Reminder to self: Today marks one year since I stopped giving in to my anxiety-ridden bulimia
*Trigger warning: this article contains eating disorder content
2016 - Sydney, Australia
It started as an anxious feeling, bubbling away in the deepest pits of my stomach, sending my abdomen contracting with cramps like an accordion in a Saturday night swing band. It was the fifth time it had happened in a span of two weeks and by now, I was convinced something was absolutely wrong with my body. But the doctor didn’t seem to agree and neither did the tests.
“Your endoscopy is all clear, hormones all clear, blood test is fine…” Dr. Lai recited, as he flipped through my reports carefully.
I was both relieved and somehow, disappointed at the same time. A year since I’d moved to Sydney by myself at the ripe young age of 24, this whole adulting thing was getting more and more exhausting by the day.
“Maybe it’s related to my menstrual cycle?” I offered up, eager to find a label for what was causing this unbearable discomfort.
“It shouldn’t be. Your reports don’t indicate any such issue and from what you’ve told me, neither do any other symptoms…” He continued eyeing the reports, until eventually setting them down on the table in front of him.
“Hmm.” I mustered. I’d been throwing up my food after almost two out of three meals a day for the last two weeks and had lost nearly 2.5kg in the process. As someone who had battled to lose 2.5kg ever, I was masochistically excited about the weight loss, even as an unintended consequence of enduring this otherwise very painful daily drama.
“Rahat, do you think perhaps you might be experiencing a lot of anxiety?” Dr. Lai looked me dead in the eyes and for a moment, I was bewildered.
“Anxiety?” I repeated, almost unsure he’d actually said the word out loud.
“Yes. Anxiety. You know, anxiety often shows up in the way you’re describing. It can manifest physically through pains and aches in the body – even the kind of discomfort you’re going through now. Are you anxious?”
Hours later, I was still in shock at Dr. Lai’s question. What the hell was anxiety? Did he mean stress? I’d always handled stress the only way I’d been taught how: ignoring it and getting on with it anyway. I was a Type A-esque Management Consultant for Christ’s sake. We were born to feel overwhelmed. That’s how we knew we were succeeding. What was this whole anxiety thing and how was it suddenly appearing?
After endless reflection, I put Dr. Lai’s inquisitions aside and did what I knew how to: I ignored the pain and got on with it anyway. Each time I’d feel a crash of ‘anxiety’, the accordions would play again and so would my desires to throw up my food. Within a period of weeks, in addition to my regular exercise routine, erratic interstate travel schedule for work and lack of nutritional intake, I’d lost 7kg. And there began the first of my many cycles with anxiety-led bulimia.
2018 - Sydney, Australia
Fast forward two years and a major, heart-wrenching break-up later, I found myself leaning over the sink in my same Sydney apartment, praying for my lunch to come out. My aching throat was sore and hoarse from the continuous heaving. My eyes were bloodshot with determination and unwavering rage to expel the calories I knew would take me from worthless to worthwhile in a matter of moments, but more so, relieve the same pulsing stomach ache that was becoming impossible to deal with.
It wasn’t just a release of the physical food I’d consumed; it was a cathartic wave of redemption and stress-relief for the very value I held in my own eyes and to those around me. I had to get rid of this emotion and more so, I had to stay this thin. It was the thinnest I’d ever been – even though I was still nowhere near as thin as I ‘should’ve been’. It was the fittest I’d ever been – running nearly 6km a day as someone who could barely run 500m, because I’d been desperately trying to impress the guy I was dating (a lawyer and marathon runner). Yet somehow, I neglected to realize, I was also the saddest I’d ever been – still unhealed from the previous break-up and stuck in a decade-long battle of self-esteem that was still burgeoning with my body at the age of 26. But none of that mattered, because I was convinced by the endless compliments on my newfound shrinking physique that I was doing the best I could, to be the best I could be. So, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, until I felt the anxiety crawl up into my throat and let itself out, freeing me in the process.
2020 - Singapore, Singapore
Another two years to March 2020 and I was suddenly one amongst 7 billion people waiting out the most ‘unprecedented’ year of our lives in a global pandemic. Five weeks into one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns in Singapore, I’d been keeping myself afloat by diving headfirst into work I was so grateful to have. Additionally, I'd been performing virtual comedy shows, hosting a podcast with one of my best friends and writing about dating (or lack thereof) for Buro. Singapore. I felt in control of myself and positive in spirit, almost too proud of how much momentum I’d been gaining, given I was quarantining solo.
But as the weeks ticked on, it was only a matter of time before I felt the loneliness and isolation I’d been so good at suppressing, creeping back into my bones slowly. By this stage, I’d gone whole days in silence, sometimes at a stretch, woken in the middle of the night by bouts of anxiety and fear that were unexplained in reason, even to my own mind. As the days blurred to nights and back to days, I began to question my own existence, my purpose, my sanity and why I’d ever left home. My extroverted self felt pangs of longing for company and my mother’s words about why I should get married so I didn’t have to be alone, resounded in my ears every evening. I lay awake many a night, thinking about all the things I didn’t have or had failed to achieve. More than once, I cried through the roaring tropical thunderstorms and lightning banging against my window like an unwelcome intruder. I’d listen to the sounds in fright, until they fell away under the covers and I’d melt into sleep.
