Thanks to the media and entertainment industry, eating disorders (ED) are often viewed as a problem of the Western world. In India, little discourse around the mental illness exists, despite the fact that ED habits affect between 25% and 40% of adolescent Indian girls. Moreover, EDs are more likely to cause death than any other mental illness, including depression.
Moreover, as Indian women try to cram themselves into the confines of Western beauty standards, the country seems to be ill-equipped to deal with this massive problem. Young women dismiss the serious illness as ‘simple ways to lose weight’, and parents continue to normalise the habit due to ingrained fat-phobia.
There are also common misconceptions that you have to look a certain way to even be considered anorexic, which is what UK-based writer Millie Sansoye was told when she informed her therapist that she might have an ED.
“The therapist said, ‘You can’t have anorexia, because you’re not thin enough’,” Millie recalls in conversation with The Better India. “So I thought I would have to get sicker to get treatment.”
‘It Took Absolute Control Over Me’
In many cases, those suffering from EDs eventually develop severe depression as a result of the illness. But in Millie’s case, things happened the other way round. At the age of 14, she was diagnosed with severe depression as a result of the harrowing bullying she faced in school for being overweight.
To cope with this torment, Millie decided to work on losing weight. “I thought that if I did that, the bullies would leave me alone. I went for it the right way at first — eating healthy and exercising. Over the summer, I dropped a dress size. But the bullying didn’t stop. Clearly, I wasn’t thin enough,” she says.
So she worked harder to lose weight, but after she developed a knee injury that prevented her from going to the gym, she had to find other ways. So she started eating less, and for a while, this seemed to work. “But the depression had altered my thinking. Even as I started reducing the amount of food I was eating, regardless of how many dress sizes I dropped, I was still getting bullied,” she recalls.
“I think that’s when the ED began. There came a point where I’d started feeling guilty for eating anything — never mind a pizza, even if I were eating fruit, I’d be left riddled with guilt. I told my brother, ‘I think I have a problem, because I’ve just eaten an apple and I feel awful, like I’ve killed someone.’” Her brother was quick to suggest to their mother that Millie might have an ED.
Eventually, Millie’s mental health had worsened to a point where the anorexia took complete control. “I was doing everything I could to lose weight, and by now, I was thinner than the girl who was bullying me. One day, my best friend said to her, ‘You can’t call Millie fat anymore, because she’s skinnier than you now’. But the bully simply stated, ‘Okay fine, she’s not fat, she’s an anorexic rat.’ So there was no winning for me.”
Millie hit a point where she couldn’t stop losing weight — she would obsessively count her calories, challenge herself to consume less every day, exercise excessively, and stand up for hours even when everyone else was sitting down. She says when she looks back on her illness, she vividly recalls the feeling of always being cold, no matter how warm it was outside.
As the bullying continued, she transferred to a new school, and by this time, she was already a size zero.
However, at this school, things were slightly better. “I think everyone knew I had an ED, but no one ever teased me about it. It was a good environment and I made a lot of friends there. I used to look at the girls and think, ‘Okay, they’re eating, and they seem fine.’”
She tried taking some inspiration from her friends, and would sit and eat lunch with them. “But then I’d feel absolutely terrible throughout the day. The anorexia was so powerful at that point that I thought that if I ate, something terrible would happen — I would die, or my family would.”
“Guilt is a major factor in spurring anorexia. It’s what made mine last two years. I had the constant feeling of my self-worth depending on how much weight I was losing. I felt ugly, fat and worthless. It didn’t matter that I was excelling at school. None of that was important, but anorexia was. If I ate even one calorie over my ‘allowance’ of 500 calories, I would want to cut myself. I would walk around my room non-stop from around 11 pm until 2 am. My life just became a cycle of walking up and down stairs repeatedly to burn calories and standing. If I didn’t do those things, I would feel guilty.”
As she relapsed and her health worsened, the clinic where she was undergoing therapy told her that either she would have to voluntarily be admitted in the hospital, or she would be sectioned. At this point, Millie weighed around 40 kilos.
Fighting For a Normal Childhood
She soon developed Refeeding Syndrome, which is a metabolic disturbance that occurs when you immediately feed a body that has been starving. Since the body is no longer used to receiving nutrition, it continues losing weight. This is an extremely serious condition that could be fatal.
