Eating Disorders and Egypt
Never underestimate this treacherous foe
I have never come across a subject such as Eating Disorders where Muslims and non-Muslims have so little to say. It is simply frightening.
Sarah Naeim has used her real name in a bid to remove the stigma from Eating Disorders in Egyptian society. I agree with her that by hiding our real identities we are playing to the stigma and labeling mental illness as something that one should be ashamed off and has to hide in layers of secrecy and lies.
Few words on Sarah: Eloquent, Beautiful, Compassionate and so full of passion for life. Last week We were having some coffee in empty 400 year Old Thatched Cottage in Brockenhurst, England and we started to discuss Eating Disorders and everything under the sun and this very charming student who works there came up to us and told us how she found Sarah so awe-inspiring. She said “I could not help hearing your conversation (My God, we were so loud) and I find her views on women and a need to step out of limiting self-beliefs that keep them stuck in roles of lack of power, submissiveness, victimhood, abuse and lack of self worth very inspiring and correct”. Thank you for wonderful coffee and a wonderful hospitality old Thatched Cottage.
Please find below Sarah’s story. She’s now recovered and is a healthy role model for many girls across the City of Cairo.
Beautiful Cairo, Eating Disorder, Life.
From 2007-2010, I was in Cairo, struck down by Eating Disorder in the prime of my life. I was completely withdrawn from my family. I was taking anti-depressant medication to no avail.
Eating Disorder is a nightmare. You lose yourself and in its place is a weird creature that is unable to feel any joy in life, any pleasure in food and in the relations. You become bitter, angry and out of control. You’re mind tells you one thing and only one thing ‘you’re right and the world is wrong’. Soon this belief that what you’re doing is right right and right takes hold of your life, isolating everyone and completely leading you on a path of self destruction.
I just wanted to lose weight, but what happened later is beyond my understanding…
My name is Sarah and I live in Egypt. Do you know what the strange thing about my Eating Disorder is? It was never diagnosed. I was under weight, malnourished, ill, and exhibited all signs of anorexic, but this illness was not once diagnosed during my treatment years.
I was an overweight individual. In Egypt, mothers, aunts, everyone loves to feed you. Food, Food and Food is centre of our lives. In 2007, I weighed astonishingly 110 Kilos.
Being overweight plays on your mind. You pretend that you’re happy, that you’re OK with your body, but deep down there’s a secret desire to shed all those kilos and flab.
I embarked on a journey to lose weight and little did I know what I was getting myself into. From 2007 to 2010, I dieted and dieted and soon it became something which was more than a diet. It was a journey of weight loss, which in beginning felt good and gave me immense joy, but soon it turned into something viral, dark and dangerous. Whoever came in the way of me and my Eating Disorder simply perished, all in literal sense.
From 110 Kilos to Hell…..
In six months, I lost 40 kilos of weight. From 110 kilos, I went down to 70 kilos. I was happy, but I did not realise that I was still losing more weight. It was this unintentional weight loss that really caused problems in my life. In next few months I lost 20 more kilos of weight, all unintentionally. I had also developed fear of food and I was simply surviving on a diet of few vegetables a day. Soon the effects were more visible. I was tired, irritable and out of energy. My skin turned yellow in colour and I had anaemia. My kidneys were affected and my body was simply not functioning well. I would look at myself in the mirror and feel fat, the distortion of body image and overall body discontent…
My parents are both high academics and they soon raised the alarm. I was sent to a nutritionist who instructed me to eat. We developed meal plans and I was told about the importance of having Carbohydrates, Fats and Protein in my diet.
In order to avoid the questions, I would use the behaviours to give out the message that I was healthy and fit and was gaining weight.
I could cope with the weight loss, but not the depression that came with my weight loss. It was so dark and disturbing. No matter how hard I tried, I could not break out of my dark moods.
How anyone with an Eating Disorder can escape a depressive mind, sadness, melancholy, panic and fear over food is beyond me.
It was then that I decided to go and see a psychiatrist behind my parents back. In Egypt mental illness and psychiatric treatment are seen as a taboo. The psychotherapy was a nightmare, digging into past, trying to make sense of my depression came to nothing. Those anti-depressants made me further ill. The real problem was my Eating Disorder and a psychiatrist never picked on that. His cure was pills and more pills.
In late 2011, I decided to take charge of myself and my life. I wanted to control this voice in my head and I wanted to have a body that was healthy and a mind that was sharp and even more healthier. I wanted to do this without medication and without therapy, so I joined gym.
I really wanted to beat this illness that was robbing me of my energy, my sleep, my concentration, my ability to work, play and live.
I went to gym and seeked refuge there, why? all because of the physical and psychological benefits of the exercise, the energy, increased stamina, good circulation, sharp mind, improved cardiac health, better immune function, reduced inflammation and an overall sense of well-being.
It was my gym instructor who really helped me to pull myself out of this depressive world of Eating Disorder. He was firm that I can only exercise if I eat and incorporate some protein, carbohydrates and fibre in my diet.
Sometimes I would go to gym hungry and I would lie to my instructor that I had eaten and would try to exercise on empty stomach. He would simply look at me and would take me down to Cafeteria and would give me a shake to drink. His support and encouragement enabled me to see food as a friend, as a healer as something that can do amazing wonders for your mind and body.
