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My Story: Navigating infertility and healing from an eating disorder

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Life feels out of control; I’m not good enough.”

My eating disorder started in university, though its symptoms had already begun to take root in earlier years.

In secondary school, I felt most of the time like an awkward misfit who needed to prove her worth. Though not a particularly gifted student, I possessed a strong work ethic and a streak of perfectionism. These qualities drove me to work hard at my studies, and I enjoyed the sense of achievement whenever I did well. Deep down, however, I struggled with low self-esteem and an underlying fear of failure.

At eighteen, while in college, I experienced a difficult personal crisis that brought on a sense of loss of control and security. However, I did not feel like I could disclose my struggles to anyone. Talking about emotions is taboo in Asian culture, and I was afraid of the judgement and shame that might be created by opening up. Instead, I dealt with my feelings by suppressing them, putting my head down and working even harder in school.

In the process of completing A-Levels and applying for university, I received an offer from a prestigious institution in the UK, and the excitement of being accepted gave me another tool for distraction. The memories of the incident lay buried and forgotten – or so I thought.

The beginning of a “perfect storm”

Beginning life abroad brought a slew of new adjustments. For someone who had never lived away from home before, the transition was both exciting and jarring. The university had a rich academic history and an environment that inspired the best of learning. At the same time, it was highly competitive, and filled with brilliant students who were driven to be the best.

In the first weeks of settling in, I quickly discovered that keeping on top of things as a university scholar was far more challenging than high school and college. On top of balancing social activities, the academic workload was intense, standards were high and there was no slowing down. I worked hard on my assignments each week, trying to cram as much information about my subject as I could, but no amount of effort felt enough to meet my tutors’ expectations. At night, I would have difficulty falling asleep, homesick and fearful that I was failing to keep up.

Striving for control

It was around this time that I started to develop an unhealthy obsession with numbers and body weight. I began to impose strict rules for myself around food, exercise and studies, slowly adding more to the list until they grew into monstrous, dysfunctional routines. When not planning elaborate low-calorie meals, or the next time to work out, I buried myself in work and reading lists. While punishing, these rules gave me a sense of control, discipline, and hence, relief.

Source: Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash

By the end of first year, I had hit a wall. I was constantly cold and exhausted, but still forcing myself to wake up early to go on long runs and spending long hours in the library poring over work, all while sustaining myself on a bare minimum of calories. My body was shutting down, but I persisted on doggedly, too afraid and ashamed to seek help.

It was the 5th of November, the eve of Guy Fawkes Night, when I was finally summoned to the office of the senior tutor of my residential college. Hunched over in an armchair, shivering in the warmth of his study, I listened blankly to his words. The college had decided to defer me from my course for a year, due to concerns over my physical and mental health.

Small stepping stones to healing

Breaking the news to my parents that I was being forced to take time off my studies was extremely difficult. I felt guilty, as if I had laden shame upon them for “failing” to adjust well to university life, and having instead to return home, a weak emaciated shadow of a daughter.

The break from my studies nevertheless gave me the chance to recuperate in a familiar climate, and the warmth of loved ones. After the year was up, I returned to university and, despite a minor relapse, completed my degree, graduating a year behind my cohort.

At this point, I had two options- remain in the UK and try to secure a job that would grant me a work visa, or move back home and begin life afresh. I chose the latter path and eventually started working as a features writer for a local newspaper. I had loved reading stories as a child, and being able to write for a living gave me joy and fulfilled my creative needs.

Source: Thought Catalog on Unsplash

The long road ahead

The decade of my twenties was one of blossoming and personal growth: I took different career turns, built new relationships, got married to a wonderful man, and began to reconnect with hobbies and creative interests such as baking, outdoor hiking, and sketching.

However, even as these good things were unfolding in my life, the eating disorder remained a constant hum in the background. Though no longer in the throes of illness, I was still underweight for my age and height, engaging in disordered dieting behaviours, and had a poor mindset around food, eating and body image. These thoughts had become almost second nature, so much so it was extremely difficult to think and do things differently.

