could be misrepresented as “healthy” eating choices, like having small portion sizes, only eating raw foods, and going on “juice fasts.”
I heard about the twelve-step programme called Overeaters Anonymous (OA) through a friend who was in recovery for drug addiction. Despite its name, it’s open to anyone with a dysfunctional relationship with food, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. Although, I didn’t reveal what I was going through, hearing about this was an instant flicker of hope. I’d tried to stop binging so many times before, using self-help books and therapies like acupuncture and counselling. But I couldn’t afford these in the long term, so, I relied on what I’d once considered to be my greatest asset—willpower—but my eating disorder always returned with a vengeance. I was running out of ideas.
Stepping into Recovery and Out of Silence
I resisted going to a support group meeting for a long time, as I wasn’t comfortable identifying as an “overeater” nor was I ready to admit that I had an eating disorder. But one day, out of a feeling of sheer desperation I attended a meeting at a nearby community centre. I found myself sitting next to people from various walks of life, listening to familiar, heart-wrenching stories. The encumbering weight of silence lifted. Discovering that I wasn’t alone and sharing my experiences was my first step towards healing.
I continued attending meetings intermittently for several months. I still believed that I could restrict “in moderation,” but my binges become more erratic and distressing. After a week of food-poisoning, instead of eating prudently, I spent an entire day binging, switching between sweet and salty, until my stomach felt like it might split open. I remember lying on the bed with my laptop propped up next to me, searching for “painless ways to kill myself,” while shovelling ice cream into my mouth.
Reaching my lowest point, where suicide felt like the only option, forced me to finally accept that I had a problem and needed support. It shattered the illusion of control. I’d been lugging around my illness for so long that it became a way of life, and I needed something dramatic to jolt me out of it, but I don’t believe that everyone has to hit “rock bottom” before they can get better. I’ve witnessed people commit to recovery early on without enduring the tremendous pain that I did. My healing journey has entailed letting go of many deeply entrenched assumptions about eating disorders and recovery.
Full Recovery is Possible, But it Can Look Different for Everyone
Although I don’t participate in the twelve-step programme anymore, I’ll always credit it for “saving me.” It allowed me to recognise that my eating disorder wasn’t a weakness or failure: it was a mental health problem that I could gradually overcome.
In the early phase of my recovery, I adhered to the notion that, while I can’t be cured of an eating disorder, I can learn to cope—a cornerstone of the twelve-step programme—but as my beliefs and behaviours shifted, I started to question whether it was honest or helpful to continue thinking of myself as a “sufferer”. After all, I wasn’t the same person I’d been in the throes of the disease.
After a while, I began consuming my “trigger foods” in moderation. Unlike the predictions made by other twelve-step recoverers, things never reverted to how dire they once were. My story doesn’t make for a cautionary tale of incessant relapse nor does it pave the path to a “happily ever-after” ending, where disordered thinking is a thing of the past. I consider recovery to be an ongoing process, but I struggle to fathom the energy I once dedicated to starving myself and the cruel regimes I used to put myself through.
I’ve learnt to avoid things that make me vulnerable to disordered thinking, including extreme restriction and rigidity around eating. I continue to challenge destructive beliefs, including the idea that controlling my food intake and weight is a balm for my pain and sadness.
There have been many steps in my journey, and no single panacea. Acknowledging that full recovery is possible has been empowering, yet, I’ve seen others keep their head above the water by never allowing themselves, even for a second, to forget how miserable life can be as an “addict.” I’ve learnt that recovery looks different for everyone just as the disease itself manifests in myriad forms.
Shining a Light on Diverse Experiences of Eating Disorders
I wasn’t able to access healthcare throughout my teens and twenties, because I never understood that I was struggling with an eating disorder. Instead, I blamed myself, which exacerbated the guilt and shame that fueled my illness. A few years ago, I helped deliver a body image intervention in schools, educating young people about eating disorders and body dissatisfaction. I attended a lecture in Tokyo the following year, where mental health professionals discussed implementation of a similar programme in universities across Japan. It fills me with hope to witness these important changes taking place.
When I recently revealed to a friend that I’d had an eating disorder throughout my twenties, he responded by asserting, “but you were never skinny.” He wasn’t trying to be hurtful, but his comment proved that while we’ve come a long way to understanding eating disorders, they remain enshrouded in myths and misconceptions for a lot of people. It’s important that we expand our collection of narratives by changing the way that we view, talk about and depict eating disorders. The more that we shine a light on diverse experiences that exist across different genders, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and body types, the more opportunity we have to reach a broader spectrum of survivors, gradually dismantling stigma. Identifying with the stories around me and seeing myself as part of the dialogue about eating disorders gave me the strength to step out of isolation, and in that space of honesty and acceptance, I finally began to heal.