Finding strength to overcome an eating disorder through weightlifting
Knowing the positive impact weightlifting had on herself, Nur Afiqah now uses it to help others facing similar struggles.
As a weightlifter who is currently working part-time at a gym, one would not expect that 22-year-old exercise sports science graduate Nur Afiqah used to suffer from an eating disorder.
Barely six years ago and still in secondary school, Afiqah had lost so much weight she had to be hospitalised. Even after being discharged, the road to recovery was still a long and difficult one for her.
Youthopia met up with Afiqah in her home as she opened up about her past and how she’s seeking to use it to help others.
Strained relationship with food
From as young as nine years old, Afiqah became weary about food, clothes and her appearance. Being on the receiving end of verbal harassment from her schoolmates regarding her weight, Afiqah began to grow insecure of her body.
“When I was in the TAF (Trim and Fit) club running in the field, guys would shout and humiliate me,” Afiqah said, noting that passing comments made by her relatives about her eating habits only added salt to the wound.
Things began to get worse when she entered secondary school as she continued to receive insults from people around her. Afiqah started turning to more extreme measures in an attempt to fix her insecurities.
She switched to a liquid-only diet, causing her to lose as much as nine kilograms a week. Instead of completing her schoolwork, she also spent countless sleepless nights exercising in an attempt to lose more weight, causing her to be unable to focus in class and her grades to drop.
As these things made her grow weaker and often feel faint, she eventually reached a point where she did not want to leave the house.
“My mom was literally dragging me out of the house and telling me that I have to go to school and I was telling her no, I cannot as everything was so physically tight for me,” she said.
Soon, her teacher noticed the decline in her school performance.
“She told me I needed to see someone and I told her that I didn’t want to,” Afiqah said, “She said that if she didn’t see improvement, she would tell the counsellor.”
Realising that her condition was worsening, Afiqah tried going back to eating normally on some days. However, she soon lost control of what she was eating and began binging, further worsening her condition.
Her teacher eventually informed the school counsellor, who quickly realised the situation was beyond her means. Worried for her, the counsellor called a hospital and advised Afiqah to make a trip there to receive professional treatment.
At 16, Afiqah was admitted to the hospital where she was diagnosed with an eating disorder and subsequently spent a few months.
“Over there it was a roller coaster. At first, I didn’t want to be there as it felt like jail.” she said.
The hospital staff were extremely strict, making sure that there were zero distractions during mealtime, going as far as stopping them from shaking their legs while eating.
“We had to sit at a table and there was a clock as we had to eat within a duration of time. If you didn’t finish, they will make us drink this milk that has a lot of calories. A lot of people were crying but you have to finish everything on the plate and they will monitor you,” Afiqah said.
When she was hospitalised, Afiqah met many girls who were facing a similar plight. What shocked her most was seeing older women in their forties and fifties who were stick-thin.
“It was so scary when I saw these older people going through it and not living their lives, it kind of affected me,” Afiqah said.
This strengthened Afiqah’s resolve to overcome her disorder.
As she slowly got better, she was allowed to go outside to have meals with her family with several rules, including that they had to report to the hospital about what she ate and what she did after.
After two months of hospitalisation, Afiqah’s condition had improved to a point she could be discharged and continue with just outpatient treatment.
Finding empowerment through weightlifting
After a year in total away from school, Afiqah began to catch up on her education and entered ITE.
While she was doing way better than before, there were still some instances where she relapsed into purging and binging briefly.
Things improved more when she became interested in mixed martial arts (MMA) and decided to hit the gym and try out weightlifting. Although she started it out of curiosity, weightlifting turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Afiqah said: “Although I like sports, the gym was where I could just really concentrate on myself so I didn’t care about anyone. From there I realised it was something I had to do for myself to keep myself in check.”
Although it was a challenge to visit the gym at first, as many people who were exercise enthusiasts had ideal body types, Afiqah slowly realised that her gym progress was solely for her own good and it was pointless to compare with others.
“I realised that everyone’s body is different and no matter what image I wanted, the end result is not going to be the same as everyone because it’s going to be done in my own way,” she said.
Another advantage of weightlifting was that it gave her a more positive relationship with food. On one occasion when she had relapsed and not eaten for the entire day, her performance at the gym was drastically affected.
After that day, she realised that food was a fuel she needed to continue weightlifting and improving herself.
On her weightlifting journey, Afiqah also came across many people who were going through similar issues. Beyond the comfort of knowing she was not alone, this discovery gave her a new passion – to empower and motivate others in their path to recovery.
As a result, she decided to become a part-time gym instructor at EnergyOne.
Afiqah said: “Knowing what I went through, I know how hard it felt to step into the gym and how it felt continuing going to the gym. The first is like you go in and people keep staring at you and after a while it’s like the constant comparison with other people.
“I want to help people understand that there are better ways to exercise and love yourself during the process.”
Aside from fitness, she wishes to help people in the nutrition aspect as well. She is now completing a nutritions certificate and has made plans to appeal for the new higher nitec degree in nutrition.
Although weightlifting helped Afiqah a lot, the journey to recovery is still a challenging one. Just last year, she began to suffer from a sleep eating disorder that caused her to wake up in the middle of the night unknowingly and head over to the kitchen to eat with little to no recollection of the incident the next day.
Afiqah suspects this uncommon disorder might be her body’s way of ensuring she gets enough nutrition to prevent a relapse, and is still trying to find the appropriate therapy to address it.
However, she doesn’t let this hurdle prevent her from achieving her goals to help others as she understands that it takes a lot of willpower and courage for people to seek recovery. She advises such people to find more information about the condition.
She said: “Try to seek help even though it’s really hard, it shouldn’t feel like you’re going through it alone. If possible, do your best to seek help even if it’s someone you can talk to, at least it’s something.”
As for those who have loved ones who are suffering from eating disorders, Afiqah feels that the best way to comfort them is to provide them reassurance.
She said: “That’s the best offer because you cannot make them talk but you can just sit there and be present which I think is a lot to many.
If you are looking for more mental well-being resources, check out Youthopia’s resource page with everything from mental health self-assessments to tips for coping with challenging seasons in life.
Other helplines you may find useful:
- National Care Healthline: 1800-200-6868
- TOUCHline: 1800-377-2252
- Limitless: www.limitless.sg/talk
- Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT): 6493-6500/6501
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Samaritans of Singapore (24-hour hotline): 1800-221-4444