In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness week, I would like to share my personal experience with you.
Being someone who was never particularly close to anyone with an eating disorder prior to the unfolding of my own, I found that reading first-hand experiences of others helped me to gain more of an understanding of what I was going through. It was also a form of support while I was in the midst of my disorder.
Although this post is long, I hope that it can help someone not feel so alone, be information for a loved one of someone struggling, or just be a generally interesting read.
Thank you so much for taking the time to view my story. It truly means the world to me that you are here.
If you or anyone you know happens to be struggling with an eating disorder, I have included links at the bottom to organizations that have helped me and where you can acquire support.
Growing up, I don’t recall a time where I was ever satisfied with my body. Even so, I never took the time to agonize over it. From what I understand, the thoughts I experienced were common among young girls. Food was also a non-issue. I ate what I wanted, when I wanted. My weight was always considered fine by doctors.
As I was nearing the end of my studies in the field of audio engineering, an unconscious shift took place inside that left me feeling isolated and bewildered. Uncertainty glared upon me often back then. I was in a relationship with my boyfriend that felt increasingly more stifling as each day went by and about to be ejected into the real world with no professional prospects. There was a period lasting several months post graduation where I wasn’t sure what to do. I spent majority of my time working at a food service job while also seeing my boyfriend and friends regularly. Anxiety was a lifelong issue for me but began to flare up intensely. Food became the cure that soothed my perpetual uneasiness. Fortunately, over the next few months, no one in my life shamed me over my increasing weight. In fact, it remained unmentioned until summer.
I came across an opportunity for Korean adoptees to study abroad in South Korea over six weeks that would start in July. Since I had always been interested in incorporating my Korean heritage into life as much as possible, this felt like an obvious thing that needed to be done. While I had been to Korea three times previously, this trip was vastly different. For one, I was not going with my adoptive family and would be spending time with a group of strangers instead. Half of the group consisted of native Korean university students who ended up showing me cultural aspects that I had never deeply considered.
Thinness is an important aspect in South Korean society. It’s something that people talk about casually and frequently. I had known about it but for whatever reason it never resonated. This time, it became more important than ever.
Something new that I started doing by the time I got to Korea was body checking. I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing until one of the other students noticed and questioned me about it. My method was using my hands to measure the circumference of my thighs. This led to many other ways such as viewing my reflection every time I would pass by windows. It was a technique that I had learned and adopted from another student. Considering how many commercial buildings there are in Korea, I did this a lot.
The time I spent in college there was significant because I had never felt so attached or accepted by a group of people before. It left me craving more. My damaged adoptee mindset felt at ease knowing that I was finally able to fit in.
Prior to the end of the program, I arranged to spend the remaining time with my birth family, who I had already met and been back to visit on multiple occasions. I was extremely nervous about the reunion because the last time I had seen them, my birth mother had relentlessly teased my half sister’s best friend (to the point of tears) over her weight by calling her a pig (돼지).
A nightmare unfolded the moment I stepped into my birth family’s home. My birth mother took her hands to my sides and cooed, “Dwaeji (pig).” I immediately froze and was uncertain about how to react. I had never been called fat before in my life and it was never something that I cared about until recently. With clenched teeth, I held in emotional distress for as long as I could, lasting until dinner, and then blamed my inevitable tears on having dry contact lenses. One of the most disturbing parts of the whole situation was the fact that my birth mother had absolutely no idea that she had hurt me to the extent of what was to come. While I don’t see any malicious intent behind her words at that time looking back now, it devastated me then.
Returning home was a difficult adjustment. I had broken up with my boyfriend while abroad so my social life was quite a contrast from what existed before. Over the course of the next year and a half, I became completely enthralled by everything related to Korean pop culture. It was something that I had casually enjoyed throughout my youth but after seeing the evolution of their entertainment industry, I was completely sold. Korean pop stars and actors were more talented and better looking than ever. The pressure to relate to them was high as they were my most accessible connection to Korean culture in the states. As someone who always had an interest in pursuing a musical career, they also filled a void by being figures that shared ethnic characteristics with me, unlike majority of entertainers in the US. I began to invest a lot of energy towards trying to physically look and act like idols. It was invigorating and felt as though I had direction once again.
Upon discovering that I would be able to major in Korean at a local university, I chose to attend college a second time. I was excited to be pursuing something so close to my heart and hoped that it would lead to opportunities working within the K-Pop industry in conjunction with my audio engineering degree.
As I attended classes and worked a part time job, whatever remaining time I had was dedicated to watching Korean music shows and dramas. Idols and actors continued to influence and dominate my self perception, leading me to partake in new behaviors like dieting and exercising excessively. It took place gradually but wasn’t ever that difficult. Intense anxiety and the desire for cultural acceptance fueled my actions. Ultimately, I wanted to make my birth mother proud somehow by proving that I wasn’t a dwaeji and pursuing my dream by securing a place within the South Korean entertainment industry.
