Trigger Warning: Eating Disorder Behaviors
The first instance I can recall of using food as a medicine occurred when I was a young schoolgirl at a neighborhood friend’s birthday party. I specifically remember that there was a large bowl of peanut m&m’s sitting on a table with other snacks and goodies. I’m not sure exactly what triggered my binging behavior – possibly the social anxiety of being around so many other kids or the fact that my parents weren’t there and I knew I could eat as many as I wanted – but I kept going back for handful after handful of m&m’s. I don’t have many other memories of the party except that when I got home I felt horribly sick. I was so nauseous that I ended up sprawled out on the cold tile floor of our downstairs hallway, moaning in discomfort for hours. For some reason, I’m not sure why, that memory really sticks out in my mind.
Another food-related experience that definitely impacted me was the first time I ever got food poisoning. I was in the second grade and we had gotten takeout from our favorite Chinese restaurant. I remember throwing up 13 times. Since getting sick in front of all my peers at school the previous year, I had developed a pretty good case of emetophobia (fear of vomiting). Because my dad was on a business trip at the time and my mom got food poisoning as well, I was all alone. That made the experience particularly unpleasant and, from then on, I became hypervigilant about food safety and expiration dates. Not only was I afraid of getting sick, I was afraid of feeling ill anywhere but the safety of my own bathroom. As a kid with an anxiety disorder, I worried about so much and that experience just made things worse.
My entire life, I was petite and thin. And, somehow, even as a young girl, I knew that was a good thing. I can remember that my best friend in grade school and I used to compare the size of our bodies by wrapping our hands around each thigh to see how much room there was. Now, as an adult, I am heartbroken that we used to do that. It hurts me that the cultural obsession with thinness had such an impact on us as young girls, whether we realized it or not.
Growing up, my mom always fed us healthy foods and balanced meals. But starting in middle and high school, when I had more autonomy in my choices, my diet became pretty…well…the only word that really feels appropriate is ridiculous. On the days that I didn’t skip breakfast, I usually had a couple slices of buttered toast or an English muffin with peanut butter or melted cheese. For lunch at school, my choices were quite unbalanced and insufficient for my growing body. Instead of getting hot lunch or something from the salad bar, I would buy things a la carte. It could range from a cup of hot chocolate to a chocolate chip cookie to a protein bar to a bagel and cream cheese to a slice of pizza. Sometimes I ate nothing at all. Honestly, sometimes I just wasn’t hungry and I didn’t push it. If I wasn’t hungry, I didn’t eat.
As I got older, I started to abuse food on a regular basis. It was something I did in secret because I felt a great deal of shame. I felt greedy. I felt like a glutton. I realize now that I was trying to fill an emptiness inside of myself, but at the time, I didn’t really know what that emptiness was. I’m sure sometimes it was physical hunger because, as previously discussed, my eating patterns have always been a bit problematic. As I sit here thinking, I know I was dealing with a disease, but I still can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed by my behaviors. I ate so much food that wasn’t mine. I ate people’s leftover birthday cake and pizza and ice cream. I ate food that my parents kept for special occasions, like Christmas and Easter. I ate food that they had brought home from trips as gifts for people, like chocolate covered macadamia nuts and fudge. When they went looking for the food (and it wasn’t there), I was reprimanded and that made me feel even worse about myself. It was a horrible cycle.
Unfortunately, the well-meaning advice of a health professional I was taken to as a teen had a detrimental effect on the cycle of fasting, binging, and restricting that I was already engaging in. At age 16, my migraines had gotten particularly bad, so, grasping at straws, my mom took me to see a naturopath. This doctor did a bunch of blood tests and determined that I had quite an extensive list of food sensitivities. She suggested a pretty restrictive elimination diet to help reduce my migraines. If I remember correctly, I couldn’t have any foods that contained wheat, gluten, eggs, dairy, soy, or chocolate. As a teenager, that forced restrictiveness was pretty difficult for me. I remember sitting at the lunch table, eating a turkey sandwich with vegan mayo on bread that my mom had lovingly made from scratch – but that had the taste and texture of sawdust – feeling so jealous of my peers. They don’t have to deal with these stupid migraines. They can eat anything they want, I thought to myself. I followed that diet for what felt like an eternity, but what was actually one year, before we decided that it wasn’t making any difference. I don’t know the precise impact that year of restriction had on my eating disorder, but I know it didn’t do anything good.
My body shape remained relatively slim until age 19, when I gained about 30 lbs. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I assume my metabolism changed. I have dealt with hypothyroidism (as a result of Hashimoto’s disease) since age 11, so it’s possible that played a part as well. For the first time in my life, I felt fat. It was something I had never dealt with before and was quite a shock. Instead of trying to mitigate things with healthy behaviors, I made things worse by binging. My binge foods of choice, as they have always been, were usually chocolate or baked goods. I continued to engage in disordered eating for several years.
