What I Know About… Living with an Eating Disorder

Samira Sawlani, 27, talks about her struggles with food, and how she’s claiming her life back
Sunday , 12 August 2012
What I Know About… Living with an Eating Disorder

“You have such a pretty face... but you’re ruining it by being fat.”  I had been on the receiving end of comments like this since the age of seven. Moving to the UK from Dubai at six years-old had affected my eating habits, and I steadily gained weight through my younger years. I was bullied at school for being fat and in order to deal with the feelings that generated, I would stuff them down with food; arguments with friends, harsh comments, broken hearts, stress from studying was all dealt with by consuming thousands of calories.
By the age of 15 I was 5 foot 4 and weighed around 85 kilos. I travelled to Dubai for a wedding and it was around this time that I began comparing myself to all the slim women on Jumeirah beach and suddenly, in my family, diet and exercise seemed to be the sole topic of discussion. Looking at myself, I started to hate my body more and more. I had low confidence, my grades started to suffer and in fits of rage I’d lash out at my family. I discovered the solution to my problems: dieting. I’d spend hours numbing out hunger with fantasies of walking into events such as school dances in a size 6 dress. I idolised Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss and wanted to be like them.
As my teenage years went on, I found that my dieting could never be sustained, I would lose up to ten or twelve kilos and then I’d start to binge. The binges were always in secret. I’d devour packets of biscuits, crisps, pasta, numerous slices of toast and chips, and I would find myself on the weighing scale sometimes up to ten times a day.
When I began university the bingeing became more severe; the anxiety around deadlines and trying to fit in with others led me straight to food. In order to keep my weight down I began over-exercising, spending hours running on the treadmill to burn off the binge. 
The stress of my final year meant that I gained 20kg and found myself not wanting to go out, thinking myself too fat to have a life. The entire year was spent having ‘500 calorie days’ to restrict my intake, or due to stress and relationship trouble, I’d order takeaway food, sandwiches, confectionary and hide away in my dorm watching TV and eating. Yet the whole time I didn’t speak to anyone about what I was doing because on some level I’d convinced myself that this was normal behaviour. Friends and family would notice my weight changing regularly but were not concerned or alarmed by it. Towards the end of 2007, I was offered my dream job in Africa on a refugee camp, yet within weeks of arriving, I was back in the cycle of bingeing and starving – life away from home was hard; my inability to deal with these feelings meant that the only familiarity to me was eating.
After six months my contract ended and I returned to the UK. All of a sudden bingeing and overeating became rare, and if I did do it I would make myself throw up or use laxatives. I lost 23kg in the space of a few months. The weighing scale was my answer, my friend, my enemy. My hair started to fall out, I refused to eat out so began socialising less, I was constantly tired and became increasingly obsessive.
The turning point came when my sister found me on the kitchen floor. I was surrounded by food and a knife, sobbing. After ten years I admitted defeat; I could not control my eating, I could not handle my body; if this was what life was about I wanted to die.
My family pointed out that my behaviour was not normal, and one of them suggested that I try a support group. I went to my first meeting and through hearing others share their stories I discovered I was a compulsive over eater and anorexic and my illness was physical, emotional and spiritual and I could not beat it on my own.
One day at a time, with the support of others I began changing my eating habits – no more diets or crazy exercise routines. My food intake now consists of three meals a day, snacks when needed and no sugar. Sticking to my meal plan is not always easy and I have slips, but perfection is not the aim. What is more important is looking at the underlying issues behind my eating disorder, the low self esteem and resentments; and learning to not eat, starve or exercise on these but to feel them or use other techniques such as writing and talking.
I go out to eat, meet friends and choose to show up for life. Every day I am learning to accept myself, my feelings and my issues without using food, starvation or over-exercising to deal with it.
Ultimately, I have found that I have a choice; no one should live in that darkness – life is not a dress rehearsal and I deserve to live it because my worth does not depend on a scale, a dress size or other people’s opinions.