Written By: Christy Shaw
For a long time now, I have battled a deep sense of shame about the fact that, while my job entails helping others with their food, I’ve been to an exceptionally dark place with my own relationship to food. I’ve spent years keeping my experiences in the dark, yielding to a profound fear that the way I manage my disorder today is not normal or, worse, that it’s unacceptable. That is, until two weeks ago.
The article that follows outlines the major parts of my journey with an eating disorder. The subject matter is extremely personal, some of it is vivid, and putting it out into the world scares the absolute shit out of me. I’m saying this up front for a few reasons.
- If you’re struggling with an eating disorder of your own and therefore might be triggered by reading about mine, please pass on this one.
- At nearly 7,000 words, this is a lengthy article that will probably take over half an hour to read. Accordingly, if you are short on time, this is one that you may want to come back to at a later point.
What Got Me Thinking
I recently read a post on Facebook by Alex Viada in which he went over eight random things he’s changed his mind about, or had his mind changed about, in the last few years. One of the points in particular really struck a chord with me.
Here is the piece of Alex’s post that got my gears turning:
RELAX ON HOLIDAYS AND EAT WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT. STOP STRESSING! Actually, bullshit, some people are MORE stressed by not knowing what they’re putting in their bodies. Is this unhealthy? Perhaps, but for those who are serious about making a life change, or who have a tough relationship with food, telling them to just “relax and eat whatever you want” for a day can be psychologically rough. Taken to an extreme, you wouldn’t push alcohol on a former alcoholic either, would you? For some, returning to the point of moderation takes years and years, so being judgmental of people sticking to diets over the holidays does them NO favors (and now strikes me more as people looking for some validation of their own gluttony… of which I am guilty as well).
I deliberated for nearly half an hour over whether to reply. While I desperately wanted to let Alex know how much that statement meant to me, I was simultaneously seized by terror at the thought of putting my story out into the world, even in an abstract sense. I typed out several responses, only to withdraw back into my armor before I would allow myself to hit the “submit” button.
Still, it soon became clear to me that I had many thoughts and feelings that I needed to unpack. So, instead of replying publicly, I decided to just sit down at my computer and write for myself. I figured that after I had processed everything, I could decide what, if anything, I wanted to do with what I had written. Realistically, I didn’t expect that I would choose share it with anyone.
In fact, I didn’t ever intend to share this with anyone, aside from a select few. I’ve spent over a decade hiding this very large piece of me away from the world at large. Because I felt like it was grounds for immediate rejection. Because I clung to the fear that being brutally honest and forthcoming about my eating disorder would detract from my credibility, or depict me as a less capable coach. Because I felt intense shame.
But screw it. This is me, and I don’t want to waste another minute of my life apologizing for who I am, or feeling shame about it. These are my life experiences, and this is what I bring to the table. Despite my personal difficulties – or perhaps, in part, because of them – I’m still a damn good, caring coach with a good head on my shoulders. But yes, I’ve had my struggles. Yes, I’ve come from a dark place. And yes, I wish that people would stop telling me how I should behave around food.
Where to Start
I am one of those people who has a tough relationship with food. In fact, I have dealt with an eating disorder for most of my adult life. I started out anorexic around the age of 18. I got better for some time, then I started using drugs and drinking too much, and then I went back to anorexia around age 20. Eventually, I succumbed to the strong biological drive to, well, not starve to death. And so, I started binge eating.
Unable to cope with the guilt, shame and panic that resulted from binge eating, yet also unable to stop, I taught myself how to throw up. It was then that I became bulimic. Like, hardcore bulimic. Like“$200 a day in binge food, with credit card debt up to my eyeballs, but somehow managing to still graduate college, get a job, and not miss a day of work” bulimic. What’s more, until I was completely physically incapable during the last few years of this nightmare, I still lifted weights.
The section that follows contain a very real description of the life of a bulimic. While I avoided graphic details, I also didn’t hold anything back. I completely understand that this kind of subject matter has the potential to make someone extremely uncomfortable, so if you’re not sure whether you want to read it, I want to let you know up front that it’s okay to skip to the following section.
The Darkest Days
I don’t even have words with which to properly articulate what it’s like when you become that deeply disordered. I’ve stolen roommates’ food. I’ve eaten food out of the garbage can. I’ve bounced checks for binge food. I’ve opened lines of credit for binge food. I’ve flat-out lied to get binge food. On more than one occasion, I even exploited the perception that I was anorexic to get sympathy food which I knew damn well I was going to eat and throw up later.
