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Mental Health

TW: How My Eating Disorder Became a Coping Mechanism

Trigger Warning: This article contains content pertaining to eating disorders, anxiety and depression.

Disclaimer: This article does not replace proper medical advice. Please contact your doctor for any medical advice.

To keep my mental health from worsening in high school, I found coping mechanisms to deal with the anxiety and depression I was feeling. I kept myself busy with what seemed like every extracurricular my high school had to offer. I was a huge choir nerd in high school but also swam competitively and wrote for my school’s newspaper and magazine. However, once the pandemic hit and society shut down, I did not know what to do with myself. 

The whole world was in what felt like a constant state of mourning. Lives were taken, and jobs were lost as this pandemic shook the country to its core. Like many American business owners, my parents had to shut down their business while still trying to pay off their student loans and mortgage debt. 

As I was finalizing my college decisions, I lost hope for the future. The last thing I wanted was to burden my parents with my education costs, in addition to all the other financial expenses my family was paying. My parents and I spent hours filing financial aid appeals and researching scholarships that I could apply for. The culmination of grief, despair and anxiety flooded my mind, and I did not have access to my usual coping mechanisms. 

I could not calm myself through my typical activities or seek physical comfort from my friends. Like many others, I picked up a new coping mechanism: food. I found stress relief in baking with my mom and my sisters. We made everything from muffins to traditional Vietnamese meat pastries, and I could feel myself growing a relationship with my family. At the same time, my self-confidence faded away. 

Photo by Edwin Hooper from Unsplash

I found temporary solace in food, and it eventually led to emotionally-charged eating habits. I inhaled massive amounts of food without even realizing it. It felt like someone took over my body as I ate my emotions which left my stomach in pain. The immediate feelings of guilt and shame rushed through my body as I stared at my empty food containers in disbelief. I gained over 20 pounds since lockdown, and it killed me. I did not feel as energetic as I used to and rarely had the motivation to leave my bed to keep my body moving. 

As summer flew by and I moved into VCU, it turned out my disordered eating habits came with me too. Like most college freshmen, I had freshly gotten out of a high school relationship and was trying to cope. Continuing the trend, I coped with food but felt a lingering fear follow me. “Don’t get the freshman 15!” or “don’t come back home heavier” clouded my mind. I did not realize it at the time, but food had become my toxic friend. I relied on food whenever I had a bad day. I continued my disordered patterns thinking it would help me feel better. My fears of people noticing my unhealthy eating habits traveled with me as I left campus for break. It turns out, my fears became true. 

Do not get me wrong; I love spending time with my family; however, going home was a reminder of all the reasons why I began coping with food. Coming home to hear comments about my weight gain and appearance further wreaked havoc on my relationship with food. My binge-eating episodes happened more frequently and so intensely to the point, I felt the need to self-induce vomit the food I consumed. 

My first bulimic episode set a precedent for the vicious cycle I was about to trap myself in. The cycle began with increasing anxiety levels and depressive thoughts. To cope with my anxiety, I relied on binge-eating, which provided temporary endorphin rushes and mental highs. Once the high dissipated, guilt took over my body, and my urge to purge was triggered. 

sad girl in blue sweater near window
Anthony Tran

My eating disorder developed as a result of my anxiety and depression. I used food as an unhealthy coping mechanism which further worsened my mental and physical health. What typically is not discussed is that living with an eating disorder, food does not only become your enemy but also your destructive dependency. 

Eating disorders go beyond simply thinking, “I don’t like how I look.” It includes suppressing anxiety attacks while hearing friends talk about their workout regimens. It includes intrusive thoughts taking over the mind when clothes fit differently. It’s grocery shopping with extreme anxiety that someone may be judging what’s in your cart or how many calories you may consume. For me, it mainly consisted of an abusive, dependent relationship with food and my brain. 

What helped jumpstart my healing process was surrounding myself with people who reminded me of my best qualities. Getting back into working out was and still is a mental struggle as I fear relapsing, but it has been over a month since my last bulimic episode! I still struggle with binge eating daily, but I know my progress will take time, just like any recovery process. While I am still in the process of ending my toxic relationship with food, my appreciation and gratitude for my body and mind continue to grow. 

My heart goes out to anyone battling a less than ideal relationship with food. Living with an eating disorder is a silent fight that often goes unnoticed. For more information about eating disorders, please visit National Eating Disorders Association on how to seek help or help loved ones affected. 

Annie Phan is a political science and public relations double major at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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