This is a story of triumph and courage, of overcoming difficult circumstances through perseverance and support, and not just surviving but thriving. In this post, we have interviewed Magdi about her eating disorder (ED) and her road to recovery. Although the focus on this interview is on her eating disorder, her story is inspirational and holds lessons for anyone who has experienced mental health issues, grief, or trauma. This post is not only for people with EDs, but for anyone who has struggled through difficult times.
Magdi has recently overcome a 14-year ED and has courageously shared her story with us, as well as sharing some insights and advice for others struggling with eating disorders. Magdi gave us permission to share her name in order to help reduce the stigma around EDs.
Can you tell us a bit about the background of your eating disorder? (When did it start? What was your experience like?)
My eating disorder began when I was 14, at which point it was mostly a purging disorder. I was very depressed when I was 14 and I also felt as if I had to deal with my depression on my own. I grew up the youngest of three children and both my older brother and my older sister had very difficult teenage years. My brother, who is two years older than me, struggled with depression. Until he was 17, he engaged in a lot of drug use, particularly heroin. When I was 12 and he was 14, he attempted suicide. Seeing the toll this took on my parents made me even more certain that I could not be open about my own depression.
My eating disorder evolved from a purge disorder to anorexia within 1 year. My official diagnosis at the time would have been Anorexia Nervosa Sub-Cat Purge, meaning I mostly starved myself, but I still ate when food was put in front of me, in which cases I would make myself throw up. Often, when I did eat, I was so hungry that I ate more than I could contain, which would make purging seemingly inevitable. However, I did not go on binges out of a desire to binge, but rather, I have learned, because I was probably very hungry when presented with food.
I was extremely self-conscious during this period. I was not athletic and was certain that the only way I could compensate for my non-athleticism was through starvation. I also had a friend who was obsessed with exercise and calorie intake. She was not an anorexic, but, through her, I learned how to count calories. I remember baking cookies once and calculating the calories for every ingredient (from flour to butter to eggs) then dividing this number by the number of cookies I had baked. I eventually became completely obsessed with calories.
When I was 16, a good friend of mine killed himself. When I saw the horrible effects of his own self-destruction on his parents, I made a decision to seek help. I told my parents about my disorder and, subsequently I was in counselling for about 4 months. I also had to see a GI [gastroenterologist] due to several digestive problems I had during recovery (recurrent non-induced vomiting, acid reflux). The GI eventually determined that, through excessive purging, I had done damage to the sphincter valve connecting my stomach to my esophagus. The damage, he determined, was permanent.
At this stage my parents, who are pretty old school, were very supportive, but did not understand the depth of the problem. They supported my decision to go to therapy—but did not think I needed it for long—nor did they realize the extent of my problem. One regret that I have from this period of recovery is that I did not stay in intensive therapy, but rather ceased counselling after my eating habits returned to normal. Which meant I did not pursue therapy past the three month mark. From the time I was 17 till I was 18, I did not have an active eating disorder.
However, when I was 18, I began to purge again and then I started to starve myself. I was deeply depressed at this point in my life and obsessed with an unpleasant sexual encounter I had had when I was alone in the south of France. While there, I was pursued by a much older man (50 years old) who I eventually had sex with. The sex was, I believe, consensual, but with shades of non-consent. Basically I told him I didn’t want to have sex with him but, when he persisted, I allowed him to have sex with me (i.e. I did not fight him).
When I was 18, I construed this encounter as a rape—which it may or may not have been. But I told myself, and a few other people, that it was a rape. I then felt I had lied. The combination of feeling traumatized and feeling as if I were a liar exacerbated (or caused, I have no idea) an extreme depression that I would experience for the next ten years. The disorder from the time I was 18 to 19 was merely incipient. I developed strange habits—like eating only pretzels and peanut butter m&ms.
Then, when I was 19, I was gang-raped by a group of Italian men—also in France. This rape occurred after I had made certain choices: I went to a party with the men while we were all drinking and I was drugged. Because I was drinking, and because of this previous past sexual experience, I became convinced of the fact that I was a liar and a “slut”—despite the fact that I knew I had been raped.
Immediately following the rape, I started engaging in very obsessive compulsive and self-destructive behaviors. I found it would take me upwards of three to four hours to get ready to leave the house—I changed my clothes obsessively until I would have a panic attack. I had bruises on my thighs from the rape and I obsessively drew circle around them. When the bruises began to heal, I panicked and, using a pocket knife, cut circles around each one.
From that point, I began to engage in more and more self-destructive behaviors. I starved myself, I drank too much, and I smoked regularly and obsessively. I also became more obsessed with my physical appearance than I had ever been. Obsessed to the point that I felt like I could not leave the house because I was too ugly or to the point that I would wash and redo my hair at least three or four times—spending six hours washing and redoing my hair—before I would have a panic attack, drink more wine, smoke cigarettes, and finally force myself to leave the house. And, when I did leave, I didn’t want the world to see me.
From the time I was 20-21, I lived in Paris and starved myself when left to my own accord, but ate regularly when food was placed in front of me.
When I was 22, I returned to the United States, and, since then, I was consistently anorexic until I was 27 (almost 28). During this time, I did not seek counselling for my eating disorder or for the rape. I lived in my own obsessive world—hating myself and starving myself. I also drank even more heavily and often engaged in sexual activity that I was not genuinely interested in and that I did not enjoy. I became much more violently self-destructive—sometimes punching myself in the face and, at other times, stabbing myself with knives or scissors. When I was 24, my grandfather killed himself, which sent my entire family into a tailspin. During this period, I became deeply upset, and ended up stabbing myself in the leg with a pair of rusty scissors—resulting in an infection and permanent nerve damage. I disassociated during this event. And, despite the kind encouragement of the nurse who treated me, I did not seek psychological help.