At age 22, I started getting severe nausea and upper right quadrant pain. My PCP treated me for a suspected stomach ulcer but things didn’t improve with treatment. After several trips to the emergency room, I was diagnosed with gallstones. A part of me felt vindicated that there was a physical cause for my symptoms, but the other part was absolutely petrified of the surgery I would need to feel better. I was so miserable and dehydrated from two weeks of nausea and pain that my surgeon admitted me to the hospital straight from his office. I was incredibly anxious and I stayed up the entire night before my surgery, pacing the floor of the unit, my IV pump in tow. I remember tearing up when I had to say goodbye to my parents as I was wheeled into the operating room. I felt so out of control, so vulnerable. I was terrified of not waking up. But I did. And I was so grateful and proud of myself for making it through. I had conquered two of my biggest fears, an overnight hospital stay and surgery. I recovered at home for about a week until one afternoon I started getting severe pain in my chest and stomach. I had never experienced pain like that in my entire life. I was horrified. I was hyperventilating. I remember being in the ambulance thinking, I need help, NOW. The doctors at the ER couldn’t find anything wrong with me. I was sent home. It happened again, and again, the doctors could not find a cause.
After about two months, I saw a gastroenterologist and was given an upper endoscopy. The findings were unremarkable. For the next year, I continued to experience those attacks of pain. I also began to experience unpredictable episodes of violent vomiting and diarrhea of undigested food. Each time, my symptoms got so severe that I ended up in the ER for medications and IV fluids. Aside from being absolutely miserable, I was really scared. There were times I literally thought I was going to vomit up my stomach. I remember one particular instance when I was super nauseous and in severe pain. I was on my hands and knees on a gurney with my mom rubbing my back as I tried to sip CT contrast. I was so proud of myself as I swallowed each sip. Unfortunately, I threw it all up. Luckily, they were able to do the CT with just the IV contrast. It showed that my small intestines were inflamed. I was admitted to the hospital where they tried to keep me comfortable with medication and IV fluids. Ironically, I broke out in hives all over my face as a result of the IV contrast. I looked horrible. I felt horrible. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was discharged after two nights but, sadly, they still couldn’t tell me what was wrong with me. It wasn’t until months later that I finally received a diagnosis. A different gastroenterologist ordered a Gastric Emptying Test (GES), which showed that my digestion was severely delayed. I had a condition called gastroparesis. My stomach was partially paralyzed. They couldn’t give me an exact cause, but suggested that it could have been my body’s reaction to the gallbladder removal surgery. In an attempt to prevent my horrible digestive symptoms, I began a restrictive, low-fiber diet that was prescribed by my gastroenterologist. I couldn’t eat any raw fruits or vegetables, most cooked fruits or vegetables, and a long list of other high fiber foods. I remember there were times I actually had intense cravings for things broccoli and Caesar salad.
Miraculously, after several years, my gastroparesis went into remission. I was so immensely grateful. The pain attacks and nausea continued but were explained away by a less severe digestive condition called functional dyspepsia. One unexpected byproduct of my experiences with gastroparesis was that I no longer had a fear of vomiting. Sadly, I learned that I could actually make myself vomit (or purge), something that I had not been able to do previously. So, as my binging behavior started back up because I could eat normally, a new behavior started as well…purging. My anxiety would get so intense after I binged that I would “get rid” of what I had ingested. I was less anxious about getting fat and more anxious of the potential harm the food could do to me. I was afraid of all the calories and the fat and the carbs and the sugar. I was afraid that I would get heart disease or diabetes. I can’t really explain why these fears didn’t bother me as much when I binged growing up. All I know is that fear plays a major part in my ED today.
Today, I consider myself to be in recovery. I believe my recovery journey began the moment I acknowledged that I had a problem and asked for help. Sadly, it took me nearly two decades to admit that I had a truly unhealthy relationship with food and my body. But, now, I realize, that I have been using food as medicine for the majority of my life. As a child and a teen, I used food to replace some of the pleasure and joy my anxiety disorder seemed to take away. As an adult, I have been using it to comfort feelings of loneliness and lack of purpose and meaning that has resulted from my chronic health challenges.
Last fall, I was watching Demi Lovato’s incredible documentary, Simply Complicated, and several things that she said got me right in the gut. It was like she took the words straight out of my subconscious mind. She expressed what I couldn’t put into words.
“…When I feel lonely my heart feels hungry and I end up binging.”
“Food is still the biggest challenge in my life and it controls – I don’t’ want to give it the power to say it controls my every thought, but it’s something that I’m constantly thinking about.”
“Body image, what I’m going to eat next, what I wish I could be eating, what I wish I didn’t eat. It’s just constant.”
For me, recovery has been a long time coming. And, I am committed to do better, for myself, and for all my beautiful friends. But, honestly, I still struggle. A lot sometimes. I “slip up” more frequently than I’d like. And I often feel guilty about my ED when I think about my friends who literally can’t digest food. But that’s why self-compassion is so important. I remind myself that I’m doing the best I can. I remind myself that life hasn’t been easy for me. I have had my share of struggles and ups and downs. And letting feelings of shame and guilt take up residence in my consciousness isn’t going to accomplish anything positive. It has taken quite a bit of courage to be so open and share these struggles publicly but I know that it is important. So many people deal with eating disorders. So many people are suffering in silence. Hopefully, by sharing my story, I can help people feel a little less alone and reduce stigma. Please know, recovery is worth it. You are worth it.
We are enough,