The last couple of years of high school and the first couple of years of university were pretty dark days for me. I had given up competitive swimming and training for four hours a day, but had no idea how to cut back on the amount of food I ate. A loaf of bread in one sitting was not out of the ordinary. In fact, feeling full was unknown to me. I had just eaten so much for so many years to support the amount of physical exercise I did that I didn’t know how to eat in moderation.
Back then, I wanted to be skinny because I thought being bony was what it meant to be beautiful. And how was I ever going to get a boyfriend if I wasn’t beautiful? Because, you know, having a boyfriend is the be-all and end-all when you are 16. Add to this mix poor self-esteem and you have yourself the perfect recipe for developing an eating disorder.
I can remember the first time I did it – made myself be sick. It was behind my family house, under the grasshopper tree (which I would usually stay the hell away from. God knows why they always congregated there) and just after I had downed an entire family sized quiche. Soon after that it became the norm – eat a shitload, feel guilty, find a private space and throw it all back up again. It wasn’t long until people started commenting on how I looked. ‘Wow Mahdi, you look great. How much weight have you lost?!’. If only they knew what was going on behind the scenes.
The stupid thing was, I couldn’t see it myself. No matter what size I was, even if I was skinny as a rake, all I saw was an ugly, fat girl looking back at me in the mirror or in photos. There was no winning. I hated myself and could not find a way out of the dark hole I had dug.
Eventually my family clicked on to what was happening. They found bits of food that wouldn’t flush properly in the toilet a couple of times and my brother overheard my vomit in my room once (into an ice cream container which was my go to spew holder when I couldn’t secretly hide anywhere else at home to bring the food up). They tried to talk to me about it and I swore black and blue that I was not bulimic and that I had no problem.
They tried sending me to a psychologist, which I agreed to, but only went once and lied to her the entire session. I still feel sorry for the agony I must have put my family through during those days. All they wanted to do was see me happy and make me better but they couldn’t, the desire to change had to come from within me.
Then, when I was 19, I saw an ad for a camp counsellor job in the US. It was for lifeguards and swimming coaches, of which I was both at the time as that’s what I did to support my university study. I told my parents that I wanted to take 6 months off uni to go travelling and at first they were apprehensive. They thought it would be better for me to finish my study and then go travelling. But I knew that if I stayed, I probably wouldn’t have finished studying anyway. I was in too much of a dark place. So I signed up.
I saved for about six months and then I was off. New York was my first stop. I felt so many different emotions walking down that first Manhattan street. I was free, scared, amazed and excited all at once. (And I couldn’t believe how much it all looked like Sesame Street!) My normal life and my problems were on the other side of the world. In America, I could be whoever I wanted to be.
Within a couple of days I was up in Pennsylvania, living in a cabin on a lake and looking after eight privileged 13 year old girls, all with a large sense of entitlement (something I will NEVER do again). It was here that I was faced with every type of unhealthy American food you could think of – burgers, cookie pizzas, lucky charm cereal, sugary drinks, ice creams, fries and the list goes on. So what did I do? Eat. Everything. I ate so much that I put on twelve kilograms in the space of eight weeks.
Did I feel guilty about it? Yes. Did it stop me? No. The difference was that it didn’t matter if I put on weight there. Many of the people working there were overweight themselves. To them, I was just Mahdi from Australia, not someone who was supposed to look a certain way. And for the first time in years, I started to let it all go myself. I started to realise that weight wasn’t so important after all. And even if it did, I was that far gone that there were no quick fixes to lose weight anyway.
I had to deal with being what I had always dreaded - being fat. And guess what? It wasn’t even hard. When I got back to Australia, my friends did not stop paying me out about being a fatty. I had changed though and I was finally able to laugh about my weight. I put myself on a sustainable exercise regime and lost all the weight over about six months.
These days, I am just happy to be healthy, whether I have some extra weight on or not. I haven’t weighed myself in over a decade and I go by how well my clothes fit as to whether I need to drop a few kilos. I also eat in moderation. Something I could have never imagined I could do. Travel snapped me out of my bad head space and I have loved it ever since.
Has travel helped you to get over any personal issues?