Words || Ilwad Ahmed
[TW/CW: This article discusses themes of mental health and disordered eating.]
I’m six years old and staring down a mug of microwaved strawberry milk. My mother says I’m not allowed to leave the table without draining the cup. She’s convinced I’m not getting enough nutrients and forcing me to consume foods I can’t tolerate is her way of ensuring I won’t die of malnutrition. I will the milk to decrease by half a cup, but no matter how hard I eyeball at it, a brimming mug of milk stares back at me. The heat of my mum’s glare burns my neck, I give in and with a whimper, I lift the cup while I pinch my nose with the other hand and take a sip. The smell of the milk is too much. I start to retch.
I’m ten and I’m the last one sitting at the dining table. It’s been an hour since my mum served us lunch and I still have a mouth full of cold pasta and three quarters of my plate to go. The sauce is made with braised lamb shoulder. I’ve hated the smell and texture of lamb since I was at least four, the way the muscles holding the meat together look like saliva when you pull it apart makes me gag. But it’s a staple food in my culture so we eat it about five times a week. My mum intermittently checks in on me only to find I’ve made little progress with my meal. As time passes her warnings to get me to finish quicker get louder, harsher, wilder and more irrational. The smell of the meat and the sliminess of the spaghetti makes my stomach churn. I shove another forkful into my already occupied mouth.
I’m fourteen and I’m still the last one at lunch. I don’t get supervised anymore. I can’t keep dumping entire platefuls of food in the bin so I get crafty. I put one in the toilet bins. I stay back, pick at my food with a fork and when everyone leaves, I get to work, picking up forkfuls of pasta and shoving them in rolls of tissue. One in the closet for tools. Another behind the old chest freezer. Another in the pocket of one of my dad’s old bomber jackets (it’s in the laundry, I’m not an animal). I spread the rest of strings of pasta around the plate and pretend I’ve had my fill. My mum finds the little tissues, sometimes months later, all mouldy, grey and powdery dust wrapped in paper towels. She’s so shocked that all she can do is laugh.
Seventeen. I’ve ballooned up. The stress of the HSC, and the looming dread of the fact that my parents high expectations for me will soon fall headlong into a pavement of disappointment has led my depression manifesting itself into overeating. I don’t eat lunch or dinner at home anymore, my mums given up on me. Instead, I get $50 a week from my already struggling parents and I spend it buying chicken burgers from the school canteen that serves up gourmet food . I always end up getting hungry and have to buy food twice a day, and then on Saturdays, when I have to spend a full day at a tutoring college, I splurge on Subway and hot chocolates, chips and cake. Sometimes I run out of money midway during the week and I sneak into my parents room before school, while my dad’s sleeping after taxi-ing all night, and swipe a couple of gold coins from his change bag.
I joke about my own sudden weight gain with friends before anyone else gets to it first. My trick is to pull out and compare my student ID cards from the year before and to now, year 12, and we all laugh when we see the weight difference. I hear stories about girls who’ve gained weight in their final year of school and dropped it quickly and I secretly pray the weight drops by itself when I’m done.
20. Leaving school has made it worse. At uni, I have freedom and access to all the world’s fast food, good food joints and I dream of what I’m eating for lunch instead of align attention in class. It becomes my motivation to attend classes. Cheese pastries in the morning with a juice, a smoothie, McDonalds or Oporto for lunch, then a milkshake. My weight goes up and down during the year – I’m at my skinniest at the end of holidays – when I’m at home most of the time. Sick to my stomach about how I let myself go during the semester, I punish myself by suppressing my hunger for days, only eating Weetbix for breakfast and sleep for dinner. When my mum asks me what I’ve eaten I stammer and do a quick rundown of what’s in the fridge and make some lie about having sandwiches. She narrows her eyes but doesn’t press any further. Whenever I pass by a reflective surface – at home or in public – I have to stop and stare at how my clothes hang or cling to my body. I can’t stand full body pictures, or face pictures that aren’t selfies. I don’t know what I truly look like. My face looks like a teddy bear’s and my clothes look matronly no matter how I style myself.Whenever I eat I drown in despair and self loathing, which quickly gets smothered down with a dessert, because I need a treat for being so awful to myself, then the cycle starts again.
* * *
For the past two years I’ve been in a messy cycle of being food crazy to food averse. I somehow ended up losing the weight I gained in at age 17 and managed to maintain it for a year, but I never got the piece of mind I truly needed. Whenever I eat I’m filled with fear of regaining. Restriction only comes when I feel like I’ve spiralled and need some control, but mostly food and the thoughts that come after eating are like an addiction I can’t quit. My brain is home to a ravenous, rabid dog that growls constantly until I feed it. Then it’s quiet for about twenty minutes before it starts again. Whenever I binge, whether it’s three chocolate bars and a huge bag of chips I’ve hidden around my room a la Claudia Kishi in the Babysitter’s Club, a fast food binge, or whatever junk food (that I can handle) is in the pantry, when I’ve satisfied my insatiable brain’s addiction – I’m physically incapable of vomiting out my food, no matter how hard I try and how close to coming out my food is – I sit in a pool of self loathing and disgust, and listen to my brain hurl abuse at myself.
* * *
We don’t have scales at home. We kept the last one in the bathroom for years even though its waterlogged screen would tell anyone who stepped on it’s words scales they were 29.85 kgs. That is, until someone got tired of it taking space in our already minuscule bathroom and tossed it, and because nobody’s bothered or wants to continuously feel pangs of guilt and shame every morning we haven’t replaced it. So I never know how much I weigh unless I got to the doctor’s office. This is a blessing and curse. At time when I’m feeling bloated, when the sides of my thighs fold in on themselves, when my butt hangs under my underwear, feel too heavy, when I’m eating and I pull my face in and my chin feels bigger, more loose, I need to weigh myself to confirm or alleviate the maddening thoughts, but it goes on for weeks sometimes, until I catch myself looking slightly skinnier in the mirror.
When I go to a GP I make a show of looking around the doctor’s office, slowly scanning the room until my eyes just happen to fall on a scale. “Can I weigh myself?’ I ask, in my most carefree I’m-just-casually-wondering-what-my-body’s-relative-mass-is-and-I-totally-won’t lose-my-mind-and-run-into-the-street-and-in-front-of-the-nearest car-if-I-find-out-I’ve-gained-a-nano-kilo voice. I step on the scale with my shoes, just so I can have something to fall back on when I see the worst. I do see the worst. I’ve gained.
But you stepped on with platform shoes and they could be 1 kilos at LEAST you can still have that mixed plate of assorted meats and falafel from the restaurant down the street you were craving for lunch and dinner…come on!
I’m right, I tell myself as I step out the clinic. I was fully clothed too, that has to have contributed somehow. Doctor’s office scales are always dodgy, so it’s probably at least 2 kilograms off. My stomach growls. I sigh and walk into the restaurant, staring straight ahead to avoid any of the large mirrors decorating the eatery that might make me change my mind and live on nothing but lemon water for the rest of the week.