How I overcame anorexia


Anorexia coverImage credit: Joanne Chim

I never thought I’d be into weightlifting, especially since I felt so intimidated by the grunts of male bodybuilders, their constant slamming of weights on the ground, and their buff physiques that towered over me.

That disturbed me on a superficial level, but inwardly, the greater fear of lifting weights stemmed from the intense phobia of gaining muscle mass. Anorexia, then, was the malevolent monster I was really battling against.  

As much as the battle was tough, it wasn’t one that was impossible to overcome. Turns out, it took something I dreaded to learn, like weightlifting, to help me become better.


What anorexia is all about


Anorexia stems from having warped perceptions of one’s identity and is often accompanied with bouts of depression and anxiety. Those struggling with eating disorders may resort to surviving on liquid diets and avoiding food as I did with my anorexia, while others may become bulimic – binging on food and then puking it out later out of guilt.

The illness sets in gradually, often over months and years. Before one decides to skip meals, there’s the ongoing mental struggle to look and feel perfect.


How my anorexia developed


Anorexia developmentImage credit: Joanne Chim

I grew up in a rough environment, which affected the way I perceived love and authority. This lasted for around 10 years, which bred a sense of inadequacy and intense fear and hatred for authority.

Because I didn’t feel accepted or safe in my own home, I strived to become better, thinking that if I were more beautiful, things would change. Security and stability were things I never had but dreamed to experience, so the process of changing myself by losing weight in hopes to look and feel better started.

younger selfImage credit: Joanne Chim

At 16, I went deeper into the anorexia rabbit hole. Losing weight wasn’t enough, and there was an intense fear of gaining weight. This fear was both paralysing and addictive at the same time. Paralysing because it prevented you from giving in to any urge to eat, but addictive because there was this distorted perception of security and comfort that came from being able to control something in my life.


Falling deeper into the pit


There was only one goal in my mind: to lose even more weight. So, I went from just cutting carbs to skipping meals altogether. To make things worse, I started a rigorous cardio regimen. Within a month, I lost 8kg. Continuing over the course of 3 months, my weight dropped from 52kg to an all time low of 42kg, which was dangerously light for my height of 170cm.  

This only affected my health further. My sleep cycles were rabak, my periods stopped, and my hair started to fall.

skinny daysI remember weighing myself every day and had a measuring tape at my bed head to keep my waist measurements in check. If there was any upward deviation, I’d run an extra kilometre.
Image credit: Darius Joseph 

Overall, I felt dead inside. At night, I was too afraid to sleep because I’d go into a state of panic when I closed my eyes. This made me super shag in the day, and sometimes, I didn’t want to wake up at all because it was exhausting to fight the same battles day after day.

Eventually, I hit rock bottom and got tired of being tired. At that point, I honestly just wanted to end it all – but I didn’t want to die. I still wanted to live, but not be in pain.

Identifying that was the start for things to change.


Learning to overcome anorexia


It was around this time I met Nevin (fictional name), who frequented the gym I used to visit. He was a body-builder, and though I was apprehensive about mixing with him at first due to the fear of him brainwashing me into bulking up, I warmed up to the idea. Over time (read: months), our simple hi-byes turned into “Wanna try a new workout? It’ll be fun!”.

I’d been running my whole life, and I decided that it was finally time to try something new.

Stretching at the gym Always remember to warm-up before any exercise to avoid cramping!
Image credit: Joanne Chim

The first time I tried lifting weights was unforgettable. There was a mix of emotions going through my mind; on one hand I was excited to try something new, and on the other, there was this paranoia of looking like a complete idiot in doing something unfamiliar

In spite of these thoughts, I carried on doing my first exercise anyway – lunges. Through constantly choosing to focus on the workout instead of people’s gaze, it became easier to get the hang of the various exercises.

deadlifting at the gym If you’re working out alone, don’t be afraid to video yourself so you can spot your own mistakes and improve
Image credit: Joanne Chim 

As things improved mentally and physically, my workouts became more advanced and I moved to doing exercises at the squat rack. That was the period where I learned how to be comfortable working out alone.


Improving on myself outside the gym


Calligraphy outside the gym Image credit: @jcraydesigns

Outside of the gym, I started to eat better and develop new hobbies like calligraphy, and photo and video editing. Things also improved after going through therapy, which included counselling sessions and a whole lot of prayers.

While things seemed to be getting better, I still struggled with bouts of anxiety, depression, and meal-skipping tendencies when stressed.

But instead of fretting over these downfalls like I used to, I learned that progress, like anorexia, doesn’t happen overnight. You’re unlearning old habits and adopting new and healthier ways of thinking – and just as a bodybuilder doesn’t start off with heavyweights, progress starts with small but significant choices, which I still make up till this day to maintain my health.


New beginnings, new routine


I didn’t have a personal trainer, but my gym friends played a big part in helping me correct my posture and improve my lifting form.
Image credit: Joanne Chim

I tried home workouts for awhile prior to gymming alone, but eventually found my way back to the gym as I wanted to become more toned. This involved lifting heavier weights instead of following Youtube’s home pilates workouts.

Every time I walked to the weights section of the gym, the same superficial anxieties remained – working out with guys whose biceps were 3 times as large as mine and having them gawk at me even though I was dressed conservatively. Nonetheless, I trained with my earphones plugged in and a full-blown RBF on display.