I began coping with the unknown the only way I’d ever done so: eating. Eating, then becoming anxious, then heaving. It was odd at first to fall back into old patterns as I’d pretty much stalled the habit for the last two years prior, even overcoming my consistently heightened state through quitting my insanely stressful job and embracing therapy and counselling. Moving to Singapore had also certainly helped. I wasn’t as anxious anymore as I was excited. Excited was good. When I’d moved to Sydney from Melbourne in 2015, I hadn’t been excited. I’d been scared and lost. Scared had meant nerves, nerves had meant anxiety and inevitably, anxiety meant throwing up. But now I was excited…until I wasn’t. Before I knew it, like clockwork, the hours would tick into the AMs of the early morning and I’d find myself in the kitchen, fridge open, heart aching, head spinning and ferociously hungry. I’d eat until I was full - emotionally. Then just as the dust would settle, so would the feelings of resentment and self-judgement, back into the familiar pits of my stomach, taking up space in my head until I could release them between my fingers and the sink.
Unaware of my sporadic ritual, my parents begged me to use my time in lockdown to get my health under control, afraid I was veering off the rails and gaining weight. That’s the irony about eating disorders, very few who suffer from them visibly appear to do so. In a condition like binge eating or anorexia, you can often use the body as an indicator of the person’s affiliation with the disorder, but how do you explain a battle with anxiety-led bulimia to someone when you seem to be at the heaviest you’ve been in years?
Though well-intentioned, their consistent pleading would land on me like a lead balloon, nestled between my existing self-hatred and desire to change and causing me to feel even more anxious than before. The cycle became more aggressive than ever. When the food was no longer numbing enough, I begun adding alcohol into the mix cautiously, taking turns between a couple of glasses of wine and whatever was in the kitchen until the worries and constant inner nagging turned to a mild, soft buzz in my head.
Then one day, on June 15 2020, I finally found myself in cripplingly physical pain, lying on the floor of my living room, clutching at my carpet with hot tears stinging down from my eyes. It wasn’t an accordion anymore; it was akin to a giant foot treading with a 20kg boot across my stomach. I wasn’t sure if I had to call an ambulance or call my parents. Either option seemed more painful than lying there, paralyzed.
As the thoughts ran through my head, for the first time in that moment, I realized I wasn’t feeling guilt or hatred or disgust or even anger. Instead, I found myself feeling frightened and alone and tired; feeling compassion and sadness wash over me, for me. I felt the end of a long, long cycle of pain and the setting in of an even longer overdue moment of kindness and recognition.
Recognition that I was more than just my body and even if I was bound by my feelings for it, this was not the way to experience and endure them. The longer I sat in these emotions of realization, the softer and gentler the pain seemed to pulse, until I finally managed to push myself off the ground. Once it dissipated into a dull ache, I sat down on the same carpet I’d been crying into moments earlier, still teary and wrote myself a note on my phone. And today, after an entire year, I was reminded of that very note and how far I’ve come.
2021 - Singapore
One thing they never really tell you when it comes to healing from such an eating disorder is how important it is to voice it to make you believe it’s even real and happening to you. Over the last year, I’ve been met with many a confused and shocked face when I’ve divulged my battles with anxiety and bulimia to my closest friends. Some of them have questioned how they could’ve missed it and taken guilt upon themselves for doing so, whilst others have simply lent a hand of comfort and warm, safe words of love. The truth is, no matter what their reaction, they couldn’t have seen it, because I honestly couldn’t even see it myself. It’s like having a dark, silent shadow follow you around and whilst you can feel its presence in every moment, you don’t dare turn around to see it in the light. But that’s the thing about shadows. It’s only when you face them, that you realize how easy it is to dissolve them, one small step at a time.
Over the past 12 months, with the immense support of a lot of amazing friends and family, I’ve sought mental health support for my anxiety and its many, many triggers. As an educated, high-performing individual, I never thought I’d have to re-learn my relationship with food. I’ve also finally begun to re-explore exercise because I enjoy it, am good at it and not because I’d like to rekindle some unobtainable weight loss goal. I’ve found joy in giving up alcohol for the most part, eating all the chocolate I want without guilt in moderation and I can now order in a pizza without chastising myself for doing so with every bite. And I’ve done it all whilst losing a large portion of the weight I thought I’d be beholden by for the rest of my life. Yes, there are days even still, where I feel the monstrosity of that anxiety scratching to come back in to my throat and the guilt washing over me. But now, I’m better at asking myself why I can’t just be enough in this moment and letting the feeling pass through, rather than assuming it defines me.
I know this month we’ve been celebrating all things compassion and if there’s one thing I’ve learned through this experience, is that much like charity, compassion starts with self. I hope for anyone reading this today, you realize you deserve the same kindness you show to others, to be showered upon yourself. And if you’re too afraid to give yourself permission to let go of the fear of doing so, I hope these words will give you the liberty and freedom you’re seeking, because you’re better off finding it here, than over that sink.