My wedding to Derrick* was one of the happiest occasions of my life. More than 100 close friends and relatives were in attendance, and I was head over heels in love. Derrick and I had dated for 2½ years; he was the smartest, handsomest and most caring man I’d ever come across, and I was overjoyed to finally call him my husband. We've been married for two years.
I met Derrick at a work event. He works in the F&B industry, and he’d shown up at a party organised by my company. We clicked right away and hung out as friends for a few months before taking our relationship further.
While Derrick and I were close, there was one thing he did not – and still doesn’t – know about me: I have an eating disorder.
It’s hard to imagine how he could miss a problem as serious as that, but I keep it pretty well hidden. In fact, if you asked him now whether or not I ate at our wedding dinner, he would probably say ‘yes’, but the truth is that with the exception of a piece of our wedding cake, which he fed to me, I made it a point not to consume a single morsel of food that night. Actually, I doubt if anyone noticed that I skipped the buffet table, because they were all too busy talking, dancing and having fun.
A decade's long problem with food and weight
My struggle with an eating disorder began when I was 14 years old. Like most girls my age, I was conscious about my looks and equated being slim with being desirable to the opposite sex. I was a little on the chubby side, so I resorted to skipping meals whenever I could, or replacing some meals with milk. My parents didn’t know about my ‘tricks’ because they worked long hours and left me to sort out my own meals.
Within weeks, the extra kilos I was carrying disappeared, and soon, everyone was commenting on how good I looked. In an effort to stay that way, I continued my weight-loss ‘plan’ all the way through junior college. During this time I managed to maintain my leanness, but nobody, not even my parents, suspected that I had a problem, because I was physically active in school – I did a lot of sports. I was also at that age when you start to shed ‘puppy fat’ and experience a change in body shape. Most of my friends were weight-conscious as well, so whenever we hung out we would share meals, which made eating very little relatively easy.
I discovered laxatives in my first year at university. I was eating out and going to a lot of parties then, so I was consuming more calories than I was used to. I loved the feeling of lightness that the laxatives gave me, and by my third year, I was taking up to six laxatives a day, two or three days a week.
I also joined one of the university sports teams and began exercising more in the hope that it would keep me toned. By that stage, my battle no longer had anything to do with competing with my friends or attracting a guy’s attention, and everything to do with maintaining a sense of control over my body.
When I graduated from university, I weighed about 49kg, which was a few kilos underweight for my 1.67m-tall frame. Nevertheless, I looked fit and felt healthy. At the time, I didn’t think I had a problem – I was still menstruating, my studies hadn’t been affected, nobody raised any concerns, and never once did I feel light-headed or fatigued. To me, skipping or substituting meals, taking laxatives and exercising for hours at a stretch were all just a part of weight management.
Recovery followed by relapse
I was 24 when I started work as a communications officer. For the next five years, I ate more regularly than when I was in school. For instance, I would have milk and fruit for breakfast, a small sandwich for lunch, and a salad and a glass of milk or a small bowl of brown rice for dinner. I continued to work out religiously and stayed away from high-calorie foods. When I had to attend work events, I typically steered clear of catered food and alcohol, going instead for diet soft drinks and canapes. I also avoided pigging out when I was on holiday or socialising with friends. For example, I would fill up on plain salads so I wouldn’t be able to finish my next course, and almost always used the ‘I’m too full’ excuse whenever the desserts came around. People marvelled at my restraint, and I was secretly proud of myself, but at the same time, I disliked having to be at events where there was a lot of food.
At 29, I met Derrick, and for the first time in a long while, my way of life felt threatened and I began to feel like I’d lost control over myself.
Derrick is a huge foodie. Being in the F&B business, he probably wouldn’t be able to get away from food even if he wanted to. When I started going out with him, I made it a point to organise dates that didn’t involve much food, so we would go for long walks followed by coffee, or watch a late-night movie followed by a drink at a wine bar. But I could keep up this pretence for only so long.
Pretty soon, Derrick was taking me to expensive restaurants and cooking for me. That would make any woman swoon, but I dreaded such dates. Unfortunately, on these occasions, I couldn’t pretend that I was too full to eat, and I definitely couldn’t just pick at my food or take small bites every now and then to show that I was indeed eating.
Unlike Derrick, I took no pleasure in food. But being his girlfriend meant accompanying him to many business and social events. Out of respect for the host, I had to eat whatever was offered to me, and some days, we would even have to eat lunch or dinner more than once. I’d never been surrounded by so much food before.
Naturally, I had trouble dealing with this. Avoiding food became the most important thing in my life. It overwhelmed me. Every event I had to attend with Derrick – and these were two to three times a week – would trigger a panic attack. Although I was careful and didn’t put on weight, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the calories I was consuming, and I was constantly worrying about how I would stop myself from going overboard.
As Derrick was image-conscious and liked his women slim, I felt pressured to look good next to him. He’d dated a couple of beauty queen-lookalikes in the past and all his ex-girlfriends had near-perfect bodies. It didn’t help that the parties we went to were always full of skinny, gorgeous socialites and party girls, many of whom were good friends with my husband. Even though I wasn’t overweight, I always felt like a whale standing next to most of them. It was so unsettling, and I constantly felt that these women were scrutinising my body.
