This essay is for anyone who has battled an eating disorder.
It’s about how easy it is to fall back into that mindset, especially while wrestling with poor mental health. I wrote it a while back during a particularly bad spell of depression, which was soon a prelude to the return of dangerous eating habits. Afterwards I revisited it, and finished it with an insight I didn’t have at the time.
It also discusses the crippling pressure placed on us by social media to look a certain way, and how that itself perpetuates poor body image and further damages your mental health.
My periods of depression are typically characterised like so: I wake in the morning with an alarming dread, feeling a slight anger toward a world that I don’t fully feel a part of.
Throughout the day I tend to sob intermittently over everything and nothing. It could be a sad song, or it’s triggered by empathy. Honestly the reasons range from rational to completely bonkers. I’ve seen me crying in my bed over a broken heart, to yelling at the washing machine as it was being too loud.
Or it’s the opposite side of that, and I’m an emotional ice berg.
In the evenings, I either binge watch tedious Netflix shows, but don’t take in a single scene; or I spend too much time with friends (also not taking anything in.) I just sort of sit there, like a Furby that’s running out of batteries, occasionally chirping.
But throughout the whole period I’m constantly praying for the dark cloud to lift, and my mood to pass. During this particular bad patch of mental health however, I was unprepared for how wholly it would take over my days and life.
It had been nearly two weeks and my mood continued to flip frequently, yo-yoing between wild euphoria to rabid lows. I slept less at night yet napped deeply at any given opportunity. After a while I felt as though I’d stopped participating in my own life, and all sense of control I had was relinquished to this unseen force that now dictated how my days would go.
Control. A word that haunts a lot of those who suffer from mental health issues. Control over your image, control over what others say about you, control of your life. Control over your mind.
Control, the one thing I was losing grip of.
Like everything insidious, it started out slowly and unseen. The return of some old control issues, nothing to worry about. Standard practice when you’re feeling this low, right? For me anyway. Forty press ups at night, forty when you wake. Run a certain distance each day at the gym; got to keep that cardio up, you’re beginning to look a little flabby.
Nobody called me that, other than the little self-doubt troll beginning to pipe up from the back of my head.
When the obsessive thoughts about my weight reappeared, I figured that this wasn’t anything to worry about. There was always a direct correlation between bad periods of mental health and my body dysmorphia. Besides, exercise is good for your mental health; because it’s not just about the booty, it’s also about the brain!
Then the toxic thoughts started to worm their way in.
‘Let’s leave half this sandwich, you don’t need the full thing’ became my lunch time narrative.
‘Let’s start counting how many pasta shells we use, carefully sized portions.’ I mean, I didn’t want to look like I had a poo belly.
Whenever my stomach would groan for food, I’d pacify it with sparkling water; whenever I felt fatigued, I’d keep my energy levels up with the cans of Coke and gallons of Red Bull. The whole time I was still exercising as hard as before, only now on half the fuel.
A week later a friend idly said to me, ‘you’ve lost weight.’ Truth be told, I’d zoned in and out of the conversation intermittently, unable to focus on anything other than how shit I felt. I sat nursing my decaf latte oblivious to the whizzing world around me, but the moment she said that it immediately caught my attention.
When I heard those words, I felt it again: that old surge of glee; that voice of accomplishment ringing in my ear. I’ve. Lost. Weight. I literally had zero control over the rest of my life or my mood, but at least I’ve got a handle on this.
After that I started cutting down parts of my meals. Then I started skipping them completely. Before I knew it, I’d once again submitted to the tyrannical regime that is calorie counting.
I couldn’t control that my life was crumbling around me, or that no matter how hard I tried to fix it, another blow was just around the corner. This, however, I could control. I had power over what I ate – or rather, didn’t eat. It wasn’t even a conscious effort, my mind just goes back to that as default.
I’ve wrestled with eating disorders before; the most notable of them being a year-long battle with bulimia. While this was a far cry from days that saw me ramming my fingers down my throat after every meal, it was definitely not a healthy path to start back down.
