TRIGGER WARNING EATING DISORDERS
I was born in Singapore and grew up in Malaysia. Ethnically, I am Chinese. My given name is Kan Huey Sing, but I adopted the nickname “Christine” as I got tired of people not remembering or being able to pronounce my real name. I was home-schooled for secondary school to take the SAT exam, so it was easy for me to get into the US for college. In the US you have to do an undergrad degree before vet-school, so I did a BA in music and BSc in zoology both at the same time. It was odd but enjoyable doing two very different things: the two halves of your brain at work in different ways. I found myself enjoying each different world in its own unique way.
My journey began in Michigan. It was the first time I saw snow. From a tropical country straight into mid-winter, heavy snow in Michigan was a huge shock for an 18 year old. I went there because my brother was already doing his degree there, and my parents felt it was best if I joined him. My dad felt that a Christian university would be the best place for me. It was a very conservative school. The dorms and several activities were separated by gender, so I didn’t get to see my brother much. There was even controversy about women wearing tights.
They were trying to become more diverse (hence they had recruiters in my home-schooling centre, which was how we knew of them) but I was literally the only Asian female in the town. Many had never seen anyone who wasn’t white in their lives; nor have they been out of town much. During my first month there, a classmate asked a question that really took me aback:
‘Are you Asian, Chinese or Malaysian?’
It was just ignorance. I was like: ‘I’m all three.’
The most common remarks were about my cooking. People were really weirded out because I would buy whole chickens or fish. I found that the rural small town I was in was really sheltered – they were only familiar with fillets. They were even grossed out by the smell of fried rice and soy sauce: they were not used to that. Once I decided to cook some red bean soup to share on my dorm’s floor. One of the girls turned her nose at me and commented: “eww you people eat beans for dessert?!”
Another thing that really bothered me was how people would talk to me in bad Chinese with a really bad accent, which was always offensive as I can speak English. I was also constantly getting mistaken for someone else in the shops. As to them, all Asians are alike.
I started to develop significant mental health issues about half a year in. I found it difficult to make friends because I was clearly different. I would try and they would try, but we just couldn’t connect. We had mandatory church three times a week and I was desperate to transfer somewhere else. I started to self-isolate and I restricted my food. People were always commenting about how “slender” I was, and I took it to the extreme as it almost felt like my “slenderness” became my identity.
I moved to Colorado, which has a State University. It was a liberal and diverse town. I fitted in much better and felt much at ease. It was easy to find people to get along with and I was finally able to connect with others. It was a beautiful town with outdoor trails right by my doorsteps, which really fed my love for the outdoors.
I grew to be aware of my unusual relationship with food. Apart from just restricting the amounts of my food intake, I only allowed foods I considered “healthy”: e.g. no sugars, no fats, etc. My weight dropped to an all-time low. It was my housemate that eventually helped me realize that I had an eating disorder. She pushed me to seek help.
The school had special services that focused on eating disorders. It was part-funded so I had to pay very little. When it first started, I had four to five different appointments every week. There was a psychologist, a physician (doctor), a nutritionist and a physical therapist. The last one was mainly because I was an active runner. I’d been running since I was ten and at the time, I only did half-marathons.
Running makes me feel alive. When I’m down, I run and I feel so much better. Once I start running, I can’t stop… which is why I eventually started doing ultras. It was one thing I could not give up despite my eating disorder and low energy levels.
I did twenty-two half-marathons across many different states during my time in the US. I was also working part-time and was an active member in the marching band serving as a trumpet player. As a double major in two different disciplines, I didn’t have time for a social life and an eating disorder. My recovery team warned me: ‘If you want to keep this up, you need to recover.’
Unfortunately, I later fell short on the friend that first pushed me to seek help, which to this day, still makes me sad. She was a conservative Christian and frowned on me having a boyfriend stay over. I am sad about that because I credit her for the push I needed to start my recovery. She was also an inspiration to me as a vet that worked in an animal shelter. She had a big heart and it pains me to have lost her friendship.
I got a service dog after several discussions with my psychologist in 2013. My restrictions were starting to lead to episodes of bulimia. She was called Cuddles. I had several issues with depression and anxiety, and I didn’t do well in big crowds. She’d make sure that people didn’t come too close to me using the “Stand Stay” and “Stay Close” commands. In the States, people were used to seeing that and knew what to do and how to react towards service dogs. She would also provide me with tactile stimulation, in situations of emotional overload. Most importantly, she would actively stop me for self-inducing vomiting and alert someone else in moments when I am not responsive to her or in emergency situations.