Things got bad fairly quickly. My hair started falling out. I lacked energy and had horrendous mood swings. Due to my rigid eating and exercise regime, my social life tapered off until it became non-existent. It got to the point where I was no longer able to eat out or even taste my mom’s cooking. I ate the same thing every day. Everything had to be measured precisely. Prepared and consumed in secret.
At one point, my mom insisted that I get evaluated for treatment. I complied but upon assessment, they revealed that I didn’t have a clear diagnosis. Rather, it was something called EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). I was upset by this because I was aware of my behaviors being unusual. However, I expressed that since I didn’t have an “actual” eating disorder, I would just continue until I got worse. Perhaps this is a flaw in the eating disorder community, while it’s impossible to have an official diagnosis for every instance, I do believe that EDNOS can be a damaging title to receive. For me, it was as if I were being told that I wasn’t good enough at having a real eating disorder so they weren’t sure what to do with me.
My body continued to deteriorate as symptoms and behaviors got worse. I felt an internal coldness all of the time that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. I hated going outside. My cognitive abilities were impaired to the point that I would forget what I was doing within seconds and made college almost impossible. Luckily, I managed to pass my classes but I have no idea how. The only things that I thought about were related to food and body image. I felt trapped and annoyed by the limitations that I had placed upon myself but was uncertain as to how I would escape. It made me upset to see other people because I couldn’t understand how carefree they appeared. I was plagued by the idea that physical attributes ruled over all. It was a terrible mindset that I am completely ashamed of having back then.
Another opportunity related to Korea came up about two years after studying abroad. It was a contest for a trip to Korea to hang out with K-Pop idols that required making a short video. I jumped at the opportunity and filmed something. It was a chance to be introduced to top members of the industry that I longed to work in and also to confront my birth mother as her daughter in a body that she could be proud of.
While editing the footage, I had a realization. My body was really emaciated. It hadn’t occurred to me until seeing myself on camera and was a significant turning point. I became even more conflicted of whether I should continue in my eating disorder behaviors or seek treatment. Although, there seemed to be only one correct answer and that was to stick with what I was doing because I truly didn’t believe I could stop. Around that time, my mom came to me again with a request to be reassessed for treatment. I had lost even more weight but only agreed to doing the assessment because she promised that she would take me to Korea regardless of the result.
For my second evaluation, we went to a different treatment center. This one felt better from the moment the doors opened. I remember a warmness from the staff that I hadn’t experienced at the previous center. It took a long time to finish the evaluation process because I had to complete several surveys and be examined by a doctor. After everything was finished, I was brought into a room with my mom where they revealed that I was indeed diagnosed with anorexia. The disturbed part of my brain, who many in the eating disorder community refer to as “ED” (short for eating disorder), was thrilled to hear this news.
Not long after, I started seeing a team consisting of an on-site doctor, nutritionist and therapist. The rational part of my brain was tired of isolation and routines that I had fallen prey to. It became a struggle of fighting against myself for recovery over remaining ill.
I had become so accustomed to my strict eating rituals that it felt completely awkward when a meal plan was presented to me. I felt uncertain about what I was doing and needed to ask permission about what I was eating along with how much. Being someone who hates restriction unless it’s self imposed, I longed to rebel against the meal plan. It became a new day to day struggle of eating too much or too little.
Reintroducing foods into my life that I loved was incredibly exciting but also terrifying. I started binge eating to the extent of insanity. The amount of food that I was able to consume was absurd, yet I would still be hungry afterwards. This led to a series of secret trips to the grocery store in the middle of the night which always left me terrified of being caught. Nonetheless, the desire to inhale food was stronger than anything that I had ever experienced before. Over a short period of time, I allowed myself to binge guilt-free because I knew that my weight needed to be restored but then my fears of gaining slapped back, hard.
I was able to eat out at restaurants again after a long time of not being able to. I remember the first time that I did, I consumed an entire bacon cheeseburger and all of the accompanying fries amidst the company of my parents. They were happy. It felt good to see them smiling and be eating with them again.
In the early stages, I wanted to eat out with everyone that I knew so it caused me to reconnect with a lot of people. Unfortunately, it was a selfish act and they were unaware of how mentally consumed I was by the idea of food instead of enjoying their company. Regardless, recovery requires being selfish to an extent because you need to be in order to get better. You are fighting for your own life. No one can do that for you.
I was having trouble figuring out how to gain the balance back of eating and exercising once I started recovery. My mind and body were jumbled because of behaviors that I had engaged in previously. After ignoring physical cues for so long, your body tends to stop trusting you and doesn’t work properly. Hunger cues, cravings, fullness cues, etc. disappear completely. In addition, I was working at a major fitness gym chain which is an awful environment for someone in recovery from an eating disorder.
