I never considered myself someone who suffered with an eating disorder. Even as I watched my increasingly-obvious symptoms develop over time, I shrugged and thought: “I haven’t been diagnosed, therefore it can’t be true.”
I shy away from labels primarily due to fear of misdiagnosis, especially regarding my mental health and sexuality. I fear that labelling myself in a certain way—especially if I later decide that label no longer applies—could wind up devaluing that label for people who need it more than I do. But for all the anxiety that self-diagnosis can provoke, it can also save your sanity—if not your life.
I recently stumbled across a video from fitness & lifestyle YouTuber Natacha Océane discussing her past relationship with food. In the video, she describes how her unhealthy eating habits gradually led her down the path toward a full-blown eating disorder—and how she ultimately overcame it to establish a much healthier relationship with diet and exercise. I watched the entire video, totally rapt: I’d never seen anything more relatable in terms of my own relationship with food. It was then that I realized I’ve been suffering with an eating disorder for many years. Now, in the aftermath of that discovery, I am finally coming to terms with its impact on my life and finding my way toward recovery.
A few years ago, I decided I wanted to lose some weight: I was not happy with my body and wanted to do something about it. I had little knowledge of how to do so in a healthy, controlled way, so I adopted a fairly obvious-seeming ethos: “eat less, run more.”
In a lot of ways, my self-imposed challenges and improvements were healthy and positive: I got active and took up running; I gave myself small targets to achieve each week, such as an extra half a kilometre or a shorter time. In many more ways, though, I was heading down a physically and mentally dangerous path. I forced myself to run at least 5km each and every day and severely limited my food intake, watching my calories on tracking apps that I had no idea how to use. I rapidly lost weight through over-exercising and punished myself for eating foods I liked, telling myself they were “bad” and “wrong”—that partaking in these foods showed weakness. I binged, I purged and I tried to cover my tracks from my family. I would look in the mirror and see something repellent; I truly hated looking at myself and frequently wept in my bedroom after catching a glimpse of my reflection.
It took a while to admit to myself that I was in a dangerous place—but once I did, things started looking up. Thanks to my Natacha Océane-inspired revelation, I started looking frankly at my behavior, and eventually I mustered up the courage to confide in friends and even seek out a counselor. Since then, my eating habits have drastically improved. I exercise and eat in a healthy and controlled way—enjoying my food, enjoying my time at the gym and doing my best to avoid the rhetoric of “cheat days” and “naughty foods”.
But it would be dishonest to claim that I never fall into old habits. I do still binge on occasion (and feelings of extreme guilt never fail to follow). I do still occasionally look in the mirror and see something abhorrent. But I know now that these things need not control me. And slowly but surely, I’m learning to love my body: I’ve posted topless images on my social media and happily spend time with my girlfriend naked, both of which would have been unthinkable before I began working on getting better.
My relationship with food is never going to be perfect, but I’m slowly learning to accept that. We are constantly spoon-fed toxic attitudes toward food, weight loss and the amorphous idea of “healthy eating”. But what I’ve come to realize is that “health” is a relative term. We often associate healthy eating with physical goals—like losing weight, gaining muscle or regulating our organs—but food can improve your mental health as well as physical. You know that little dance you do when you eat something delicious? That certainly sounds positive to me.
If you’re struggling with your relationship with food, please know that you’re not alone. Many people have and continue to struggle with eating, and you are in no way the odd one out. Good news: thanks to the National Eating Disorders Association, it’s easier than ever to ask for help. Here are a few different options: