Friday, September 5, 2014

It's time to get personal: My story

When I was applying to colleges (oh that winter break spent holed up in my room two years ago), I remember one of the long essay questions went a little something like this: "Describe a struggle you have overcome and how it has affect you" (with more eloquence, of course), and if I could go back, this is what I would have written about.

Up to this point in my life (roughly December 2012), I believed that everything has gone through swimmingly; any so called struggle that I dealt with was much too trivial to write a full blow essay that a admissions officer at some prestigious university would use to judge my passion, personality, values, and future potential with. That could have been further from the truth.

Everyone has struggles. Read again: everyone has struggles, and no matter how minuscule a problem may seem, every single experience a person goes through becomes an integral part of his identity. For me, this struggle was anorexia.

Me (left) at about three years old
So let's go back to the beginning. I am full-fledged Chinese, born in Beijing and raised in Atlanta. As a child, I was always on the smaller side. In fact, my grandparents to this day still remind me about how they had to essentially cook everything down to mush for me or else I would not properly digest and absorb everything I ate and my weight would drop radically. Of course, as a child I ate everything that my little heart desired. That being said however, my family has always eaten a relatively healthy Chinese diet that is largely plant and starch-based with smaller amounts of meat and fish. Fast food, junk food, and sweets were rare treats because they were more expensive than rice, vegetables, and eggs. Nonethless, I remember that my favorite food of all time was McDonald's. Chinese McDonald's (trust me, there is a difference).

I was about four years old when my family and I immigrated to the US and I was thrusted into a whole different food environment. My mom still made Chinese-style dinners of course, but all of the sudden, I had access to chips, burgers, pizza, fast food, cereal, and all the things that my body was not used to eating. Now, I don't mean to say that these foods are particularly fattening, but my body simply was not used to processing the new foods and could not fully comprehend that it has had enough energy, so I gained weight. I wasn't terribly big, but compared to my old self and my slim family, I definitely was larger.
Summer 2009, 14 years old

My mom, trying to be helpful, started trying to limit my portions and making me go out to exercise in an effort to help me loose weight. She did not put me on any sort of intense diet, but just tried to get me to eat a little bit less. This went on and off until I was about twelve.

The summer I turned twelve years old, puberty hit me and it hit hard. All of the sudden, I dropped several pounds and grew several inches with no effort at all. I still ate what I liked, when I liked it, but now my diet incorporated things like instant noodles, chips, french fries, chicken fingers, and buffalo wings in addition to my Chinese meals. I ate like every normal teenager until about January 2011. At first, it was just a harmless New Year's resolution to eat a bit healthier and drop a few pounds. I downloaded the infamous MyFitnessPal app and began counting my calories.

Spring 2009, 13 years old
I always already a pretty slim girl, but I just wanted to loose some of my stomach "fat" and get a flat tummy, so I set my first weight goal: 5 pounds. I reached it without much effort, but when I got there, I couldn't see any difference. So I decided to loose another 5. And that's when the ball started rolling. I began cutting my calories out. 1600 became 1400 which became 1200 and then 1000, 800, 400, 200, negatives. I began exercising like a lunatic, cycling several hours a day, unsatisfied until I had "negative" several hundred calories. I stopped eating lunch at school, telling my friends that I would go study in the library instead. I threw away the egg and toast my dad made me for breakfast while he was getting dressed. I skipped dinners by telling my parents that I had already eaten.

And the thinner I got, the fatter I felt.

December 2009 vs December 2012, same friends, same location
My parents became alarmed when they realized how much thinner I was. They banned me from exercise and handed me several yogurts and granola bars through the day. So I started walking home from school and hiding food. I made every excuse to eat as little as possible during dinner and hid away in my room immediately after, fearing that they would make me eat again. My family became a mess.

Up to this point, I had never in my life seen my dad cry before, but he cried because of me. My mom was hysterical. I hated myself for doing this to them but I was even more terrified of gaining weight.

From about July 2011 until June 2014, I lived in a state of quasi-recovery. I didn't gain any weight back (in fact, I lost some more). I was cold all the time. I couldn't fit into any clothing. My hair was falling out. I didn't have my period. My boyfriend of nearly two years and I broke up because I lost all interest in human interactions. To this day, that's what devastates me the most about this illness: all of the relationships I destroyed.

It wasn't just my relationship with people, my relationship with God just crumbled. You know the song "The Motions" by Matthew West? The chorus goes:
I don't wanna go through the motions
I don't wanna go one more day 
Without Your all consuming passion inside of me 
I don't wanna spend my whole life asking 
What if I had given everything 
Instead of going through the motions?

Well that was exactly how I was living. I was still on my youth group's praise team, but when I praised Him, I felt nothing. I went on mission trips to the Navajo Nation and Taiwan, but felt little compassion for the people I served and was blind to the work God was doing. I eventually stopped attending church, stopped reading my Bible, stopped doing daily devotions. I stepped away from God.

If reading to here, you still think that being skinny is worth not having that delicious meal your mom made, that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, and that anorexia is a glamorous lifestyle, then read very carefully: ANOREXIA IS THE MOST EVIL, VILE THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ME. It took away every single meaningful thing in my life and left me hating myself more than ever.

August 2013
I went to college in August 2013 and being on my own over ten hours away from home was devastating for my mental health. I began going to the gym at 6AM determined to build up some muscles and become "#strongnotskinny". I ate nothing but spinach leaves, chicken breast, and Quest Bars. I gave myself a few hundred calories to eat a day, but would never even go near that. Carbs? Totally off limits. All the yummy care packages my mom painstakingly made for me? Out in the trash bin. Medical fact: it is impossible to put on muscle without also putting on some fat. Medical fact #2: it's impossible to put on muscle while in a caloric deficit. Yes, I knew these two things, but my disease refused to let me believe it.

It's safe to say that I spent my first year at college absolutely miserable. My days revolved around the foods I could not eat. I refused to go out and socialize with people. I had no energy to explore my new city. I was not me.

It wasn't until June 2014 that I decided to take the leap of faith and fully recover for myself. I had followed Julia and Amalie for some time and was extremely inspired by their recovery stories. So I started to eat. And eat. And eat. I had a minimum of 3000 calories a day, stayed sedentary, and allowed my body to recover. This path wasn't some straight line though, but instead the most convoluted path one can image. Recovery is hard. And it gets harder.

But despite how hard recovery was and is, it is still better than being sick. Recovery is like getting a fever: you are hot, sweaty, and feel absolutely horrible, but that's what needs to happen for your immune system to fight off whatever pathogen is attacking your body. If your body doesn't fight it off, you eventually die.

So here I am now, several tens of pounds heavier, happier, and learning to enjoy life again. I'm branching out, trying new things, eating delicious foods, and teaching myself to love my body. No, I don't believe that I am fully recovered yet, but I am close, and now that I can see how great life is without an eating disorder again, I refuse to relapse. Trust me, there is a life beyond tracking, measuring, weighing, and hating. And it tastes like freshly baked cookie.

So go enjoy one guilt free :)