A young woman talks about her inability to cope with emotional distress, body image issues, and her resulting eating disorder
I realized I had a problem in 10th grade – though it started when I was moved to boarding school three years prior. Life before that seemed pretty great. I was the only child. I was plump but it didn't bother me; I was a top performer at school and that's all that mattered.
Everything changed when I moved into hostel. I wasn't comfortable; I felt alone and found it hard being away from home. The next three years were a struggle for me. Everything felt out of control and I found it really hard to cope with my emotional distress. My grades were beginning to suffer; this just added to the pressure I was putting on myself and the helplessness that I was feeling.
I entered the 10th grade, weighed down by my own angst and expectations. This was the year of the board exam. I was depressed, and I became irritable and started breaking stationery. All along, I was unaware of the extent to which I was pushing myself. Fortunately, my coordinator noticed these signs and stepped in. Over the next few months, I stayed home and attended school. Things improved gradually and I managed to do really well in the exam. It was the vacation after when my body image issues came to the forefront.
My time at the hostel had been difficult and now, sitting idle at home, I wanted to regain a sense of control. The inactivity had caused me to put on weight, and so my thoughts turned to my body. There were numerous factors that were out of my hands, but my body, my weight, my appearance – these were mine to control. I persisted with my parents to let me join a gym or go swimming, only to be refused each time with one obscure reason after another. They couldn't understand what I was going through; how could they?
In the meantime, I had been limiting my food intake. When I did eat, I started binging. My weakness for sweets and the distress of limiting my food would get to me. This made me feel extremely guilty – everything that I was working towards, I was undoing it in one session of binging. I was trying to get a sense of control by managing my body; but I would lose all control and binge, pushing myself back to square one. This went on, until one day the guilt became unbearable and I decided to purge – force myself to vomit. It felt great.
After a long time, I felt like I was holding the reins. I could eat whatever I pleased, and still rid myself of those calories. After that first time, I was okay for a while. However, the episodes of binging and purging soon became, what I believed, a new coping skill for me. I changed multiple schools, which was very unsettling, so I relied on my habit to comfort myself. I didn't know if it was healthy. I probably didn't care, at least for a while. I did have a sense of shame associated with what I was doing, but at the end of the day, the food gave me comfort, and the purging made me feel in control.
My parents were worried and didn't know what to do. They were both working professionals and had been largely unaware of my emotional turmoil. I tried to talk to them about what I was going through but it didn't work. I was aggressive and unable to effectively communicate what I was experiencing. They thought I was just being difficult. The shame prevented me from talking to friends – I was alone. I was also starting to get concerned about my problems and once I was granted access to the internet after my 12th grade, I started to look up my behavioral symptoms. When I read about bulimia (nervosa), I went straight to my mother – I knew I had found an answer. My parents, however, weren't having any of it. We argued about it every day for a while – I knew I needed help but I was too young to go out and get it myself; and my parents wouldn't take me seriously.
After numerous episodes of arguments and tears, they finally agreed to pay heed to my cries. They took me to a few physicians around town but they were not equipped to help me, or at least I believed so, and that prevented me from opening up to them. I wanted to be taken to NIMHANS in Bangalore. I had been there as a child, to visit a relative who was receiving treatment there, and was aware that treatment of mental health issues like mine, was world class at this hospital. That was when my treatment for bulimia began – a three-month stint where we uncovered that my eating disorder was the result of a variety of unresolved emotional issues.
My treatment involved some medication and a lot of therapy – both one-to-one sessions, and family therapy. This also gave my parents a chance to understand what I was going through and understand that I wasn't just acting on my own volition. Within a few days, I started to feel better and stopped purging. I was hopeful, but as I would realize in the time to come, this was the beginning of the battle.
The general perception people have is that if you're suffering from an eating problem, you go see a mental health professional, get some treatment, and everything returns to normal. This is far from the truth – recovery is a long process, a constant struggle, which requires a high level of commitment, especially if you have suffered for as long as I did before seeking professional help. Bulimia wasn't my problem – my problem lay in my inability to cope with difficult situations in my life – bulimia was merely a by-product. These were the things I learned through my therapy sessions. Until then, I didn't think boarding school had been a problem, I didn't think that the academic expectations of my parents and myself, were weighing down so much on me.
I learned that recovery is all about learning better coping mechanisms, and focusing on staying on track. It’s been four years since I first sought treatment and I've been visiting regularly since. I've learned to channel my energies into yoga and working out to keep myself in shape. I do have a relapse from time to time, but I've realized that it's important for me to focus on picking myself up when that happens. Each time I try harder to keep myself on track, I make a little more progress, but sometimes the distress is overwhelming and I slip. I think the most important lesson is that you need to get help as soon as you feel you have a problem. I am a lot better now, but I do occasionally wonder what may have happened if I had received help sooner...
As told to White Swan Foundation. Name has been withheld on request.