I met Sylvia (fictitious name) at a restaurant with some mutual friends, and I thought she was beautiful, bubbly, intelligent, and insightful. We both loved and appreciated our seafood dishes. There was nothing to reveal her conflicting relationship with food and her inner struggle. A woman in her 30s, Sylvia likes cooking, reading, traveling, and enjoying different cultures and philosophies.
She started to suffer from bulimia in her teenage years after an emotional trauma. Growing up, she became aware of her problem and learned how to control her behavior, even though, occasionally, she still slips into the bad habit of eating and throwing up. She decided to tell me her story in an attempt to use her experience to help others.
Sylvia is an only child, good looking, educated, and introspective. She has a loving family, many interests, and leads a healthy lifestyle. At the age of 12, just like for many teenagers, her daily routine revolved around her friends, school, and home, until the moment something terrible happened. A family friend, an adult she trusted, sexually abused her. This event heavily affected Sylvia’s psychological development. All of a sudden, she started questioning herself, feeling guilty, confused, and lonely. Did she do anything to instigate that man’s behavior? Should she tell her parents what he had done to her? Was there anything wrong with her? How could she trust anyone now? Sylvia decided to keep silent, but deep down, she wished her mum and dad would understand, support, and protect her.
Things did not go the way she had hoped, and she felt jealous in seeing her parents’ affection towards a girl, with a serious and visible eating disorder, who would often visit their home. Sylvia’s reaction, in an unconscious attempt to draw her mother’s and father’s attention, was to start vomiting. The first episode happened with a little snack. “I ate it and I went to the bathroom to throw it up,” she admitted. From that moment, she began to alternate periods where she would consume very little food, to some peaceful moments, and other days where she would ingest large quantities of food and then induce vomiting.
The way she looked at herself changed. At school, she went from being a high achiever to a mediocre student. This caused her parents’ and teachers’ disappointment, and she felt “not good enough”, just when she most needed support. Sylvia became very adept in hiding her actions, but one day she threw up in some boxes and forgot them under her bed. Her mother found them and Sylvia’s secret was disclosed. Following that event, there were several discussions, but only addressing that type of behavior and not all that was behind it. Sylvia explained: “My parents are fantastic, but they always had a very busy life; they did not have much time to analyze the behavior of an adolescent girl.”
Since then, Sylvia has gone through stages, fluctuating between a normal routine, bulimia and occasionally anorexia. “Anorexia takes a lot of self-control. I have some periods like that, but being very emotional, it is easier to eat and vomit,” she noted. She added that once she went from 45 kg to 35 kg, causing everyone to panic. “It happened in the blink of an eye. Sometimes I start with a small diet to fix my weight, and then I skip a meal, two, and so on,” she explained.
As time passed, Sylvia’s awareness of her problems increased. She met a good psychologist who helped her through her journey and made her understand that her eating disorders are a consequence of deeper issues. Sylvia has improved, but occasionally she still fights with bulimia and an impaired perception of herself. She confessed: “At times, I gain a few kilos and people don’t even notice, whereas I see myself as a whale… or if someone makes me notice that my cheeks are more rounded, I have a crisis.”
Today, eating disorders, which take different forms and aspects, are recognized as mental illnesses and treated accordingly; however, it is important to acknowledge that a person’s negative relationship with food is often a reflection of something missing inside. All addictions and so-called modern diseases relate to the lack of certain elements in ourselves, therefore, real solutions can only come from being able to fill the empty gaps that we all carry in our hearts. Abnormal conditions are caused and amplified by our society, which is dominated by materialism, self-centeredness, and selfishness.
To young people, the role of family and education in transmitting the correct messages is paramount. It is imperative that parents and educators — and ideally society — assist in providing open communication. This will allow children to acquire those inner values that will give them a direction, even when they are being steered elsewhere. Honesty, love toward others, faith, tolerance, and resilience are key to tackling modern ailments. These universal principles help people to connect with who they truly are, build self-esteem, and develop an attention to the needs of others.
Sylvia suggests that eating disorders are often approached in the wrong way. People give too much importance to the image promoted by the cult of top models, whom are frequently imitated by teenagers — instead, it is something much deeper than that. Those with eating disorders do not see themselves as they truly appear. Sylvia believes that young people need to understand that rather than being ashamed to express their problems, they should seek and connect to their real selves and be open. ‘There is a need to talk about it… especially bulimia, because it can be easily hidden,” she explained.
Sylvia feels that she is changing and abandoning many negative things, and hopes her story can lead others to the road of recovery.