When you think about someone with an eating disorder, who do you imagine?
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, up to 70 million people in the world suffer from eating disorders.
I can already tell you with absolute certainty – this number is not even close to the real picture. The real number is much higher.
Most people think that an eating disorder is “real” only when it’s clearly manifested externally - when people get hospitalised or when they’re receiving certain treatments.
But let me tell you - eating disorders are first of all an internal struggle that most of times manifests externally only after a longer period of time.
How do I know this?
Because I’ve been there.
I’ve never shared this publicly over social media, not because I’m ashamed of it, but because this was always a painful memory of my past that I wanted to forget and never re-surface.
Also, it’s something most people don’t want to talk about because they associate it with “shame” or “failure”.
Recently, I’ve met someone who struggled with eating disorders for many years and she has now built a coaching business around healthy living.
She is able to help and connect with others successfully because of the painful experience she’s been through.
I was really inspired by her story and it gave me the courage and the strength to decide to do the same (yep, stay tuned as I’m opening my coaching soon)!
But, first of all, I wanted to share my story.
I’ve struggled with eating disorders for a long time, and since I was only 12 years old.
When I was in 7th grade, my parents decided to move back to Croatia from Italy, where we lived since I was 4.
I always had a strong “survival instinct” and, at that time, I felt this impulsive need not to go back with them.
I’ve decided to finish the 8th grade on my own in Italy, it seemed so perfectly reasonable that I convinced everyone else it was the right thing to do.
So, at 12 years old, I started to live on my own in college.
I wish I knew at the time that a 12-year-old cannot take care of themselves.
I wish my parents knew and fought to take me with them.
As the school year kicked off, I started to feel a profound sadness, something that even today I’m not able to explain through words.
I felt lonely and different than others: all of my friends would go to their homes after school with their families, and I didn’t have that option anymore.
I gradually started to eat less every day, not because I wanted to lose weight, but because I was so lonely and unhappy that I didn’t have any pleasure in eating.
My aunt and uncle would pick me up sometimes during weekends to spend time with them, but for most of the times I was a 12-year-old living alone in a college dorm in a big city.
When my mum saw me for Christmas after a few months apart, she knew that something was wrong. Not only had I lost a lot of weight, but I lost that sparkle in my eyes, that sense of joy and happiness.
However, no one at the time (we’re talking about the late 90’s) knew a lot about eating disorders – on the contrary, it was something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden from the world.
No one took it really seriously and no one talked to me about it or asked me anything.
I started realising that I wasn’t in a good place when I began feeling light-headed all the time. I didn’t have the energy to complete every day activities that were once normal and fun.
I stopped practicing any sports because it was too heavy.
I didn’t know what was happening to me, I only knew that there was finally something in my life that I could control, and that was my food intake.
I couldn’t control my feelings, my loneliness, my family moving and falling apart, but at least I could control the number of calories I was putting into my body.
When I look back at that time of my life, everything seems surreal.
The fact that I was using food as a mechanism of control, but, mostly, the fact that no one tried to help me or talk to me.
I never became skinny in the way that my bones would fall out, but I wasn’t at all at my natural body weight.
Every day was a new battle against myself: a battle to eat less, to be able to restrict the calorie intake even more, to hide what was actually going on from everyone else.
An “innocent” lack of hunger became an actual disorder overnight.
I started to believe that I wasn’t worth of love, because how else could you explain my parents leaving me there?
How else could you explain no one taking any action to help me?
And, as these throughs grew bigger and bigger, I felt a much bigger need to punish myself.
After almost a year, I returned to live with my parents in Croatia and I started high school.
My parents had big issues in their marriage that I’ve never seen so clearly before.
I expected to find a home by coming back, but instead I felt even more isolated and lonely.
Restricting food became really difficult if I wanted to fit in and make new friendships.
Also, I didn’t want to cause additional problems in my parent’s marriage, so I always pretended to be perfectly happy and healthy.
The more I was eating “normally”, the more I wanted to eat more, to compensate for a year and a half of deprivation.
That’s when, at almost 14, I started to binge eat.
I would eat large quantities of food, and then restrict again my calorie intake for days.
My weight would go up and down, but no one seemed to really care enough to sit down and have an actual conversation with me.
I could probably continue to write for hours, but the reality is that binging and restricting remained part of my life for many years, through all high school, through some of my university years, and through some of my first years in the business world.
I was never diagnosed with a critical illness and I was never clinically overweight or dangerously underweight.
The worst part was the feeling of shame and unworthiness that I felt for so many years.
Through the help of a good therapist and nutritionist, I managed to stop the unhealthy behaviour after more than 10 years of binging and restricting.
However, I wasn’t really “free”.
The unhealthy behaviour stopped, but the feeling of control, unworthiness and fear remained really deep inside of me.
I didn’t have the symptoms anymore, but my thoughts were still consuming, and I didn’t feel free around food at all.
The therapists said that if I wanted to stay healthy, I needed to follow certain rules: I had to avoid specific triggers, I had to continue writing a food diary, I had to continue to actually control how much I was eating every day.
Deep inside of me, I knew that there was something better than that, I knew I could achieve complete freedom and feel great in my skin and with my thoughts.
I lived in Italy at the time and the idea of a “food coach” or “intuitive eating coach”, never even cross my mind- as I didn’t know they existed.
One day, completely randomly, I came across an article written by a woman from the US, who overcame a food and body issue with the help of a coach.
Every time I think about that specific moment, I feel so grateful as it really changed the course of my life.
I hired an intuitive eating coach who worked with me over Skype (she was based in the US) for a period of 6 months.
I wasn’t making a lot of money back then, so it was a big investment decision and I remember thinking “is this worth it”, “what am I doing” and “why am I wasting so much money to pay someone to call me over Skype”?
I can say with absolute certainty that this was the best investment decision I’ve ever made.
Not only did I break completely free around food, body image and limiting beliefs, but I’ve met amazing people who went through the same journey as we helped each other up.
I came to appreciate the concept of community, giving and helping others.
Over the last years, I worked with several food and body coaches, as I stayed curious to learn more.
As of today, I haven’t had a food or body trigger in so many years, that I cannot even remember how it was to live “that life”.
My weight is always stable, and I never gain much or lose much, because I’ve reached my natural body weight.
I can eat anything I want, whenever I want, by truly listening to my body.
When I eat, I think about what’s nourishing for my body and what’s going to help me have more energy during the day.
I don’t look at the flaws of my body, but I celebrate it for what it is, with all the small imperfections that I used to notice for a long time.
I look myself in the mirror, and I only see the beauty, I see the strength and the absolute trust I have in myself today.
Unfortunately, I see many people struggling with food and their body image every day.
I see so many girls looking at themselves in the mirror thinking they’re fat and unattractive.
I see people questioning if they should eat that piece of cake because it’s “bad”.
People talk about themselves negatively all the time!
I promised myself that I’d share my story as the starting point of my coaching business around healthy living, so here I am. With all the truth.
You have no idea how hard it was to even write this.
Publishing this post is probably one of the hardest things I’ve done in my entire life, and someone with a similar story will understand exactly the feeling.
I want to take a final moment to thank my coaches: Simi, Paige and Mel Wells, who’ve been my rocks and support for all these years.
To Simi, for teaching me about letting go of perfection
To Paige, for teaching me to trust my body
To Mel, for creating an amazing community of women who always support each other