Every day was like Groundhog Day. Get up, struggle through work. That meant drink a lot of coffee, refuse to eat all day, stare at other people with food, fantasize about food; then, look up food pictures on the internet, make lists of what extravagant foods to binge on that night, fall asleep at my desk from the lack of calories, wake up and drink more coffee. Run to the grocery store on my lunch break and stare at everything in the bakery, get off work, go binge shopping, come home, unpack everything I bought, get drunk while baking and cooking up a storm, ritualistically set everything up, then eat 30,000 calories worth of food and puke it up.
Not all at once, of course. It took several rounds and many hours to complete. I’d spend the next six to eight hours alternating between eating and getting rid of said eating. Then I’d shower and diligently scrub and straighten up my apartment while my heart beat out of my chest and my hands shook like a leaf. When that was done, it was usually around 3:00 am. I’d swallow an entire box of laxatives and then quite literally pass out in bed, sleep for four hours, then get up and do it all again the next day.
More than occasionally, I was so exhausted and faint that I’d pass out in the middle of purging, only to wake up a few hours later and finish the job then. By that point, however, my physical condition had deteriorated enough that my gastric emptying had almost completely stopped. As a result, the food didn’t go anywhere while I slept. It just sat in my stomach like a brick and waited for me wake up and finish what I’d started.
I became hardened to the whispers and the concerned stares in the grocery store. I mean, really, how many days in a row can a frighteningly emaciated, child-sized woman visit the same Publix bakery for three birthday cakes, two packages of cupcakes, a dozen donuts, a few pies, two packages of muffins, two pounds of cookies, four containers of ice cream, plus an entire trolley full of groceries, before someone realizes that something’s wrong?
Occasionally, I’d run out of binge food in the middle of the night and end up at Walmart, (which was the only place open at 2:00 am), probably still half-drunk and definitely looking like death warmed over in a puke-stained shirt with bloodshot eyes and black eyeliner streaked down my cheeks, piling cake, chips, and frozen food into my cart. I didn’t care, though.
Well, actually, I did. In fact, I cared deeply. I was hurting badly, scared, lonely, and out of control. But all I knew was that I needed that food.
My binges even had themes. I’d bake myself birthday cakes, amass Halloween candy, cook myself lavish Thanksgiving feasts, create elaborate Christmas spreads, and put together Easter baskets. All of it was prepared and eaten by myself in my apartment, kept company only by the faint glow of my television. And when I’d inevitably run out of food on a holiday evening when most establishments were closed, at least there were Chinese buffets.
For years, that was my life. I had no family in my local area, I didn’t answer my phone, I didn’t have any friends, and I kept my coworkers at a distance. There was only food: excess of food, lack of food, dreaming of food. Unless it was part of a binge, I didn’t eat at all. The only calories that were keeping me alive during that time were wine and whatever stray calories snuck through and didn’t get eliminated via purging.
Early Recovery Days
I hit rock bottom in 2006, at age 26. I won’t get into details, but let’s just say that I shouldn’t be alive. At my sickest, I weighed 70 pounds – that is not a typo.. After finally asking for help, I spent two weeks in the hospital for medical stabilization, followed by three months of residential treatment and over five cumulative years of outpatient therapy. Presently, I’ve been in recovery for 11 years.
While I’d like to be able to tell you that post-recovery life has been wonderful, it hasn’t been.
In the years since I first asked for help, I’ve experienced a lot of successes, failures and tough lessons. I’ve gotten promoted at work, I’ve landed what I thought was my dream job (only to find out that my “dream job” was a terrible fit for me), I’ve been unemployed, and I’ve completely switched careers. I’ve married an absolute angel of a man. I’ve received unconditional support from my family. I’m finally finding myself. But I also went through a major relapse, and I have still been down some pretty crazy rabbit holes with food and general health.
I spent many of my early recovery years trying to fix everything about me that was broken – which, by my own estimation, was pretty much everything. Accordingly, my new obsession became fixing. I discovered that I had an autoimmune disease, so, clearly, I had to get to the bottom of it and fix it. I had to be better about food. No, I had to be totally okay with food. I had to fix my body and my health, as well as heal my gut.
It didn’t stop with physical health, either. I had to be a better person, a better communicator, a better listener, a better partner, friend, daughter. The deeper I dug, the more I believed that there was nothing acceptable about me, nor had there ever been. Everything about me became a problem or a project. I mean, clearly, I was a terrible person and everything needed to be fixed, or I wouldn’t have gotten so messed up in the first place.
Compounding Health Problems
To make matters worse, I had a physician at the time who had me convinced that my adrenals needed “rest” and “healing,” so I was prescribed a corticosteroid (hydrocortisone, then eventually methylprednisolone) for many years, a medication upon which I became dependent. There is a feedback loop between the hypothalamus and the pituitary and adrenal glands that lets the adrenals know, “Hey, stress is incoming, we need you to pump out some cortisol!”
