I stood at the back of Burger Fuel on Queen St, staring at the menu on the board behind the counter. My eyes darted across the different items on offer too fast to actually read anything. Frantic. Desperate.
The queue was getting shorter and I still didn’t know what to order. Heat crept up my neck. My breath quickened. I anxiously shifted my weight from foot to foot, my eyes still sweeping the menu almost uncontrollably. I was running out of time.
My friend stepped in font of me and ordered his burger and drink. He turned to me questioningly. I met his eyes with horror in my own.
“I’ll have a… a…”
I was so hungry. But I didn’t want to eat. I couldn’t eat.
“I’ll have a…”
If I ate a burger, I would lose something indefinable to me at the time. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you exactly what it was back then, when I was 18 years old and living away from home for the first time. I was working my ass off to get into med school, getting only 5-6 hours of sleep most nights, because I was studying, studying, studying. The fear of failure motivated me far more than the thought of success. A perfectionist to the core, I had never failed at anything in my life.
But I wasn’t able to completely control whether or not I got into med school. I could study till my eyes burned, I could get all As, but I still couldn’t guarantee that I would get in. It would come down to who I was competing against for a limited number of places. That feeling of being unable to control my future didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t have the tools to cope with the fact I might fail. And all of the things I did through high school that kept me sane – ballet, listening to music, getting outside, chilling out with friends and family, getting a good night’s rest – I sacrificed them all, thinking that I needed to in order to get grades good enough to get into med school. With my safety nets gone and the sheer terror that I would fail invading my being, I felt like my whole life was spinning out of control.
So what could I cling to? What could I rigidly control? Food.
If I ate a burger, I would lose control.
“I’ll have a… a… a lime maltshake.”
I wilted, tears sparking at the corners of my eyes. I wasn’t stupid. I knew I was flirting with anorexia. And I didn’t want to go down that path. Except for when I did.
I knew about anorexia. What teen girl didn’t? Especially a teen ballet dancer! Of course I knew about anorexia. But what I had never been taught, but instead had discovered, was that it starts off as your friend. Controlling your food so rigidly gives a kind of heady rush. In the beginning, anyway.
I took my maltshake and headed outside with my bewildered companion. We sat down on some park benches hidden away from the masses of strangers eating and shopping. He looked at me and I didn’t met his eyes. Instead, I burst into tears.
I wanted to eat. I really wanted to. I just couldn’t. My eating disorder friend wouldn’t let me.
I tried to explain it to this poor guy sitting next to me with his burger on his lap, clearly unsure whether he should eat it or not. I tried to say words to him but only blubber came out. I didn’t just cry dainty little tears and wipe them away with my sleeve. I positively wailed till my eyes were puffy and snot was pouring from my nose. I wiped that disgusting gunk on my sleeve instead. I cried till I had nothing left. Then I threw my maltshake in the trash.
Thankfully, the semester was almost out by that stage. I managed to get enough food down to get through my exams. I went on a wine tasting with friends and binged out on chocolate bars afterwards. Then I starved for almost a whole day. I spent all my money on falafel at a Turkish restaurant because I couldn’t bare to sit in the dining hall, lest there was another Burger Fuel-style scene.
And then I went home for the summer holidays and the long wait to see if I got a med school interview. My eating was on and off but it was enough. I got the interview.
It was a disaster from the get-go. I left the skirt I wanted to wear at home, hanging neatly on my door. I was uncomfortable in the clothes I had on and I was unprepared for a panel interview. Especially one where they try to catch you out. Ask you if patient care is so important to you why don’t you want to be nurse. Ask you if you’ll take time off to have children in the future. God knows, man, I’m 18 and single and too scared to point out that that I think that’s an illegal question. They probably asked it just to see if I had to guts to tell them that. I didn’t have good answers. I barely had answers at all.
So when I didn’t get a coveted spot in med school, I was lost. I had failed for the first time in my life and I had no idea what to do. I took a gap year and lived at home, planned an overseas trip to Nepal, and fought with myself over food.
But having to be back at home, with my younger siblings to hang with, with the beach within sight at all times, with dance classes at my fingertips… It made it harder for my eating disorder frenemy to get her hooks in. Especially with my watchful mother hovering over me, complaining that I hadn’t eaten enough real food. I think she knew even though I never told her. I still battled it out in my mind, but the protective factor of my mother and the healing nature of sleep, social connections, sunshine and fresh air, it make it much harder for the eating disorder to take hold.
By the end of my gap year I had decided I wanted to be a dietitian. I wanted to help people who struggled with their food. I wanted to stop eating disorders, even though I would skirt around that for years when asked why I chose this field. Honestly, it took several more years for me to fully heal from those few months where I brushed close to anorexia. And I was too scared to commit to working with eating disorder clients for many more. I thought that maybe if I was that close their eating disorder would somehow leap off them and onto me.
But these days, I see it differently. I’m glad I have some lived experience with what my clients go through. I know what it’s like to panic in the middle of Burger Fuel and sob afterwards. And I understand first hand the importance of your surroundings in your journey to heal your relationship with food.
I’m so glad I bombed my med school interview. It not only saved my life and taught me that the world won’t collapse if I try something and fail, it also means that I can help save other lives. Not as a doctor, like I had originally envisioned, but as a dietitian.