My team at the eating disorder clinic thought that it would be a good idea for me to participate in an intensive outpatient program (IOP) that met four to five days a week. I was resistant at first but eventually agreed to it. Adjusting was fairly easy because of the small group size that consisted of compassionate, smart, funny, wounded girls like myself. Our days were filled by talking about our lives (daily check-ins), having meals together (two of them being at restaurants each week), recreational therapy and yoga. It felt good to be part of a community that understood and experienced similar turmoil within the mind. Each day was different. Some were better than others, but ultimately, being able to come back to that environment was something that kept me grounded and got me through the roughest stages of recovery.
Through group therapy, I realized how important food is beyond just nourishing our bodies. It’s intertwined with memories and can cause emotional reactions. It brings people together and tears them apart. It’s universal. Recovery was more than just restoring my physical body and mental relationship with food. It was about learning who I was as a person and who I wanted to become. It was chance to detach from the desperation of needing acceptance and a perfect opportunity to redesign my identity.
I stayed in IOP for about six months and felt quite guilty about it but knew that it was better to invest the time building a solid foundation in recovery. After all, eating disorders are ruthless when it comes to relapsing. Speaking of which, I went through an intense period of hardship upon release from group. I engaged in extremely dangerous eating disorder behaviors but managed to get through it because of coping mechanisms that I had learned. Working on internal issues in therapy also helped a lot. My rational mind kicked in after awhile and I was tremendously lucky that my relapses weren’t bad enough to send me back into to IOP. Although during that time, I was still seeing my therapist who helped me greatly.
Several years passed, my weight and mental health went through spans of being up and down. I was finally able to return to South Korea after graduating with my second degree. My body looked different from the last time. While I was still self conscious, I knew that I was healthy and had no reason to be worried. I made plans to visit my birth family again the day after arriving. However, I was overcome by severe jet lag upon arriving. The combination of that and my anxiety led to the worst panic attack that I’ve ever had. (Random note: I started having panic attacks about 2-3 years prior so they were a semi-new concept to me.) I made it two subway stations away from my birth family’s home before needing to call my brother and dad in the states. My heart was racing and I could barely breathe. They talked me down until I was able to get a taxi back to my hotel. Had it not been for them, I would have definitely fainted. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life.
The next day I returned to the subway and made it to my birth mother’s restaurant. It was an awkward reunion. I said hi in Korean as I walked in. She replied “Oh, wahsseoh? (Oh, you’ve come?)” in the most unenthusiastic voice while barely looking up from her phone. Not long after, she made a point of touching my calf muscle and once again, “dwaeji” came out of her mouth. At that point, I was upset and had watery eyes but decided, fuck it! The whole sentiment was now ridiculous because I knew that it wasn’t fat. My calves were just muscular and had always been that way. Regardless, it was an awful, necessary and liberating moment. From then, I knew that she would probably never be happy with my body and it no longer mattered. Nor did I have the painful need for her acceptance in other aspects because I realized that I was happy with myself and all of the efforts that I had invested. It was a significant moment. I was finally free.
Having an eating disorder was triggered immensely through my adoption and being from a culture that embraces physical appearance to the extent that plastic surgery is given as a gift for completing high school. Other factors include genetics, depression, anxiety, social anxiety and simply feeling insecure amidst changes. While I am definitely not healed of my eating disorder and mentally never will be, I have gained control over the extreme behaviors and know when thoughts related to it have spent too much time lingering in my head. At that point, I make sure that I take a walk, write, make music or do anything other than sit with ED thoughts.
Having an eating disorder was one of the worst, most difficult and best things that has ever happened to me. Losing basic functions like being able to eat intuitively, among other things, proved to be immensely challenging to deal with in the beginning but have started to return with time and practice. It taught me about patience, whether it be in regards to myself or others. Not to mention, the importance of being in the moment. It’s so easy to get caught up in the past and the future while neglecting to notice all of the wondrous happenings around currently. Perhaps one of the most essential concepts that I have learned is to be more empathetic and trusting towards others.
Eating disorders are a problem that affects millions worldwide. It’s important that those of us who have gone through it or helped someone along the way share our stories because through hardship, we are able to connect to others on a deeper level. It’s crucial that people become more educated about how damaging and incredibly dangerous eating disorders are. There is too much ignorance when it comes to such a serious condition. Eating disorders are often misunderstood by many especially those who have never experienced one or been around someone who has. I hope that by telling our stories, we are able to help each other get through everything while creating awareness and a more compassion throughout the world.
We are all just seeking acceptance.
Flaws are inevitable.
They make others more relatable and attractive.
Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.
Change comes with time.
There is no set timeline because recovery is different for everyone.
While it can seem like a long, never-ending journey, I do (finally) believe that life is completely worth fighting for.