With a radiant smile on her face, it’s hard to imagine that Charlene Ser, 19, once suffered from anorexia and depression.
The undergraduate at the National University of Singapore was diagnosed with anorexia and depression at 16 and was put on antidepressants for 2 years.
She started cutting out fast food and restricted herself to 1,200 calories a day. Soon, she was eating 1 meal a day and ultimately, the bare minimum. When forced to eat, Charlene would pick food out and throw them away when no one was watching.
As the amount of food she ate decreased, so did her weight. “I could survive on an apple a day,” said the 1.58m tall girl. Weighing only 34kg at her lowest, Charlene was severely underweight with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 13.6.
Her energy levels depleted drastically and she no longer had the strength to exercise.
Stating her inability to cope with family issues and stress as one of the reasons why she turned to anorexia, Charlene said: “I felt like my whole life was falling apart and I couldn’t control anything.”
Attributing the media’s portrayal of thinness as beauty as another reason, she added: “There are a lot of pro eating disorder websites out there and when you’re in that (vulnerable) phase, you tend to visit these websites and get more and more influenced by the idea of being extremely thin.”
Charlene’s closest friend, Shalini Easwariya, 19, soon grew concerned.
“She started eating very little, less than 500 calories worth of food and no carbs at all,” said Shalini. “She was really skinny and frail, and she looked very tired and lacked energy.”
Despite feedback from friends that she looked ill, Charlene couldn’t stop. She said: “When you look in the mirror, the way you perceive yourself is always going to be negative.”
During her first year in junior college, she hit rock bottom.
The former Catholic Junior College (CJC) student lost interest in everything and isolated herself from her peers; she stopped interacting with people as most social settings required eating.
“I could get up and not do anything for the whole day and I wouldn’t feel anything,” said Charlene. “I didn’t care if I died.”
Eventually, Charlene was admitted to the eating disorders program at Singapore General Hospital (SGH). For 6 months, she had to go to SGH from 10 am to 5 pm to take her lunch and supplements every day.
However, Charlene’s battle against anorexia did not end there.
At the hospital, patients competed to be the thinnest. Pressured, Charlene soon picked up their habits to make herself thinner.
During the weekly weigh-ins, she would try to fool the doctors by chugging water to increase her weight before stepping on the weighing scale. She said: “Before that, I wouldn’t have thought of doing it, but then when you go in and you see people doing it, you pick up their bad habits too.”
“Are you going to live your life like this forever?”
After hearing this from her doctor, Charlene realized that she needed to change.
“I wasn’t ready to give up my entire education just to be thin. It wasn’t worth it,” she said. Driven to recover, she regained her weight within 2 months.
“I think what helped was actually reaching out and accepting help,” said Charlene. “When you actually have an eating disorder, you don’t think that you need or deserve to get help but when you do get help, you’ll realize that it’s not that hard to deal with.”
While she has recovered physically, the road to recovery is a constant work in progress. She said: “I still get thoughts about being thinner, but I just need to be strong enough push those thoughts aside.”
The rate of recovery varies from individual to individual and “can take as short as three months or as long as ten years,” said Dr Kim Lian Rolles-Abraham, a clinical psychologist from Better Life Clinic in Novena Medical Centre. Factors such as the age a person develops an eating disorder and support determine the rate of recovery.
“I’m proud of her,” said Shalini. “It’s easy to relapse and give up, making it difficult to recover, but Charlene didn’t give up on herself and I’m glad that she’s well and healthy now.”