How can I be so stupid? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I control my eating? These are questions I continually asked myself for two years while trying to get healthy and fit. This was not easy for me, as I’d always been a perfectionist and believed minor imperfections would lead to catastrophe.
Then in March 2020, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic when I was an international freshman at college. The rise of online learning and social distancing required more self-regulation and intrinsic motivation, so I sought strategies for staying inspired.
COVID Goals Gone Bad
I set goals to be the best version of myself; to get in the best shape of my life physically and mentally. I also bought into the idea that I had to be a certain body type to be valued, and that my worth was related to my appearance. To that end, I gathered vast amounts of information about “healthy” meal ideas and habits from YouTube and Instagram. I believed “clean eating” would keep me motivated and make me happy.
And the plan worked… for a while. I went from being a normal weight, to reaching my goal weight, to being underweight. While I was proud of myself and loved the compliments people gave me, my relationship with food had become totally unhealthy. I no longer considered food as necessary fuel, but the thing that would make me gain weight. Being thin became an obsession that brought more restrictive dieting, and eventually an eating disorder called bulimia nervosa.
About one million Canadians have a diagnosis of an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, avoidance restrictive food intake disorder, and specified feeding and eating disorder. According to Canada’s National Initiative for Eating Disorders, from 12-30 percent of girls and 9-25 percent of boys aged 10-14 report dieting to lose weight. Although bulimia primarily affects adolescents and young adults, it occurs in children as young as six as well as seniors.
Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by a cycle of binge eating, and compensatory behaviours to counteract the caloric outcomes of eating large amounts of food. The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that bulimia affects from 1-4 percent of women in this country.
There are two types of bulimia: purging and non-purging. Purging behaviours include forced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, and/or enemas. These can result in serious long-term physical effects such as tooth decay, digestive issues, cardiomyopathy, and coronary heart disease. Those affected can also experience co-occurring mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and/or substance use.
My Story of Bulimia
I experienced what’s called non-purging bulimia, which is characterized by patterns of binge eating followed by behaviours such as fasting and skipping meals, exercising excessively, and/or ingesting digestive aids.
I remember setting two alarms for two meals in a day, working out every single day, being afraid of eating after 5:00 pm, obsessing with food labels, avoiding eating out, and using a small plate and spoon to decrease bite size. Furthermore, I divided food into healthy and unhealthy groups that were good and bad for me. I avoided fruits high in sugar and panicked at the thought of using oil to fry eggs. However, I was still craving to look like a model because there were always smaller and prettier people in the world. Even though I was underweight, I sometimes stayed home feeling I wasn’t skinny or pretty enough to go out.
With my low carbohydrate intake, I felt fatigued and cold all the time. I also developed red spots (also called keto rashes) across the back and neck. I reintroduced carbohydrates gradually to reduce the rash, but I couldn’t control myself. I binged on whatever I could find in my refrigerator and food drawer. These binges grew worse as my eating habits fluctuated along with my ability to remember what I’d eaten.
I continued eating large amounts of food when I wasn’t hungry and until feeling uncomfortably full. Then I started eating alone in my room because I was ashamed about how much I was eating. After binging, I felt guilty and hated myself. I thought I was worthless, and that life wasn’t worth living. As punishment, I exercised compulsively, continued to restrict food intake, and took prebiotics or digestive medicine.
From Obsession to Restoration
About a year later, I grew tired of obsessing about food and my body size and asked myself what I really wanted from life. I explored various treatments for bulimia, including Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and family-based therapy. I also learned that many people with bulimia struggle with co-occurring mental health disorders, which might perpetuate bulimic behaviours. In these cases, psychiatric medication may help to stabilize moods and reduce destructive behaviours.
While I didn’t seek professional help, I got timely support from a friend who’d also suffered from eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia. Once when I said, “I ate too much today,” she shared her story of having a hard time controlling hunger and purging.
I began journaling and understanding which emotions triggered my binging. This also helped me recognize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and this increased my self-awareness. I watched eating-disorder recovery stories on YouTube, which helped me see that eating disorders have many causes. I finally understood that eating disorders can happen to anyone, even my friends. From then on I decided to refocus and challenged myself to take on new tasks.
I also realized that I could decide for myself what is good or bad; worthy or unworthy. From that day forward, I stopped comparing myself to our youth-focused culture’s picture of perfection. I began to understand hormones, PMS (premenstrual syndrome), and a wide variety of signs and symptoms of the hormone cycle to take care of and to listen to my body. I started to celebrate the strides I was making toward healing.
Everything feels different now, instead of worrying about calories and food, I can love more, live more, and do more. I know how to love and manage myself and my emotions. There is no food restriction in my life anymore, and my routine helps me live life to the fullest.
Of course, it was not easy recovering from an eating disorder; I’d struggled much and spent years hating myself and my body. Learning to recognize my mental and physical hunger was the most important part. However, now I know proper nutrition, rest, and exercise give me so much energy, freedom, and motivation. Now I appreciate everything that has been given to me, including my family, friends, the place I live, and my personality.
I was afraid to share my story because eating disorder recovery was the biggest and hardest thing I’ve ever done. But recovery has taught me three important life lessons. First, everyone is on a different path, which means I have to run my own race at my own pace. Second, I must embrace my flaws and failures to make my dreams come true. And third, no one in this world is perfect… I’m not perfect… and I’m okay with that!
Eating Disorder Support Links
- Eating Disorder Hope
- The National Initiative for Eating Disorder
- Looking Glass
- Eating Disorder Recovery Tips & Self Help
- Eating Disorder Support Groups
- Online Eating Disorder Treatment Programs
- The Eating Recovery Centre
- The National Eating Disorders Collaborations
Yejin Kang is working toward a bachelor’s degree in criminology. She is also interested in early childhood development, trauma, mental illness, and the relationship between mental illness, criminality, and the criminal justice system. She volunteers three hours a week as a community service worker and job shadows lawyers and court proceedings, especially criminal cases.