I was just ten years old when I was sat at my grandma's kitchen table, eating breakfast, when she came over and poked my stomach with the handle of her wooden mixing spoon, and said, "Be careful of how much you're eating," followed by a motioning with her eyes toward my nightshirt-clad stomach. It was a Saturday morning, and all I could think as I turned my eyes from the television toward her was, for the first time, "Am I fat? Am I doing something wrong?"
At ten years old, I had just aced my states and capitals test, gone to my first concert with my mom and best friend, and had received my final fourth-grade report card. I spent my weekends at the beach or in the pool, played tennis, volleyball, and squash with my dad, and enjoyed running around outside with the three neighbor girls until the sun went down and the street lights came on. I was always the tallest in my class and had always felt slightly out of place with my gangly arms and long legs, yet I never let it stop me from having fun...but was I not as skinny as my friends were?
In fifth grade, my parents, who had always served as the epitome of happiness to both my young brother and me, divorced suddenly. My mom had to go back to work after being a stay-at-home mom for the past decade, we had to sell our house, which I had lived in since birth, and making ends meet became a next to impossible task. We could barely afford school supplies, new clothes, and often food. The only family my mom had ever had in America—my grandparents, aunts, and uncles—stopped talking to her for a while, and we began to have to look at the prospect of low-income housing options very seriously. This rapid and unfortunate turn of events sent both my brother and me into an unexpected, yet endless, spiral of darkness. He lost his hearing in his right ear from stress internalization, couldn't eat, and struggled in school, while I was being crushed by the weight of anxiety and depression that I still struggle with today.
As I hit puberty and began to grow more into a woman's body, I was active every day with after-school sports and was eating wholesome, home-cooked meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner to keep fueled. I saw my friends doing the same, but for some reason always felt "bigger" than they looked to me. At thirteen years old, I was 5'10" and only weighed 125lbs, but that seemed, in my mind, too heavy. I looked at pictures from only a year or two before and saw a flat stomach, endless legs, and delicate, childish features. Now, as I looked in the mirror, I tugged at the wider hips and thicker stomach and cursed my thighs for grazing each other even slightly. This new woman had replaced the little girl's body that I had taken for granted, and I knew I would not feel good again until I worked to rid myself of as much of her as possible.
I don't remember the exact moment I allowed the anxiety, negative self-talk, and poisonous sting of self-loathing to win, but it did, and from that moment on, instead of viewing food as the necessary nourishment that it is, it became the enemy, the one I had to say No! to and rid myself of in order to look and feel better about myself.
My merciless battle against bulimia nervosa began during the summer before my eighth-grade year. At each meal, I felt terrified of what was being served, yet was so ravenous that I would eat my portion, then usually go back for seconds (or thirds). With each bite, I felt my self-loathing grow (and, I thought, the waistband of my jeans tightening), and my need to purify my body of that which was making me hate it. Also known as the binge-and-purge disorder, bulimia gradually taught me to despise food, and the joy that cooking had once brought me. Pool parties became living nightmares, with most pictures from that summer (and the two following) showing me covering my stomach with my arms or a shirt, as hated how I felt and looked despite restricting myself from eating.
For years, I refused to go shopping for clothes so as to not have to face looking in the mirror at myself if something didn't fit. I wore clothing that was too large to hide my body and hated my choices if I wore something too form-fitting out in public. I became an expert at sucking in, researching shapewear and diet pills, and crying after every doctor's visit in which they would have to weigh me. As binging made me gain weight, my anxiety and misery only grew, and my purging began to manifest in other ways. Instead of always physically forcing food out of my system, I turned to excessive exercise as a means of relief. After two-and-a-half-hour volleyball practices, I would go home, change, and head straight to the gym for another hour.
I purged in secret for most of two years, until one day I had enough. Instead of purging dinner at a relative's house, the food itself had made me sick. This blessing in disguise made me realize how terrible I felt physically, and what a horrific mental state I was in. My saving grace came in the form of a plant-based diet that I had been reading had helped other ED sufferers, and over time made me actually enjoy the feeling of being nourished and like I was putting only pure fuel into my body, for the first time in a long time.
In the beginning, the temptation and overwhelming "need" to purge was there, nagging at me and begging me to give into it. There were undoubtedly times where giving into that voice seemed like the best, easiest option, but by reaching out to others on social media and online who had been through similar disorders, I was able to slowly work through it, proving that taking things one day—and one step—at a time is the only way to begin a long journey.
Over time, I became able to will my self-talk to be kinder, more understanding, and more loving, but this does not mean that there are not landmines scattered throughout my daily life that I continue to struggle to overcome. Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is walk over to the mirror and assess my body. Those few fleeting moments of sometimes self-doubt or negativity usually pass, yet I still find it difficult throughout the day to look at myself in the mirror when I change clothes or get out of the shower. Although I know it's bad for me, if I miss a meal because I'm too busy or forget, it doesn't bother me like I know it should. I often unintentionally think about how healthy a food may or may not be before I eat it, and if it will make me gain or lose weight—a silly concept, I know.
On my path, it's the daily reshaping of how I speak to myself, view myself, and think of others that have given me the strength to keep following this road to healing over the past six years, and that which will keep me going for the years to come, regardless of the challenges I continue to struggle with. It took me a long time to tell anyone close to me, and it's taken an even longer time to write these words out for the world to read, but I can stand proudly knowing that I beat bulimia nervosa, but that I also will have to work through the haunting after-effects of it for the rest of my life.
For me, I thankfully never had to experience the horrors of hospitalization and feeding tubes, but it's for those who do that eating disorders are so important to keep talking about. If you fear that someone you love has an eating disorder, speak up and lovingly help them want to seek help. If you yourself are currently knowingly struggling with one, reach out to those around you because there are people that love and care for you. And if you have started your healing journey, keep going, keep fighting, every day is a new day to love yourself more. Even though it will be harder than almost anything else you will do in your life, lovingly and powerfully reclaiming your body, mind, and soul is the best, most worthy fight you will ever begin—and finish.
In the United States alone it is estimated that over 30 million people are currently suffering from the effects of an eating disorder, with the various disorders maintaining the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. If you or a loved one are currently battling an eating disorder, or need support and encouragement on your road to recovery call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline at (800) 931-2237.