Humans of Agni

India, Seattle

09.18.20

"In college, thinking about food became an obsession and led to total body dysmorphia. I’m 5’7” and at the time I weighed about 115 pounds - yet I was absolutely convinced I was overweight. I was also becoming more and more interested in the nutritional foundations of health, but I would use that interest and information to justify a lot of unhealthy behaviors and restrictions. And then there was an element of perfectionism that was always at play. I wanted to fit into this “perfect” mold of a body I constantly saw in the media. Together, all of this caused me to view food as a dangerous thing for a long time — it caused weight gain, released bad toxins in my body, gave me acne — all these scary things. My mindset became one of restriction, which led to a painful cycle of intense food deprivation and then, inevitably, binging.

 

It got to the point of being truly physically traumatic. A few years after graduating, I was in Japan working close to 90 hour weeks and continuing to struggle with binging and restricting. This confluence of factors came together to make me really physically ill. One day, I got back from a trip to Bali and fell sick, bed ridden for nearly 6 weeks. After that the illness just kept coming back month after month. I ended up quitting my job, leaving Japan, and coming home to my parents’ house in Seattle to rest for a few months. I remember thinking during that time, “ok, now I’ll get over my eating disorder and be able to move on with my life.”

 

I quickly came to find there were deeper things at play, it wasn’t as easy as simply choosing to move on. Despite taking time off and living a relatively “stress-free” life, the binges became more frequent and intense — I would feel so sick after them and then go through stricter and longer restrictions afterward. One day, after a particularly intense episode, I realized I could no longer bear the pain I was putting myself through alone and I broke down to my dad. He tried to be supportive, but couldn’t really understand what I was going through given his life experience and worldview. He was 78 at the time, still super fit (to this day he can literally do 50 push-ups straight), and has always been an athlete who was celebrated for his strength and physical body. The idea of hating one’s body and feeling pressure to shrink it was something completely foreign to him. “Why don’t you try just eating normal food at a regular cadence?” he suggested. I sobbed when he said this — why couldn’t he see how terrifying that idea was? 

 

Despite my dad not fully understanding what I was going through, I found that sharing what I was going through with him was helpful nonetheless. I knew I needed to stop carrying this burden on my own, so I finally sought a therapist, which, for me, was a huge step. I wasn’t a vulnerable person at all at the time, and I generally tend to hold the things I’m unsure about close to my heart (hello, perfectionism). But, after just a few sessions, I started feeling a lot more comfortable with the fact that I had an eating disorder, and I shared this with more and more people in my life. I also started seeing a nutritionist who specialized in eating disorders, which was so valuable for me, because although I’d heard a lot about intuitive eating, the language of it was extremely confusing for someone with an eating disorder. My body no longer intuitively knew what it wanted because I’d taught myself to ignore its signals of hunger and satiation for so long. My nutritionist provided guidance on things I should try to include in my diet that I was previously restricting and helped to rebuild my understanding of the role food could play in my life. Because my understanding of food and what was or wasn’t healthy was so twisted at that point, having her guidance began to take some of the stress out of eating for me. I slowly began to recognize food as additive vs something to be kept at arm’s length.

 

What I think accelerated my healing most was group therapy. I visited an in-patient eating disorder clinic at one point when I’d hit yet another low point. A particularly bad binge convinced me that I needed to go into a full-time program to heal, but the clinic had me attend a group therapy session first. Being able to talk so openly with a community of people who truly understood how I felt, hearing all their stories, and seeing people who were well on the path to healing truly revolutionized recovery for me. The progress I made in 2 months of group therapy was astounding — though I was still having episodes of restricting and binging, the voice I spoke to myself with began to change dramatically. I replaced the voice of shame and perfectionism with the kindness and compassion that my counterparts in group therapy  gave me, and this made all the difference. For me, the group work in combination with what I was already doing ended up being enough support for me to get through each day, and I didn’t end up going to in-patient treatment. 

