Cathedral Rock – Sedona, AZ

My year of travel has been life transforming both in seeing others’ perspectives externally and changing my own within. I know that my life may seem “perfect” to some with all the pretty pictures I post, but by no means am I perfect. I used to strive for perfection, but I like to say I’m now a “recovering” perfectionist. Some people think I’m only happy, and while I like to see the bright side of life, I’m not one-dimensional. I thought I’d share some of the internal struggles I’ve been working through over the years so you see my flaws too, not just the shiny stuff. Most of this I’ve only shared with a few close friends, but I’ve come to realize our vulnerabilities are what connect us. This is a long piece so I invite you to read as much or as little as interests you. I hope something I’ve learned over the years can perhaps resonate with or assist you as well. Please contact me if you’d ever like to share or talk about your challenges– it would be my honor to listen to your truth.

I’ve always been an epic nerd, but I brought that to the next level in 6th grade where I read and did extra credit math during break and lunch. I’m a floater, hopping from friend group to friend group, bonding with specific individuals here and there. I didn’t feel connected with the other students then. I felt the guys were immature and the girls were just boy crazy, and I’d rather be in other worlds. But it was a lonely existence, even with my fairytale friends. I felt invisible in this “real” world, but I’d made myself so. I realized this one day when I was reading in the hallway sitting against the wall and one guy almost sat on me. He and his friend were talking next to me, and then all of a sudden I see his butt almost on top of me, I said, “excuse me?!” And he turned around sheepishly, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you there!” That mentally scarred me as I realized how invisible I truly was. I was also very chubby at the time so I linked being fat with being invisible, something that I would struggle with for the next decade.

Growing up, my parents had always drilled in my head that I needed to finish everything on my plate. If I didn’t, I felt like a bad person, like I shouldn’t even be alive. Thus, I ALWAYS finished everything on my plate. And not only that but also food on other people’s plates. I never knew what it felt like to be full because I’d always blow way past that point. I didn’t think about food or what I was eating until high school when I started to learn about nutrition and had slimmed a bit after puberty.

In college, I had a love-hate relationship with food. My Freshman year, I turned to food as a means to find some control in life, when I suddenly felt thrown into a hurricane. At Harvard, you get out what you put into it, and I threw myself into everything. To de-stress from classes and extracurriculars, I turned to exercise. I’ve never been good at moderation, but once I’d discovered my passion for exercise that year, I took that to an extreme, going to at least one gym class a day and cycling in between classes. Our dining halls also shared all the nutritional facts for each dish in the buffet lines, and as I’ve always loved numbers, it was a challenge to count every single thing I ate. I became almost OCD about what I was ingesting and would test myself. I could only eat on the hour or 15, 30, 45 minutes on the clock, would restrict what I ate at meal times, have an apple or orange for an afternoon snack and a handful of almonds for a snack before 10 pm. The freshman 15 that most people gain, I lost. I felt really good hearing the reinforcing compliments I got about my looks, and told myself this was “progress”. But I became obsessed with food and exercise.

My Sophomore year, I realized how my restrictive diet and overly structured lifestyle was actually self-destructive so I went to the opposite end of the spectrum, binge eating– eating anything and everything I wanted at any time of the day. Part of me felt great, loving the freedom I’d suddenly found around food, but I also felt extremely out of control, that the food was “making” me eat it. I had no agency in the matter. I was using food as a numbing agent to quell my emotions, to fill a huge void inside. Even though I was surrounded by people who loved me, I felt so isolated and alone. I was involved in 7 extracurriculars that year. Most people do 2 or 3, but I’m apparently a masochist and liked pushing my limits to the extreme. I barely slept, with racing thoughts and terrible insomnia, and honestly, I’ve never been so depressed in my life.

One cause for my loneliness was being stuck in my own head. Stuck obsessing about food. At dinner, my friends would chat about their day, but I felt like there was a huge barrier between us. I could talk or contribute to the conversation, but at the same time, I kept constantly asking myself, “Do you want this bite? Aren’t you full? You’re eating too much. You shouldn’t be eating that….” It was frustrating being a prisoner of my own mind, unable to escape its walls. I wanted to be able to enjoy the food and conversation, to fully be there in the moment and not think about what I ate or if I had too much. People would tell me that I have the “perfect life”– I was super fit, could eat anything, desired by the most attractive guys, whatever, but I was crying inside, hoping someone would really see me and lift me out of this isolated world I’d built for myself.

I hit rock bottom one night when the guy I was seeing took me out for dinner. Afterwards, we had dessert with my mother who was in town for the weekend. It was 11 pm and I was tired, just wanting to sleep. But they both wanted dessert. I didn’t as I knew I was already full and would be extremely vulnerable if they ordered sweets as I’d then be compelled to eat it too. But I acquiesced, and we went to my mother’s posh hotel restaurant. They decided to order three desserts for the three of us even with my protest that I wasn’t hungry. “We can just try all three!” my mom proclaimed cheerfully. Grumbling in my head, I said ok. They each had several spoonfuls of each and were content. I didn’t want the desserts to be wasted so ended up devouring all of them, in a numb, out-of-body sort of way, unable to enjoy the sweets, yet also unable to stop eating until the plates were clean. Afterwards I felt absolutely disgusting. I wanted to throw up but couldn’t. I’ve never been able to make myself purge, and I’m honestly very grateful for that looking back, but at the time, I felt totally out of control.