Unfortunately, when you take exogenous cortisol, you shut down that feedback loop. Thus, when you’re steroid-dependent, you have to manually dose your medication in a way that mimics how your body would have responded to that stressor. In other words, you must anticipate stress – whether it be psychological stress or physical illness – and then increase your dose of corticosteroid before, or right as, the stress occurs. This is called stress-dosing. As you can imagine, it can lead to a host of difficulties.
I never truly had primary adrenal insufficiency. (Don’t even get me started on how I feel about the issue of “adrenal fatigue” that has been sensationalized on the internet over the past few years.) But I did develop secondary adrenal insufficiency. In other words, the problem wasn’t real to begin with. I did not actually have Addison’s disease. But I did develop adrenal insufficiency which was secondary to the effects of the medication that I was taking.
This was a big problem for a long time. It took me to the emergency room on more than one occasion because I needed IV corticosteroid and fluids to pull me out of a bad spot. Things got so nuts that my health seemed to be falling apart. For example, I developed complete gastroparesis for a time. In other words, my stomach didn’t empty into my small intestine. Thankfully, this was transient. But things got really bad.
For a while, I had a strange malady called orthostatic intolerance. I couldn’t stand up without passing out because my blood pressure would drop and my pulse would go through the roof. During that time, I couldn’t tolerate standing up for very long, and I eventually had to have a home care nurse deliver IV saline twice a week to prop up my blood pressure enough to allow me to be on my feet. At this point, I was so deconditioned that I couldn’t even walk around my block without dizziness and chest pain.
At one point, I was taking over ten different prescription medications, plus a handful of over-the-counter ones, yet nobody could figure out what was wrong with me. After several years and little success with local physicians, I ended up being referred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, with the hope that they could untangle this mess. And they did, but it took time. They ruled a lot of things out, ruled a few things in, got me off a lot of my medications, and set me up with a plan to very slowly wean off the more serious ones. It was a long, rocky road back to some semblance of normal health, but I got there.
Suffice it to say that, during these years, my mental health was poor, I was absolutely crippled by anxiety and depression, and my body was falling apart. Looking back, I’d have a hard time believing that my mental health and subsequent physical deterioration weren’t intimately related.
Every additional thing that went “wrong” with my body only served to reinforce my deeply-held belief that I was broken. Today, I truly believe that a lot of what made me physically ill during this time was at least partially self-manifested. Stress is insidious like that. I didn’t understand it at the time though, because being a tightly-wound, fearful, self-punishing, and ready-to-blow-at-any-moment basket case had been so normal to me that I had no idea there was an alternative.
Self-Imposed Dietary Weirdness
From a dietary standpoint, my pathological need to “fix” took me down a lot of weird paths: from a ketogenic diet, to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, to the GAPS diet, to the Weston Price “traditional diet” approach, to the candida diet, to paleo, and so forth. At one point, I even ordered all our (grass-fed, pastured) meat and (raw) dairy from Amish farmers in Pennsylvania. Because, duh, everything at the regular grocery store was poison, and all you other poor unsuspecting fools were eating your way into your own graves with non-organic and commercially farmed garbage. (Yeah, I had issues and, no, I don’t believe any of this presently.)
By the way, this nonsense is why I absolutely cringe when I see others go down similar rabbit holes with their nutrition, and why I absolutely refuse to advocate any of this nonsense with my clients. Having been there, however, I do understand the appeal. I don’t want to sound so harshly critical that I turn people off, because if you think that one of these approaches is the right choice for your health, then I’ll support you. I understand that everyone is on their own path, and I never want to suggest that anyone’s journey is not valid, because it is. It’s valid, and it’s yours. But I see things through the lens of my own journey, and this is why.
I was obsessed with fixing. “I am broken and wrong” became my manifesto. I really went down the rabbit hole with nutrition. When you’ve been reduced to only consuming meals of raw grass-fed eggs in hot water with coconut oil and stevia, boiled chicken and carrots with bone broth and sauerkraut – and you totally believe that this is the only way to kill all the nasty pathogens inside you that are making you broken – something is really wrong.
I thought sugar,dairy, fruit, gluten, and even all grains were poisoning me. In fact, I believed that pretty much everything was poisoning me and, as a result, I went on countless elimination diets. Each time, I’d come up with a new culprit. It would be salicylates one time and something else the next. My blood was tested for “food sensitivities,” an exercise which (surprise, surprise) confirmed my belief that most foods were to be feared. At one point, I had every “diagnosis” under the sun, from leaky gut to candida to heavy metal poisoning.
Then there was the large amount of money that I flushed down the toilet on useless supplements. From vitamins and minerals to chelation agents, nootropics, and adaptogenic herbs – you name it, I took it. What’s more, I was absolutely certain that each new supplement discovery would be the thing that would finally “fix” me. If you search hard enough, you’ll find “research” to confirm anything and everything you want to believe.
Unsurprisingly, nothing from the Vitamin Shoppe actually did “fix” me. Not even close.
Then there was that time I read Good Calories, Bad Calories. Around this time, I bought myself a glucose monitor and started measuring my fasting and post-prandial glucose. Then, convinced by some completely unqualified random people online, I refused to eat anything that would spike my glucose over 120 – which didn’t exactly leave me with a ton of food options.
For a while, I was absolutely petrified that my pancreas was on the verge of rebellion and that if I didn’t stick to a diet of beef, broth, and butter, my inevitable fate was to have a leg amputated from diabetic complications. I wasn’t diabetic, nor have I ever been. Still, I was totally convinced that it was a very real threat that was looming just over the horizon.
Basically, I was crazy. My entire existence was based around fear, shame, denial of self – and pseudoscience. Obsession with pseudoscience proved to be a magnificent distraction from what was really going on. But hey, at least I was at a much healthier weight, I was willing to eat a reasonable amount of food, and I didn’t have my head in a toilet. That’s progress, right?
Even more frightening is how resolute I was in the idea that I had it all figured out. It was, by the way, no coincidence that everything that was “wrong” with me was something outside of myself. Looking back, I recognize that all of these mysterious physical afflictions were the ultimate way to continue writing the story for myself that I was a victim. It wasn’t intentional, though. I was legitimately sick, and terribly afraid. But I also wasn’t far enough into my journey to understand that I alone was the one writing my own story, and that I could choose to continue writing a bad story, or I could change the narrative.
Climbing Out of the Rabbit Hole
I got by like this for many years when, finally – after a lot of learning, a lot of struggling, returning to therapy and doing a lot of heavy self-work – I got past most of what I mentioned above. I started to embrace the idea of moderation, and I was letting go of the dietary dogma that I’d programmed myself with for so many years. I started to understand that maybe nothing was wrong with me, aside from having the idea that something was wrong with me. And with that liberation, I also started to liberate my food behaviors.
The next step was to slowly begin to introduce fear foods. I broke down in tears the first time I ate a tortilla, because I had been panic-stricken for so long about what I thought gluten was doing to my body. Panic was pretty much all that it boiled down to. In retrospect, living with such a pervasive fear of my own food supply that it consumed the entirety of my brain space for every waking moment is really saddening.
So, I warily dipped a toe in the water, and I ate a homemade burrito. I broke down into tears during that meal, and nearly had a panic attack, but I ate it. Because I knew that I had to. I knew that I was done fearing, hurting, and panicking. Even so, I wasn’t yet ready to admit to myself that I’d created a safe little food “haven” that was intended to protect me from the big, evil, mean food nasties in the world who were surely out to kill me. Likewise, it would be a long time before I’d be able to understand that the scenario I had so painstakingly constructed with food represented a much deeper struggle.
With that little bit of newfound courage, I started introducing even more fear foods. I had a packaged cookie. I had a serving of ice cream. I made a batch of cupcakes for my husband’s birthday, and I actually ate one. I ate one of my beautiful hand-painted sugar cookies that I used to love to decorate, but had always refused to consume. I made some Rice Krispie treats, and I ate one every day. I had a Pop Tart. I tried some packaged cereal. And so forth.
After spending years subscribing to every dietary dogma out there and engaging in what I can only describe as puritanical eating, it was exhilarating, but also terrifying. The sugar made my heart pound loudly and rapidly. That little devil came back to sit on my shoulder and whispered to me, “More…” but I swatted him away. I walked through the fear, and dealt with the situation as best I could.
Oops, I Did It Again
What became increasingly difficult, however, was that I began to spend most of my time plagued by compulsive thoughts about all the goodies that were in the pantry, and when I’d get to eat them again. Even when I’d just finished eating a meal or snack, my thoughts immediately drifted back to goodies. It became more and more difficult to keep myself distracted.
I got by with my attempt at moderation for some time but, ultimately, ice cream was what got me. Ice cream was my old binge staple: there was never a binge without it. One night, after several instances of having successfully eaten a reasonable portion of ice cream, but struggling for hours afterward with the urge to devour all of it, I snapped.
I completely lost control of myself. It was like I was disembodied and watching it all unfold from above, but I was powerless to stop the frantic cramming of food into my mouth. All I could think was “more.” So, I ate an entire half gallon of ice cream. Then I ate half of another. I then proceeded to tear through the pantry and clean out half of the junk food boxes. I polished off everything in sight.
When I was done, covered in crumbs and ice cream drips and staring at all the empty packages on the kitchen counter, I realized that I felt so sick that I couldn’t possibly get to sleep. So, after much consideration, I reluctantly took myself to the bathroom and undid my mistake. In other words, I puked it all up. It was like riding a bike – in fact, it was much easier than I remembered. Afterward, I just sat there for a while and sobbed. How could I have done this, after all these years?
In retrospect, while I had come so far, I still had a lot of emotional baggage that I needed to unpack. Not to mention that I was reacting to many years of restrictive eating and food rules that I’d created for myself. Then there was the fact that I was working through some heavy stuff in therapy, was dealing with a significant life stress, and was trying to navigate through the entire mess while dealing with anxiety and depression. All of this culminated in the perfect storm. At the time, however, all I could perceive was that I was still broken.
This same scenario played itself out several more times. I’d be eating a high-reward food with the intent of teaching myself to be a “normal” person by eating a reasonable amount, then I’d just snap. I’d lose control and go nuts on everything I could get my hands on, then I’d purge. I didn’t hide it, though. I told my husband and my therapist each time. Still, it was emotionally devastating. I can’t even explain it. The guilt, the shame, the panic, the confusion, the disappointment, the anger with myself. It was sheer mental torture.
Trying to Fix What’s Wrong
Next, I got into a movement that I found online that dealt with developing sanity around food. These people swore up and down that the only way out of food obsession was through. In other words, if I just gave in and went totally nuts for a little while, eating anything I wanted in any quantity I wanted with reckless abandon – so long as I didn’t attach guilt or shame to it – I’d eventually settle down and act like a sane person around junk food again. Hell, I was even supposed to quit craving these foods and forget that they were even in the cabinet. And boy, did that sound great!
So, that’s exactly what I did. I took it on faith that if I ate only chocolate chip cookies (or whatever else I craved) for every meal, for an undisclosed period of time, then eventually I’d stop being obsessed with them. While it was fantastic in theory, there was only one problem: I never got to the other side where you supposedly settle down. Instead, my incidents became larger in scale, and I became increasingly obsessed with abusing food.
Was this due to a psychological failing on my part? Maybe. Perhaps I never truly let go. Finally, though, after a long period of beating myself over the head with the notion that I should be able to be “normal” around all foods – and that if I just keep running face first into the wall, eventually the wall would move – I surrendered. I was exhausted. I could no longer tolerate the craziness of it all, and I wanted off that ride. I asked myself, was it worth it to push through suffering? My answer was, and still is, a resounding, “no.”
As it turns out, one of the biggest problems that I grappled with at that time was that I was highly invested in what other people thought healthy looked like. (In fact, I was unhealthily invested in what other people thought of a lot of things.) Accordingly, if other people thought that “healthy” or “normal” meant being able to eat anything you want in moderation – then go on with your day, not worry about food, not obsessively think about food, have cabinets full of delicious junky stuff and never give it a second thought – then that’s what I had to be, too, if I wanted to be healthy.
It took me a long time to finally understand that I have the power to define what is healthy for me, and that it doesn’t have to look like what anyone else perceives as healthy. With that, I eventually gave up on the notion that going head-first into a pan of brownie batter was ever going to result in some magical epiphany of “letting go.” On the contrary, I undoubtedly do better with structure and without hyper-palatable foods. What’s so wrong with that? Is that a shortcoming?
Around this time, I got back into strength training after having been on hiatus for several years due to the health problems I’d experienced. With that, I returned to my old ways of tracking calories and macronutrients, after having eaten “intuitively” for several years (if you can even call that mess I’d gotten myself into with food “intuitive.”) For a long time, I approached food tracking with secrecy and shame, as I’d internalized from several sources that calorie counting for those in recovery from an eating disorder was unhealthy behavior.
Again, I was too plugged into what other people thought healthy looked like to be able to really own what worked for me. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, as I did have to eventually own up to my tendency to want to deprive myself and control my intake. For a time, I used exercise and calorie restriction to lose weight. During the worst of it, I got back down to around 95 pounds and was engaging in seriously orthorexic behavior. But I kept learning, I kept trying, and eventually, I pulled through.
