The Symptom List

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Words || Anonymous

Content warning: Mention of sexual abuse, eating disorders

My brother was confused.

“I don’t get it. She became anorexic because he kept calling her fat? How dumb do you have to be to let that affect you?”

We were discussing singer Ke$ha’s case against her rapist and abuser Dr Luke.

‘Look, some people are just built like that, okay? They’re…weak and already have poor mental health’, I surmised, as I poured myself a cup of thick lugging mango juice. We were in our hybrid dining/laundry/toilet/rec room.

‘That doesn’t make any sense though.’

I ignored him, scoffing at his ignorance.

‘Leh, you’re drinking mango juice again, isn’t that how you got fat?’

He chuckled to himself, referring to an explanation my mother made up to account for my enormous weight gain in high school.

‘You know what,’ I mused, he followed me as I stumbled through the hallway, my shoes half on, ‘you’re lucky I’m not like that, else I would’ve gotten an eating disorder a long time ago.’

And with that, I slipped my heel into my Skechers, slammed the front door and stalked off into the sunset, to walk off the Big Mac and cheeseburger meal I had eaten for lunch.

In retrospect, I see that I fit most of the symptoms for bulimia, anorexia and binge-eating disorder. But at the time, a few months after the conversation with my brother, I just could not see past the fact that I did not display what I thought to be the most severe symptoms. I pored through the symptoms of all three major eating disorders, in a panic one night after a torturous self-interrogation session in the shower. Earlier that day I felt my body give up on me for the first time. After devouring a lamb wrap, my second meal of the day, I felt a deep sense of dread that grew and rose from my stomach, pushing its way up my oesophagus, trying to force its way out of my mouth. My skin crawled. Convinced there was a bug crawling over it, I scratched and scratched. My heart rattled around in my ribcage. When I sneezed, my bones would pierce my lungs, every sneeze was painful, and I sneezed often now that I had become more susceptible to illness. I was close to tears. My body was finally catching up after years of mental abuse. I could not enjoy food, the great love of my life anymore.

‘Intense fear of gaining weight?’ Pfft. I may have been vaguely obsessed with losing weight and then gaining it back, but it was hardly intense.

‘Heightened sensitivity to comments or criticism about body shape, weight, appearance and eating habits. Suffers from anxiety or depression. Fluctuations in weight.’ Okay. Well, I’m sure numerous people suffer from these symptoms, and none of them have eating disorders. Besides, none of these signs seemed particularly worrying.

‘Social withdrawal/avoidance of social situations involving food. Difficulties with activities which involve food. Frequent trips to the bathroom, especially after eating.’ HA. See? I knew I was fine. I hardly ever went to the bathroom, except to urinate, I hadn’t vomited in years, and I was perpetually constipated. I loved eating, and I was always the first to suggest it whenever my friends wanted to hang out. I loved eating.

I was in control. I knew my limits. If I got to a point where it became unmanageable, I could switch it off faster than I could click my fingers. There was no way I could have an eating disorder. I would know, wouldn’t I? My skin still itched. I discarded my pyjamas and slipped into some fresh ones. There was no way I was letting my family or friends know. I felt a deep sense of shame that I had never experienced when I thought of, or spoke about, anxiety or depression.

I sped up the street to my driving instructor’s bright red Toyota Camry and sprang into the front seat. My instructor was distracted, chattering in Farsi to her last charge who was now settled in the back seat, and her daughter, who was dressed in the uniform of the girls’ high school perpendicular to my house, a brand-new school vice-captain badge glimmered on her chest.

The driving instructor turned to greet me and gave a jolt of surprise.

“Wow sweetie, you’ve gained weight. Mashallah!”

I froze, and turned around to make sure she wasn’t still speaking to the girls behind me who were now deep in conversation.

“Me?” My breathing faltered.

“Yes, you’re looking a bit chubbier now darling. Well done.” She patted my back. I knew she could feel that it was hard rather than soft, as it was when I was much larger.

