Getting over fear, an eating disorder, and loving yourself
She was in a converted boathouse hostel with her friend Alex on a cove in Cancale, facing Mont St. Michel, just a pencil sketch in the distance. Breakfast was served in a wide cafeteria with expansive windows framing the sea, where the sunrise was a fiery orange. They had been talking about the kids in the next room, stomping on the wooden floor boards.
"I don't even think you'd be able to have children," he said. "You're too skinny."
And that was the first time it hit her. That maybe there was something very wrong. Maybe there was something much darker happening in her mind than she thought. She wasn't too skinny to have a baby, she thought. No, there was nothing wrong.
Two years later, one morning, before work. She was meeting a writer friend in a busy square, cars rushing through the round-about. Her friend said she had some old writing magazines she wanted to give to her, but she realized that their meeting had a more serious purpose. "Listen," she said, "You have to eat something, you're just bones. I know friends who have died like this." The girl listened silently. "Maybe Paris isn't the right place for you," her friend said. "Maybe you should get away for a while."
A year later, she was in a supermarket traveling in South America. An elderly man in the aisle was staring at her. He pointed his finger and beckoned for her to come towards him. He wrote something slowly on the back of his shopping list and handed it to her. She walked away and opened the note. In Portuguese it said, "You need to eat." She looked back at him. His eyes were fixed on her, insistently. Before leaving back to France, her friend invited her for a fresh fruit juice. It was his last chance to confront her. "You seem like you're a strong woman, like you can handle anything," he said. "But why can't you let people help you... just let them help you."
Not long ago, that girl was me. I struggled for about three years with an eating disorder. During this time, every thought in my mind changed. Mostly, my personality changed. What started out as healthy eating and being conscious of my diet turned into an extreme fear gaining weight and eating too much. I would make up excuses to friends to avoid eating with them. I would spend over an hour in the supermarket trying to buy food and in the end come out with nothing. Some days I didn't eat anything at all. My thoughts were constantly distracted, always thinking about what I was going to eat today, or not eat. If someone was planning a picnic next weekend, I would waste the entire week worrying about it, because there would be food. The anxiety about eating at Christmas with family started months in advance. I was terrified of my colleagues even asking me if I wanted something to eat for lunch. One of my English students, a client in the haute-couture fashion and make-up industry, told me during our lesson that his best friend had an eating disorder. When we said goodbye that day, he looked at me so sadly and sincerely. He simply said, "Please, take care of yourself."
It took me about three years to realize that this preoccupation of food was stemming from fear and loss: fear of losing control in my life, loss of confidence and love for myself.
This fear and loss of confidence seemed so foreign to me; I've always been spontaneous and self-assured. But gradually, without being able to see it for myself, I fell into a depression. Loss of confidence and love for myself grew into an anxiety I could never have imagined. I described it once as having a spider on my face and being forced to walk around with it crawling on me, every day. People stared at my stick thin legs and were nervous to be around me. They could tell that something wasn't right. It drove both my friends and strangers away from me.
It started with strangers. An uncountable amount of strangers came up to me and said things like, "you need to eat something," or "is something wrong with you?" I was engulfed by comments like this, from the beginning of the day until the end. Some friends of mine were able to very boldly approach me about it, extremely worried, and offer me food any chance they could. A woman on the metro said she was a nurse and asked if I was seriously ill or if I was just born that way. The children that I babysat would touch my arm and then recoil back, shocked at how thin I was. My colleague at work took me out to coffee during our lunch break to ask if I was getting any help. A homeless woman on the street drunkenly yelled at me to eat something. Someone I was dating during this period said, "Didn't your ex-boyfriend ever tell you that you were too skinny?" No, I said. He responded ,"The bastard." On a trip to Turkey, a tour guide pulled me aside before we went to our all-you-can-eat buffet lunch, and said, "You can eat as much as you want here. Really -- as much as you want. You should even get seconds." A man behind me in a shopping line looked at me and said, "is it Rammadan?" This one, in retrospect, I can take with some humor.
For a long time, I was able to completely ignore these comments. Somehow, my mind truly blocked them out. Of course, extreme limiting of your diet takes a detrimental toll on your body -- hair loss, lack of menstruation, loss of estrogen, fever, insomnia, constant diarrhea. My body very gradually started to fall apart. My father, a doctor, was the first one in my family to confront me about it. "I'm not scared for you," he said, "I'm terrified." The most understanding and loving support during this time turned out to be from my family. Opening up to them about these emotions, which I had never truly done before, broke down an unspoken barrier between us. My parents, in turn, were able to talk about their own feelings and fears they had never talked about before. This was an amazing revolution within the long path to finding myself again.
Finally, a few very important things happened that shifted my perspective and jumpstarted my actions. If you are suffering from the same feelings and experiences that I have, I truly hope you can connect with some of this advice.