I believe an eating disorder it never really goes away. Not completely. You can form strict dietary habits, execute effective gym routines; you can be told a thousand times that your body looks amazing, that you’re sexy, and people can even say that they’re jealous – but you never truly believe it, do you? Especially when you’re going through a bad period of mental health.
Whilst this was all unfolding, I posted a photo ‘bragging’ that I’d lost 8lbs in a week (not even a three weeks prior to that photo, I’d lost nearly the same.) The reaction was a bombardment of compliments decorated with the flame emoji. All praise.
“Jealous.” “Skinny as a needle!” What’s your secret?”
What’s my secret? It’s called the Depression Diet – and it is not good for you
Yet the praise did its part. It temporarily silenced the ghostly echoes of self-doubt. It took the edge of my depression. I felt in ownership over part of my life again. While I may not be able to control what I think of myself, I could navigate what others thought of me – and social media was the easiest way to get that.
Perhaps ‘easiest’ was a poor choice of words. I thought a few compliments would be a remedy, but when they stopped I only wanted to lose more weight, so I ate less and exercised more.
During this period I was so focused on my body type, that I completely ignored my mental [and physical] health. I let it take over because it was providing temporary relief from the other symptoms – but it wasn’t sustainable. Eventually I fainted at the gym.
During the recovery I sat on the edge of a treadmill, head between my legs. While downing a bottle of Lucozade sport and I felt utter hatred for myself. I was too embarrassed to ask someone to come get me, so eventually I pulled together enough energy to get back to the flat, where I collapsed into a heap and cried. This wasn’t working. So, I later that night I ordered take out and forced myself to eat it. Okay, not the healthiest of foods, but if I was going to break this cycle I needed to take a sledgehammer to it.
As a gay man, I am part of a society that’s submissive to body image, and I as one who also suffers from poor mental health I know how easy it is to again fell prey to that toxic mindset.
Body dysmorphia mixed with depression is a deadly cocktail of self-doubt. When you’re around people that are younger, prettier, skinnier, or more toned, you’re setting yourself up in an environment that’ll make you feel inadequate – and you can’t escape that, because it’s even worse online.
A mindless scroll through Instagram sees you greeted with photo after photo of these tanned, toned deities; and when you’re depressed, or struggling with body dysmorphia, it can be like taking a bartering ram to your self-esteem.
I know so many gay men, like myself, that crave comments about their body. It’s not attention we’re seeking, but rather affirmation. This insatiable want to feel loved, hot, attractive; we want someone to tell us we’re more than the heinous monster created by our low self-esteem; that the ugly mutant we see gawking back at us in the mirror is just an illusion conjured up by our depression.
Looking back now I can’t help but think the reaction I got would be a sharp contrast to the one I would have received if the weight gain had been on the heavier side of the scale.
We’re quick off the mark to condemn someone for being overweight, but never bother to ask why someone’s losing it rapidly. Chances are it isn’t a diet, but rather something else. People were happy to tell me I looked good, but never bothered to ask how I felt.
We need to realise what these expectations do to those who battle with eating disorders, with mental health issues, or perhaps just low self-esteem in general.
As I said earlier, any form of eating disorder and mental health issues, never truly goes away. It’s always there, like a monster in a horror movie threatening to return. It’s perpetuated more by a world that preaches to us the importance of having a positive body image, but then condemns you for not living up to their definition of it.
It’s hard living a society that’s so focused on how you look but doesn’t see how you feel.
Since writing this I’ve regained control over both my mental health, and my eating habits. It’s a slow-stepping process, but I got there. Just as you will. Just as I will in the future should either of them rear their ugly heads.
Since the last battle, I’ve taught myself to stay off social media when I feel low; all it does is add to that sense of having no worth.
I’ve also clicked that the less you eat, the worse you’re going to feel. Seems like common sense, right? All I did was nap or stagger around in a zombie-like state, constantly fatigued – how is that helping my mental health?
When you’re depressed you can’t trust your own thoughts sometimes; when you suffer from body dysmorphia, what you see is not what others see. A lot of the time the negative comments we think others are whispering about us more often than not turn out to be ones we’re saying about ourselves. Remember that.
There’s help out there, you just need to ask for it. The reason I shared this is because I want others to know that they are not alone.