 

The most important thing I learned over this time is that healing does not happen in a straight line. It’s more of a spiral. You’ll mess up and feel like you’re unraveling a little, but you’re still going in the right direction. It’s not the linear path you may have hoped for or expected, but the spirals will get tighter and tighter, and the vastness of the space becomes lesser and lighter, until eventually it seals. When I tried to do it all on my own, I’d tell myself every time that this would be the very last time I’d binge. Working with a therapist, a nutritionist, and my group gave me room to make mistakes without losing hope. At one point, I described a binge to my therapist and she said “you don’t have a disorder, you just had some extra ice cream when you were stressed out. It’s a normal coping mechanism that a lot of people use from time to time.” Having that perspective from someone who has been a part of your healing journey is so helpful and can restore your confidence in yourself.

 

I never thought I could get to a point where I could look at something without thinking about its caloric count and what it would do to me if I ate it. Especially when I hear others talk about their own journey, I remember how all-consuming it was. I remember being in my office in Tokyo, thinking to myself that even if I ever managed to get better, there’s no way I wouldn’t remember exactly how many calories are in a banana, and how many of those are carbs, protein, fat, etc. I had those grams in my head for every single piece of food I ate. There was no way I’d be able to release them. But now, I genuinely couldn’t even give you a range for a banana or any other food for that matter. I feel so far away from it and I genuinely can’t believe how much of my brain used to be consumed by it. Today, I see food as something additive that can help tremendously in a healing process.

 

I’ve been dealing with an auto-immune disorder for the last few years, which doctors now say could actually be the long-standing virus I got 5-years ago when I first got sick in Bali. This time around, my interest in food and nutrition has provided hugely positive psychological support. Having access to information about the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric, for example, provides me a level of comfort and control that I’m not able to get elsewhere since doctors are still trying to figure out what’s going on with me. 

 

That said, the amount of things allowed in our foods here in the U.S. that I’ve never seen elsewhere is really mind-blowing and feeds some of the “food is bad” narrative in my opinion. I think all of us know what “eating healthy” is in a really basic sense — eat foods that we can identify as real food. We should be able to eat things like bread or ketchup and know what’s in it. But when I’m eating out and pick up a bottle of ketchup on the table, I’m shocked to see there are 20g of added sugars. Why!? Or when I pick up a loaf of bread at the grocery store and see so many ingredients that I can’t even pronounce. These aren’t “fancy” foods or ingredients — they’re just chemicals. It’s really frustrating because I think this drives a distorted narrative around what we should or shouldn’t eat if we want to stay healthy — a good example is bread or burgers. If breads and burgers are made with simple ingredients, it wouldn’t be an issue to enjoy it as part of your diet. We’ve restricted our ability to access pure forms of these foods, and that makes it really difficult to find healthier options, whether it’s at the grocery store or eating out.

 

All that said… I do still want to eat a Cheeto every once in a while, and I feel ok about that! Overall, my thesis is this: enjoy life, eat mostly real foods, and eat Cheetos occasionally. Or that Dreyer’s ice cream with (super) weird ingredients, because your grandma is offering it to you and that moment means something! Staying mindful of it all makes the difference, and so does not spending too much of your brainpower stressing about it.

 

What’s awesome about food is that it can be such a strong starting point for the healing journey. We can learn and grow so much from our relationship to and understanding of the food that fuels our bodies. The food we choose to eat is part of this particular moment, but it’s also a part of a larger community and story.

 

For anyone struggling like I was, I always recommend finding a group to connect with as a first step. I imagine it’s much harder now with covid, but even finding food-positive and body-positive instagram accounts (and unfollowing body “inspo” accounts) can be really educational and start to shift your perspective. There will be times when you feel like you are not making progress, or even like you’re going backwards, and in those times, remind yourself the path to healing isn’t linear. It takes time, time, and more time to learn new behaviors and retrain your brain. You’ll make mistakes, but that never negates any of the work you’ve done. You can and will heal, and it will be 100% worth it."