The Year I Learned to Eat Again – My Years Struggling with Eating Disorders

I had my first diabetes scare before my tenth birthday.

One morning I found tiny ants – the kind that I always saw gathered around droplets of condensed milk – on one of my underwear I left in a laundry basket the night before after a shower.

I was scared. My mother’s prophesies of me losing my limbs to diabetes had come true. I was too young to be wheelchaired all my life, I thought.

When I told my mother about it, she was angry. Hadn’t she told me to stop overeating on the chocolates, coke, and biscuits? If only I had listened…

Her temper quickly cooled and turned into worry, however. The image of having to accompany her own barely teen daughter to kidney dialysis appointments had been one of her worst nightmares.

The very next morning, she took me to see a doctor and let her know that I thought I might be diabetic.

After drawing a bottle of blood from me, the doctor proceeded to check me ‘down there’.

“This isn’t going to hurt,” she told me. Pain was, however, in my nine-year-old mind, secondary to how embarrassed I felt. It was the first time I had been examined like that.

“Everything looks fine,” she told my mother, “let’s see what her blood tests show.”

We waited anxiously in the clinic’s hallway, with my mother, in typical mother form, incessantly mumbling to me about the choices I made that led us here.

If only you’d listen. Why can’t you just control yourself more?

I didn’t have any answers so I stayed quiet.

After what felt like a really long wait, we were called back in.

“Your daughter isn’t diabetic,” the doctor let my mother know just as we settled into our seats again.

Relief.

“But she will be if she continues eating like this. Her blood sugar level is close to that of a diabetic.”

She showed my mother a chart.

“This is the level of blood sugar in normal people.

This is where the diabetes blood sugar level.

This is your daughter’s. It’s a stage known as ‘pre-diabetes’ and is reversible.

If she continues on her diet now, she’ll be permanently diabetic.”

This should have scared me enough to take my health seriously.

It did, but not quite enough. I did the bare minimum – enough to not be diabetic right away, but not enough to stop gaining weight every year.

I still helped myself to a portion more generous than most children my age did and it showed: I gained eight kilograms in one year.

I was addicted to food, and it was slowly, but surely, killing me. But it was too hard to cut back – food made me feel good, secure and safe. It made me forget about the bullying at school and comforted me when my parents had violent fights at home.

So I continued eating and eating.

I couldn’t give it up, until I had to.

Losing my health to food addiction

I have a habit these days of watching documentaries about very obese people dying of eating too much, but can’t stop eating even when their health – their life – depended on it.

I can’t explain why, but I suspect it’s because it reminds me of how I once was.

I was in my second year of secondary school when I noticed that I was having troubling breathing. I couldn’t sleep at night no matter which side I turned. The only way I could sleep was if I sat up. Even then, I caught only a few hours of sleep.

My diet was also making me lose focus – it was getting tough to concentrate in class too.

Yet, I continued overeating and gained six kilograms in on year.

It wasn’t until I observed something really bad happening to me that I stopped to think if my food addiction was seriously jeopardizing my health.

A few months before my secondary three mid-term exams, I started to feel really weak and dizzy. At first, I brushed it off, thinking I was maybe tired. But the weakness and dizziness became chronic, and I found myself too weak even to climb a flight of stairs. It took me a solid half an hour to get from the ground floor of my school to the first floor.

I was getting so weak that I started missing a few days of school a week, spending the days away just lying down in bed.

I saw myself slowly wasting away, dying.

After around three months of just lying around most of the time, I decided to try something my parents had advised me to do for years but I’ve never done in my life: exercise consistently.

Why not? I thought. I literally had nothing to lose. What if I really I could get better?

On my first day, I had enough energy and strength for only six minutes of slow walking around my house. I cried and almost gave up.

But I pushed myself to get it done every single day.

Just five minutes, I told myself every time I felt beaten.

After a few weeks of picking up the daily walking habit, I started to feel more energized. I could even walk for thirty minutes now.

Two months later, I was strong enough to start jogging too. To complement my new exercise habit, I started looking into eating healthier also.

I finished the year stronger than ever, giving me enough confidence to join my school’s martial arts (karate) club the next year in secondary four.

If this is what exercise and eating healthy could do for me, I thought, I was committed to being in it for the long term.

It wasn’t obvious then, but the new healthy habits I thought I was building would soon turn into another kind of eating disorder.

Succumbing to starvation and unhealthy veganism

By the time I had picked up karate in secondary four, I had very much quit buying junk food. I had seen an episode of The Oprah Show where a guest mentioned that the first step to eating less junk food was to stop buying them.

Seems obvious enough today, but it was something that I had to learn after years of stocking up on junk food each time I went grocery shopping with my parents.

With less junk food in my diet, my weight began to stabilise, and I was even starting to lose weight and inches off my body. My clothes sizes started to getting smaller.

I kept pushing myself to eat healthier. I stopped eating bread, sugar and a lot of other things that were recommended for a healthy diet.

I didn’t realise it then but what I was doing was not only not improving my health, I was slowly slipping into a dangerously low calorie, starvation diet.

