My Eating Disorder Was Dangerous Because It Was Powerful

Me and food have had a funny relationship since I was little and terrified of choking (still can’t swallow pills). Like all things it changed with me in life. Depression hasn’t left since aged around 19, and at 24 now anxiety’s joining the party a bit too often for my liking — but I guess I’m too much of a polite host to ask it to leave. These are important because, for me at least, my relationship with food was never the problem, it’s just been a coping mechanism. Feel sad? Don’t eat. Feel stressed? Maybe eat less? Uncomfortable with the fact you’re 24 and still get the same acne you did when you were 16? Yeah, definitely eat less.

I only really came to terms with the fact that this isn’t what everyone does when I was about 21. That’s one of the dangers with mental health — that it’s not possible to simply be someone else, so you don’t know what’s unusual, or what you should watch out for. An interesting point, and one that highlights heavily the importance but difficulty of empathy, but not the one I’m trying to make.

As with any social or human problem, the range of possible factors and causes in eating disorders is huge. This doesn’t detract from anyone’s pain — that’s not even an argument worth having. If someone is homeless because of substance abuse, immigration, or complete lack of financial resources — none of these detract from the problem of homelessness, or suggest that we shouldn’t help someone. I’ve spoken to people who have eating disorders they attribute to the need for control, feelings of security, anxiety-coping mechanisms, guilt, and body dysmorphia. This is not an extensive list.

You ain’t worth more cause you got more stuff. I don’t care what the colour of your skin is. I don’t care ‘bout your fortune and fame. I just want for us to have more perspective. And understand that everybody’s pain is the same.
Perspective - Blueprint

Because I never wanted to be super skinny, because I never strictly restricted my calorie intake, because I never went through binge-purge-restrict cycles, I did not believe myself to have any kind of eating disorder. But I do not have a healthy relationship with food, and the absence of all these factors does nothing to argue against that.

The past 6 months of my life have undoubtedly been some of the most turbulent. I left (not by choice) a relationship, and with that I lost one of my most valued supports for dealing with my ED. I lost someone who understood better than most what it’s like, but also knew exactly how little tolerance to have for it (spoiler: it was none).

Even though starving myself was never a thing in its own right, I had a lot to cope with and very little to stop me. Quite predictably I spiralled, and for some reason my urge to simply not eat changed into a need to over exercise. In retrospect it’s not a surprise things didn’t go so well.

Going to the gym 3 times a day and eating 20% below the RDA (probably about 30–40% what I should be eating) is bad for your health. But this wasn’t about calories for me, this wasn’t about losing weight, or gaining muscles, these were just side effects. I did it because I couldn’t not.

I was like a toddler in an increasingly small doctor’s waiting room — I had too much energy and started bouncing off the walls (bedroom, office, bus, any wall really).

The danger of my situation that it made me incredibly powerful. It put me at the top of my game. It’s like drug use. People talk about the long-term health effects, but if it wasn’t for the short-term incredibly desirable effects, we wouldn’t see the problem with substance abuse that we do today.

At the most simple level: if you’re running 10k every day, you get better at running 10k. If you’re lifting weights every evening, you can start to lift heavier things.

This is how I justified my behaviours to myself. How can I be unhealthy when I am physically, unquestionably, demonstrably, the most fit I have ever been in my life? I’m getting complements from friends about my body, people are noticing an improvement in my strength and performance. I was hitting personal best 5k and 10k literally every week.

Have you ever heard athletes talk about their training schedule? It’s crazy, but they’re good and they’re proud, and no one’s telling them to stop. Have you ever heard anyone successful talk about how they got there, about the sacrifice, devotion, and difficulties? If you want to be good at something you put in hard work, and sacrifice comfort and security. If you’re getting good at something, you’re not supposed to be comfortable. Is what I told myself.