Millie was admitted to a general hospital for 10 days, and her weight plummeted to around 33 kilos. “Doctors told me I had two weeks to live because my organs would shut down. My aunt had to ask me whether I wanted to be buried or cremated when I died because she knew it would break my mum — she was taking charge of what would happen in the worst-case scenario.”
Meanwhile, Millie’s mother was crumbling under the pressure of her daughter’s deteriorating health. “For her, I knew I had to live and get better, even if I didn’t want to. Because if I died, it would kill my mother too,” she says.
After the hospital, Millie was moved to a mental health facility in Oxford, around 60 miles (around 90 kilometres) from where she lived. “I was determined to get better, because I was spending my summer in a hospital, while all my friends were travelling the world and more. I was yet to do so many things that a normal young person does — travel, fall in love, go to university, get drunk with friends, kiss boys. The ED was robbing me of being a normal 16-year-old.”
Meanwhile, the other girls with ED at the facility were not of the same opinion — Millie says they didn’t want to get better. “One of them had even learned how to throw up her food without making noises. If there was butter on a sandwich, they would scrape it off with their nails. I couldn’t make friends with people like that. It was driving me crazy.”
So she found solace in other patients, those who were admitted for psychosis, schizophrenia and the like. “I found a friend who taught me how to play snooker. There was a girl who wanted to be a hairdresser, and she would do my hair all the time. I found some form of support, but things were hard,” she says.
At meal time, they would make all the ED patients sit together, but Millie would fight back, saying that she was trying to recover, and the other girls’ habits were detrimental to that. Moreover, to cope with the environment she was in, she would often dress up to feel better, for which she was shamed by the people at the facility.
To provide an example of the stigma and shame attached to ED within the South Asian community, Millie picks an incident that left her traumatised. “My grandmother came to visit me at the facility, and said, ‘We get it, you want attention, and now you’ve got it. Just snap out of it’. There’s this perception that ED is not a problem that working-class brown women can have, even here in the UK.”
Despite the harrowing time she faced at the facility, Millie worked hard to recover. “I ate the food they gave me, kept it down, and didn’t exercise. The most important thing to me was my academic career. As Indian parents do, mine had told me, ‘If you study well, the rest of your life will be easy’. I went to the facility in June and I had to get better by September, but that didn’t happen. However, my school was nice enough to not hold me back another year. They said, ‘You’re smart enough to cover up. Take as much time as you need.’”
‘Stay Angry At Your Eating Disorder’
As Millie slowly put the weight back on, her body mass index (BMI) hit 18, and when she hit 51.3 kilos on the weighing scale, she was finally discharged. Her friends and school welcomed her back with open arms, and instead of bombarding her with prying questions, they greeted her with comments about how glad they were to see her return.
“That year was probably one of the best years of my life. I caught up on all the things I’d missed out on — partying, going out, spending time with my friends, and going on holidays. We went to Greece, and it was wonderful. I wore a bikini to the beach for the first time. It was a big deal, and I loved it. I did well in school, and got into the university I wanted,” Millie says.
“The first year of recovery is always the hardest, and you’re more likely to relapse within a year. So to make sure I didn’t, I held onto my anger towards anorexia. It had taken so much away from me, and I wasn’t going to let that happen again.”
She adds, “One thing that really broke me during my time at the facility was watching my mum deal with my illness. She never cries, but one day, she came to my hospital bed, sat on the edge, and cried silently for half an hour because she thought I was going to die. So when I recovered, I knew I had to remain healthy for her. I didn’t want her to have to bury her own child. I got better for her first, and then for myself.”
“Sometimes, you can’t get better for yourself. You hate yourself too much. So it’s okay to want to do it for others,” she notes.
Today, Millie continues to work hard to remain healthy, including eating well and going to the gym, but she never restricts herself from indulging when she wants to. “Life is too short,” she says. “I could never go back to that place again.”
To those struggling with similar battles, Millie says, “You might not believe it in the middle of all that you’re going through right now, but it does get better. There is a life beyond EDs and anorexia. Today, I’m healthier than I ever was. I still have some jiggly bits, but who doesn’t? It’s completely normal. You can recover and still look great. Just don’t forget to remain angry at your eating disorder. Don’t forget what it takes away from you.”
For anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can visit this site for a list of helplines to call.
Edited by Yoshita Rao