I overcame anorexia despite its taboo in my Asian community


It was my last weigh-in of the month. I was a sophomore in high school and had been going to the doctor’s office every week since I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa that year.

I distinctly remember drinking a lot of water and eating salt right before the weigh-in, thinking it would make me retain enough water to artificially drive up the number on the scale. It did not work.

Regardless, the first step toward recovery is recognition of the problem, and I knew that I had unhealthy relationship with food.

After the weigh-in, my doctor sat me down. We analyzed my food diary and talked about what was going on in my life and how I felt. Talking with an understanding, nonjudgmental professional was very therapeutic. There was a cultural and generational divide between my parents and me, and it was difficult for us to see eye to eye. While my mother was supportive of my many doctor visits, my father did not acknowledge my diagnosis, as he did not believe in psychological disorders. Furthermore, because food is such an integral part of the Chinese culture and my parents grew up during a time in which food was scarce and rationed by the Chinese government, my father could not fathom how I could be so wasteful and unappreciative of the abundance of food.

My father could not fathom how I could be so wasteful and unappreciative of the abundance of food.

My obsession with food and my weight began a year prior, when I started high school. I wanted to be popular, look nice and get As. I applied the same discipline that I used for school work and extracurricular activities to my appearance.

I did not think that I was fat, but I was what my relatives in China would callzhuang, which means strong or muscular. The term was meant as a compliment, but in my world of MTV and celebrity magazines, zhuang meant chunky, overweight. I was not okay with chunky. My goal was skinny.

I began to start cutting calories and exercise compulsively. During that time, the relationship between my parents and between my father and me also became more strained — there was plenty of yelling, slamming of doors and breaking of tableware — and I was overwhelmed and anxious. I have always been one to seek control and order, and I felt particularly powerless by the lack of it at home.

Consequently, I applied my need for control to my weight and school. I felt accomplished as I watched my weight steadily decrease, and I received more compliments on my appearance. However, while the compliments were ego-boosters on the surface, I felt as insecure as ever underneath. My self-worth was still tied to my perception of how others judged my appearance, and this need for validation prevented me from developing a healthy level of self-esteem and loving myself.

When my doctor told me that I had anorexia, neither I nor my family understood how serious it is. Research has shown the disorder has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Patients can die from starvation, cardiovascular failure and suicide. But the illness is treatable with the help and support of professionals.

I am thankful that after a year of doctor visits and many years thereafter of unwavering support from my loved ones, I have been able to become healthy again. The journey to recovery was overwhelming and seemingly endless at the time, but it was necessary for my physical, mental and emotional health.

When I stopped comparing myself to unrealistic, unhealthy standards and started to appreciate and love myself, I emerged a much stronger and happier person.

Consider the following resources if you are experiencing mental illness and want to seek help now. If you want to discuss a mental health issue, including symptoms and treatment, call the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). If you are in crisis, text 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For international resources, this list is a good place to start. 

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