It started when I was about nine years old, feeling lonely and displaced after my family had moved from California to Washington. Food became a major source of solace for me, junk food that I could not stop eating once I took the first bite. Potato chips, of course; I could not eat just one, or less than a whole bag. Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies, soft fluffy cakes with unctuous creamy centers. Hershey’s chocolate bars, chalky and waxy and not really very chocolaty, but so satisfying to break into those little rectangles before devouring them all. Ice cream, straight from the pint. Pepperoni sticks, spicy and oozing with fat.
Along with the confusing changes of adolescence I grew chubby, my hair greasy and lank, my skin a map of pocks and scabs. I identified with the title character in Judy Blume’s Blubber, a fat girl who is tormented by the kids in her class. Hating those other kids and blaming them for being mean was a diversion from hating myself. I knew I shouldn’t be filling myself with garbage, and yet I couldn’t help it.
If I felt ugly and rejected, I knew that eating Twinkies and Hershey bars and potato chips was counterproductive — it could only make me fatter and pimplier. But food was an easily accessible way to temporarily fill myself with a soothing sensation, uplifting or energizing or simply distracting me. Eating to feel better only made me feel worse in the end, made me uglier and more ashamed, and then I fell into the temptation to eat more food. It seemed to be a hopeless cycle.
The habit shifted as I grew older, as my skin cleared and I became more physically active and made friends who helped to bring me out of my shell. I learned about then-current trends of healthy eating (whole grains, fresh vegetables, organics) and with my usual wish to do the right thing, I signed on to that program. But the binging continued, even if it was now on cheese curls from the health food store instead of Cheetos and Fair Trade organic dark chocolate instead of Hershey’s.
I told myself that I was a healthy eater, overall. I rationalized my binges, putting them into a compartment and telling myself they were not so bad, they were overridden by my general diet. And my indulgences wouldn’t have been out of place in a healthy diet, in moderation. The fact that I ate them by the bag and by the pint and by the pound, and was congenitally incapable of stopping once I began, was shoved aside. With part of my mind I knew something was wrong, and would do my binge eating in private, hiding it from others so that their disapproval wouldn’t threaten my method of stress relief. I was still deeply afraid of being judged and rejected by other people, afraid to reveal my real self. Food was the friend who never judged or rejected me, never pushed back or said no. I couldn’t give up this relationship, even though deep down I knew it was dysfunctional.
“Being healthy” remained a goal that I strove after outwardly, while ignoring the foundation of health: my body’s own signals, my inner feelings and sensations that were trying to wordlessly tell me something was wrong. I discounted wordless messages. I overrode them with ideals and strivings and injunctions, inspired by spiritual paths which enjoined me to work hard and improve and develop and discipline myself. I focused on what I could transparently think and know, rather than the knowledge that was obscurely implicit in my body and the inscrutable wisdom of my feelings. These dark messages were often uncomfortable, disturbing, incomprehensible, unwelcome. I shut them out, whenever possible.
I wasn’t much overweight, and I wasn’t obsessed with my appearance or losing weight or dieting. I would never dream of making myself vomit, because I absolutely hated throwing up. How could I have an eating disorder? The thought was not allowed to cross my mind, and definitely never came up in a doctor’s office, where I was weighed and measured and deemed within the acceptable norm. Having an eating disorder meant you became skeletally thin, or were obsessed with exercise, or involved cycles of intentional binging and purging. None of those was me.
Nobody defined as “purging” my periodic migraine headaches that made me lie in bed without eating for a day, often throwing up. These unpredictable spells weren’t intentional, weren’t my fault, it was different from bulimic purging — right? And yet they served much of the same purpose, keeping my weight down, giving my system a break from constant input, eliminating what I had over-stuffed myself with. I dutifully tried cutting out one or another trigger food, gluten, dairy, chocolate, tweaking the criteria of my “healthy” diet, but never addressed the underlying imbalance in my appetite. And the headaches, my safety valve, continued, no matter what I did.
During a period of extreme stress in my work and personal life, the symptoms got worse — bloating, abdominal pains, indigestion — and started to break through my defenses. I began to notice how weird it really was that I would have urges to eat and eat and eat when I wasn’t hungry, to eat beyond satiety, without pleasure, to the point of feeling sick. I was able to start thinking the thought, “I have an eating problem,” but not yet to take steps to do anything about it. The shame that ran alongside the eating, that was simultaneously its impetus and its result, was still too strong a barrier. I couldn’t get help, when I couldn’t even tell myself the truth about what I was doing.
Food still will never say no to me, but my body finally had enough. It started to say “No, stop!” in terms I could no longer ignore. I had a series of gallbladder attacks, which at first, like the binges, I covered up — leaving family and friends during dinner to pant and grit my teeth through the pain, then returning to them and pretending nothing had happened. The last one hit me when I was at work, and at first I excused myself to go to the bathroom and try to get through it without anyone finding out. I lay curled up on the cold tiles in agony, and finally thought, “I can’t do this any more.” I came out and confessed to my coworker that I was not well, and she called my husband to take me to the hospital.