In a little over a year, I managed to put on about twenty pounds, a lot of which was muscle, but some of which wasn’t. While I endured many freak-outs over my weight, as well as the increasing size of various body parts, I ultimately developed a comfort level with it. I could even fit small treats into my daily intake and not sweat it too much, because the quantification gave me some degree of reassurance that everything fit into a bigger overall structure. I was accountable to the tracking, so I didn’t feel the pull to binge.
Taking A Turn for the Worse
This approach worked for some time, until I once again found myself in a heap of heavy-duty emotional turmoil. Because of that, plus the fact that I’d already reopened the floodgates previously, I started binging and purging again. It started off sporadically, but ultimately ended up being a scheduled once-weekly event. Thankfully, I didn’t have alcohol in the mix complicating things this time – but it did get pretty bad regardless.
Once again, the binges grew to be expensive and large. I eventually got to the point where, for most of the week, I could barely focus on anything but the binge. I worked with a nutritionist during this time, and continued to see my therapist weekly. We slowly chipped away at my beliefs about myself and worked on harm-reduction behaviors.
Still, it was torture. Every Saturday night it would happen, after my husband went to bed. I developed a ritual for it. I’d spend all day Saturday running all over town and collecting all the foods I’d been dreaming about all week, I’d wait for him to go to bed, then I’d carefully set it all up neatly on serving plates. Then I would do my thing. Predictably, by 4:00 every Sunday morning, I’d been reduced to sobbing in a heap on my bathroom floor.
Sometimes I couldn’t get the physical mechanism to “work,” so I’d try for hours to undo the horrific situation I’d gotten myself into. I can’t even explain the terror that ensued over the prospect of having to keep that many calories down. Keeping it down was not an option. The frantic drive to finish what I had started often resulted in a lot of physical pain: broken blood vessels in my eyes, faintness, headaches, blocked sinuses, strained muscles in my chest and back, severe stomach pain, muscle spasms and cramps, and so forth.
The worst was the self-reproach, though. It was absolute torment, not just physically, but emotionally as well. Every weekend, I swore I’d never do it again. Then, come Friday, I’d be ready to go again. And, as you can imagine, it was negatively impacting the most important thing in my life, which is my marriage, as well as something else that means a great deal to me, which is my strength training. Still, I couldn’t stop. Those high-reward foods were like drugs. I was obsessed with acquiring and eating them in absolutely inhuman quantities.
Please note, I am not saying that sugar (or any food, for that matter) is physically addictive. While I definitely believe that binge eating and addiction have a lot in common psychologically, I do not believe that food itself is an addictive substance. Still, if I know that I tend to engage in self-harm behavior around certain foods, then maybe it’s not worth it to keep them around. Not because they’re “bad” foods, though, and certainly not because they’re physically addictive. But because I’m making a conscious choice to maintain my physical and emotional well-being.
Coming Out of the Fog
This relapse lasted almost two years. After a lot more self-work, however, I finally started to believe that I maybe am okay. Maybe I am not broken. I started to suspect that I do have a place in this world. I began to practice healthy detachment from others and from what they think of me. I started to become me again, or perhaps for the first time. And so, I started to feel peace. It was excruciatingly hard work, and it took the better part of a decade, but all that matters is that it eventually did start to happen.
Then one day, it all just started to click. And with that, one weekend, I decided that I didn’t want to binge and purge. Just once, though. I told myself, “Let’s just see what will happen. I can always go right back to it next week. I can survive one week.” As it turns out, the following week I thought to myself, “I think that I can do this for one more week.” In fact, I had really enjoyed having more time to get things done the previous weekend. And so, this continued for about a month. Each week, I would say to myself, “Not this week, but maybe next.”
The messed up part is that I was anxiously planning my next binge that whole time. The planning had always been like some sort of high. Sometimes, I’d even get heart palpitations from the anticipation of an impending binge. Even when I had binged on everything I could possibly think of, and thus could barely taste the food anymore, I took great satisfaction in planning the next one: writing down my ideas, printing recipes, making lists, shopping, and organizing everything. Amazingly, however, the next binge never came.
I remember waking up one Sunday morning, groggy and confused, trying to remember whether I had really not binged and purged the previous night, or whether the abstinence was just a dream. When I realized that it wasn’t a dream, and that I really hadn’t done it, I burst into tears. The sense of gratitude that I felt was overwhelming. The nightmare really hadn’t happened.
I honestly didn’t expect to make it more than a few weeks. I did, though. I kept it to myself for a while, in case I failed. One day, I was finally ready to say it out loud. It was then that, with tears streaming down my face, I said to my husband, “I don’t want to hurt myself anymore.” I guess that after having weathered a seemingly endless storm, I really was done.
