As if confinement weren’t difficult enough, student Aoibhín McGarry has an extra challenge to contend with …
The cheers of hundreds of students ring through the hallway – a pleasant change from the solemn atmosphere that usually floods the science block. There’s a sense of freedom in the air, I can practically taste it. Confused, I fumble my way through the chattering crowds on the way to my next lecture, trying to figure out what has caused all this chaos. I find myself crashing into a girl whose face looks vaguely familiar, yet her name I struggle to remember. “Do you have any idea what’s going on?” I laugh nervously. She responds by shoving her phone in my face. On the screen, there is an email from the college provost. “Lectures are over! Summer has come early!” She runs over to greet a group of friends and share the marvellous news.
I gulp. I should be excited, jumping up and down like everyone else. Instead, my body sinks into a state of panic – not about the virus but because the thought of not going into college every day terrifies me. It provides structure to my day, a reason to get up in the morning, a place to meet friends and laugh but most of all a distraction and something that takes me away from the ever-present food at home. A distraction and distance from the tempting solace of binging and purging. Without college, I will no longer be able to distract myself from my eating disorder.
I had always coped by spending as little time in the house as I could and eating out often to avoid the sinking fear that I have given myself too big a portion. Not to mention the “lockdown stockpile” that I knew my parents would inevitably begin to build. Honestly, the thought of being surrounded by so much food made me want to both scream and bury myself in my duvet at the same time.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with food since I was seven. I was bulimic for most of secondary school, and even with four years of cognitive behavioural therapy behind me, I still grapple with relentless cycles of binging and restricting. I am proud of myself, however, for managing to get some semblance of a grip over my eating in the past year. It is seldom that I make myself throw up after a meal, which is an immense achievement since I used to do it between two and five times a day. I no longer lie to my parents about food. I no longer take laxatives before bed each night, and I no longer feel so weak in the morning that my legs shake as I walk up the stairs. My eating disorder does not control my life anymore. Aside from the compulsion to weigh myself every day, I am physically healthier and stronger than I’ve ever been before.
But food is still a massive source of anxiety for me. Until now, my tactic was to distract myself with exciting activities and meetings with friends so I wouldn’t have time to worry about food. Despite my progress, my relationship with food is nowhere near healthy enough to weather months-long disruption. As the seriousness of COVID-19, and the fear that came with it began to dawn, I was forced to plan. I would Facetime my friends every day and work out until I had the body of a sculpted Greek goddess!
Unfortunately, social media got in the way like it always does. With so much time on my hands, I could practically feel the need for validation rippling through the screen of my iPhone. I soon fell into the trap of spending hours on social media, gawking at emaciated girls who “danced” in a crop-top for ten seconds and got one million views! Naturally, this led to a drastic drop in self-esteem. Before I knew it, I was sneaking home from the shop with a handbag-ful of the most calorific foods I could find, careful to hide from my parents, and sneaking upstairs to my bedroom where I would gorge until tears ran down my cheeks. Even when my stomach felt like it would explode, and I was dizzy with nausea, it was a struggle to resist the kitchen. I knew that endless amounts of delicious food were lurking behind those cupboard doors, just 30 seconds away.
My relationship with food is nowhere near healthy enough to weather months-long disruption
This morning I woke up at 4am covered in sweat and in a puddle of tears. I was having a panic attack. My throat burned from all the acid, and I could still smell the Chinese food on my clothes. Why the f*ck had I done that? I close my eyes and remember my dad shouting at me for ordering food, telling me that it was completely unnecessary since we had all had a nice meal for my birthday anyway. I remember the distinct guilty feeling that encased me like quicksand as I finished the last chicken wing on my plate, immediately regretting it. Even so, the idea that I could have one final binge and purge before starving myself for the next week became more and more appealing. By the time that I had finished my last glass of prosecco, my mind was set. The thought of the pain as I shoved my fingers down my throat until I saw blood made my hands shake with anxiety, and as I tiptoed to the kitchen in the middle of the night to quench my thirst. Then the panic begins to set in. My parents must think I’m an absolute pig. Did I have one too many glasses of prosecco and embarrass myself on Facetime to my friends? I briefly remember crying on the phone to a friend. Had I told her that I was getting sick?! I take a deep breath and try to get sleep for the few hours that are left before morning.
I’m trying. I really am. Each day I meticulously plan each thing I will eat and schedule my exercise for the day. When I go shopping with my parents, I insist on buying cauliflower rice and vegan soups that contain less than 100 calories. Still, I am learning to allow myself a treat every now and again. Each day I try my hardest not to fall back into the habits that got me here in the first place. I have called my therapist for an over-the-phone appointment. I keep a positivity journal which I write in every night. I have (kinda) started running, and I try my best not to compare myself to people who appear flawless on Instagram.
And it’s exhausting. Almost as exhausting as listening to the bombastic rants of people who say that worrying about food is stupid and a waste of time. Oh, trust me, I already know that. Eating disorders will forever be a time-wasting inconvenience. I am aware that the world has much more pressing issues, and I will undoubtedly do everything in my power to help stop the spread of COVID-19, but to look after others, we must first look after ourselves, our mental as well as our physical health.
To all the people that believe that they are selfish for focusing on something so superficial and insignificant in this time of crisis, I want you to know that you are wrong. Eating disorders are not about vanity or being better than others, they are about control. Right now, control has been taken away from all of us. I wish I was perfect. I wish I was writing an article about how I have gracefully managed myself so that I had not a worry in the world. But that’s not real life, and I know there are unfathomable amounts of you out there that feel the same way as I do. I don’t have a magic wand solution as to how to cope throughout this time. However, the main piece of advice I can give is to talk to someone, tell them how you are feeling in person or online. That one conversation could make all the difference. And, if you know someone who is going through this, I urge you to be patient with them. We can get through this together, one meal at a time.
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