Before we got married, Derrick also occasionally joked that he would leave me if I ever got fat. I don’t know if he actually would, but just hearing that comment made me fearful. Racked with anxiety, I handled the crisis the best way I knew how – by starving myself on days when I didn’t have events to go to, and by taking laxatives and exercising more on days when I knew I would have to eat. Currently, I run on the treadmill for 45 minutes every day, and on top of that, attend hour-long group workouts like zumba and spinning five days a week. But if I’ve eaten a lot, I’ll do an extra half-hour on the treadmill the next day.
A secret that can't be shared
Obviously, Derrick has no clue that I take laxatives – three or four at a time, and at least twice a week. If I take too long in the toilet, he just assumes that I have a tummy ache. I remember a couple of times when I had no laxatives on hand after a big meal, and I forced myself to vomit. Purging is not my usual method of coping and I felt sick afterwards, but at the time, I felt as if I didn’t have a choice.
It’s not difficult to hide my secret. Because Derrick is always so busy – he works late and travels often – we rarely eat at home together. If he has time over the weekend to cook up a meal, I force myself to eat whatever he puts in front of me, and later feel super guilty for clearing my plate.
It’s the same thing when we eat out – we’ll order food to share, and most of the time, I try to finish my portion. If I’m on my own, I don’t eat much – maybe a plain salad and a small bread roll or some soup, just enough to keep me from feeling light-headed. I guess I’ve become so good at hiding the issue and covering up my anxiety that even the person closest to me can’t tell that something’s wrong.
I know I have a problem, yet I can’t bring myself to open up to Derrick because I don’t think he would understand; he’d probably think I was crazy for obsessing about my weight and appearance. I’m also worried that he won’t be supportive, that he’ll play down the seriousness of the matter, or worse, tell me that he doesn’t want to know about it. Of course, it’s all just speculation because I really don’t know how he’ll react.
Only a couple of close girlfriends know that I take laxatives and skip meals because I confided in them once, when the pressure to look a certain way got too much. They thought my approach to staying slim was a bit extreme and even called me ‘silly’ and ‘crazy’. They also urged me to get medical help.
My family members don’t know. I only see my parents two or three times a month, and there’s always food involved but, just like when I catch up with my friends, I don’t eat much when I’m with them.
I’m not sure how much longer I can keep up the facade. Thinking about what I can and can’t eat when I’m out with Derrick, planning my life around his events, coming up with new excuses for refusing food, feeling guilty about hiding all this from him and my loved ones… it’s exhausting. I can’t keep taking laxatives forever, and I’m sick of feeling hungry all the time and punishing myself with exercise. I need help, but that would mean seeing a specialist and getting to the root of why I have all these issues with food. It just seems like too much work. I’ve also considered seeing a dietitian for advice, but that would mean drastically changing my eating patterns. I’m not sure I’m ready to handle that. At some point, when Derrick and I decide to have a baby, I will have to start eating normally again. That terrifies me. Right now I weigh 53kg, which is about three to four kilos underweight, but it’s been so long since I had a normal relationship with food that I can’t even remember what it feels like. I cry whenever I think about having to put on weight just so that I can fall pregnant and carry a pregnancy to term. Then I worry about how my body will change after giving birth.
I need help, but that would mean seeing a specialist and getting to the root of why I have all these issues with food. It just seems like too much work. I’ve also considered seeing a dietitian for advice, but that would mean drastically changing my eating patterns. I’m not sure I’m ready to handle that.
At some point, when Derrick and I decide to have a baby, I will have to start eating normally again. That terrifies me. Right now I weigh 53kg, which is about three to four kilos underweight, but it’s been so long since I had a normal relationship with food that I can’t even remember what it feels like. I cry whenever I think about having to put on weight just so that I can fall pregnant and carry a pregnancy to term. Then I worry about how my body will change after giving birth.
I wish I had the courage to come right out and tell Derrick everything. But I feel that by opening up to him, I would only be burdening him, and this is my burden to bear, not his. I long for the day when I can finally be free, because at the moment, every day feels like such a huge struggle.
If you're suffering from an eating disorder, you're not alone
In Singapore, more young people are being diagnosed with eating disorders. In 2016, The Straits Times reported that the Singapore General Hospital Eating Disorders Programme saw 170 new patients in 2015 – some 42 per cent more than the 120 new patients in 2010. Most were under 21 years old. At the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, the number of children and teenagers with an eating disorder has increased by an average of 10 per cent a year since 2008. Doctors in private practice report a similar trend.
The numbers are alarming, but this could be the tip of the iceberg – many family members might not even realise that their loved ones are suffering from an eating disorder, says Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness at Gleneagles Medical Centre. “People with eating disorders tend to hide what they’re doing and going through because they’re aware that their behaviour is abnormal. They’re also afraid of being met with disapproval from family and friends should their secret come out. But they’re obsessed with losing weight, and this obsession drives them to maintain their secrecy.”
What’s more disconcerting is that many of these sufferers might not believe they’re ill and need help. “In fact, many feel justified about keeping up their unhealthy habits to lose weight. Even if they’re offered help, they may refuse to accept it, and they may also act aggressively when confronted and made to change their ways,” says Dr Lim.
Dr Lim adds that women should try not to judge themselves based on their weight or succumb to society’s ideal of a ‘perfect body’. “Instead, look at achieving a healthy and balanced body and mind, and developing a healthy attitude towards eating and exercising,” he says.
*Names have been changed.
This article was first published in the January 2018 issue of Her World magazine.