My obsession with perfection

The realities of living with an eating disorder

Four years ago, I was admitted to the eating disorder unit at Sick Kids Hospital.

It would be easy to lie and say that my battle with mental illness started a few months before I was sent to the hospital. Truthfully, it was something I had suffered with for years, but accepting it as a reality was the hardest part.

The experiences and struggles I’ve gone through have shaped me into a stronger, more confident and understanding person than I ever thought I could be, and for that I am thankful. Writing this, I know that I’m extremely lucky to be where I am today.

I remember being seven years old and asking my mom if I could go on a diet.

At the time, I didn’t know what the term ‘diet’ really meant, but I was intent on having my mom swap out sandwiches for salads and snack packs for fruit.

I noticed my friends were thinner than me and knew that food, or lack thereof, was the key to looking like everyone else. It was then that my obsession with perfection began and eventually shaped the way I approached school, relationships and my physical appearance.  

Fights, bad grades and my general inability to be “perfect” led to an endless cycle of disappointment.

The self-loathing that ensued as a result of my inability to achieve perfection culminated in an eating disorder. The summer before grade 12 was the first time it was diagnosed, thus making it real.

Certain that gaining weight would cause those that I loved to desert me, no amount of hospitalization, therapy or threats of imminent death were enough to motivate me to get better. Fearful of disappointing the people around me, I isolated myself and retreated into a world of negativity and sadness.

One morning, I had an epiphany that can only be described as a miracle. I understood that I deserved to live and it was the starting point to regaining my health.

I started the morning like every other, pretending to eat breakfast by filling a bowl with food that I’d later throw out. Before I had the chance though, something inside me said that I needed to sit down and actually eat a meal. The minute the food touched my lips, all of the voices that used to tell me how it would ruin my life suddenly disappeared.

Even then, I knew that my experience was extremely unusual. To this day, I wonder where I’d be if I had ignored that part of me that wanted to beat my disease.

Eating disorders are about more than just the desire to be thin. They’re motivated by a powerful need for control and are often a side effect of underlying mental illness.

After recovering from my eating disorder, my anxiety and depression began to manifest themselves through panic attacks, once again forcing me into isolation. My doctor diagnosed me with anxiety disorder and I was able to get the help I desperately needed.

But now, I had become extremely skilled in masking my pain and, although I knew my inclination to restrict my food intake had returned, I lied and said I was fine.

What followed was two years of restriction, binging, hatred, sadness and confusion.

So many people who suffer from mental illness are never able to remove their demons and many suffer in silence. Me, I isolated myself instead of asking for help.

While some days I’d be completely normal, there would be days where all I could do was lay in bed staring at the ceiling. Although a part of me knew I should tell someone how much I was hurting, there’s a sense of failure tied to the acknowledgement that you have a problem.

The voice in my head that fuelled my anxiety had such a hold on me that I no longer knew who I really was. This forced me to reassess where and who I was and decide how I was going to approach my future.

Eventually, I was able to honestly address, understand and accept my anxiety and depression. I no longer allow it to dictate my life.

Mental illness is an often silent presence, which can only be stopped through education and acceptance. My experience with mental illness has made me appreciate my health, my friends and family, and all of the opportunities I’ve been given because I know how fragile life can be.

Moving forward, I know that I will continue to have to fight for my health, because mental illness is something that stays with you for life. But, by learning from my past experiences, I can have a healthier and brighter future.

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