Even way back when I was in primary school, I always felt I looked different.
When I compared myself to other girls, I thought I was less slender –
I wasn’t as tall and I didn’t have thin arms, even though I’ve always been naturally slim and was one of the lightest in class. After I discovered brochures extolling the virtues of cutting down on fat, sugar and salt, I started telling myself that I didn’t like unhealthy foods. I didn’t start my rigid diet at that time, but who knew that watching what I ate would eventually spiral into anorexia?
My Unhealthy Obsession
At 20, when I was in university, I still maintained a normal diet; I was eating white rice without any qualms, until a male acquaintance commented that I had gained weight. I knew I was thin (I was 1.57m tall and weighed 43kg). Yet somehow, I allowed the comment to get to me and complained to a girlfriend, who suggested I eat less carbohydrates.
I tried it and was surprised that I could get through the day eating less than usual. The first time I experimented with reducing the amount of food I had for lunch, I realised I could survive on a pau instead of a full meal. That’s when I thought: ‘Since I can still function on less food, why not continue?’ I reasoned: Not only would I be cutting calories, I would be saving money, too.
Gradually, I grew obsessive over what I ate. I excluded all forms of fat from my food by refraining from buttering my bread or putting gravy on my rice. I refused to eat ‘forbidden’ foods like cake, unless food reviews convinced me they were worth the calories, and even then,
I would eat them for breakfast so I’d have the rest of the day to burn the calories off. I would also eat alone so that no one would see me squeezing a curry puff with a serviette until most of the oil was gone, or dipping food in soup to rinse off any sauce.
I religiously exercised three times a week, waking up at dawn to jog for up to 45 minutes, even if I was feeling achy. I didn’t allow myself to work out less than the time I stipulated and would feel uneasy if I didn’t obey my rules. I rarely went out and would pass my time by mainly exercising.
A year later, my weight had dropped to an all-time low of 36kg.
My face looked sunken and my ribs were visible whenever I hunched forward; my hair was also thinner.
Yet, when I looked at myself in the mirror, I didn’t think I looked any different.
Even when my periods stopped completely, I never thought it was an issue. After all, I thought, which woman wouldn’t be happy without periods? I know it sounds strange, but it’s true. I even thought I was saving money by not buying sanitary products.
Occasionally, my parents, relatives and even schoolmates would comment that I was losing weight but I brushed them off, telling them that I had always been small-sized. At mealtimes, when my parents pointed out that I was only eating half the amount of rice that they were having, I would say that I wanted to eat more of the meat and vegetable dishes as proteins were more nutritious than carbohydrates. They would just let me be, as long as I was eating enough of the other dishes. Others saw me as someone who was disciplined with her diet and exercise – they seemed to look to my behaviour as a positive thing to be admired, and perhaps that reinforced my actions.
Eventually, my new lifestyle and the isolation associated with it affected my grades. I was expecting straight As one semester and even thought I had a chance of getting onto the Dean’s List. But in the end, I only got two As – the rest were Bs.
Because I didn’t actually feel ill, I can only guess that it was my entrenchment in my anorexic behaviour that was affecting my studies. Ironically, I actually felt like I was at the peak of my health, thanks to my exercise regime, and had no problems with my energy levels or my ability to concentrate. I guess I was distracted by calculating calories and seeing to my exercise schedule. Besides, other than my appearance, I didn’t have any other symptoms of ill health.
The Turning Point
One day at school, I felt weak and suddenly collapsed. My hostel mate took me to the hospital emergency room where they ran a few tests and found that I was anaemic. A
bone density scan later showed that I had osteopenia, a form of bone loss that can develop into osteoporosis. The emergency doctor asked if I had been dieting and I confessed outright – yes, I had.
After that admission, my parents suspected that I was anorexic and made me see another doctor to rule out any other bodily cause. I was referred to the college psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with anorexia at the first session.
My parents didn’t scold me, or get overly emotional. Over the six years it took for me to recover, they were very supportive. They never judged me or complained about the cost of my treatments. And I am really grateful for their support.
I don’t remember how much my medical bills were, but I remember doing the sums once and being shocked by the amount. I then thought: “So much for saving on food and sanitary products!”
I was very selective about which friends I confided in, but the ones I opened up to were caring and didn’t judge me. It felt good to share my inner burden and more importantly, it felt even better to see that I had friends who cared and were patient enough to listen to me.
