This article originally appeared on VICE India.
Confessions is a series of essays on personal experiences and intimate issues, many of which have been kept secret for so long. By sharing these previously confidential accounts, we explore our own mental health without judgment and the various ways we cope, with the hope that it makes it a little lighter of a burden for us to carry. It's also a reminder that no matter how odd or unique these experiences can be, someone can relate to it – and we are not alone.
“Maybe you should speak to a therapist.” For almost two years, hearing these words directed at me would confuse, even enrage, me. It would come up during long arguments with my best friend, or with my mother during my annual visit to my parents’ home. It would be those long-drawn calls, or fights over dinner tables, at home or in restaurants. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see what they were seeing. At the same time, I felt they couldn’t see what I’d be seeing. I mean, I was fit, I worked out, I ate clean. Not just healthy, but clean. You know, that whole ‘go big or go home’ approach. I was going for the big, and I had achieved it.
Having spent a decade living an unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle—spent ordering in, drinking and smoking, often simultaneously—I had developed prediabetes and a severe case of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). My weight gain arrived in my mid-20s, and refused to depart. And culturally, no matter where you live, overweight people are often made invisible. I did try to embrace myself and my body, but the cultural obsession with thinness is hard to escape. The trauma of being invisible, therefore, stuck on, rather ruthlessly.
So when I achieved this manic discipline in my late 20s, I initially joked that I’ve finally transitioned into my now-retired army officer father, who thrives on a strict daily regimen. But the discipline had very vague boundaries, even in my head. The diet became sparser each day, and the workouts more frequent. Sometimes it made no sense why I wanted to run 10 kilometres in the morning, and another 10 in the evening after office. But I wanted to see how much I could push myself. Or at least that’s what I thought I was doing: Pushing my own limits.
I loved waking up at 5 a.m., heading out for yoga or a run (most times, both), coming back and having fruit and coconut juice for breakfast, a light lunch (though on some days, this meal was skipped) and then dinner at 8 p.m. When people would cut birthday cakes in the office, I would resist and go back to my desk with smug satisfaction. My friends would ask me how I did it, and I would just shrug and impart impossible advice to get them on it too. They would not. But to me, my sense and execution of control felt great, even euphoric. Most times, it manifested in some sort of grandiose complex over the lesser mortals who give in to, *gasp*, a piece of cake.
So naturally, I didn’t realise when it all went overboard. I became that kind of a person who goes out with their friends and bombards the waiter with hundreds of instructions until I’d be served a bowl of dry leaves (or whatever was left of the salad) and sip on a glass of water. I would smugly look down upon whatever cheese-filled or oily plate of goodness my friends were devouring. Their guilt, in turn, would fuel my persistence. I didn’t notice when I started cutting out a lot of food items from my life because they 'weren’t healthy enough'—a standard that I had set based on just my whims and not any real research into healthy eating. In the process though, I looked great, and was told so by friends, family and even strangers in the park I ran in. I became a slave to that attention.
But then, after a while, when those close to me told me I should seek therapy for my health obsession (because they obviously saw that this is more than just that), I didn't get it. I told them I had health conditions they didn’t understand, and that I knew my body better. With every justification, my moral high ground would rise a notch higher. But there are limitations, I guess, because after the first year of successfully staying on the regime, I started “slipping”. It’s just one, I would tell myself every time I gave in to that odd cookie or a slice of pizza, until the binges started. A colleague once found me holed up in one of our office booths, ravenously downing 14 cookies one after the other. I’m not sure how long she was standing there for and watching me, but eventually I looked up. She knew of my “allergies”, and she told me it’s my crazy food restrictions that’s causing this.
But the slips had a ‘solution’ too. Every time I caved in to unhealthy food, I would go home and throw up to ‘cleanse’ my system. And while the purging was punishing enough, it was made worse by the lingering guilt. And then the cycle started. Every time I slipped, I wanted to punish myself even more, and I got stricter, which would make temptations all the more unbearable, which would lead to binging again. In all of this, the loss of control, and regaining it became an exercise that made sense to nobody but me.
Get some help, my friends told me, those who caught me sneaking into the bathroom to throw up after my meals. It’s detoxing, I would tell them, and nothing more. After failing to convince them, I passed them off as allergies. “You know, one of those late onsets of intolerance towards some food. Whenever I eat it, my stomach can’t take it.” They would nod along, part-sympathy, part-disbelief. Psychosomatically perhaps, I could actually feel a stomach pain, or insane bloating if I ate any of the “restricted” items. The purges got frequent, even addictive. My obsession with clean eating started extending to “feeling clean”, which for me meant just not having anything inside my tummy. Sometimes, I would wake up early just to purge before my workout or run sessions even though my trainers frequently told me to eat a fruit or a slice of toast beforehand.
I knew I had peaked when I stole my mother’s measuring tape. Every morning and every night before I slept, I measured my waist. Any extra inches around my abdomen, even if it was water retention, would dictate the day’s diet. Sometimes there would be just one meal a day, which would be a measly gluten-free bread served with some boiled vegetables. Other times, it would be a long run, followed by rigorous high intensity workouts. My friends insisted on getting help. By now, my bones were sticking out but I would still crib about gaining weight, much to the annoyance of those around me. Friends I would bump into randomly on the streets would tell me I’m vanishing into thin air. My best friend told me I looked “sick” in my Instagram photos. My mother told me I look unhealthy and need “real” food. Nothing worked. I felt great.
Finally, early last year, I came down with a fever and I knew what I had done to my body when it took me almost a month to recover. Every time I attempted a run in the middle of recovery, I would feel a blackout coming. My cook, who had been trying to keep up with my crazy diet (I live alone and away from my family), saw me listless on my bed for several weeks, and finally snapped. “That’s it. Enough of your weird food habits. I’m going to make normal food and you will eat it,” she declared one day. I didn’t resist. I started eating full meals—rice, chapatis, vegetables with masalas, sandwiches with cheese and butter, and so on.
After two months, I felt stronger and just really, really stupid. I finally reached out to my friends and admitted what I’d been doing to myself. There was, thankfully, empathy and a lot of support. But I realised that despite my feminism and love-your-body activism, I had succumbed to internal pressures and given in to toxic body-image—or the notion of how a “feminine” body should look like—enough to drive me to psychosis. I wanted to get rid of my own “PCOS body” so much that I had begun to hate it.
I do look back and see it as abuse, in the form of self-inflicted guilt, and an undue pressure to look a certain way. It took me two years to realise that my obsession for health was actually just an obsession for a certain body type—and that our mind is capable of even lying to itself when it comes to this fixation. A visit to my doctor informed me that my “intolerances and allergies” do not exist. I’ve made peace with my slight paunch and give my body enough rest to recover from workouts. Amid the pandemic, the anxieties around my body rose again as I was confined to my house. But I’m learning to live with myself, and this time, there are no punishments. Sometimes, I take out the measuring tape, not to measure my waist but to test my own guilt and self-loathing. The trauma is not entirely gone because as I’m discovering, self-love has to be cultivated, slowly and gently. And yes, one step at a time.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.