This is by far the hardest piece I have ever written. It is the personal portion of my journey through life with an eating disorder. I am sharing this with the hope of connecting with others who suffer so we can all feel less alone.
Early Awareness - Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and Exercise Bulimia
I knew something was different about me from the time I was a teenager. It is not something I discussed with anyone and my family and friends had no idea. As the expression goes, I was truly as sick as my secrets. Since I had no official diagnosis and no name for my issues, I tried my best to ignore the deeper pain. I became an expert at hiding my shameful behavior. I would sneak food, hide food, retrieve food from trash cans.
I was overly conscious of my weight and with what others were eating. I hear alcoholics in recovery say that they don't understand how people could leave a glass 1/2 full of alcohol at a restaurant or event. I feel the same way about food.
I felt powerless growing up with a mother afflicted with borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. The world revolved around her. So I took control of something she couldn't control. She tried, calling me fat and ugly. The verbal abuse was frequent, manipulative and subtle. She thought that by humiliating me, I would comply with whatever she wanted. I rebelled, but my parents were paying the bills so ultimately I followed the rules. I never experienced the kind of love a mother normally feels for her children.
It is ironic that addicts who think they are controlling their addiction are actually being controlled by it. We have no control at all. I just transferred control from my mother to my food.
When I left for college binge eating and drinking became easier. These behaviors were common among my college peers so it was easier to fall deeper into my hidden addiction. Drinking lowered my defenses against the fight with food over-consumption.
When I graduated and became independent of authority figures my disordered eating racheted up a notch or two. I followed the life path of many my age - marriage, kids, house etc. Because my husband was in medical school I had plenty of time to indulge alone. My boys were too young to notice.
My middle child was originally a twin. His fraternal brother had a serious heart defect and died at 15 months old. Those 15 months were extremely difficult. I had a 4 year old at home. The twins were born early and were in 2 different hospitals, the ill twin being air-lifted to a children's hospital specializing in heart defects. The other twin remained in the hospital of his birth for several days due to his weight and his excessive bilirubin.
My husband and I were caring for our oldest and traveling back and forth between 2 hospitals. This was a very dangerous situation for me, an addict who was not in recovery. When I was not too tired to lift a fork I was eating eating eating. It was common for me to finish a gallon of ice cream at night. Food has always been my drug of choice when happy, sad, depressed, worried etc.
After my son' s death, our lives returned to normalcy, as much as possible after the death of a child. I had 2 other children to focus on. My binging continued unabated.
After the birth of my 4th son, my husband and I separated. The baby was a year old. My eating and exercise behaviors became worse. It was easy to eat mindlessly when my kids were asleep or with their dad. I would eat all of the junk food I could hold in my stomach and beyond. I would become sick and bloated from all of the salt and sugar. Sleep was impossible, insomnia normal.
Here was a typical binge for me:
A bottle of wine
A big plate of nachos
Chips and dips (entire bags of chips)
Cookies, ice cream, candy
I exercised for 3 hours a day to compensate (exercise bulemia) while a nanny cared for my kids. I feel so ashamed looking back.
I stayed thin due to my exercise routine, which was necessary to continue my ruse (I did not attract attention). Binges were definitely interspersed with periods of abstinent eating. Abstinent eating for me meant not eating anything that would trigger a binge. I had and still have so many binge foods that my diet was boring during these abstinent periods.
I did try many 'techniques' to control my food intake over the years which included:
a.) Eating healthy...eating healthy...eating healthy, BOOM-> I would screw up on one meal and give in to a binge for the rest of day and evening which started the binge cycle.
b.) Eating healthy all week and cheating on weekends.
c.) Eating healthy except when going out to eat.
d.) Abstaining from a particular substance including;
e.) Trying diet 1, diet 2, diet 3...
I really do have a problem
As my kids became more independent, I painfully acknowledged they would leave home eventually. I started to take stock of my career. My job in Information Technology was not my passion. Health and fitness were. I knew my post-IT life would involve something in this arena. I decided to study to become a certified personal trainer.