After this point, I lived by myself in Georgia while I went to graduate school. Living alone and being in graduate school—where one’s time is limited—provided the ideal environment to continue my anorexia.
I say all of this because I think it all contributed to my depression and self-destruction. But, I feel that I should stress that I didn’t have an eating disorder BECAUSE I was raped, or because people I loved killed themselves, etc. I think I would have had an eating disorder (and, indeed one that recurred during adulthood) no matter what. I have a tendency towards depression and obsessive compulsive behaviors. I have always been insecure and have always dealt with a fair amount of self-hatred. I feel confident that even if I had never been raped, other events would have happened that would have caused a recurrence of my ED. I do, however, think that the rape triggered my more violent self harm (cutting, stabbing, punching).
What led you to seek treatment when you did?
I had hit rock bottom. I was 90 pounds. I was incredibly depressed. I was having an affair with a married man, which just made me hate myself more. He didn’t care about me and I didn’t care about myself. I hated my life.
I still would not have sought treatment by myself. It just so happened that my parents called me out and offered to pay for a psychologist at exactly the same time as a good friend also called me out. Initially, when my mother confronted me, I told her that I would handle it on my own—but my friend told me that I absolutely needed to seek help—which, eventually, I did, but only because she emailed me incessantly. Once I had a nutritionist, a therapist, and a doctor in place, I began to realize that I could live a life beyond my ED.
What did you find most useful in your recovery?
Accountability—from a nutritionist and a therapist.
A GOOD therapist. . . . .a sympathetic woman who realized that I felt like I was losing something as I let go of my anorexia. I love my therapist.
The ability to explore the choices I made and the experiences I had with my therapist.
The knowledge, through therapy, that many women lie about aspects of a rape. . . . .and that it doesn’t mean the rape didn’t happen. When I was raped by the Italians, I lied and said I didn’t know how I got to their apartment, that I hadn’t been drinking, etc. And, then, because of these lies, I thought I had lied about the rape itself. In this sense, for about 8 years, I lived in a constant sense of darkness—my life, my mind, my body, everything just felt soiled, dirty, disgusting. Working through these feelings, realizing that many women lie about details when they are raped, all of this helped me to feel like a less disgusting person and to embrace the possibility of my own health.
A food diary with quotas to meet every day.
Spontaneous Planned Eating Adventures: Early in my recovery, I would let myself eat protein and carbs, but I would not let myself eat anything sugary or “unhealthy.” I was still being very rigid. So, my nutritionist made me go on SPEAs—where I would “plan” to go out for a cupcake or a muffin and this was part of my food journaling. Making this a requirement a couple times a week helped me to eventually begin eating treats more naturally and with less guilt. I did Spontaneous Planned Eating Adventures with cupcakes, cookies, ice cream, French fries, even hamburgers.
COMMUNICATION!! More than anything else. Being able to talk to my friends about my problems. NOT being ashamed of having an ED. Most of all, being able to talk to my partner—who has made an effort to understand what an eating disorder is. He helps me stay on track every day—by being non-judgmental and gently encouraging.
There are people who believe anorexia is a “teenager’s disease” and that I am “vain.” These sorts of attitudes just add to the massive self-hatred that drove my disorder. Having an eating disorder allowed me to be much more accommodating to people who were bossy/critical. I just internalized it all. Since recovery, I have felt a stronger, almost snarkier side emerge. I no longer have a “place” to put the criticism—i.e. when I was anorexic, I could just channel it all into hating myself. I can’t do that anymore. Not being in contact with such criticism has helped me with my recovery.
What advice would you give someone else suffering from an eating disorder?
You might feel that you can’t have a life with your eating disorder. You might feel that your eating disorder is so much a part of you that you can’t let it go. But you can. You can have a life—a much better life—without an eating disorder. You can get over it.
Also, I don’t think I could have done recovered without serious intervention. I needed to go to therapy at least a few times a week, I needed to see a nutritionist, etc. I could not have done it by myself.
You may find that, as you recover, you change as a person. Some people will change with you—and these people will be your dearest friends. But you may also, inexplicably, lose people. Either because they cannot handle you the way you are or because you can no longer handle them.
Recovering from an eating disorder means that you lose something very close to you. Just like you lose something that has meant a lot to you if you quit smoking. It’s okay to acknowledge this loss. For years, I had the greatest comfort I thought any human could have: when I was very, very sad, I felt as if my stomach could touch my spine. This made me feel better. And it’s hard to no longer have that when I am upset. It’s hard to no longer have the cutting either. When I am upset—I want nothing more than to starve and stab myself. But, letting go of the eating disorder has brought me to a level of happiness and self-confidence I could never have envisioned for myself.
On a superficial level—buy loose fitting clothes! I liked “mummu-ish” dresses—cute dresses that were non-restricting and thus could accommodate my weight gain. I gained 35 pounds—NONE of my old, adorable, beloved clothes fit. Some I still cling to—but most I have gotten rid of. If you can, reward yourself with something cute every once in a while. But, really, a wardrobe of leggings (stretchable!) and loose fitting tops/dresses helped me. It’s painful to feel your body weight stretching your old clothes. And, I think it can lead to obsession/self-consciousness.
Limit the time you spend in front of the mirror. I no longer let myself spend more than 15 minutes doing my hair. If it looks terrible—then so be it. I have better things to spend my time on. The less time I spend in front of the mirror the LESS I am dissatisfied with my appearance. Practically speaking, I have found it easy to keep my hair very short and low-maintenance—means less to obsess/worry over!
The team at Paul the Counsellor provides counselling and psychotherapy to individuals and couples in the Melbourne CBD.
0458 090 687
253 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000