Author Diya Sethi on fighting anorexia-bulimia


Author Diya Sethi on fighting anorexia-bulimia

After a 13-year-long battle, she decided it was time to get to know the enemy

The night I decided to end my life, I couldn’t do it. Not because I was scared; I was physically unable to do it. When I staggered into the bathroom with a kitchen knife, I blacked out before I could hurt myself. For many hours before, I had been on a merciless spree of eating, vomiting and binge drinking. Later, my father said he’d found me lying on the floor in a pool of vomit.

This was in 1996. I was 22. Months earlier, I had arrived at my parents’ house in Paris, from university in London. I had a distended abdomen and a fungus had infected my oesophagus, viral warts swarmed my skin and I was cross-addicted to hard drugs and alcohol. My ravaged body could not hold up any longer on the steady diet of starvation and purging I’d put it through since I was 16. The other addictions and infections were merely piggybacking on the one that really plagued me: anorexia-bulimia. I had begun to live my days in a kind of trance, hypnotised by defeat. I no longer begged for help in my prayers — I begged for my end.

But let’s go back to happier times. I was born in New York City into what might be described as a cocoon: adored and nurtured by doting parents and sheltered by the umbrella of diplomatic life. We moved constantly, wherever my father’s state duties took him. Peking, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Harare, Abu Dhabi. Life was good, as long as I was home.

The trouble began as soon as I stepped out, because all I found was rejection. In Peking, while I was still very young, the children of other Indian diplomats spoke Hindi fluently and moved in tight-knit groups. I was a brown kid who was completely western — I couldn’t understand them, I wasn’t familiar with the food they ate, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I felt  different and left out. In Delhi, this was only amplified. By the time we moved to Malaysia, and I was slightly older, being the outsider was par for the course. To make matters worse, I developed earlier than the other girls and the small solace I’d found in being good at gymnastics was destroyed by the pitiless teasing my newly voluptuous frame invoked. I began to eat less hoping I’d shrink to an indistinguishable size. Looking back, these were the first stirrings of the disorder.

It was our next pit stop, Zimbabwe that really threw it into full throttle. The tides of racism were strong there. White kids mocked brown and black ones. I, of course, saw this as the effect I thought I’d always had on people. The tipping point was at an all-white party I had attended. As I entered, one of the guys yelled, “Go home, bungee!” (a distortion of ‘behenji’). Everyone stared at me and laughed. It’s the way I look, I thought, as I walked home that day, sickened with humiliation and shame. It’s always been about the way I look and who I am.

The first time I starved myself for an entire day, I felt accomplished. Like I was in rare control. The lack of food left me with a lightness of being in which I felt strangely safe. I wanted to do it again. The lies came easy. “I’ve already eaten at school,” I’d tell my mother at the table. “I’m still full from last night.” It wasn’t long before she and the kitchen staff began to watch me. I started to eat just as little as was necessary to soothe suspicion. And as soon as I was out of sight, I would rush to the nearest bathroom and vomit copiously until bile flooded my mouth, corroborating an empty digestive tract. Relief.

Soon enough, the bulimia grew from being just a front for the anorexia to becoming the fix, far more rewarding than starvation. Our large family meals helped. I’d feverishly eat ham and chicken roasts, salads and bakes and pasta, tasting nothing, and then go throw up till I was sure I was “clean”. When I finally admitted to my mother that I was sick, I was carted from one psychiatrist to another for the next two years, where I’d serenely lie about being okay, while planning my exit to university in London.

Once I arrived there, though, instead of release, the fear, sickness and loneliness got worse. I buried myself in academia and topped the university, but I had to turn away from a group of friends who were becoming suspicious of my eating disorder. I found comfort in the junkies. We shared the haunted, vacant gazes, and the grizzle of bodies in ruin. Our relationship was co-dependent. I felt needed for the first time. And I never wanted it to end.

