Nevi – Schrift

July 2019
Vienna, Austria

27-year-old Nevena has struggled with bulimia her entire teenage life. In our conversation she shares her journey to recovery, finding solace in therapy and learning to define her self-worth by something other than the number on the scale.

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"It's like a bad relationship," Nevena doesn't think twice about finding the right words to describe her long battle with an eating disorder. "Even when you know your boyfriend is shitty, you stay with him for a while because at least you know what it's like to be in a shitty relationship."

There is much irony in what she is about to unveil. For our interview, she chose her "body" as her personal idea of home - a place with a hurtful past, but also clarity. Novelty makes you uneasy, she says, but familiarity, even if it's suffering, almost provides you with a feeling of safety.

"My eating disorder is my bad relationship," she confesses. "We see each other again from time to time, but then I realise it's not good to me so I leave again."

We are sitting on the floor of her parents' living room, the suffocating summer heat hinders my ability to stay focused, but her story is too personal to not feel captivated by it. Nevena's fight against her body started at a very young age and escalated during her teenage years, when her mind was fed unrealistic images of models in the magazines. She was surrounded by slim girls in high school, a trait she equalled with the beautiful and the popular, everything she says she wasn't.

"I considered them mature. That's the weird thing, for some reason I thought skinny people were mature, and I was none of those things."

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The quick rise of social media only fortified her insecurities. "There was no Instagram seven years ago, but there was Facebook, so I always checked out friends and other people and compared myself to them. Also, I thought if my body didn't look good, I'd never find a boyfriend. I used to think I was not love-worthy because I didn't look like popular people in my school. It took me a very long time to realise that I don't have to change my body to find a boyfriend, but that I need to find a person who likes my body. Rationally I knew it, but to really feel it - it was a huge step."

Nevena's obsession with her weight and meticulous research on the matter led her to pro-mia (buliMIA) and pro-ana (ANOrexia) sites, that were quickly becoming popular in the beginning of the early 2000s. These were online communities of people promoting their eating disorder as a lifestyle as well as sharing personal advice on how to lose weight. Flicking through detailed "success" stories she found online, Nevena decided to try purging.

"[Those sites] were really bad, but they had a huge impact on me. It was the first time I read about anorexia and bulimia in not a bad way. Those people were writing how good [purging] "works." I knew it's bad, but I didn't realise it had any consequences. I am an emotional eater, so it was a direct way for me to make myself feel better again. Then, I don't know how it happened, but I started doing it regularly."

"It took me a very long time to realise that I don't have to change my body to find [a boyfriend], I need to find a person who likes my body."

"It took me a very long time to realise that I don't have to change my body to find [a boyfriend], I need to find a person who likes my body."

Confiding in her parents or friends was out of question, too strong was her guilt to admit she was suffering. Besides, her home was not a place where open conversation was ever given the green light.

"I wanted people to see [my struggle], but I didn't want to talk about it, because I saw it as a weakness. My parents love me, but it's difficult for them to ask questions. They realised I was escaping to the bathroom, so somehow they knew. My mother once threatened to bring me to the hospital if I didn't quit purging, but we never talked about it any further. That's how families work, it's always easier not to talk about uncomfortable stuff."

Does she wish it was otherwise?

"Yes, but I don't blame them. Maybe they didn't realise I was suffering so much. It's important for me to learn how to forgive them. They also had their own stuff they were dealing with."

Nevena's parents escaped the Balkan War and came to Vienna in 1991, leaving their home in Bosnia when Nevena was just three months old. They expected to return home within three months, but the political situation in Bosnia escalated, forcing them to remain in Austria.

"They never talked about that properly, so how should they be able to talk with me about my issues when they have their own?" Nevena says with compassion.

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"It's their coping mechanism, how they handled everything so well, because they just kept on going. My impression of them is that if things work, they think everything's fine."

After years of an emotional and physical battle, there came a time, when Nevena's mentality shifted, leaving her feeling betrayed by her own imagination and belief system.

"You always have this number on the scale that you are trying to reach. My highest number was 83 kg, but when I reached 64 kg, which was the lowest weight I reached ever, I never felt unhappier. It scared the shit out of me, because it was something I was trying to reach all my life, but when I did I felt miserable."

With this came the realisation that she wasn't capable of solving her destructive relationship with food on her own and required professional support. A documentary about a therapy centre in Vienna inspired her to book her first session. She was twenty at the time.

"Therapy is my safety place, because it's grounding me. When I feel stressed, I know there is some place I can go," she explains.

"During my first session, my therapist did not say anything I didn't know, but she gave me the approval that it's okay that I feel bad. When you have the right therapist you feel comfortable enough to talk about anything. And I think it's more important to have a good connection with the person than the type of therapy they are using," she explains.

"Body is where it starts and where it ends."

"Body is where it starts and where it ends."

Nevena has come a long way, but winning does not come easy, and is a gradual process. What's changed are the priorities that she places on her life and the time that she shares with her loved ones.

"Now it's important for me to find peace with food. Sometimes I still have this feeling that I want to reach a certain number on the scale. When I'm stressed, I still escape into descructive thinking, but the difference is that I am aware of it now."

"Home starts with the body, because when you are able to settle down there, you can find peace. Body is where it starts, and where it ends. In these moments when I arrive in my body and I feel conscious, I feel much more relaxed. I really think it's important to take care of your body and try not to betray or ignore it. I tried to betray it, and it made me unhappy. Body needs to be a home, because if it becomes your enemy, you are lost. And it's so destructive, and it won't take a good end."

She pauses for a while, then concludes powerfully.

"I can be really lucky to be healthy. For example, my father has a brain tumor. If something like this happens to you, who cares about your weight anymore? There is so much other stuff to be thankful for and to enjoy in life. And you can only do that fully when you have a healthy body."

Let that sink in.

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What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.

What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.