Mental disorders do not wholly define an individual. And yet, there is a tendency to stigmatise individuals coping with mental illness, to trivialise their experiences, or to define them solely by the disorder they’re coping with.
At Departure, we bring you honest, nuanced travel stories from individuals living with their states of mind.
In the third instalment of this series, Emily Han shares how she coped with Generalised Anxiety Disorder as a PhD student in the UK.
My name is Emily Han. I’m almost 27. I’m an environmental activist, and I enjoy taking long walks, tuning into popular music & culture, and eating fruit – especially strawberries.
I read voraciously, from fiction and fan-fiction to sites like Slate, NPR & The Guardian. I’m online a lot – especially on Tumblr. I also watch a lot of TV.
I’m currently waiting to do my PhD in Oxford in the fall. I use academia to tell myself that despite my mental illness, I can still be a relatively successful and capable person.
I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. I was never officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I’ve been monitored for my weight – while being severely underweight, obviously – a couple of times by doctors.
My weight was constantly fluctuating, which exacerbated my anxieties and desperation to keep it low.
It started when I was 14. It began as a diet which quickly escalated. I realised something was wrong when I couldn’t stop losing weight and when I first began to get massive anxiety when eating out with my friends. As teenagers, we frequented fast food places after school. I envied my friends for being naturally skinny and for having faster metabolisms than I did.
I would end up ordering only fries and diet coke when we hung out, a habit that persisted till this day.
Despite seeing doctors for a while, I never addressed the problem, I just adapted to external pressures. When threatened with in-patient and/or intervention, I would go on holiday and gain weight.
I started binge eating, which was something that happened only after 1-2 years of constant heavy restriction. I once spent $120 on takeaway Singaporean food and ate it all by myself while watching TV.
When ordering in food for a binge, I would call into my apartment – “Omg guys the food’s here!!” – because I was so self-conscious about the delivery man thinking I had some sort of problem. In university, I would keep up the bingeing for half a semester or so, and then lose it once the weight felt unbearable. The cycle of binge and restricting would repeat itself throughout the years.
LEAVING HOME TO STUDY ABROAD
I spent a year taking my Master’s in Cambridge in the UK. I met a few nice people, but none of them I would really consider as friends. I was fine with that; I enjoyed being alone.
Being around other people made me painfully aware of how weird I am. This happens the most during the rare times that I go out with boys, like on a date.
A part of me wants to find love, and is afraid of dying single and alone, but the reality is that I’ve never found that spark with anyone. I fear that it will never happen.
In Cambridge, I chose instead to spend most of my free time in my dorm room watching TV… and bingeing. The stress from the workload probably did not help.
When I came home for term break, I was 64kg – the heaviest I’d ever been in my life, and a whopping 27 kilos more than my goal weight. The same family members who’d always pestered me to eat more were making unkind remarks at my drastic weight gain.
This made me really depressed, and so I started the purging and the starving again.
TRAVELLING WITH HEAVY BAGGAGE
After the academic year ended, I was travelling between London and Edinburgh, while waiting for my graduation ceremony. London was noisy and hectic, and filled with afternoon tea with my sisters which made me nervous, while Edinburgh felt nostalgic and relaxing. I had spent time there when I was younger, and I felt more at home.
Being alone in Edinburgh also perpetuated my “crazy”. I was able to indulge in my bad habits without having anyone I know around to judge me for it. Edinburgh, in particular, exacerbated my over-exercising and under-eating though, because I felt like the city satiated me much more than food ever could.
I would walk five to six hours a day without any real purpose, content with knowing that I was burning some calories in the process. Edinburgh was also impossibly beautiful, and the sights took my mind off my anxieties.
It was easier to distract myself than confront the issues I was struggling with. When I’m hungry on my walks, I’ll buy something I really like from a cafe and give it to a homeless person to stop myself from eating it. This made me feel less bad about myself.
The UK was dangerous in a way because I had access to over-the-counter pain and sleeping meds that I couldn’t get as easily back home in Singapore. When the gnawing hunger ached too much, I would just pop some pills and feel the pain dissolve, or just go to sleep.
I was living in hotels whilst travelling, and having room service allowed me the security of not eating all day and then ordering something late at night when I could purge in the privacy of my solitude. When I did eat in the morning, I would attempt to exercise it off right away. The hotels would also have a pool, and so I swam quite a lot, almost obsessively.
I take laxatives, so I definitely pity the people who clean the bathrooms I use when I travel. Sometimes, I get so self-conscious that I’ll tell the Airbnb host or hotel cleaners that I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome and apologise in advance.
LETTING IT ALL HAPPEN
I knew objectively that I was going on a downward spiral but didn’t do much to cope at all. In some ways, I felt like my anxiety had lessened as I had established a simple and satisfying daily routine, and I was away from the disappointed sighs of my mother and the helpless silence of my sisters.
However, my eating was just as erratic as ever. I was still purging and abusing over-the-counter meds, and my weight was plummeting.
I didn’t communicate with anyone. In Edinburgh, I didn’t talk to another human being (except for service staff like waiters and the concierge) for close to 2 weeks. It was very isolating and I lost any sense of how to begin to connect with anyone.
RELAPSES AND REALISATIONS
After years of struggling with my illness, I came to realise that perhaps recovery is a myth, and is consistently elusive for some. It also seems that relapses are cyclical.
I had to accept that I might have to develop a way to be functional as an eating disordered person because I couldn’t seem to overcome it. Also, particularly through this, I realized that I treasured and sought human interaction and desired to connect with people more.
A lot of my obsessiveness comes from going deeper and deeper into myself, and the loneliness and struggle of feeling so different from everyone else.
I also came to realise that I couldn’t mix too many things at once. I had to give up all the over-the-counter stuff, and the self-harm eventually, and the purging, if I wanted to be functional and continue to be anorexic or restricting.
I wouldn’t be able to be functional if I stacked too many destructive habits together. Since completing my Master’s I have had to hold a job, and thus had no choice but to keep to a different, healthier schedule, and keep my condition in check.
If there’s one thing I would like people to know about Anxiety, is that it isn’t a monolithic condition. There is no one way it manifests, and it is complex and constantly evolving.
As a mental illness with the highest death rate, I feel like people need to understand how hard it is to ‘solve’ eating disorders and how desperately those who suffer from it want to solve the problem.
Also, I want my loved ones to know that I essentially want to live, I want to connect, I have ambitions and want to achieve things – that an eating disorder is, while a means of getting things to slow down and stop for a while, is never a means for me to end my life.