I haven’t binged or purged since. For the longest time, I couldn’t conceive that I would ever see the day where “what I am going to binge on next” wasn’t pretty much the only thing I ever thought about. But it did happen. I’m not going to pretend that I have complete certainty that I’ll never do it again, but I what I can say is that presently, it doesn’t even feel like an option anymore.
Present Day Situation
While I’d love to tell you that I found some magical diet approach that fixed me, and that I can eat totally normally now and life is like a fairy tale — I didn’t, and it’s not. Nor did I escape unscathed on the health front. My body took a lot of abuse for a long time and I have some lasting complications from the ordeal, things which affect me every day. What I can say, though, is that I’m learning how to be happy, and that’s priceless.
Where diet is concerned, I’m currently eating at a slight caloric surplus to put on more muscle. This means that I’m gaining scale weight, some of which is fat. It’s happening slowly, but I’m okay with slow. I’m in no rush. And when it doesn’t feel right? I maintain for as long as I need to. Whatever happens will happen, but being accepting enough of weight gain that I don’t immediately slam on the brakes is a big deal. Finally being in a place where I’m not engaging in self-harm behavior is a big deal. And while my relationship with food may never be “normal,” that will never detract from the fact that I’ve come a long way.
I’m highly structured with my meals, and I rely on that structure rather than hunger and fullness cues. I don’t eat out (unless I don’t have another reasonable option, in which case I do my best and make it work). I don’t feel comfortable eating others’ food when I don’t know what’s in it. I track my food intake on holidays. Hell, I often bring food with me to holiday dinners, and on trips. I’m uncomfortable with social situations that involve food. When it’s important that I attend an event, I will either avoid eating while I’m there, or I will eat very lightly until I’m home and can enjoy food with which I’m comfortable. Is this “normal” behavior? No, it isn’t.
I’m rigorous in planning and tracking my food intake. While I’m not as controlling as I have been in the past (as I allow myself some wiggle room with my targets), I am extremely thorough and as accurate in my effort as can reasonably be expected. I approach each day with a plan. The plan isn’t set in stone, but I make sure that it exists. After that, it is there for me to refer to and adjust throughout the day. To some, that may not be “healthy” behavior, but it works for me.
Part of my affinity for calorie tracking relates to how I manage my disorder, but part of it is also just my personality. I’m an analytical person. My background is in accounting and database management. When you enjoy making spreadsheets in your spare time for fun, you truly enjoy data. I don’t mean just spreadsheets about food, either – I have a spreadsheet for anything and everything.
While I eat a good number of calories, I am extremely restrained and discerning with my food choices. I do not classify myself as a “clean eater,” yet I do eat mostly whole foods because I feel that they are the best choice for me right now. But, again, it’s a choice. If I want a treat, I will buy one small serving, enjoy it with my husband (not eating in secret is paramount for me), and throw out any leftovers. Maybe that’s wasteful, but you can’t put a price on sanity. Honestly, though, I don’t want for treats often, if ever.
Nowadays, I navigate around my stumbling blocks instead of smashing my face into them. Some foods I tolerate just fine, such as chocolate chips. I can eat a tablespoon of those and leave the rest of the bag alone without any issues. But I can’t say that for most other packaged foods. Donuts, cookies, chips, crackers, ice cream, and so forth? Forget about it. I know myself well enough by now to recognize that if it’s in the house, I’m going to get obsessive — and it’s likely going to go downhill from there. As a result, if I know that a food is likely to set me off, I don’t bring it home. In fact, I don’t even buy it.
I’ve found that, for me, abstinence is a much more viable approach for me than moderation. I’ve played and lost far too many times at the game of bringing something home with the best of intentions, only to find myself face first in it sooner or later. Again, given enough time, could I get through this? Probably. But I’d rather just move on with my life. While some people consider treating themselves to something decadent to be freedom, to me, freedom is not having to feel the crazy-making pull to abuse food anymore. I can’t even articulate how much that means to me, and I value the peace that I feel right now far more than any scrumptious treat on the planet.
As someone who has spent the past decade unraveling negative self-beliefs and letting go of self-destructive behavior, I’ll take it. I’m not using substances, I’m not drinking, I’m not cutting myself, I’m not starving, I’m not bingeing, I’m not purging, and I’m not smoking two packs a day. I’ve got nothing left to hide behind. This is me, naked and afraid, but refusing to use disordered behaviors to build a wall around myself. So, if the worst thing that I’m doing is being a little too controlling with my food, then I’d estimate that I’m doing pretty good.