I was completely flustered. For the last three weeks, I had been living in a bubble of satisfaction – that is, as much satisfaction as an eating disorder could allow. Every morning I would pull up my shirt or caftan, and turn left and right in front of the mirror as I pinched and rubbed my belly, finally flat after years of suffering with a gut. At every reflection, I gazed at myself with admiration and adoration. Of course, I still had the niggling voice in my head nagging me to cleanse whenever I so much as caught the scent of greasy food with a detoxifying tea or smoothie. I had my parents exaggerated wails about my malnourished and skeletal visage to abate the rankling voice, and a trip to the doctor’s a week before had shown me that I was only 58 kilograms, so what on earth was she talking about?

There must have been a mistake.

“What are you waiting for? Start driving.” I struggled to push down the hand brake.

Wouldn’t someone who had gotten chubbie be strong enough to push down the hand brake in one go? As I turned the wheel, I lifted my jilbab so that she could see the carpal bone sticking out of my wrists. I swallowed the wild questions bubbling at my throat. She must’ve made a mistake.  I drove in a daze, my body moved on its own, while I focused on the looming tortuous voices buzzing in my head. Worried that I’d clued her in on my madness after her well-meaning comment, I struck up a conversation.

“Are you going anywhere for the holidays?” I asked, in a thick, wobbly voice, a smile plastered on my face as I turned at a roundabout.

“Yes, we’re staying in Dubai for about a month. Then-“

I was wearing a jilbab, which had the tendency to make my small face look very round, and I was wearing a loose sundress that I used to avoid wearing when I was 20 kilos heavier. Maybe I was looking a little bloated? I had been slacking off on my skincare routine lately, and I’d had pizza for dinner the night before…

My eyes flicked between the road, the odometer, and my body. Everything looked fine.

“Red light.” My foot slipped off the brake.

Perhaps I had a form of reverse-anorexia, where I saw myself as skinny, when in fact, I was actually fat. My heart beat erratically at my chest.

We passed a group of women jogging while dressed in gym gear, brandishing water bottles.

I was going to have the purge of the century when I got back home. Then, I would sign up to my mother’s gym and go at least four times a week. For the rest of the week I’d have limited meals, surviving on breakfast and some fruits, possibly. It’s what I deserved for slipping back to my old habits.

The erratic pounding of my heart subsided.

“Turn right here.”

I fumbled with the indicator and flicked it to the left.

Whenever someone asked me how I’d dropped such an enormous amount of weight, 20 kilograms (up and down) lighter than I’d been in 2014, I’d be stumped by the questions, and I’d give the least helpful answer possible.

“Um, I quit dairy milk?”

“I walk a lot?”

“I’m … sort of vegan?”

I knew that my parents were aware of my issues, maybe they even knew, deep down that I had a problem, but they did not want to admit it to themselves. I knew that anyone who knew would keep an eye on me as I ate, tracking my eating habits with a mixture of disgust, pity and disapproval on their faces. I needed to fix this. On my own.

I read article after article about struggle, about recovery, about life after ED. Each time an author displayed a photograph of themselves in their current happy, healthy state my heart would bounce in its cage. I rejoiced in their return to health, but when I imagined my recuperated self in those bodies, I recoiled in disgust. They looked just like how I used to before I lost all the weight. I was body positive, except when it came to me.

Why was I wasting my time perusing pieces about a life I could not imagine,  if I was too afraid to get better?

I remembered a line repeated in endless films about moody, sick teenagers by new-wave psychiatrists, ‘I’m not interested in treating you, if you don’t want to get better.’

I thought about, the endless buzzing in my head about my body, food, my appearance. I thought about a life without the constant preoccupation. A life where I could wake up early in the morning, sleep before 12 a.m. in the evening, and have three solid meals a day. I thought about a life without the constant breakdowns, the panic attacks, the overwhelming emotions. A life where I wasn’t constantly indisposed, where I wasn’t constantly ruled by a routine where the smallest slip up would fill me with a panic and fear that I’d slipped back into my old habits. A life where I woke up feeling healthy and alive.

I took a deep sigh, unlocked my phone, scrolled through my contact list and tapped my GP’s phone number.

If you or someone you know is in need of support, contact the Butterfly Foundation National Support Line at 1800 ED HOPE, or Lifeline at 13 11 14. 


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