While studying, I came upon a section in my textbook on how to treat special populations, such as M.S., TBI, diabetes, heart disease and a myriad of other issues. I fit into that group😱- it was in black and white within the eating disorders sub-section of special populations. They were talking about ME!!! I felt paralyzed, like it was being advertised on a digital billboard! l saw a name and actual diagnosis code (DSM) for my issue. I had an eating disorder. At the time I diagnosed myself as falling into the Binge Eating Disorder (BED) category but I have since learned that this disease, at any point in time, can morph to other manifestations.
One positive outcome of this occurred. I did complete my personal training certification as well as a health coaching certification and a CIFT trainer certification (a personal trainer certified to work with special populations).
Moving backwards - Anorexia
My binge eating cycle lasted for 25 years. Towards the end of the 25 years, my eating habits started to catch up with me. My blood pressure was above normal and the weight was harder to keep off. I had admitted to myself that I had a problem but did not share it with anyone.
At the same time, I experienced some painful personal events. I lost weight as is common during stressful, anxiety-filled times. That would have been temporary had I seen it for what it was. I didn't. I became obsessed with continuing to lose weight until I was eating only vegetables, no protein, fat or other carbs. I quickly lost weight and at my lowest weighed 72 pounds. My friends and family were shocked. They didn't know how long my eating had been problematic, so their solution was simple. JUST EAT! They yelled, accused, threatened, and criticized, which made me more defiant. I felt unsupported. This was an ugly time in my life.
Visually, it was not difficult to tell I had a problem. At 72 pounds I got lots of attention, albeit negative. I didn't want to get well but after 7 years at this weight, I was feeling very sick. I lost my hair, my GI System was out of whack, I had amenorrhea, blotches all over my skin, a fuzzy brain, and flu-like symptoms. I was depleted. My blood work told the story. I had and still have abnormal white and red blood cell counts and types along with chronic anemia.
I was eating massive quantities but only vegetables. I continued to exercise every day but it wasn't easy. During this time, I lost a job and because I had a lot of severance I was able to avoid looking for a new job right away. I isolated and lived within my disease with no one bothering me. After 6 -9 months of this I had to find another job. I remember wearing clothes that completely hid my body so you couldn't tell my weight. I got the job I really wanted. It didn't change anything. I continued to live within my disease.
My wake up call
After 4 years of status quo as an anorexic, I was tired of being baggered. I was not ready to seek recovery but I wanted everyone to leave me alone. To appease family and friends, I sought therapy and medical advice.
Two years of therapy did not help me. We spent a lot of time discussing root causes but I already knew the source of my problem, my mentally-disturbed mother. My therapist believed that if I was able to accept and forgive my mother it would lead to recovery. It didn't or maybe I still have not accepted and forgiven my mother.
Medical opinions didn't help either. Doctors wanted to try pills. There is no 'pill' to cure disorded eating.
It was suggested by a medical professional that I go to OA meetings so I did for about 4 years. I found the recovery rate to be so low that it was more discouraging than helpful. I stopped attending meetings. However, OA did one very important thing for me. Many of the people in the meetings were seeing a nutritionist whos practice focused exclusively on eating disorders.
OA friends convinced me to at least see her for a consult. I was resistant. They continued to repeat that I didn't have to take action on anything she suggested (thus giving up the perception of control) but just listen and learn. With that in mind, I scheduled an appointment.
During my first visit she literally put the fear of death in me. She"guaranteed" (her word exactly) that if I didn't change my behaviors quickly I would die within 6 months. I knew my body was shutting down but her words stunned me. She provided a food plan for me. Looking back on our conversations I realize how obsessed I was with remaining stick thin. It became clear that intellectual intelligence was not related to my emotional intelligence.
As a professional, the nutritionist was able to penetrate my resistance - it was fear driven but it worked. Initially I saw her weekly and we would assess my progress against her food plan. I never complied completely because gaining weight for an anorexic is like getting seriously injured for a competitive athlete. It's horrifying. I will admit that I sabatoged every food plan she gave me. Breakfast, lunch and dinner protein goal was 8 oz. After the first 2 weeks I rarely ate 8 oz. I ate more like 3-4 oz per day and continue to do so. Our biggest fight was over fat. Her guidelines specified a tablespoon of fat at lunch and dinner (e.g. vegetable oil, ½ avacado, butter etc). This was supposed to be above and beyond any fat in my proteins or carbs. Never happened.