I hadn’t wanted to have my gallbladder out, had been trying to heal it with natural methods — and I do think that may be possible for some people, but it wasn’t for me. I had been ignoring and overburdening it for too long, and it couldn’t be saved. It felt like an admission of defeat for me to give up an organ, but as I lay on the gurney awaiting surgery, I resolved to turn this loss into a meaningful sacrifice, even a kind of sacrament. I would have to give up something, not just a piece of my flesh, but my arrogance, my pride, my desire to do everything all by myself without asking for or needing help. I asked inwardly, before the anaesthetic took away my consciousness, for things to be different when I woke up.
And things started to change for me, slowly. I had a new motivation to change my diet and eating habits, because I knew that if I didn’t, I could cause further and even more serious problems to my liver even if my gallbladder was gone. And I’d lost the shame and fear that kept me from asking for help. This had already started during the crisis that put me under so much stress, intolerable stress that could not be managed with food alone, through which I’d begun to open up to therapists and supportive friends. This helped me to recognize that I deserved more supportive, less draining relationships in my life, and to make those happen. With a human support system in place, it began to be possible to address the food piece.
But I still never identified myself as having an eating disorder, until I recently read an advance copy of What’s Eating Us: Women, Food, and the Epidemic of Body Anxiety by Cole Kazdin. The author focuses mainly on eating disorders that center around an obsession with weight loss and thinness — since her own struggles were with anorexia and self-induced vomiting, that makes sense. But she does mention binge eating disorder, which does not include purging.
This made me sit up and take notice. Every one of the symptoms of the disorder — overeating within a discrete time period compared to a “normal” amount, a sense of lack of control around eating, eating more rapidly than normal, eating until uncomfortably full, eating large amounts when not hungry, eating alone out of embarrassment, feeling disgusted with oneself afterwards, binges occurring at least once a week, marked distress around the binging — applied to me, at least during the height of my binging.
But maybe it’s not so strange that I did not recognize how disordered my eating was — BED was only classified under this name in 2013. Its very prevalence may have helped it to fly under the radar; it’s now recognized as the most common eating disorder in the United States (according to this post from the National Eating Disorder Association).
On another note, I learned that an obsession with “healthy eating” is not officially recognized as a disorder, but it does have a name: orthorexia. For me, while not itself really extreme enough to be considered an obsession, a preoccupation with healthy food formed a useful smoke screen behind which my binge eating disorder could flourish. It was a toxic sort of balancing out, not unlike binging and purging, or fending off weight gain with frantic exercise.
Since the surgery and the resolution I made to change my diet and my life, I don’t binge any more, but I still don’t feel cured. I am not at peace with food yet, I don’t feel safe with it. There are still so many of those dark, inscrutable messages to decipher; the urge to binge is still there, even if I don’t follow it so heedlessly as I used to. I don’t feel that I can eat intuitively or eat what my body wants, as some advice puts it, because I am not sure what that is.
But I am done with ignoring my body’s messages, even if I don’t understand or like them. I am not going to deny anything about myself even if it is hard to face. Identifying and naming my sickness used to be something I avoided at all costs. I was too weak and overwhelmed to be able to admit that I had a problem, in fact a mental illness. Now, this identification comes to me as a relief, and I know that means I have already gotten stronger. If I can name my illness and describe it, I can get a handle on it, which is not about control, but about knowledge. It’s about knowing all the parts of myself and therefore being able to use them all for their intended purpose, which is for me to live fully and joyfully.
I don’t know if I can ever feel completely well. I know I will always have to live with the results of damaging my gallbladder beyond repair — unlike what most surgeons will tell you, it is not a useless or unnecessary organ, and played a role in my digestion that I now have to replace with more conscious awareness. But even without this vital organ, I feel more whole, because I am not keeping secrets from myself any more.
And I can start to appreciate the wisdom of my body, that first tried to defend me from stress in the only way it knew — Kazdin calls stress the “fifth food group” — and then forcibly woke me up to the harmful effects of those unchecked defenses. I can also appreciate the progress of human thinking that is slowly bringing light into all these processes, slowly moving toward healing. It’s truly remarkable that we have the possibility to uncover and decipher and eventually heal from mental illness, hauling ourselves out of the darkness, coming back into solidarity with our fellow humans, back into life and community. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, we should regard it for what it is: a triumph of the spirit.
The human body is amazing, equally in illness as in health. The human spirit is amazing, too, in its potential to grasp the meaning that lies behind all the phenomena that assault us, even those that form the greatest obstacles to that very understanding. To regain a sense of wonder and amazement at who we are and can become, rather than fearful dismay and anxiety towards the future, is the best antidote I know to grabbing after addictive defenses. It’s ourselves that we are defending against, after all, ourselves that we fear. If I can truly let go of that fear, healing can begin.
This has been a rather long disquisition, and I thank you if you’ve stayed with me so far. You blog readers have been part of my healing process, because being able to talk about the truth of my experience has played a major role in it, and will continue to do so. Speaking truth means little if there is no one to hear the truth. So it has made a big difference to have this place where I can express myself and be responded to, in a respectful, compassionate way. If there is anything on your heart that you need to express, I hope I can be there for you, too. We are all in this together.