Source: Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Truth be told, there was no epiphany that led me to decide, once and for all, to relinquish my obsession around food and weight. Rather, I had just enough clarity to realise how much the eating disorder was diminishing my quality of life. Though I cherished the sense of control and security, I was aware that it was overshadowing the good in my life, eating at my confidence and holding me back from experiencing life to its fullest.

From there, like a caterpillar crawling out of its cocoon of safety, I started to look up dieticians and counsellors, seeking out nutritional and psychological therapeutic support. I also began opening up to my family, and few trusted friends to share what I was going through. These people became my pillars of strength, cheering me with their unconditional love and care whenever I faced challenges and setbacks.

A crushing diagnosis

Two years ago, my husband and I started trying in earnest to start a family. Truth be told, we had been trying from the day we were married, without any success.

After seeking advice and consulting several doctors, we were dealt a great blow – years of being at an unhealthy weight had disrupted the metabolic and hormonal functions in my body, which meant that would be very difficult for me to conceive naturally. Unwilling to give up, my husband and I embarked on a prolonged journey of assisted fertility treatments that took many twists and turns – a laparoscopic surgery to remove cysts that had grown in my womb, two staggered rounds of hormonal therapy and most recently, an attempt at IVF.

Unlike the fairy tale ending, however, the outcome of this quest was not what we had hoped for. Due to prolonged poor nutrition and low levels of fat, the few eggs that were “harvested” from my womb were of very weak quality, and failed to mature into embryos after being fertilised. When the nurse informed us of the outcome over the phone, waves of anger and self-condemnation crashed over me. “It’s my fault” ; “I caused this by having an eating disorder” and most sickening of all: “Why wasn’t I strong enough to take action sooner?”

The journey of recovery continues

There are profound emotional challenges that come with a diagnosis of infertility. As a woman, knowing that my body may never be capable of bearing life naturally is a very hard truth to accept. My husband and I have temporarily paused fertility treatment, but we have not given up on having children. If and when the day comes that I am able to experience the miracle of bringing a new life into this world, I know I will not take the privilege for granted.

Though I am learning to forgive myself for my past mistakes, there are still days when grief and sadness come flooding back. In those moments, I try to remind myself that these are normal emotions, and allow myself to experience them, instead of suppressing them as I once did.

Looking back now, I know that the reason I developed an eating disorder wasn’t really about vanity or self-appearance- it was about trying to preserve a sense of order when life felt unstable. Starving myself wasn’t a display of strength, but a way of channelling my fearfulness into something I could control, when other things were crumbling apart.

What lies ahead

Like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable, I am on a slow, but steady journey. Eleven years of healing from an eating disorder has taught me many lessons: how precious time is, how valuable life experiences can be, and above all, that love in its purest form is a powerful antidote to break the most deeply ingrained lies and fears.

I hope that sharing my story will help encourage others who may be facing similar battles. It is difficult, but opening up and being honest with people who will support and love you is the most powerful thing you can do. When things feel too hard, just speaking to one or two people who can help lift us up and renew our strength is transformative. Above all, you must know that you are worthy and deserving of a better life than the one an eating disorder promises you.

“Scars remind us of where we have been, not where we are going.” When I first started recovery, I wished that things would be easy and that the process would be as painless as possible. I was afraid of messing up. Now, I have learnt that I don’t want an easy life. I want a life where it’s sometimes messy and sometimes hard- not because I think I can handle it, but rather, because life with meaning is beautiful. I believe this is true for all of us.

I have faith that, in years to come, the chapters of my life waiting to be written will be brighter yet, and filled with better things that I could have imagined.

By Su Lin


Su Lin is a Malaysian-born city dweller, dreaming quiet dreams. Through her work, she explores interstitial connections and the ties that bind the human experience- the endings, beginnings and spaces in between.

 

 

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