Time is really the only thing that can make a tangible difference to a situation: it can turn a child into an adult, a mind yet to be touched by pain to one that is marked with battle wounds and trauma into neutrality, or if you’re lucky, gratefulness and joy. During my trip to China in the past week, one that I embarked on 2 years ago, provided me with the opportunity to experience the deftness of the hands of time: going to the same place, with mostly the same people, doing similar tasks allowed me the chance to make a direct comparison between who I once was, and who I have become.
Two years ago, I went on a 4 day trip to Shang Chuan Dao, an island on the Southern Coast of China for a geography field trip, carrying a luggage full of food not because I loved it, but because I couldn't bring myself to eat any of the "unhealthy" food that I anticipated would be served at the restaurant in the hotel we were to be staying at. Two years ago, I was mortified when I so much as touched a piece of “restricted” food with my fingers, in fear that the oil would soak into my skin and increase my calorie count. Two years ago, my head of year had to monitor my every move, making sure that I would eat my meals and my "required" snacks at the allotted time slots, and ensuring that I wouldn’t be driven to compulsively exercise in my room. Two years ago, I ran the 6km beach compulsively every day several times during my time on the island because I felt like I was getting "fat". Two years ago, I cried ballistically in my room with my roommate by my side because there was 0.001 grams of trans fat in my can of salmon that I hadn't noticed before I ate it. Two years ago, my trip to the island was filled with tension and anxiety, and I came back to Hong Kong noticeably more emaciated and more mentally traumatised. Two years ago, I dreaded the aftermath that would surely ensue upon my arrival back home: the incessant call of my mind to move around in a desperate effort to "burn it all off", the clandestine crunches that would be done on the cold bathroom floor, the dramatic cutting of food that would leave my stomach pawing at me, to the point of feeling like my insides were scraped raw.
Last week, I visited the same island again, still with a TON of food in my luggage, but only snacks that I loved, rather than portable meals: this time I would enjoy the food provided at the hostel restaurant. Last week, I snacked when I was hungry, and licked the last bits of fried shrimp off my fingertips that I had eaten at dinner time, simply because I felt like it. Last week, I ran on the beach and focused on the soft sand, the moon that was still setting and the sun that was just rising rather than the calories I would have been burning. Last week, I did not mourn the loss of a morning run due to the approach of a thunderstorm by compensating with another workout in my room, and instead took the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the storm clouds rolling in. Last week, I chose to spend time with my amazing friends playing volleyball on the beach, running through the tumultuous waves and strolling on the seaside promenade rather than isolating myself in my room to work out or eat my secret “rations” of food, because I definitely wasn’t going to be silly one missing out on all the memories that were being made. Last week, I made lasting memories by spending quality time with my teachers and friends, and made the most of our last school trip together. Last week, I came back to Hong Kong with water blisters, smelly socks and a sweaty body, but also a heart filled with vibrant energy and a mind bursting with exciting experiences to blurt out to my parents. Last week, there was no “aftermath” for me to fret about, but rather, exhilaration in knowing that I had a friend’s birthday dinner to attend that evening.
Once I realized how happy I could be in relishing my experiences and making long-lasting memories that I would surely reminisce upon later in my life during this trip, it really hit me how sad it was for me to have “wasted my quota” 2 years ago. I can’t help but think about how much fun and laughter I blocked out when I was caught in my own, obsessively controlled world. However, I am nothing but grateful for being granted a second chance to correct this mistake of mine, and be at peace knowing that I have at least one set of beautifully crafted memory packages to keep in my mind forever.
In the end, time was really just the transient wind blowing: it was the initiative on the part of my family and friends to help the unconscious and waterlogged me take advantage of the high tide and bring me to shore.
Anyone who knows me will also know that I hate math. I hate all the graphs and diagrams and shapes. I hate having to memorize fixed equations and I hate that solving problems in this subject allow no space for imagination.
But what I do appreciate is its sense of structure and its straightforwardness. Unlike the language subjects where you could POSSIBLY coax some poor child into believing that Shakespeare wrote the Harry Potter series, there is no ambiguity as of what the right answer is. There is simply no way you can argue that a circle is not round, or that 2+2 = 5. I like to bend things around, so I always saw math as an extremely confining subject.
However, it did make itself of use to me at a time that I least expected it - during my recovery. What the mind lacks during an eating disorder is solidarity. There is no hard ground to stand on and all rational thought processes are suddenly chucked out the window, causing the mind to be swayed by the most nonsensical concepts (often made up by the person to maximally torture themselves - for example, a person might make up a ridiculous rule like not eating for 8 hours and trying to run afterwards for as long as possible would increase the endurance the most effectively) and for the person to feel utterly alone.
The problem with the mind is that it is so flexible - YOU decide how it works, which means that ultimately, no one can help yourself but yourself. On the bright side though, it can also work to your advantage when you realize that when you learn how to manipulate your own mind, it becomes stronger and slowly but surely, naturally unravels the knots in your mind.
An idea that had a huge impact on my final recovery epiphany (what really flicked the switch in my brain and made me realize that I could no longer live in misery) was that of having "long term goals." This meant asking myself what I was doing this all for, and how my actions would truly benefit me in the long term? My thought process looked kind of like this:
Obviously, each person's diagram will differ according to what the trigger of their illness is, but this is a general outline of what the thought process would look like. When I acquired the "skill" of utilising the tree diagram to organize my thoughts, I became aware that my motives to continue on with my mighty quest of self-control was ultimately for nothing. In my determination to get somewhere, I had become blind to the fact that I had forgotten where I wanted to go in the first place, and ended up heading to nowhere at all. Starving myself, over-exercising, obsessing over every detail of my life seemed to serve an important reason at one point in time, but when I started asking myself more follow up questions and dug deeper to see how this choice would contribute to my future goals, I realized that I would come to a dead end.
Everyone has their own way of breaking out of their illness, a life-changing realization that changes the path they’ve been following. For me, this was realizing that no matter how wonderful a goal seemed, harming myself and putting myself in a constant state of pain in the process of achieving it was certainly not the answer.
It came to me that I had to differentiate between short-term goals and long-term goals: those that were shallow and only served the purpose of momentary satisfaction and those that would mold the course of my lifelong passion. I found that I was giving up precious time to achieve a meaningless cause, time that could instead be using to work on a cause that would be more significant for the rest of my life.
The road to my future is a long one, so instead of fussing over a scrape acquired by tripping over a pebble, I should be thinking about how I can grow trees so that the path is a more pleasant one for me as well as for others whose journeys happen to meet with mine.
Hello world! I'm Steph, and I am an aspiring clinical psychologist, avid advocate for eating disorder awareness, and bubbly human being :)