The college psychiatrist put me on anti-depressants for mild depression. She also referred me to a hospital to see a psychiatrist who specialised in eating disorders. At the hospital, I was also scheduled for sessions with a psychologist and a medical social worker. All these hour-long sessions gave me a chance to talk and have a listening ear.
About two years after graduation, I bumped into Michael*, an acquaintance from university. He was working as a humanities lecturer. I wasn’t attracted to him at first and saw him only as a good friend. But he put me at ease and I could be myself with him; he wasn’t materialistic, chauvinistic or egotistic like other guys.
After a year, Michael asked me to be his girlfriend. We were both in our late 20s and because of our shared faith, took relationships seriously as a journey towards marriage. I decided to come clean about my anorexia because I knew it had possible future implications on my fertility if we were to marry.
Michael took the news calmly – another of his positive traits – and asked for more information about my condition so he could understand it better. Eventually, he said he still wanted me to be his girlfriend. He saw my anorexia as just one part of my life story, and that it wasn’t the only thing that defined me. He also believed that love was a choice that didn’t depend on how ‘worthy’ or ‘lovable’ a person was. He found me lively and engaging – a good complement to his personality.
He also told me: ‘No one can predict the future, so we need to be bold and take risks in life. And some risks are worth taking’. His words touched me, and boosted my self worth.
I never thought someone would love me, much less want to marry me, because I believed I was such an imperfect human being.
After Michael came along, there was no room for my exercise and dieting obsessions. We spent a lot of time with each other, going for walks and exploring new places.
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At meal times over the course of the year, Michael would always gently encourage me to eat more.
He would give me meat from his own plate, saying that I needed it more than he did. I was compliant most of the time because I knew what he was telling me to do was the right thing and that he sincerely cared. It helped that he not only understood my troubles with food, he was also patient in helping me.
Michael’s family also loves to eat; his mum is a great cook and there would be plenty of food whenever I met them. Occasionally, we also went to nice restaurants. This gave me many opportunities to get used to eating normally again.
I slowly started to enjoy the variety of food and the socialising as we all ate together. Perhaps subconsciously, his family was trying to help me, too, because Michael and I had told them about my anorexia shortly after we got attached. They were very supportive and accepting.
On top of all that, Michael regularly affirmed that I looked beautiful – and he still does. Six months after we started dating, I stopped going for counseling – I was eating three full meals a day and sometimes, I would even indulge in snacks and sweets! I put on about 3kg and I didn’t feel depressed. Because of my improvement, my doctors told me I didn’t need to see them anymore.
A year into our courtship, Michael asked me to marry him.
Naturally I said yes! I couldn’t fathom any other man loving me as unconditionally and showing me as much patience as he did. I could also see that my family felt assured that I had found a loving man who would take care of me.
My New Life
Leaving anorexia behind is like waking up from a dream – one that lasted six years. Today, I’ve thrown out all the rigid rules on the amount and intensity of exercise I have to do. I still eat healthily but I’m much less fussy. In the past, I would eat dessert only if I knew I could work it off – but now, if I feel like having something sweet, I’ll go ahead and order it even if I’ve had a substantial meal like pasta. I hardly exercise these days because of my hectic work schedule.
Michael and I have been married for two years, and in my eyes, he is still as wonderful now as when we first met. We don’t think about the possibilities of a relapse because we take one day at a time and Michael says that we have better things to do than worry about the future.
If there’s ever any time that my past with anorexia haunts us, it’s when I harp on the fact that Michael, like most men, doesn’t watch what he eats. I find myself commenting on food items being too oily or salty, and when we’re eating out, I remind him to ask for healthier options or order something else.
He is generally very tolerant, but he does get annoyed when I am too overbearing – I know I frustrate him because he feels he can’t match my exacting demands sometimes, but we’re still working it out. I am trying to be more mindful of my overzealous ways, and he is trying to make better food choices. When possible, we plan our indulgences in advance, such as having less for breakfast over the weekend so that we can treat ourselves to something like chicken rice for lunch.
Most people would never guess I ever had anorexia. I now weigh 50kg, which is in the healthy range for my height. Those who know my secret have told me that I now look more revitalised and radiant.
But some health problems remain. Recent bone density scans show my osteopenia hasn’t improved, even though I regularly drink high-calcium milk.
My periods are still irregular so it may affect my chances of having children. Thankfully, Michael has never put any pressure on me and my gynaecologist, who knows about my anorexia, has prescribed supplements to improve my fertility. I’m keeping positive and I hope to be a mother one day.”