Circling Back to the Point
Like Alex said, “just relax and eat” is a can of worms. For some of us, it really is psychologically rough. When I hear that, I think, “If only you could know what I have been through, and the depths of hell to which I have come back from, then maybe you wouldn’t insist that I just relax and eat.” Because if that is your belief, I’d like to point out that it is based on your perception of what healthy is. It is a 100% valid perspective, and one that I respect. All I ask is that you do not believe that I’m not operating from a healthy center just because my method doesn’t comply with your notion of what healthy should look like.
Because, honestly, who cares what anything should look like? I have found the greatest freedom in my life thus far by ceasing to abuse food and my body, and by avoiding foods and situations that create an uncomfortable mental pull to abuse food again. You don’t have to understand it; I’m okay with that.
But rest assured that I am not suffering. I am not denying myself pleasurable things. Rather, I am doing what creates peace in my life and keeps me off the crazy-making merry-go-round upon which I spent way too many years.
If that doesn’t match up with where you think I should be, well, that’s okay too. I do the best I can with what I have. In five years, I’ll hopefully have evolved and grown a lot more. Maybe then I’ll have relaxed more. Maybe then I’ll be closer to your notion of what healthy should look like. But for now, this is me.
It’s taken me over a decade of falling on my face to claw my way out of the hole I was in, and to arrive at the place that I’m at. Rather than feel shame, I’d like to believe that my experiences have given me a lot of gifts, such as insight, empathy, and sensitivity.
So, the next time you tell me (or anyone else, for that matter) to “just relax and eat,” I implore you to ask yourself, is it really my well-being that concerns you? Or are you reacting to the fact that my behavior makes you uncomfortable about your own behavior for whatever reason? Because honestly, I don’t care what you do with food, so long as you’re happy and healthy. I only ask that, in return, you allow me the freedom to do the same.
I wanted to clarify that I didn’t get into this much detail about my story in pursuit of sympathy, or any type of response really. Rather, it’s because I’m exhausted. I’m tired of feeling shame, and I don’t believe that I can ever set down that shame until I am willing to own 100% of my story. I’m tired of approval seeking and trying to control how other people perceive me, and I’m no longer willing to waste all of my energy on it.
I hope that:
- Those who matter will still love me
- Those who matter will not lose respect for me
- Those who I’m supposed to help won’t reject me as a coach
And to those who might look down upon me for this: there’s the door.
Reading Alex’s post was a light bulb moment for me. It allowed me to see that someone else out there in the world just might get it. That maybe I don’t have to spend the rest of my life carefully and deliberately keeping this piece of me out of sight. That maybe it’s okay that I manage this way. That maybe it doesn’t make me unqualified, or crazy, or wrong.
My therapist used to tell me that “you can be the wounded healer who wounds, or you can choose to be the wounded healer who heals.” I’d really like to be the one who heals. To be clear, helping people with eating disorders is way beyond my scope and my qualifications, so that’s not what I mean when I say “heal” Rather, I’m referring to anyone who comes to a trainer for help losing weight, getting into shape, or eating better.
Lastly, I also hope that after reading this, someone may think twice when tempted to tell someone to “loosen up” Maybe that someone won’t roll their eyes at a person for turning down the champagne or the birthday cake. Or for not choosing the indulgent meal at a time when they think the person should be indulging. Or for bringing their own meal when they don’t feel comfortable with the alternative.
For some people, loosening up might be exactly what they need to do. One message about which I’m very passionate is to save your energy for the stuff that really matters. So, if you’ve heavily bought into dogma and are therefore expending a lot of energy on things that don’t matter, I’d like to show you a better way. If nothing else, you can use the insane things that I’ve done with food as prime examples of what not to do.
Conversely, for others – maybe not for many, but certainly for some of us – perhaps what appears to be rigidity is actually how an individual best manages their situation. Not because they feel that they have to, but because they are choosing to. For these individuals, there isn’t a delusion that this type of behavior is necessary for maintaining a favorable body composition. For them, it’s not about that. It’s about mental health. That’s certainly true for me, and I’d be hard-pressed to believe that there aren’t others like me out there.
I want you to know that if you struggle with food too, you are not alone. If you’re afraid that nobody could possibly understand what you do with food — whether it’s overeating, compulsive eating, over-restriction, obsessiveness, preoccupation with “healthy” food, or otherwise — somebody does. We all have baggage, we all struggle with something, and we all land somewhere on the eating spectrum. I hope that my experiences, while extreme, make me empathetic to a wide range of that spectrum.
What if the things that I’m eating already are “whatever I want?”
What if, due to my experiences, my value system differs from yours?
What if that isn’t denial but, instead, is simply my truth?
You never truly know where someone has been until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. And now you’ve walked a mile in mine.