Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of disordered eating.
At age eleven, my mother and I fled Colombia and came as refugees to Canada, leaving behind family, friends, school, and our belongings for a life in a foreign place, full of uncertainties. We fled many things. We fled a drug war, we fled the abandonment of divorce, we fled abuse and danger.
We landed in a relative’s home in Toronto. This “home” marks the time and place when my completely dysfunctional ability to cope with emotions, and my subsequent unrelenting hunger, began.
The escape from our home in Colombia and the constant moving had left me in fight or flight mode. I should’ve felt safe at this new home, but I did not. I knew this new home wasn’t mine. My mother and I were constantly reminded of how much we were costing them. So I decided to eat nothing at the dinner table, or when anyone was watching, and instead developed tactics so no one would notice me eating. I would come home from school and only eat the middle part of a loaf of bread. I would surreptitiously eat cold cuts, and then line them back up in the container so beautifully that no one would notice any had been eaten. I would pick at ice cream where others had already started digging. I would help clean up my two-year-old cousins’ dinners, knowing how much food they’d leave behind. I would pick the food off their plates, and even, in my despair, dig for food in the garbage.
My disordered eating habits had begun, in this first home of ours as refugees. I was a stranger there, and I never felt welcome.
The escape from our home in Colombia and the constant moving had left me in fight or flight mode. I should’ve felt safe at this new home, but I did not.
My mother and I moved out and into an apartment a year or two later. She worked long hours at a factory, and I was alone much of the time. I walked to school alone; I came home to empty rooms. I no longer needed to hide my eating, so I gorged. I’d eat an entire loaf of bread in a night. I’d cook a pot of chili and eat all of it by myself. No one was watching, so I feasted. But this was lonely feasting, and I still held on to the fear and shame that eating brought.
Around this time, I became obsessed with something called the twenty-minute workout. These were aerobic workouts I discovered on TV. I realized that I felt better after I exercised, so I started doing these twenty-minute exercises over and over. My OCD behavior with food was now translating to exercise. As I became more and more obsessed with exercise, the less I ate. First, I became bulimic. By sixteen, I decided not to eat at all, and I became anorexic. Anorexia brought me the same euphoria I felt after exercising. I was constantly seeking out the things that made me feel good even as my body became damaged.
No one noticed. My working mother was too busy surviving as a single mother. I wore sweatpants and baggy shirts so she wouldn’t notice.
My OCD behavior with food was now translating to exercise. As I became more and more obsessed with exercise, the less I ate.
Needless to say, now looking back at the age of forty-four, I see how I was in a continuously deep level of trauma and stress from having survived a drug war in Colombia, and then the shame I felt as a refugee in a home that should’ve felt like family. I was in a constant state of stress. By not eating, I felt like I had control over something in my life. Something that no one could take away from me. And that was the ability to choose not to eat.
At eighteen, I was ninety-eight pounds, the thinnest I’d ever be. My heart was failing me. I could no longer walk upstairs. A doctor hospitalized me, and I knew I had a choice. I could live and relearn how to eat, or I could die. I chose to live.
At that time, I had chosen to look at my life through dark lenses, seeing only the negative aspect of people, places, and situations. This vision justified my belief that I was a victim, and it was killing me.
Toxicity comes at very many levels, not just the foods we put into our bodies. My continuous epidemic of reliving the toxic thoughts and emotional pain that I was carrying every single day, the fears that I had, past abuses, and conclusions that I’d made… these had all gotten me to this place of near death.
I learned to eat small meals. By my early twenties, my weight had stabilized. But I’d yet to address my emotional trauma, so my OCD behavior continued, this time taking its form in overwork. I forced myself to work every day, only stopping to sleep. My body still defined itself by past trauma, so I still felt physical repercussions from failing to address my emotional state.
My body still defined itself by past trauma, so I still felt physical repercussions from failing to address my emotional state.
Many years later, I was finally forced to face the emotional trauma of becoming a refugee and all the subsequent traumas that followed when my body physically gave out on me. Yes, I was eating now, I was no longer anorexic, but I still held on to those past traumas, and I still refused to take care of myself. I was forced to completely rethink how I saw myself in order to heal.
Now, I’ve developed a system of self-care, a system of loving myself, and a system of addressing my emotional needs in combination with feeding myself sustaining foods. I combined different methods and therapies, such as tapping, essential oils, somatic therapy, and reiki to help me look at those areas in my life that were causing me so much pain. Only now have I found a path to healing.
I’ve discovered that healing requires you to really go deep to the core of your belief systems, really truly go to that state of eternal peace to be able to heal at that emotional level and also, most importantly, to be able to heal the physical body. One informs the other. One cannot coexist without the other. It’s a beautiful dance between emotional and physical nutrition. It’s a journey that requires self-nourishment and forgiveness.