I did roughly follow the plan for the first month and gained some weight. I went from 72 to 90 pounds. That was all I was willing to do. The nutritionist kept encouraging me to go on but I no longer trusted that my weight gain would stop. She continued modifying my food plan so I would be more likely to follow it. I now have an entire loose leaf binder of food plans - 20 in all.
I stayed at 90 pounds for several more years. Some things improved but I still wasn't feeling healthy. I thought I was out of danger but I really wasn't. Eventually I stopped meeting with the nutritionist as there was nothing more she could offer me without my buy-in.
Beyond Anorexia - Binging Still
My anorexic phase lasted for 10 years. I am no longer anorexic and I feel much better but the obsession and odd behaviors are still a part of me. I no longer suffer the symptoms of underweight. I feel healthy overall however there are some things I will never recover from – the damage is done. I have IBS. My hair changed permanently, my skin still bruises easily and my blood numbers will never be normal. I continue to suffer from chronic anemia.
All of my doctors know that I won’t get weighed during my visits. I do not own a scale. I will always feel too fat. When the feelings become overwhelming, I let myself feel them rather than eating them away. I also know that I can talk to people about it.
I spend far more time on food-related activities (cooking, shopping etc.) than I should. I buy too much food in order to be "sure" I will be able to indulge any cravings, so my refrigerator is always stuffed to the gills. This is completely contrary to my commitment to 'Reduce, Reuse and Recycle'. I try every day to do better. My behaviors result from the need to control something in my life.
One more story. At some point about 5 years ago I started to obsessively eat roasted brussel sprouts. Most people will have 3-5 as a side dish with dinner. I would eat 4 bags of frozen (roasted) sprouts every night. I justified this by reminding myself that this was better than eating 4 bags of peanut butter cups. I eventually went cold turkey with this behavior after 5 years. Why? I don't know. I just stopped. I think the embarrasment caught up with me.
I still binge but my binge foods are vegetables and fruit. I realize that my problem with 'food plans' is the specificity of portion sizes. I choose foods that don't require standard portioning. That seems to be a critical factor for me. I need to be able to consume all of a particular food that I want without being told to stop. I still eat beyond fullness because I have never known any other way.
I eat a heavily plant-based diet, including some protein and fat. I am very lucky to love almost all vegetables and fruits. My diet contains no refined sugars , flours or oils. My craving for processed food is minimal. When I have a craving it is usually for a certain fruit or veggie. My fats come from plant-based foods such as avocados and edamame.
I have to be very careful of my trigger foods which are too numerous to count. I spend a lot of time looking at food sites, shopping, cooking, and planning. I go to every local farmers market in the warmer months. Clearly my eating issues are still with me. I have not fully dealt with the emotional side of my pain.
If you looked at my diet today would you think it is normal? No, plain and simple. It is healthy but very different from the average adult diet. Are my shopping and eating patterns like most people's? Absolutely not. I am restrictive and limited. I would classify myself as having orthorexia nervosa, the definition of which is; an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy. It is a medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods in the belief that they are harmful and toxic.
Here is an example of a current day of eating for me. I am not in any way suggesting this for anyone else.
Black coffee in AM. I don't eat breakfast.
Lunch at a normal time consists of a gigantic salad with homemade dressing, a small amount of protein (could be hummus or beans/edaname, almonds, or a piece of chicken), and 3 big bowls of fruit - whatever is in season.
Dinner is way too late which is terrible for my body and digestion. I go to bed full. I am still working on this behavior. My dinner is two bowls of mixed stir-fryed and/or steamed vegetables, 2 apples.
my lunch salad
What is the lesson from this journey? I never want to go through the hell I have in the past. I accept where I am today. My eating pattern is working for me at the moment. Tomorrow is a different day. I can only focus on today.
I will always struggle with food. This is not a 'curable' disease. I can only try to get closer and closer to full recovery. I strive for this on a daily basis. Is it perfect? Hardly. The good news is that I am living a more normal life - I do go out to eat with friends and have opened my diet up a great deal to trying new things. Every day I fight the obsession and it is never easy. Accepting where I am today is the gift I have given myself.
I will end with this. I can't tell you how many people have told me how lucky I am to be so thin. I used to thrive on these comments. No more. Being too thin and struggling as I do is every bit as difficult as being overweight. We all fight our battles and find what works best if we are lucky enough to survive.
Progress, not perfection.