Long hours, lack of sleep, writing paragraphs for weeks… Trading my social life to writing bars with preciseness.
Understand - Rashad & Confidence

This started bleeding over into other areas of my life. I dance. I started attending workshops for professional and graduate dancers (I am neither of those things). I started choreographing my own work, and corresponding with producers who work with graduate and emerging artists. I started attending as many classes as I could, looking obsessively to find workshops I could wing myself into. I was travelling to the theatre to watch live dance at least every other week. The results? I was in the best place with dance I’ve ever been in my life. I was the most creatively fulfilled and challenged I’ve ever been, and I was simply happy proud of the quality of my movement.

With my Ph.D. and work in web-development I would sit down and just work for hours. I had exhausted my body to the point of physical damage, I had no choice but to sit very still and do a lot of work. The quiet introverted kind of work where you can’t be distracted. I started taking risks and setting ambitions much higher than I had done before. And I met them. I was producing new software, reading a great deal of literature, and subsequently conducting my most planned research I had ever done in my life. I felt on top of my Ph.D., and I was achieving the things I wanted to do.

All of these things were fuelled almost solely by the thing that underlies my relationship with food, and so I suppose my eating disorder (whatever that is). The voice inside my head that told me I simply couldn’t do anything until it physically hurt to move, and kind of ached when you sat still. This is obviously physically dangerous, but the real danger was that the voice followed up on its promise: I was incredibly focused and by literally everything I valued in my life (fitness, dance, and my studies) I was doing well. I was doing really well.

There is no explanation or solution. I can’t tell you how I started to realise I was making ultimately bad decisions. In truth I still don’t fully think I was — I’m a stronger, more experienced, and focused person because of it. But at the same time, I know that if I had carried on down that road with my head down it would have gone badly. I was falling into bed every night, and would role out in the morning. I am not joking or exaggerating, I was taking every resource my body could find, and exhausting it every day. I was praying and meditating every day that this will end, that I wouldn’t wake up tomorrow feeling like I have to physically defeat myself just to function.

Nothing hit me until I started seeing concern in my friends. I have 4 people in my life who I see as my true friends. These are people I trust and respect more than myself. They are all people I love at a very deep level. All of them became obviously distressed when I would talk about my life or wellbeing during this phase. Two of them asked me to consider going to counselling or seeking professional help. This is when I realised I have not made a sustainable choice. This cannot go on forever. This is unhealthy and bad for me, even if it’s doing me so much good.

It’s only been about a month since I made a conscious decision to get out of that place. In that time I’ve realised that i) I have to start being selfish, and ii) Wherever I am, or anyone else is, in life — it’s temporary, and it’s where we’re supposed to be. Living with an unusual mental health landscape isn’t something that changes with any urgency, and seeing myself lose fitness, and skill in dance is hard. But my outlook is changing. I feel myself wanting to forcibly start controlling my life agin — and this is the danger of eating disorders in my life.

Then I think back to when I was 22 and breaking up with the first girl I ever truly deeply loved in a mother-of-my-children kind of way. And I think back to the year that came after that, and how all I wanted it to do was end. I thought back to desperately searching for my purpose in my final year of my master’s degree. I look back on when I really started pushing contemporary dance as part of my life, and wanted desperately to improve.

Whenever we look at things in retrospect we lose the immediacy or urgency that are all we think about in the moment. In 3 years I’ll be 27. I know that 27 year old me will tell 24 year old me exactly the same as what 24 year old me tells 22 year old me: be patient. Whatever needs to happen will happen. I am demonstrably not the most trustworthy person to be making decisions about how I should live my life. I should stop trying to make those decisions.

Simz talk to the younger Simz what would you tell her? Try make a mil ‘fore you get a deal. See nothing’s impossible long as you keep your head up. And when it comes to the points where you’re fed up. Take a step back.

What would you say To the younger you? Would you tell you to be patient? Would you say to be true?
This piece is part of an anthology about my experience with food and eating disorders. You can find the other ones here.