1. Give 100 percent of your energy into healing yourself. Drop everything else.
Finding your true self again needs to become your top priority. For you, and for the people who love you. Nothing else matters.
I went to see my family during Easter in England. It had been a positive period for me; I had already changed my mentality drastically in a constructive way. My thoughts and habits were less draining than before. I thought I had been eating more, and even gaining weight. But as soon as I arrived, it was clear that everyone was shocked about how thin I was. Even my younger cousins could feel the tension when I was close to them. I could see how anxious my parents were, how much this had affected them after so long. At dinner, I told my aunt that I was going to Brazil for the summer. She started to cry. She said, "Steph, you're not well. You have to get better." I was so surprised at this reaction, as if she was driven to tell me this before it was too late. She said even her sister lived with an eating disorder for years. It took her sister so long to acknowledge it, and it was destructive to her body. I saw how she simply wanted me to be well and happy, that's all that mattered.
I decided then to give 100 percent of my energy into understanding myself. I wanted to end this crippling problem that caused so much negativity for me and people I care about. I wanted to be a good role model for my cousins. I wanted people to feel comfortable and loved around me. I had lost this part of myself for too long, I had been preoccupied with my own worries about being thin. It was time to get to the root of the issue. To do this, I had to remember that I have a very special value, as a human, before and now. To remember that fear is invented; we can end it just as you created it. To remember that we are free. To remember that we have no time in our short lives to waste, and no time to be afraid. To remember to love every bizarre, smelly, awkward part of ourselves.
I thought I already knew all this. I thought I was calm, spontaneous, carefree, and alive. But it is so easy to go through period of anxiety or depression, when you lose sense of beauty within you. I finally decided to be honesty with myself, to forget the pre-conceived concepts and stress that society invents.
Are these obsessions over food making you grow as a person? If the answer is no, take action to change.
2. Find help that you trust. Make your own steps to find this help.
My father insisted that I see a therapist. This was positive in some ways to make the first steps in liberating myself. But in the end, this therapist wasn't the right person to confide in. Numerous people suggested I see a nutritionist, but I didn't feel ready to take their advice.
Then, a surprising revelation happened. A close friend of mine is a sophrologist. Her help became key in liberating myself.
Sophrology is a form of meditation and therapy combined, with an element of hypnosis. It was developed by a Colombian psychologist, Alfonso Caycedo, who spent time in India and Japan, studying Buddhism and eastern philosophies. He developed a form of meditation that focuses on creativity, imagination, and reuniting the mind and body. I decided to dedicate my time to one-on-one sessions, and an amazing shift happened in me. Sophrology made me focus more than ever on my actions and mental capacity. It reignited the imagination I had as a child. This connection with my childhood -- the root of who I am -- was so important to revisit. If you can think about the happiness you had during your childhood, you can recreate that carefree spontaneity in your daily life. Sophrology also reawakened the physical connection with my own body. One session slapped me into seeing an obvious reality: I have a body, I exist! Feel it, embrace it, be thankful for it.
You can only change these eating habits if you face your fear and actually eat. Talking about it will not save you, doing it will. My brother once gave me a wonderful book, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers. It's packed with incredible reminders that I could apply it to my own eating issues. If you're afraid of gaining weight from eating a piece of bread, eat that bread and see what happens. Just do it. If you're afraid of ordering full fat milk in your cappucino, order that damn full fat milk. If you can't decide what to buy at the supermarket, tell yourself 1,2,3 GO and buy what you think would be delicious. Do it and see what happens. Nothing will change unless you actually start eating. You need to make the first move. And if you had similar habits as I did, it means eating a lot more than you're used to. A lot. Do not be afraid of this. It's the only way you can get your life back. What you should be afraid of is what will happen if you continue hurting your mind and body this way. Do not be discouraged if it takes many ups and downs before you get back on the right track. Give yourself another chance.
I want to be healthy and treat my body in a balanced way. I'm a vegan, and I don't plan to change that (OK, rare moments I crack and I have vanilla ice cream and a spoonful of herby-cheesy spread.) This means my relationship with food is different from other people, and that's OK. You can listen to your body, be honest with yourself and your own habits. You have nothing to hide. The less you hide, the more free you will feel. For years I disassociated food with any pleasure. In fact it became the exact opposite. Finally, I can eat bread and not have anxiety over it. Hell, I can even eat apple crumble, hazelnut ice cream, rice and beans, and Vietnamese dumplings, and like it.
We are experiencing a life surrounded by beautiful, surprising moments, and people who love us. These moments can only get better if we love our mind and body. We can let go of trying to be what people expect of us. The more we train our minds to accept and love the weirdest, most unique parts of ourselves, the more we are free to live passion and love others. Maybe a therapist will not help you, maybe sophrology will not help you, maybe your family will not help you. But there's an amazing truth: you can help yourself. In fact, you owe it to yourself to start now.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.