You should avoid having negative feelings around your food, such as fear/hatred of fast food, fear/hatred of weight gain, fear of sugary foods etc. These are expressions of fear and not healthy emotions. If these fears form the philosophical basis for your diet, then this will surely poison your mind and spirit. If fear is strong enough, the diet can turn into an eating disorder; if hatred for eating is strong enough, one can become a hostile, intolerant person.
I eat healthy, but I also allow myself occasional treats, such as chocolates, burgers, coffee etc.
I love Omega-3 Fatty Acids- this was absent from my diet and perhaps this can explain why my brain was not functioning well. These fatty acids can only be obtained through foods such as fish, nuts, seeds and leafy vegetables- this was a critical most effective fats in my recovery from eating disorder as it helps with brain structure and its functioning.
Soon I was able to see the benefits of healthy body and mind and I said goodbye to my Eating Disorder. I completely changed my diet. I went down the route which I knew was healthy and would benefit me tremendously.
A good nutrition and a good exercise, within months my Eating Disorder was in full Remission.
Over time, this combo catalyzed further improvement and soon this demon of Eating Disorder became a history, a thing of former past as my sleep, concentration, appetite and confidence all slowly began to return.
The way you eat and live affects the way you feel. so eat well and live well.
Alleviating Eating Disorders does not ensure happiness; this is something that we have to find after we have beaten this menacing illness.
My exercises activities are varied from walking, jogging, Yoga, biking and weight lifting. I find them all effective as it increases activity levels of very important brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine and helps you to beat the dark world of depression.
Life in Cairo is surprisingly very sedentary. So many people are out of shape. I know people who are younger than me and can run no further than 30 seconds. One problem in Cairo is not much open space. But we should not use this as an excuse, Fajr, early morning is a best time for walking and to appreciate what Cairo has to offer. Let me tell you that even a low dose of exercise- thirty minutes of walking few times a week can do wonders for your mind and body.
Support does Matter…
Support matters, relationships matter and supportive environment really matters.
The support of my Friend Nourhan, my father, mother, siblings and my Gym instructor was a vital component in my recovery from eating disorder. The sad thing is how when you suffer from eating disorder, your behaviour causes people to further withdraw from you.
Reflecting on Past, but not Ruminating!!!
I sometimes reflect on what happened in my past and it just scares me. I remember making a trip to Beirut in 2010 for a conference and I remember how my friend had to constantly run behind me to get me to eat. My mother would call her from Cairo to find out whether I had eaten or not.
I now realise that I am very fortunate that I pulled out of this illness. Recently I was in UK on holidays and I was out walking with Nadia and I was stunned to learn about sufferers who had it all, good life, education, family, but their Eating Disorder destroyed it all.
Nadia asked me if I thought Egyptian media was responsible for Eating Disorders, and my answer was very direct, no Egyptian media has normal size people, it’s the Western media that has brought on the epidemic of Eating Disorders and body image issues in the world.
Gratitude , Gratitude and Gratitude
By honouring yourself and treating yourself with respect, you set the stage up for others to treat you with respect.
I am eating healthily and with an appetite. I thank God for my healing, and for the food I eat daily. Alhamdulilah. The days I want my sea food, I can just drive down to Alexandria and really enjoy my fresh sea food.
“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”
I wake up early in the morning and I go for my morning run, it increases my productivity and more time awake equals more time to get things done. What I love about early morning run is the beauty of Cairo, the air on my skin, the sun beating down my head and the nature around me. I take the time and make a nutritious, healthy breakfast and this supplies me with the energy I need for the day.
Don’t misuse Exercise, Nutrition or Your Body- Just Don’t, it doesn’t work…
Despite the exercise’s beneficial effects, I would strongly advise you to get a physical exam to consult your physician, before you start putting the exercise into practice. See a doctor first. With Eating Disorder, exercise is misused as something to feed the needs of the demon of Eating Disorder, so it’s always good to check with your treatment team, before embarking on a exercise program. the same goes for your diet and nutritional intake.
I believe in Myself
When you defeat the demon of Eating Disorder, it is then from this place of empowerment and self-belief that you can look at the world as a place where you can express who you are. So Surround yourself with people who honour love and respect you as you honour, love and respect yourself.
You are In charge of your Body and Mind
All I can say is that at the end of day, it’s you who matters.
You can’t cheat your body, you can’t mistreat your body because sooner or later it will pay you back for the abuse. Take your first step towards a healthy body and mind by learning to respect and love your body.
What I have shared here is just a mere tip on the ice berg. If I write about the depression and those dark dark dark moments, it will chill some of you to your bones. Some things are better left unsaid.
Eating Disorders are beatable. Seek Treatment and Fight for Yourself.
The most common way people give up their power
is by thinking they don’t have any.
~ Alice Walker ~
Eating Disorders Help Egypt
Counseling- 7 Cups Of Tea, 7 Cups of Tea connects you with free active listeners, online counseling, and online therapy
Online Counselling 4 u, Aashayen…The Hope Online Counselling Service offers professional solutions to life’s problems through online counselling and self help articles.
Eating Disorder Support Group Online- Eating Disorder Chat
Nutritional Therapy- Diamond Nutrition Counseling-Online Counseling in Real Time, Anywhere, Anytime!