Woke up from a nightmare, Lu Zhang, a 23-year-old female Chinese college student, stood on the scale to weigh herself. Seeing her weight hadn’t changed, she took a long breath. She just had a terrible dream in which she become fat. It was not the first time Zhang had such dreams. Each time, she cried in the dream. Sometimes, Zhang dreamed she became slim. However, when she found it was just a dream, she also cried. Zhang’s obsession with weight led her to control diet strictly, which then caused anorexia, a type of eating disorders.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia, are mental disorders characterized by abnormal eating habits which can negatively affect people’s physical and mental health. According to Holly Samples, a nutrition counseling coordinator at the University of Georgia, several factors including genetics, personalities and life events may contribute to eating disorders.
“Excessive dieting is one of the most common causes for anorexia, ” said Samples.
On the other side of the earth, Jaye Cora, a 19-year-old American female student at the University of Georgia, also once struggled with anorexia.
When Cora was 15, she developed an eating disorder while coming to terms with the fact that she was a lesbian. Whenever she felt anxious or shameful about being a lesbian, avoiding food became a way she used to punish herself. Also, food was something she could control at that time when other things in her life felt out of control.
Samples said cases like Cora happened a lot. Instead of treating feelings with helpful things, people sometimes use food, either controlling food or having too much food, to help them feel in a certain way.
In May 2014, Zhang traveled with her friends to Fenghuang, a small town at Hunan province, China, and posted her travel photos on Wechat. However, what she received was not “likes” she expected, but comments saying she was too fat. With a height of 5 feet, 4 inches, Zhang was 135 pounds.
This was when Zhang began to care about her weight. Every day, she weighed herself at least twice. Once she found she gained weight, she stopped eating. Now, Zhang is 100 pounds but she still wants to be thinner.
Constant dieting weakened Zhang’s body. Walking for ten minutes can make her breathe heavily. Insomnia, anxiety and depression also haunted her.
“Having eating disorders is painful. I want to be a normal person to eat whatever I want.” said Zhang.
Cora’s mother was the first one who noticed her abnormal behaviors. After some hesitation, Cora told her mother about her sexual orientation. Cora said she and her mother are like sisters, sharing every secrets, so she trusted her.
“It was hard for me to accept at first,” said Cora’s mother. “But compared to her health, her sexual orientation doesn’t matter.”
She suggested Cora to receive psychotherapy and Cora agreed with no hesitation. After one year’s treatments, Cora finally was able to accepted herself as a lesbian, and no longer need to control food to make herself feel better.
“I know I’m a lesbian. I know lots of people may judge me because of it. But it’s me. I like who I am,” Cora said.
However, what happened to Zhang was different. One of Zhang’s male classmates once went to see psychologist because of relationship problems. However, he was laughed at by others and tagged as a coward.
“I couldn’t forget how they talked about him. I don’t want to be seen as a freak, and I don’t want to let my parents down. They have a high expectation on me.” said Zhang.
As a result, she never thought about telling her friends or parents about her illness and never considered seeing a psychologist.
The bias against seeing psychologists in China has bothered Wei Fu, a Chinese psychologist for a long time. He strongly suggested patients with eating disorders to seek for professional help. However, he said that the bias has made lots of patients wary about receiving the psychological treatment they need.
“If you have cold, you will go to see doctors. Seeing psychologist is the same. Having mental disorders is not a big deal.” said Fu.
Cora is now attending two recovery meetings every week held by Collegiate Recovery Community at UGA. She said attending meetings helped her a lot and she hopes to use her experiences to help others.
“Attending meetings allows students to know they are not alone,” said Jason Callis, the program manager of CRC. “It provides a sense of community and a sense of hope. ”
Unlike Cora who has been recovered, Zhang is still struggling with eating disorders, but she feels much better. She forces herself to eat everyday. Although the amount is small, it is a good sign.
“I found lots of people who have the same trouble with me online. Since we share similar experiences, they can better understand me. They helped me a lot.” said Zhang.
For those who are shamed to seek help like Zhang, Callis said that it is not something they need to hide or feel shamed of.
“You are not alone, ” Callis said. “Initially asking for help can be difficult but is completely worth to taking risk.”