That next morning, I was in the deepest, darkest place in my life. I’d stayed over with my mother in her hotel room. Curled up in a ball, I loathed myself to an extent I’d never experienced before. I felt so shitty from eating all those desserts, berating myself for being a glutton with no self control. I just wanted to punish myself, to run on a treadmill till I couldn’t feel anymore, no pain, no ache, run to oblivion. I’m so lucky my mom was there. She comforted me saying that if I went to exercise, I would just reinforce this negative cycle of binge eating and exercising to over-exhaustion. She suggested that instead we eat something healthy and go shopping or something that would be compassionate and loving towards myself rather than destructive. She asked if I’d ever talked to anyone about my food issues since she was very concerned about me and my mental state at that moment, that I could loathe myself to this degree when I’m so compassionate and loving towards others. This was the first time I’d admitted to myself that I could have a problem. That I could have an eating disorder.

The first step to improving a situation is admitting there’s a problem. I knew I had disordered eating to say the least and that my relationship with food was unhealthy. I was jealous of my friends who could eat whatever they wanted, whenever, when I had to stick to my salads and egg whites, which don’t get me wrong, I loved and still do, but just couldn’t stray away from. I felt tethered to certain foods that I’d deemed “good” or “bad”. And if I didn’t workout one day, I’d feel uneasy, thinking of myself as lazy. I constantly had to do something since I felt my value to society was my productivity.

I started seeing a therapist that summer. I only went three times but they helped me immensely. At my first session, the therapist diagnosed me with “Compulsive Overeating Disorder,” also known as “Binge Eating Disorder”. I’d never known that one could be a binge eater without purging. My therapist told me to throw away something at every meal, to break my thought pattern that my value as a good person was cleaning up everything off my plate. That night my dad led me to our fridge to throw away some of our delicious kale salad. I initially balked because it was perfectly good, tasty food! But with his coaxing, I gingerly took a spoon and tossed three large spoonfuls into the sink and disposed of it, stating out loud, “I am throwing food away! I am wasting food!” I started crying in shock, pain and amazement. I couldn’t believe I could feel this much about something that was insignificant to most people. I believed I was a terrible person for wasting food. And my body fought me at every meal for leaving something. But I needed to do it to break my story, and create a new one.

At Harvard, everyone thinks that everyone else’s life is perfect, and they’re the only one with a problem. But most people I know have some sort of eating issue or other internal struggle, but we just all never talked about them. 40% of Harvard students went to our mental health services at the time. And that’s only the amount that sought help! I wished we had a more open dialogue with our peers about how we truly felt. We could support each other better if we knew we were all going through these issues, rather than conceal them to attempt to fit in and feel we deserve to be there.

I went to a therapist at Harvard a few times and she helped strengthen my new practices or thought patterns. Even though I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I had flaws or something as societally stigmatized as an eating disorder, it was a huge relief pinpointing the issue and taking steps to improving it.

My friends in college knew I ate a ton. I ate more than my jock friends and prided myself with my healthy appetite. They called me a “black hole” or “garbage can” which while not necessarily the most flattering names I still took pride in. But sometimes I’d eat more just to prove that I could eat a lot, spinning me in this negative cycle, where I would then feel out of control and hate the food I was eating for “forcing” me to eat it. I would binge in a mind-numb state, feeling nothing, shoveling everything into my mouth before my brain could kick back into gear. I would eat out of boredom, tiredness (from sleep deprivation), sadness, loneliness. Food was a comfort, my go to to calm me down. When I told my closest friends I had an eating disorder, a lot were shocked since they only expected an eating disorder to include anorexia or bulimia, not binge eating. They similarly couldn’t comprehend that a binge eater could be thin too. Once I shared my flaws or vulnerabilities, I was floored by how many of my other friends had issues with food as well. We had all just thought we were the only one with a problem, and thus kept it to ourselves.

Unlike other issues like smoking, you can’t give up food since we need it to survive. This made creating a healthy relationship with food even tougher as I had to resolve my relationship with it rather than cut it out completely.

Looking back, I realized I was filling this emptiness I felt inside because I didn’t love myself or feel I deserved love or was lovable. I thus sought comfort in food, even if it was also an instrument to punish or self-sabotage myself.

After college, my relationship with food became a bit less emotionally charged. I wasn’t binge eating the way I had before, but each day was still constantly a struggle. I couldn’t wait for the day I’d finally be free from the confines of food, to eat whatever I wanted, when I wanted, and love myself unconditionally. It’s been a slow healing process, but I’m grateful to say I’m getting there this year with travel being my conduit to cultivating self love and care (I’ll elaborate more on this in future posts). However, I will always be 100% imperfect. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I am who I am today because of these past phases. I used to cringe at my chubby six grade self, shuddering at the thought of ever being fat and invisible again, but my younger version helped me become the kind, empathetic, caring person I am today. My disciplined/binge-eating college self contributed to deepening that empathy. Now, some days are easier than others on this self love and compassion journey, but the progress is how we speak with ourselves, gently and lovingly, every day, not just on the good ones. Especially on hard days where I feel extra heavy or sluggish, I look into the mirror and hug my body, thanking it for housing my soul, for being this miracle that can do anything I want! I gaze into my own eyes and say, “I love you, I love you, I love you”. And with that, any imperfections I thought I had melt away as I’m bathed in my own love.