(TRIGGER WARNING! If you suffer from an eating disorder and feel you might be triggered by a detailed retelling, please do not read.)
Yesterday, I managed to catch the last few minutes of a friend’s radio talk airing on Facebook Live. There, she discussed whether it’s better for emotions to be hidden or revealed. I did want to leave a comment but the show ended before I can even complete half a sentence.
But the question hit home and I spent the rest of yesterday’s waking hours thinking about how I would’ve answered if someone asked me face-to-face, “Are emotions better hidden or revealed?”
My siblings would definitely say I’d reveal. As far as they know, it really is that hard for me to keep a secret. (That’s why they don’t tell me their secrets because I’d surely tell our mother.) That’s also as far as I know. Keeping secrets has always exhausted me, emotionally and physically. I tend to feel intensely, and one disadvantage of being me is I can’t discriminate between big and small things: for me, everything is a big thing. It’s exhausting. Keeping secrets is as if I’m giving something more merit than it’s actually worth. Putting words to it – either by saying it out loud even to just one person or writing it down – reduces its intensity. It significantly lessens the burden of having to carry it inside. Get it?
But one thing that I have hidden is that I’ve been suffering from anorexia for a long time.
For those who have heard it for the first time or know little about it, anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by obsessively limiting the amount of calories taken and encouraging activities to utilize these calories, for the sake of being thin. According to my research, I fall under anorexia binge/purge subtype. (I haven’t had an official diagnosis, though.)
And yes, it is a mental illness. And it kills.
Many times, I hinted or told family and friends that I wanted to see a psychiatrist – because I knew something bad was happening to me. But mental health is still stigmatized in the Philippines that either they didn’t take me seriously or they told me, “No, you’re not crazy.” Because I wanted to be liked – and nobody likes to be around sad people – I decided to pretend. (And also because, honestly, I thought I can’t afford treatment.)
All the while I was suffering and self-hating, but on the outside, I appeared happy and full of sunshine. In office fellowships, I hopped from table to table, danced, and sang a lot so I could avoid eating altogether. And if anyone caught me having a handful of nuts or chips or drinking sugared water? Rest assured my dinner later was a glass of water with two packets of psyllium husk to flush it all out. My meal the next morning would be two HIIT sessions.
I was the girl who’s scared to get hungry because I brought lots of food on trips, but I’d exercise it all off in the room. Also, they’re all full of fiber, low-fat, and low-calorie. And when I get home, the fasting would begin.
I’d be grateful for any situation that kept me from going out with friends or co-workers because it kept me from having to eat. I’d make every excuse – restroom, need to get something I was pretty sure would be hard to find, too tired – when with my family at restaurants. Even now that we have started our lunch delivery business, I dread being forced to taste the food and eat the leftovers. I’m late a lot at work because I would jog 8,000 steps to burn the calories. My waking hours are 100% predominated by thoughts of food, specifically, how to survive every day without needing it.
You know what makes me happy? Being told that I got thinner. Or that they envied my discipline. Or that they wanted to do what I do. But then, these doesn’t give me contentment. Instead, they would push me to go further. I’d eat less and exercise more to be thinner, to be more disciplined, and to never be beaten.
On the other hand, one thing that distresses me is being told to gain weight. I remember telling well-intentioned people, “What are you talking about? I gained an inch around my waist!” or, “You just don’t see it but I look horrible without clothes.” The other is seeing other girls losing weight faster than me. I’ve learned that these two are typical behaviors of eating disorder sufferers: a distorted view of their bodies and competitiveness.
I wish I could tell you how it all started but the truth is, I don’t know. Maybe it’s going through adolescence getting called ugly and fat, or having feelings that were not reciprocated, or not fitting into beautiful clothes. Maybe it’s growing up in front of the TV and seeing all the advertisements that said I had to be thin to be accepted and liked. Maybe it’s all those physical check-ups that required me to line up with girl classmates who were most interested in comparing weights. Maybe it’s hearing people who make fun of fat people. Maybe it’s being noticed by guys only when I started losing weight. Maybe it’s this ridiculous expectation – that may or may not be espoused by the community itself – that vegans have to be sexy. Maybe it’s all of these and other things I don’t consciously think of.
But I could tell when I decided to stop. It was a Tuesday night from many months ago and I found myself laughing at a good priest because he is obese. I stopped, shocked, and I muttered to myself,
“Who are you, monster?”
I never thought I would say something like that. Growing up looking different, I knew how painful it is to be judged for something I have no control over and I can’t change. I made the decision a long time ago to see only the beauty in other people.
Then, I laughed at someone for not being thin.
I realized, painfully, that I have been looking at others that way for some time. He got fat. She lost weight. Her arms are huge. She’s so thin. I know I never wanted to be like that. I never wanted to be this vile person who defines someone else according to her/his weight. It was unacceptable. That’s when I decided to put a stop to this.
You may ask, if I’ve been aware of my eating disorder for a long time, why haven’t I stopped it at the onset? TRIGGER ALERT again. I’m going to be brutally honest: I didn’t because the eating disorder is like a badge, a trophy. Every step further down is a testament to my discipline and determination. Most people can’t achieve what I have achieved. Most people can’t do what I am able to do.
In my case, it was also sort of an illicit relationship. It’s like the eating disorder is seductively whispering, “Look, everybody thinks this is all effortless. But only you and I have to know of all our hard work. This is our dirty little secret.”
But secrets lose their intensity once we put words into them. As words, someone else can see them. Now, we can see them as they are. They lose their illusion. They lose their seductiveness. They lose their power.
I haven’t recovered yet, mind you. I still find myself binge eating and purging. I still find myself obsessively exercising to burn every possible calorie I have taken in. My relationship with food is still unhealthy. I still find myself labeling food as good and bad. I still find myself finding excuses to skip meals. I still feel bad that I ate at all. I still look at myself in the mirror and want to change parts of myself.
But I’m trying. I’m trying really hard. And it’s hard. There are times – like right now – that I cry because I have to go through this illness and ask myself why I can’t just be normal and carefree like everybody else. There are times I doubt if I even do want to recover from my eating disorder, if I’m ready to lose all my gains now that I’ve gone this far. But I remind myself that my mental health is most important right now. My eating disorder made me acceptable to other people, but it cost me my self-respect, happiness, and what would have been beautiful memories.
I’m relearning to respect myself, to nourish my body, to accept my genetics, to accept the fact that I’m never going to have a social media-worthy bikini body, and that’s okay.
Typing this post had been hard and painful… but honesty is supposed to hurt, right? I hope I made it clear how important it is to be honest with our feelings. Others may not understand. Others may not accept. Others may judge. Still, say it. Our peace and happiness are worth much more than someone else’s reaction.
So, to answer the question, definitely, to reveal.