Then came Paris. My father was by now the Indian Ambassador to France, and I sat at dinners with dignitaries, celebrities and his other friends. I attended openings and galas and film festivals in beautiful clothes. I was going to kill myself soon, I thought, this was the least I could do for my parents. Which brings me to the bathroom floor, passed out in a pool of dried-up vomit? I had spectacularly failed to die, and now I had nowhere left to hide.

So I hauled myself over to rehab in England — I was going to fix this, and I had blind faith that I could. Fifteen days later I walked out of there, enraged, and into an even more dynamic sequence of relapse, regret, reform and recovery. The centre’s catchall 12-step programme for recovery had made me livid. I rejected the idea that an addict could never be free of her addictive tendency — that the most she could hope for was to be in recovery for the rest of her days. It seemed to me that just keeping the demon buried or at bay was the one way to make sure it never left me. I needed to look my fear square in the eye and befriend it. 

Except, if we’ve established one thing so far, it’s that I wasn’t much good at making friends. Over the next three years, my life was a vague, under-equipped struggle that left me with bleeding ulcers all over my duodenum. When I finally arrived in India, a country that I incidentally felt the most removed from, my body was badly bruised, I had headaches all the time and I felt nothing but distress. This would mark my real and final battle with my addiction. Or so I hope.

I turned up on the doorstep of an Ayurvedic doctor at the excellent Kairali treatment centre in Delhi. Here, he showed me how to eat again — what, how much, when and to what effect. Practising yoga at the same time taught me to steer my mind using my body. He walked me through the feelings of rejection, pain and humiliation that I’d caged myself in since I was a little girl. I did asanas that made me cry helplessly. And I felt vital for the first time in 13 years. Emboldened now — or perhaps this was just deathly stupid bravado — I enlisted myself to become a chef at  Le Cordon Bleu in London.  ‘Recovering addict’ was just not good enough for me. I couldn’t live in fear of food because it was never the problem, only the symptom. And now food would bring me back to me.

I had made the right decision. Today, freedom and joy is a good Peking duck. And cheese. French cheese. Sashimi. Or tandoori, all tandoori. Did I mention linguine? A glass of wine. Sometimes three. Oh god, yum.

Diya Sethi's book The Addict: A Life Recovered (Harper Collins) is out now

Photograph: Nflfl.com

The night I decided to end my life, I couldn’t do it. Not because I was scared; I was physically unable to do it. When I staggered into the bathroom with a kitchen knife, I blacked out before I could hurt myself. For many hours before, I had been on a merciless spree of eating, vomiting and binge drinking. Later, my father said he’d found me lying on the floor in a pool of vomit.

This was in 1996. I was 22. Months earlier, I had arrived at my parents’ house in Paris, from university in London. I had a distended abdomen and a fungus had infected my oesophagus, viral warts swarmed my skin and I was cross-addicted to hard drugs and alcohol. My ravaged body could not hold up any longer on the steady diet of starvation and purging I’d put it through since I was 16. The other addictions and infections were merely piggybacking on the one that really plagued me: anorexia-bulimia. I had begun to live my days in a kind of trance, hypnotised by defeat. I no longer begged for help in my prayers — I begged for my end.

But let’s go back to happier times. I was born in New York City into what might be described as a cocoon: adored and nurtured by doting parents and sheltered by the umbrella of diplomatic life. We moved constantly, wherever my father’s state duties took him. Peking, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Harare, Abu Dhabi. Life was good, as long as I was home.

The trouble began as soon as I stepped out, because all I found was rejection. In Peking, while I was still very young, the children of other Indian diplomats spoke Hindi fluently and moved in tight-knit groups. I was a brown kid who was completely western — I couldn’t understand them, I wasn’t familiar with the food they ate, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I felt  different and left out. In Delhi, this was only amplified. By the time we moved to Malaysia, and I was slightly older, being the outsider was par for the course. To make matters worse, I developed earlier than the other girls and the small solace I’d found in being good at gymnastics was destroyed by the pitiless teasing my newly voluptuous frame invoked. I began to eat less hoping I’d shrink to an indistinguishable size. Looking back, these were the first stirrings of the disorder.