By the time I learned about veganism, it felt like the most logical diet for compassionate health-freaks: you get to keep animals safe and at the same time eat healthy.

With my shift to meat-free living, I continued losing even more weight and felt great. But these improvements did not continue – by my fifth year of being vegan, my weight loss had plateaued and I became frustrated.

No matter how little I ate and how much I exercised, my weight didn’t drop. So I did what felt most sensible to me at that time: I ate even less and worked out even more, hoping that one of these days, my weight would start dropping again.

Unbeknownst to me, I had developed unhealthy link between weight and health. I felt ‘healthy’ when my weight dropped, I ate less and exercised a lot.

This obsessions eventually spiralled into a paranoid fear of food. I saw food as the enemy.

My thoughts on health, weight, eating less and exercising led me to eat a 700 – 900 calorie a day diet, and exercising 14 hours a week.

If this sounds like suicide, it probably was.

I was constantly fatigued and my mind always felt foggy. I could only stay awake naturally for 6 – 8 hours a day.

I hadn’t noticed it then, but my new habits were also changing my body in dangerous ways I hadn’t expected: my stomach was beginning to accept less and less food.

By my final years of being vegan, I could only eat half a bowl of Kolo Mee.

Something else was also changing: my hair.

I had always had very thick hair, so when my hairdresser and family started telling me that my hair was thin, I didn’t believe them.

It was not until I saw an slightly aerial photo of myself where I saw the whites of my scalp exposed that I realised they were right. I was balding.

Orthorexia:

I came across this word for the very first time when one day in my early twenties, I asked myself if I was going through yet another eating disorder. Could being too focused on eating healthy be an eating disorder?

It seemed a bit far fetched, but I tried Googling it. That was when the term ‘orthorexia’ came up.

It described me perfectly. I was systematically avoiding food that I felt was ‘unhealthy’.

It dawned on me then that in my childhood, my addiction to food almost killed me and now, I was at the opposite end of the problem: my fear of food threatened to kill me.

I needed to change. I was desperate for change. But how do I start?

Accidentally learning to eat again

Luckily for me, I didn’t really have to pick a method.

In July 2013, I received a letter from the government informing me that I was to report for National Service in a month’s time. I was twenty four, six years pass the age most Malaysians joined National Service. But I had delayed my conscriptment by quoting A level education, and then, university education.

This time though, they were bent on getting me to camp finally.

“Work is not an acceptable reason to skip conscript,” the lady on the other side told me.

No matter what rationale I threw at them, they threw it right back at me. I gave up and packed my bags and entered camp on the 17th of August 2013 as one of the few older conscripts in camp.

One of the first things I asked was: do you have a vegetarian menu?

Nobody had an answer. So I tried to just avoid eating meat to keep up with my vegan diet.

Being in camp, however, offered me one benefit to my health I never got outside of it – with my phone confiscated, all kinds of entertainment cut off, six meals a day and an entire camp full of growing seventeen-year-olds, there was absolutely nothing to do there during our free hours except entertain ourselves with food.

I tried to stay ‘disciplined’ at first, but after a few weeks in camp, I succumbed and starting eating more and more.

By the time I left after three months, I noticed that I was feeling different. I felt stronger and more energetic. I was also starting to be able to eat more than my usual half bowl of kolo mee.

Living in camp for three months had accidentally become the catalyst I sorely needed to learn how to eat again.

I committed myself to gradually dial up my calorie intake from 800 to 1,500 and finally to 2,000 calories a day.

It was tough. I felt like throwing up a lot in my first few months.

I guess that’s something to be expected. Making a stomach expand to accept so much food again after so many years of deprivation was bound to give rise to resistance.

I forced myself to go through it anyway.

After 1 year, I could eat 2,000 calories a day without throwing up anymore. Two years later, my paranoid fear of food had disappeared. I could eat anything I wanted again.

And instead of feeling worse as I thought I would after eating ‘unhealthy’ food, I felt better and better.

I felt alive again.

Epilogue: Life is a journey and I’m still learning

Nowadays, I’m still learning to eat and live well. However, these days, I’m careful about labeling things as being healthy or unhealthy outright. Instead, I try eating things in moderation and not to binge eat.

I still exercise, but I take a break whenever I feel like I’m over-doing it, or starting to get addicted to it.

The biggest downside of this whole experience is that I’m noticeably ‘bigger’ than I used to be when I was in my peak low-calorie meals, high exercise days. So people naturally assume it’s because I’ve let go of myself.

I don’t really try to explain anymore and prefer to just live my life based on how I feel on a day to day basis.

One of the things I’m most grateful for is my hair. It’s grown back now thanks to a more nutritious diet. I’m also a lot more energetic now, usually sleeping only 6 – 7 hours a day. My mind feels a lot clearer too. I can push myself further mentally these days. Athletically, I’ve been able to build muscles and learn new moves more easily too.

Overall, I feel great!

Though I don’t wish any of my eating disorders on anyone, I’m still glad I went through them.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, eh?

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