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facts & arguments

TARA HARDY/The Globe and Mail

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As I look into this cup of Nutella goodness that I'm sipping slowly, I can't help but feel a bit guilty. It's been years, but my issues with food have not fully disappeared.

Looking back, an eating disorder consumed my heart, mind and soul for about a decade, and some residual disordered thinking remains.

How did it start? My memory is fragmented. I blame nutritional deficiency.

I was 13, attending a class for the first time. I was an introvert who had always had tremendous difficulty making friends. If a tenuous friendship was offered, I clung to it for dear life. Z was my physical opposite – petite with age-appropriate curves. I was tall with long limbs and no curves to speak of.

One day, Z casually asked me about my weight. She boasted about being well under 100 pounds, and cautioned that once you reached 100 pounds there's no going back. I was 95 pounds.

Z's comment worried me. I was only five pounds away from the dreaded 100. Perhaps I should watch what I ate to give myself a wider safety margin? If you had asked me what would happen if I reached 100 pounds I would have had no answer.

A couple of years later I made an ill-fated trip to visit relatives in Calgary. Unfortunately, body size and food became a focus of the trip for me.

It started with comments on my appearance. Physically, I had not changed in two years thanks to the beginnings of disordered eating. My aunts seemed envious of my slim build, and inquired if I was a size 2 or 4 in order to purchase clothes for me. I informed them that I was actually a size 6.

They were surprised: My height and frame did not figure into their equations of what size I should be. My cousin was a size 2, and there was clearly more meat on her bones.

My diet was examined next. My aunts commented on the amount of food my brother and I put away (I wasn't yet versed in extreme food restriction). Perpetual dieters, my aunts preferred to subsist on lettuce leaves under a thin veil of low-calorie dressing. I'd never liked salads, but I considered them then. Would eating salad help me get into a size 2?

The beginnings of such disordered thinking led down a dangerous road, a path toward self-destruction, which was exactly what I achieved over the next few years.

I had always been a high achiever in school, and now I turned my attention to my body. I wanted to shrink it, to fit into a size 2, or a size 0, perhaps to disappear entirely. I was not a happy person. I was awkward and therefore constantly ridiculed, and even bullied. I couldn't control how my peers treated me, but eating was something I could control.

Memories from this period of my life haunt me today. I remember visiting several psychiatrists at my parents' insistence. I recall them questioning me about my diet. When I said I ate Cheerios for breakfast, did I mean an entire bowl or just a few "Os"? I was exasperated by the simplistic food analysis. Why not try some psychoanalysis, I thought. (Perhaps they would have eventually if I had seen them for more than one session.)

It wasn't just psychiatrists I saw, but also medical doctors. At the peak of my disorder I was 16 years old, 5 foot 7 and at most 85 pounds. I was cold all the time. My fingers and toes turned blue and numb within minutes of being outside in the cold. The doctors poked, probed and sampled, but said they found nothing wrong except that I could stand to gain a few pounds.

But food scared me; sometimes it still does. It represented not just a means to gain weight, but also a means to be happy. And it gave me perverse pleasure to deny myself happiness.

In North America, children are taught to equate food with feeling good. Treats are offered as a reward. Would eating disorders be less prevalent if food was viewed simply as sustenance, neither good nor bad?

But don't think I blame North American culture for my illness.

I could blame chance, but it makes more sense to blame myself. It was my decision to walk down my path of self-destruction. It was also my decision eventually to climb out of the hole I had dug for myself.

There are positive aspects to my illness, as there are to any difficult experience. That emaciated woman on the train? I get her. I feel empathy with her. I am her inside my now-nutritionally-replenished, though eating-disorder-destroyed body.

Nobody tells you about the long-term consequences of anorexia: that 20 years later, at age 35, you will experience a stress fracture while running because you failed to reach your peak bone mass as a child.

But I am stronger for having survived the illness. I am stronger for having come to a better understanding of its origins.

I am stronger for having (mostly) climbed out of my box of disordered thinking, where I sat for about a decade.

Now, at age 36, I sit in a café finishing my Nutella latte, acknowledging my guilt, reflecting on it – and finally letting it go.

Nita Lakhani lives in Toronto.