Marisabelle Bonnici had been battling an eating disorder throughout her life, which became a vicious cycle of work, bingeing, dieting and bingeing again. It’s been a long journey of self-hatred, self-doubt, anxiety, self-love, suffering and compassion. But she has gone from 139kg to 87kg since she embarked on the ‘road to Belle’.

“Why don’t you diet?”

“Don’t eat carbs!”

“Just start exercising!”

“You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.”

“What you eat is a choice…”

These comments are often passed by others who don’t understand eating disorders. But what is it really like to live with binge eating?

For many years, when people used to comment about my weight, I used to say I will not be defined by a number on a scale. I told everyone I was happy the way I was even though, deep down, the pain over my relationship with myself and food was very real.

This article first appeared in Pink magazine.This article first appeared in Pink magazine.

Eating disorders also come with their share of self-esteem issues. To feel that you are never good enough; to be unhappy in your own skin; to want to be loved but unable to accept it; and worst of all, to allow food to rule your life… these things were an everyday reality for me.

But I can tell you binge eating is certainly not a choice! I had no control over the feelings I had and what I did and did not eat. There were so many times that I woke up with the resolve to change my life that day! I would make it to lunchtime, maybe sometimes even to 4pm, and then something inside me would snap, and this beast that lived within took over, and it would eat everything it could find.

There is only so much abuse a body can take! I have been bingeing, restricting and yo-yo dieting for over 20 years. I even went through a phase, while I was at university, where I had lost over 30kg in a couple of months by literally refusing to eat anything.

My teenage years

Looking back, I know my disordered eating started at a very young age. My mother was always conscious that we did not put on weight as she was always heavy and did not want us to struggle with weight loss for all our lives like she did. So, she limited our access to junk food and sweets. But despite this, I was still a bigger girl.

Today, I realise I was not fat; I just had a different build from the other girls in school – I was taller and had a bigger frame. I was not naturally skinny.

Marisabelle Bonnici, 35, has learnt how to improve her relationship with her body and food; how to accept herself. Photo: Amanda HsuMarisabelle Bonnici, 35, has learnt how to improve her relationship with her body and food; how to accept herself. Photo: Amanda Hsu

I used to love studying and reading, and this made me an easy target. I was continuously taunted, and various names were made up for me. Some girls would encourage me to smoke to lose weight; others used to show me how they threw up everything they ate and encouraged me to do the same.

I never managed to smoke or throw up. However, food was my refuge for a very long time… whether it was eating an extra portion after everyone went to bed or buying sweets with my pocket money. It was always the one thing that made me feel good.

And the years rolled by… always characterised by one diet after the other and my relentless belief that if I could find that one diet, one programme, or one trainer to help me lose weight, then all my problems would magically disappear. Over the years, I must have lost close to 300kg through all the diets I have done that all ended up with me putting on weight again.

However, one thing remained the same; I always resorted to food as my crutch.

The worst years of my eating disorder

Six years ago, I decided to focus my life on my work. I bought a pharmacy and it was my pride and joy. Taking care of my patients was something I enjoyed, and I believed that was my purpose. I completely ignored all aspects of my health. I stopped taking photos and playing music and travelling. I just allowed myself to focus on this life of a business owner.

Despite loving my profession, dealing with patients and owning a business brought on its fair share of stress and anxiety as anyone in the healthcare profession can attest to. And after a long day at work, my kitchen was my solace. My life had become a vicious cycle of work, bingeing, dieting and bingeing again.

Three years down the line and binge eating disorder took over my life. I was experiencing uncontrollable food cravings – the kind of desire that would consume you so much that you would get out of bed and out of the house in pyjamas to find food. It felt like I was on autopilot, and I could not stop myself. I was a smart, well-educated woman, so why did I have no willpower around food?

There were days when I would swear never to eat that way again, and the next minute, I’d find myself stuffing food into my mouth. If someone had sat and watched me from afar, they would have seen me gulping down one thing after another.

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During a binge, I didn’t even take the time to taste the food; I did not even enjoy the food at that point. I would then lay in bed and be consumed with guilt and shame. Binge eating is a disorder that takes over your whole life and thrives on isolation and shame.

For a long time, I felt like I had no control. Now, you are all probably thinking: Why couldn’t you stop eating when you were full? But this was not a choice for me. It was like my hands were not attached to my mind, and I could not control myself even if I were so full that I would feel nauseous. During a binge, I did not think.

A binge would generally last around 90 minutes, and then afterwards, I would be consumed by guilt. Today, I am amazed at how much food my stomach could fit.

Unfortunately, binge eating is not spoken about or recognised much. Most people would normally say that an overweight person has no willpower, or is lazy, and very few would acknowledge that they might have a condition.

The worst part of it all was that I was beginning to lose hope – hope that I would ever get better and improve my relationship with food and my body, and live a happy and healthy life.

For a long time, it felt like food consumed my life. Every food advert, new restaurant opening, online recipes, Instagram food photo would trigger the need for a binge and uncontrollable food cravings.

Recovery

On February 9, 2017, a man walked into my pharmacy and asked to have his blood pressure and blood sugar tested. Both were above the norm, so I proceeded to advise him on how a healthy diet is essential and exercising is important.

In that moment, I felt like a fraud. That was when I decided to start a diet. I asked all my friends for their support. I told them I was about to start a diet and needed them not to eat in front of me. I began using the services of Plan H for a while. I am ever so grateful to them for getting me on the right track and helping me start off my journey. They helped me believe in my body again and the fact that I could enjoy healthy food and reasonable portion sizes.

Photo: Amanda HsuPhoto: Amanda Hsu

Unfortunately, on bad days, however, I still had binges. But I could no longer use the excuse that I didn’t have time to cook healthy food as I had nutritious ready-made food every day. It was at that point that I realised I could have a problem. Was I addicted to food? Did I have a disorder?

From then on, my journey took a turn. I finally realised what my problem was. I got a lot of support from many people, and it took over two years for me to be able to talk about my condition openly.

In the meantime, I have studied a lot. I have done a diploma in nutrition, another one in intuitive eating coaching, and I am currently furthering my education in eating disorders.

I have to admit that being addicted to food is extremely hard. I cannot abstain from eating. You need food to survive, so avoiding food is not an option. The battle still brews inside me whenever I have a tough day and I sit with a plate of food in front of me.

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But now I have learnt compassion for myself. I have learnt to dissociate the feelings of guilt from food. Studying eating disorders, nutrition and intuitive eating has brought me a lot of comfort.

It has been quite some time now since I had a massive binge. I have learnt to let my inner critic go. I have learnt alternative methods of dealing with my anxiety. Working out has been an enormous support for me, as well as making use of calming scents in my house, and more importantly, talking openly about this condition on my healthy lifestyle blog, Road to Belle, which is dedicated to intuitive eating and offers weight-loss tips, recipes and feel-good stories…

Photo: Amanda HsuPhoto: Amanda Hsu

Allowing myself the freedom to eat whatever I want has put me in touch with my body. I now appreciate how particular food makes me feel and understand better my cravings and reactions to food.

It’s been a long journey of self-hatred, self-doubt, anxiety, self-love, suffering and compassion. And I know the journey is far from over. Every day, I still learn. I learn how to love myself, how to accept myself, and how to improve my relationship with my body and food. Right now, I feel stronger than ever, and I know that through my journey, I can offer hope and support to anyone going through a wellness journey of their own.

This article first appeared in Pink magazine.