The cords of helplessness were binding; the wave of expectations that swept her away from her passion, dancing, and delivered her to the doors of academia was crushing. At 12, Anwesha Parida was drowning.
“I feel like because I wasn’t allowed to pursue my passion – I felt like nothing was in control of my life, so I feel like that’s what made me turn to food and controlling my eating habits, because that was the only thing I could control,” she tells Gulf News in an interview.
It started small – she cut sugar out of her diet. “Then, I started cutting out carbohydrates, and then I started eating less and less. And the less I ate, the less I could eat. I kept comparing – yesterday I ate this much, today I can’t eat more than that. I started controlling like that and towards the end I started taking laxatives,” she says.
In addition to the drastic cut in calories, Parida also spent an hour on most days engaged in extra-curricular activities such as gymnastics, football and dancing. “And when my parents weren’t looking I’d be exercising in the night, sit-ups, push-ups in the house,” she says.
“Every time I felt hungry, I felt good – like, feeling hungry means that I’m doing well at losing weight and it’s going in the right direction. Every time I ate food I’d feel guilty. I was exhausted, all I was thinking about was losing more weight so anytime I worked out or anything, I felt exhausted but I knew I would not stop,” she says.
In a span of two months, the fit 164cm-tall pre-teen was down 11kg to 39 kilos.
“Towards the end, people started noticing, started commenting, and that’s when I felt bad,” mulls Parida, “The biggest struggle was hiding it from my parents, hiding it from my teachers at school, everyone from noticing – so I would wear really baggy clothes. And, I would feel cold all the time and people would be noticing that – why is she wearing a sweater in the summer?
“I couldn’t focus much, I kept thinking about food all the time. I was losing a lot of friends, I was isolated from my friends, my grades started going down. I was very unfocused and hazy. And also, things were hard at home, because I was trying to hide my disorder, and my parents didn’t know. So every time they’d make me eat things I would feel really guilty. So I remember crying myself to sleep most nights. After the first one and a half months it was pretty hard,” she recalls.
Her parents may have suspected that something was amiss, but it was only after an accident that they understood the extent of the problem. “So before gymnastics class one day – you know how you are supposed to eat a good breakfast before you exercise? Well, I refused to eat much; I drank milk and some fruits; I was regularly hesitant to eat anything and my parents knew something was up. And in that class, I really injured my knee. On the way back we went to the hospital and then my parents thought that because I was on a break from gymnastics and sports, I would probably put on some weight, but I lost a lot of weight even when I was in a wheelchair. They were pretty worried because they were like, ‘How is she doing it?’ Then one day they caught me throwing my food out my window, then they knew for sure, and they started taking me to therapists,” she says.
When she met a psychologist, she was immediately diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, a disease of the mind that wreaks havoc on the body, and enrolled in a rehabilitation programme.
“First, my parents took me to a therapist and she immediately knew it was an eating disorder so she referred to me this general physician and she diagnosed me with an eating disorder and she referred me to American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology. There I had a full team, a therapist, who would help me figure out my situation; my nutritionist, who would take care of my meal plans, how many times I would eat. My therapist … we would do exercises on how to break all my food rules and just convince me that what I was doing was not right, and my nutritionist would work on teaching me why my eating disorder was not the right thing, she would help me get back to building a healthy body,” says Parida.
“I was definitely forced into a recovery, I did not want to go into it. I wasn’t allowed to dance for a long time and that made me really upset again. When I was forced into recovery the one thing that actually got me to recover was my nutritionist because she forced me to gain that one or two kgs every week,” she says.
Fighting your self-destructive side is never easy, and for Parida, the first steps came with a backlash. “During my recovery, the hardest thing was just looking in the mirror, because I could see the person I was during my recovery and the person I was becoming and that felt really bad, because I was not adjusting to the weight gain. I would cry to sleep every night, for a like a month. It was really painful to see myself [put on weight], it was like all my hard work was being reversed.”
But soon she noticed some changes to her mental health. As she gained weight, she started to see a shift in perspective. “Things started to become clearer.”
“My therapist helped me do body positivity exercises where she would help me not compare myself to other girls my weight and she would explain to me that with my body I probably wouldn’t be able to dance [right now], so it was better to have a bigger body with more muscle and that I could maybe see myself as a dancer in the future,” she explains.
The day the sun shone
To play football, Parida needed to be at least 43kg. “When I hit that weight, I went back to my football class and the very same day I got my period back. Because I had lost my period when I had very low weight. So then I realised, my body is functioning at its best – this is how it should be functioning. That’s when I realised my eating disorder was holding me back. I saw how much strength I had lost; I used to be able to kick so much harder and I could run so much faster. I could see that I was not at the level I was, which was counter-productive to what I wanted to be – strong, athletic, but because I had my head in the wrong place it wasn’t working out. So the minute I got my period back and the minute I saw myself getting back to my old life, that’s when I knew… I stopped feeling bad about my old life,” she says.
“I’ve never had a relapse, but when I’m stressed out…I’m actually in a very strong position because I can remind myself of everything that I went through, so I immediately get those thoughts out of my head – and I turn to something else; like anything but food,” she adds.
Today, the 16-year-old has a cheerful disposition. She does however have an important message for her peers. “I have a lot of friends who are talking about diets and body image, and I think the only thing that I wanted to say is there should never be any comparison, why you hold yourself back. You should never compare yourself to anyone because you are unique and your body is built for the person you are meant to be, and you are not meant to be anyone but you so you should embrace yourself and accept it, because once you do, everybody will,” she says.
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