It was our next pit stop, Zimbabwe that really threw it into full throttle. The tides of racism were strong there. White kids mocked brown and black ones. I, of course, saw this as the effect I thought I’d always had on people. The tipping point was at an all-white party I had attended. As I entered, one of the guys yelled, “Go home, bungee!” (a distortion of ‘behenji’). Everyone stared at me and laughed. It’s the way I look, I thought, as I walked home that day, sickened with humiliation and shame. It’s always been about the way I look and who I am.

The first time I starved myself for an entire day, I felt accomplished. Like I was in rare control. The lack of food left me with a lightness of being in which I felt strangely safe. I wanted to do it again. The lies came easy. “I’ve already eaten at school,” I’d tell my mother at the table. “I’m still full from last night.” It wasn’t long before she and the kitchen staff began to watch me. I started to eat just as little as was necessary to soothe suspicion. And as soon as I was out of sight, I would rush to the nearest bathroom and vomit copiously until bile flooded my mouth, corroborating an empty digestive tract. Relief.

Soon enough, the bulimia grew from being just a front for the anorexia to becoming the fix, far more rewarding than starvation. Our large family meals helped. I’d feverishly eat ham and chicken roasts, salads and bakes and pasta, tasting nothing, and then go throw up till I was sure I was “clean”. When I finally admitted to my mother that I was sick, I was carted from one psychiatrist to another for the next two years, where I’d serenely lie about being okay, while planning my exit to university in London.

Once I arrived there, though, instead of release, the fear, sickness and loneliness got worse. I buried myself in academia and topped the university, but I had to turn away from a group of friends who were becoming suspicious of my eating disorder. I found comfort in the junkies. We shared the haunted, vacant gazes, and the grizzle of bodies in ruin. Our relationship was co-dependent. I felt needed for the first time. And I never wanted it to end.

Then came Paris. My father was by now the Indian Ambassador to France, and I sat at dinners with dignitaries, celebrities and his other friends. I attended openings and galas and film festivals in beautiful clothes. I was going to kill myself soon, I thought, this was the least I could do for my parents. Which brings me to the bathroom floor, passed out in a pool of dried-up vomit? I had spectacularly failed to die, and now I had nowhere left to hide.

So I hauled myself over to rehab in England — I was going to fix this, and I had blind faith that I could. Fifteen days later I walked out of there, enraged, and into an even more dynamic sequence of relapse, regret, reform and recovery. The centre’s catchall 12-step programme for recovery had made me livid. I rejected the idea that an addict could never be free of her addictive tendency — that the most she could hope for was to be in recovery for the rest of her days. It seemed to me that just keeping the demon buried or at bay was the one way to make sure it never left me. I needed to look my fear square in the eye and befriend it. 

Except, if we’ve established one thing so far, it’s that I wasn’t much good at making friends. Over the next three years, my life was a vague, under-equipped struggle that left me with bleeding ulcers all over my duodenum. When I finally arrived in India, a country that I incidentally felt the most removed from, my body was badly bruised, I had headaches all the time and I felt nothing but distress. This would mark my real and final battle with my addiction. Or so I hope.

I turned up on the doorstep of an Ayurvedic doctor at the excellent Kairali treatment centre in Delhi. Here, he showed me how to eat again — what, how much, when and to what effect. Practising yoga at the same time taught me to steer my mind using my body. He walked me through the feelings of rejection, pain and humiliation that I’d caged myself in since I was a little girl. I did asanas that made me cry helplessly. And I felt vital for the first time in 13 years. Emboldened now — or perhaps this was just deathly stupid bravado — I enlisted myself to become a chef at  Le Cordon Bleu in London.  ‘Recovering addict’ was just not good enough for me. I couldn’t live in fear of food because it was never the problem, only the symptom. And now food would bring me back to me.

I had made the right decision. Today, freedom and joy is a good Peking duck. And cheese. French cheese. Sashimi. Or tandoori, all tandoori. Did I mention linguine? A glass of wine. Sometimes three. Oh god, yum.

Diya Sethi's book The Addict: A Life Recovered (Harper Collins) is out now

Photograph: Nflfl.com