RBF at the gym I used to think that having an RBF was a bad thing, but it’s actually protected me quite a bit from guys who’ve tried to hit on me at the gym. Girl, if you ain’t interested, stand yo’ ground.
Image credit: Joanne Chim

The reality of it is, the heavier you lift, the more guys (and girls) will stare as there aren’t many girls that lift. That’s something you’ll learn to get used to after a while.


How weightlifting helped me work on my confidence


Weightlifting is a sport that women get underestimated a lot for. Even when I’m taking a break by the squat rack, guys would naturally assume that the weights I carry are being used by other guys. That being said, it’s less about proving others wrong and more about challenging your own limits and potential.

Soon, there were girls who asked me for lifting advice, and this surprised me as I never saw myself as a teacher. Being able to teach others was encouraging as I started off as someone who was afraid to touch weights, let alone approach others for advice on how to lift. But going from that to someone who’s able to lift weights beyond my bodyweight and be there for other women, is a milestone I give myself a pat on the back for.

Lifting with coach Don’t be afraid to ask for help, even if it’s from guys who appear intimidating – most actually really friendly and know how to draw physical boundaries.
Image credit: Joanne Chim

Gymming also taught me to be courageous in initiating conversations with guys. Because I worked out alone most of the time, the people who’d be able to help me at the weights section were mostly men. So, I could either break the ice or risk breaking my back because I didn’t ask for help in having my weight supported or advice on how to improve.


Weightlifting and anorexia


I’m no expert in weight lifting and I still make mistakes when lifting weights that are heavier than usual. But the key is to spot and acknowledge where you’ve gone wrong and improve further.
Image credit: Joanne Chim

Starting from lifting 50kg, I worked my way up to the 70-80kg range eventually. While I’m happy with my progress, I still don’t see weightlifting as a solution to anorexia.

This illness points towards a deeper identity-related problem, and it’s best to seek out professional help to deal with the root cause of anorexia. It is also equally important to find distractions and hobbies in life that will take your mind off things.

walkway shotImage credit: Jasmine Moh

But if you’re looking to lift weights for health’s sake, this sport is a holistic activity to add to your cardio workouts. Plus, it’s highly addictive – once you’ve built up a certain physique and strength level, you’d want to give your best shot in maintaining what you’ve put in so much sweat to achieve.  


Understanding my relationship with food


I learned that just like how I wouldn’t become buff after 1 intense workout, I wasn’t going to gain 1kg worth of fats after eating a slice of pizza. One of the most important lessons I’d taken away during this phase was how to give myself a break by enjoying “guilty” foods that my body craved for. Since I’ve worked out hard, it was okay to reward myself.

pizza to treat yo'self

The most important thing here is to just moderate your own diet – that plays out differently for everyone as it depends on your own metabolism. Train yourself to be disciplined enough to resist sinful food when you know you should, but chill enough to let yourself go without being overly indulgent.

It’s a fine balance that takes time to be further refined, but you’ll find what works for you.


How working out worked out


Live stationsCustomising cards for an event
Image credit: Joanne Chim 

As a result of exercising more, I felt more energised and motivated to pursue other hobbies. This led me to focus even more on creating content through calligraphy, photography and videography.

I also usually left the gym feeling accomplished, and because my moods were lifted, the way I looked at the relationships I had with the important people in my life like my parents started improving too.

Calligraphy designsImage credit: @jcraydesigns

I learned to forgive without expecting reconciliation to happen immediately. I also started to see that my parents were doing their best in their own ways, which was enough.

Recovery isn’t a straight path. It’s humbling and requires both parties to be willing to compromise continuously and consistently. Slowly, I opened up to my parents and vice versa. 

Despite everything that’s happened up till this point, I’m really thankful because even though life was hard, I got to experience the beauty of being reunited with a family I didn’t expect to see breakthrough with in this lifetime.


Battling my eating disorder


Looking back at old photos brings back both cringe-worthy and heart-warming memories.

My anorexic period wasn’t an easy one, but it led me to people who strengthened me in my fitness journey later on in life. And regardless of how short-lived some of these encounters may be, they’re all valuable nonetheless.

Working out alone was daunting at first, but through the discomfort, I learned a lot about courage and confidence. I understand that it’s nerve-wracking to weightlift alone as a female, especially when there aren’t many girls you can turn to for immediate help. It’s even harder to start off weightlifting when you’ve had no prior experience with the sport.

Present state after recovering from anorexiaImage credit: @jcraydesigns

Those struggles are very real, but don’t let that discomfort stop you from getting better. It may be unnerving stepping out of your comfort zone, but take it from someone who’s been there, done that – you’ll get used to the discomfort and eventually see the fun in something you never thought you could.

For those who are going through the same battles of anorexia and depression, you’re not alone. Here are some helplines to get you through your darkest days:

24-hour emergency helplines:

  • Samaritans of Singapore (SOS): 1800 221 4444
  • Institute of Mental Health (IMH): 6389 2222

Free counselling and assessments:

  • CHAT (for youths between 16-30 years old): 6493 6501
  • Care Corner Counselling: 1800 3535 800
  • Silver Ribbon (Singapore): 6386 1928

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