Final year was the tough because I had to do my senior recital for my music degree and an honors thesis for zoology. My thesis was “the effect of music on kenneled dogs”. I was fortunate to find an advisor whose research was in line with what I wanted to do. We were able to utilize the hospital and we observed behavioral signs of stress and if playing music would diminish any of these signs. The first movement of Moonlight Sonata was used for the study. Even though the results weren’t statistically significant due to the small sample size and short length of the study, there was a significant reduction in signs of stress in the dogs we observed. I have dabbled in the idea of expanding this study someday, as I would love to combine my love for music into my love for veterinary medicine. If music therapy has been found to be effective in humans, why not in our furry friends as well?
When I started vet school in Dublin in 2015, I tried to keep in touch with my music. For three years I was involved with the vet choir. For one year I was an assistant director, then I was the director for the two following years after.
My first year in Ireland proved to be extremely tough. In Ireland, people were not used to service dogs. While the school was respectful of me bringing Cuddles into classes, the general public weren’t so great. They would question me and pet her, which you mustn’t do with service dogs: she got confused and couldn’t do what she was meant to. People were automatically skeptical of me as I did not have a physical disability and would question my validity of having a service dog. Eventually, I stopped bringing her with me into public spaces, and generally limited my social life, as I still did not do well in crowds.
Again, I had to adjust to a new culture. The Irish are very straight up and social, they loved their pubs. Unfortunately, I found myself avoiding crowded social events, and did not make many friends in vet school. Additionally, I found a lot of racism; racial slang was common, especially among the youths. Most commonly, random people would approach me shouting ‘Ni-hao!’ in a really bad accent. Other common remarks included: “Ching Chong”, “lotus flower”, or “rice ball”. It got worse when Covid hit. I remember a particular lady that screamed: ‘Don’t come close to me, Asian Monkey.’ Or else they’d walk away while staring me down.
I had racist neighbors. They were an elderly couple and would make statements like: “You do not belong here”, “you don’t know the way of the Irish”, “I’ll get you deported”, They created stories that my dog has been trashing their backyard and that she was “aggressive”. They also made allegations that I have been harassing them and trashing their property. It escalated to a point where man took me on a chokehold and tried to strangle me after I recorded their rude remarks on my phone.
Halfway into my first year of vet school, I was trying to get my Irish driving license and my instructor sexually assaulted me. He tried to feel me up several times within a lesson. I contacted the driving school to make them aware of the situation, and they simply switched my instructor. However, that instructor still worked in the school.
I didn’t want to do anything about it. I was blaming myself for wearing shorts at the time, so I just felt embarrassed. I did reach out to my student advisor and the rape crisis centre but I left it at that for the rest of the year. The following year, I eventually got frustrated with the driving school due to several negative run-ins I had with them, so I wrote them a bad review, including the sexual assault and how they still kept the instructor. They were angry and threatened to sue me for defamation. This pushed me to go to the Gardai (Irish police) with the help and support of my student advisor.
I only got the court date 3 years later, when I was due to graduate. I was starting my final year rotation when I got the call from the Gardai. I tried to push it to the back of my head, but my performance within vet school was significantly compromised. The head clinician called me into her office out of concern. I told her what happened, and she responded: “If you can’t handle this while you’re still in school, you can’t handle this in real life.” Somehow, this really affected me, and things went downhill from then on. Eventually, I caught the attention of the school, and I was referred to the “fitness to practice” committee.
My eating disorder got to me again. In the end, the fitness to practice committee decided to sponsor me, under the vet school, to be admitted into an eating-disorder program in the hospital. I had to take the time off half-way into final year for that, in addition to going into court.
My brother flew in from Malaysia to attend court with me. My student advisor also attended with me as a witness, as she was the first person I contacted. It meant a lot to me. The accused was found guilty, but he appealed, so I had to attend court again several months later. At this point, I had a partner who went with me. The accused was charged guilty again. I met my partner in rock climbing. He is a chef and would regularly cook my meals, which deeply helped during my time recovering from my eating disorder.
I ended up having to delay vet school to 2020 and had to restart all my final year rotations. I remember going into our first lockdown during my final rotation. I had to further delay my graduation to December because I couldn’t pass one of my exams, but eventually did. As tough as vet school was, I was still able to keep myself active with martial arts, rock climbing, scuba diving, and long-distance running. I was able to complete six full marathons, two ultramarathons and two triathlons during that time. Along with my partner’s amazing meals, I can now enjoy my food and fuel up for my many activities. I still do relapse once every few months, but I pick myself up again, as recovery can’t be perfect.
Initially I was planning to do an internship in the UK, but with Brexit and Covid that has been proving difficult. I received my renewed Irish Visa yesterday and am currently working in an unsupported role as a vet. I’m looking at all my options as to where my journey will take me next!
IF you would like more information about eating disorders, it’s worth copying and pasting this link into your browser as MIND can direct you to some useful resources.