When I think about it, I now realize that my story goes back to my high school years in Iran. In a class of 21 students, all majoring in mathematics, I was always the A+ student. I constantly pushed myself because I loved studying more than anything else. Sheer determination and drive often overtook my need to care for myself, and the lack of knowledge and medical support in Iran resulted in decades of struggle.
During that period of my life I did have many fun times although my disordered eating patterns were definitely present. One of our instructors loved cookies and treats and every week we took turns bringing sweets for the class. At that time, I was a healthy weight and eating well, but I was avoiding sweets and some specific foods. I recognize this now as problematic behaviour, but I nor anybody else would have thought that this restriction together with my personality type might lead to a problem.
In Iran, the entrance exam for university is very difficult. I passed and achieved a high score which enabled me to be accepted into the best engineering school in Iran. It was recognized as a global school where the courses and credits would be accepted in all of North America. I finished my Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and met my husband who was my classmate.
We married after graduation and both started to prepare for the Master’s program exam. Throughout these years, I was eating VERY cautiously and became more aware of my reservations around food.
We had a very short time to prepare for the Master’s exam and considering I was just married, I had to host many people that wanted to come and visit, which is a cultural tradition. I was accepted on my second attempt and at the same time I was pregnant with my first child. So, I was a housewife, a mother and a full-time Master’s student. But I loved it so much, I did not care. My eating was good because of the pregnancy, but I realize now that I was eating well because I was feeding somebody else, not for my own health.
I studied for my Master’s degree for 3 years, again, committing myself fully to attain the honour of being top of my year, with a recognized published paper in an International journal. Although I was achieving academically, my eating declined as I was not breast feeding anymore and it eventually got to the point that it was noticeable. However, no one (even me) in my inner circle had any idea what an Eating Disorder was.
My husband applied to North American universities. I personally loved my country and did not want to leave. But what could I say? This was mentally hard to accept and the only thing that was satisfying to me was the fact that I would be able to continue my studies and get my Ph.D. in another country.
I then got pregnant with my second child. This pregnancy was extremely difficult. Bed rest for almost my whole pregnancy and my eating was horrible; not because of my Eating Disorder but because I was not able to eat due to the pregnancy. My labour was very fast. I delivered, but the bleeding did not stop. I kept bleeding until the nurse realized it was not normal. She paged the doctor as I went into a coma. Apparently, I basically died, but miraculously came back to life.
It was extremely difficult to wake up from that state and that day changed my life. I was in shock with absolutely no energy, traumatized with a newborn baby. My mother took good care of me and I was able to gradually take care of my family by myself. It took about a year to recover physically but mentally I never recovered. I was clinically depressed, but everyone paid so much attention to my physical health that no one realized that my mental health was declining.
Still, my husband was thinking of immigration and he started the application process. I was still breast feeding my baby but when I stopped, I stopped eating. That was the time when my Eating Disorder showed up in full force. In about two years I had lost 50 per cent of my body weight and was exhibiting all those habits that an anorexic person shows.
Life was so hard and I was losing touch with reality day by day. Occasionally I was taken to a physician, but no one diagnosed me accurately – not even psychiatrists. I was working at my uncle’s company during these times, skipping lunch at work, and wearing loose clothes to avoid people commenting.
Immigrating to a different country was the last thing that I wanted to think about but moving to Canada was already in the process. In 2002 an uncle who had immigrated to Vancouver invited me to visit the country, so I did not need to be scared of the unknown. I said yes and right away I started to contact a few professors to explore my options whilst in Canada. I planned to visit Montreal for McGill and Vancouver for UBC. My brother, who had been living in the U.S. for about 15 years joined me in Montreal and we spent about 3-4 days together. He understood what was going on with me health-wise as he was aware of the devastation of Eating Disorders. He immediately called my family at home and told them that I was very sick, and that I would need immediate medical attention upon my return.
Suddenly everybody was is in panic mode because of what my had told them. My husband and parents were desperate to find a good doctor and I went with the flow. Nobody knew what to do and I went to many dietitians and other professionals who in the end couldn’t help me. Finally, one of our friends knew a psychologist and she accepted my case as she realized what was going on. They hospitalized me, but not in a proper program because there was no specific care for Eating Disorders at the time in Iran. They put me in a regular mental hospital with all other mental illnesses and I stayed there for 45 days, with no support for my eating. It was very scary as I witnessed the bad moments of many of the other patients, so I was always locking my room. I was not allowed visitors except my mom and my husband. I only saw my kids for 2 hours during those 45 days.
My husband then told me that our immigration to Canada was approved! All I could think about was the stress of moving to another country and with my physical and mental state I didn’t think I could handle it. The only thing that got me motivated was that there still might be a chance to study.
I was released; but had gained only a small amount of weight. We went for a medical exam for the immigration, but I got declined because of my weight. Since my husband wanted to immigrate so badly and we were already into the last final stretch, I had to force myself to gain weight in a few days. I did and next time I passed.
We sold our belongings, property, etc. and we moved to Canada in 2003 – just 6 months after being discharged from the hospital. I was not ready to see people, not ready to go in public..I wanted to be invisible.
We started our journey like other immigrants. Thankfully I had two of my cousins and my uncle here, so they helped out. I was feeling pretty good as I was away from pressure and all bad memories that I had developed over the past few years. Right away I started to look at study options, took some courses at Douglas College and applied to UBC for my Ph.D. At the same time, I found a good GP and she reviewed my medications and referred me to Eating Disorder programs here, so I started my journey to recovery. I got admitted to the UBC Ph.D. program in Chemical and Biological Engineering while I was being treated. My eating was all over the place and I was declining again so during my 3 years in the Ph.D., program I was forced to be hospitalized at St. Paul’s Hospital for an intense two-week Eating Disorder program. I decided shortly thereafter that I wanted to quit my Ph.D. program as I did not see any value in it. I was still quite depressed; I had never recovered from that. That was not a good decision and in hindsight I do regret it. If I had gotten proper treatment from the beginning would I have been able to complete my program? If I had the courage to talk about it, would the university counsellor have given the right advice?
I’ve been through a lot of therapy and treatment (seeing a counsellor weekly, working through many workbooks and learning mediation) in Canada and now I feel that I am partially back; back from being challenged by anorexia. I do not think I am back from the trauma I experienced 22 years ago, but I am re-energized to become a healthier and happier Parisa.
I wanted to be a Chemical Engineer and still now, whenever I walk into a university my heart rate goes up and I get so excited. I am in the process to see if I can go back to fulfill my new goal of studying psychology now that I am mentally more stable.
So here I am, I need to do something about it for myself and for others. I need to rediscover me and I need to tell people to be aware. It is a life changing journey where I have learned a lot and would like to help others with my story.