As we move into the most gluttonous holiday this country has to offer, I want to talk about food. Not the pretty food I cook and take pictures of (next week!), but how food affects my life; more specifically, how food can sometimes control my life.
My relationship with food has always been a testy one. I was a chubby kid from early on, spoiled by learning to bake with my grandmother and learning to cook with my dad. Despite my fairly active lifestyle of ballet and baseball, I never leaned out like the rest of my friends.
As I got older, not only did I cook more to sharpen my skills, I ate to keep up with my dad, loving how I could impress my family with just how much food I could stuff into my 4’9″ frame. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that I was growing horizontally. By the time I got to middle school, I tipped the scales at around 150lbs and earned the nickname “Oompa Loompa.”
Always a tomboy, it didn’t bother me too much until the summer before 8th grade when I realized I was going to need a date to the semifomal at the end of the year. That, and I desperately wanted a boyfriend. That desperation came back to bite me, and even though my birth certificate claims I turned 13 that year, my brain turned more like 20.
I began high school and slowly pieced my life back together. I started working out a little bit. I joined colorguard. I stopped eating beef and pork. I slowly started dropping some weight, but the teasing never really stopped. I guess I was asking for it with colorguard and drama club…
And then I stopped eating breakfast. And then I stopped eating lunch.
Instead, I would start the day with coffee, pick at the remains of what my friends didn’t eat, and then go home and binge on things like entire bags of tortilla chips and salsa, or an entire tray of cheese fries.
Being at home alone was pretty strange for me. My brother and I always went to my grandparents after school, but as I got older and had things like practice and rehearsal, I went home to watch my brother while we both waited for my dad to pick us up for dinner. I hate being alone. It was scary. Every creak in the house is amplified by a million, and looking back, what I now know to be my bipolar disorder left me incredibly paranoid to the degree that I couldn’t shower if I was home alone, lest someone break in.
So food kept me company. It kept me safe. It kept me occupied. I liked to overeat when I was happy as much as I did when I was depressed. I ate to make myself feel complete. It was as though there was something lacking within myself; despite my family’s praise, I somehow never truly felt good enough.
Then came the summer before my junior year. I was in a stagnant relationship and began to question my previously unyielding faith. I was depressed a lot of the time, but faked it for my family and friend’s sake. I’d go long stretches without eating, and then have a huge binge. By the end of the summer, I’d finally broken out of that relationship by jumping immediately into a new one and left my relationship with God up in the air.
Finding happiness once again, I allowed myself to eat; I even ate red meat. I got my first job: at McDonald’s. And I ate insane amounts of fast food. However, I also began working out a LOT at the local YMCA. Mostly weights, some cardio. I still did colorguard. I loved how my body started to look. Then it wasn’t enough. I had a number goal I wanted to hit for my boyfriend’s prom… so I watched what I ate, attempted to restrict myself (which generally resulted in binges) and finally, the week of prom, I ate nothing but saltines and water. And I was there: 113lbs.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to maintain it, and as the stress of senior year piled on, so did my weight. I worked a lot of late nights and often ate a HUGE dinner after work at 11pm, only to go home, load up on coffee and do homework until 3am, leaving roughly 3 hours to sleep. By the time MY prom rolled around, I was about 20lbs heavier than the year before and I was MISERABLE.
When I got to college in NYC, I hit the gym hard. I walked a lot. I tried to be more disciplined with my eating and began toying with vegetarianism. I’d lost about 10lbs by the time I transferred down to Miami. But it wasn’t enough. I detested by body. I felt incredibly unattractive. I began to seek out extra validation in males that were not my boyfriend. I punished myself with starvation. But of course, that only led to binges.
And then the binges became regular. About every other day, I would eat to the point of pain. It wasn’t always a conscious decision. Sometimes I would be working on a paper, zone out, and find myself standing in the kitchen, 5 cupcakes in. And then I would work out in the gym for HOURS to try and burn it off. I also started drinking laxative tea.
I didn’t really see this as “bad” behavior until the counseling center started posting stuff about Compulsive Binge Eating Disorder.
At first, I didn’t really think it could be me. I mean, I wasn’t fat. I had a problem with food, but it wasn’t showing up externally, so it couldn’t be that bad, right?
During eating disorder awareness week, the counseling center had table set up in the campus breezeway where you could take a body image quiz to enter some kind of raffle. I took it and apaprently scared those ladies shitless; they both gave me their cards and referred me to the weekly group sessions. I was scared to go. What if I was the smallest person there and they told me I didn’t deserve to be there. What if I was the BIGGEST person there and they laughed at me. Worst of all: what if they were right; what if I had some kind of actual problem?
Well, I sucked it up and went. I wasn’t the smallest, or the biggest. We were all about the same size. And all about the same age. And all had the same issues. And until I had a mental breakdown after breaking up with my fiance, it helped.
And then I hit a downward spiral of cigarettes, alcohol and spastic eating.
I gained roughly 40lbs.
Moved to LA, but knew I couldn’t act as such a fat kid, so I started on the documentary as an intern to try and lose weight.
I was diligent at first, but as pressured mounted for me to be “stricter” and lose weight faster, in addition to running out of money, my mother telling me she was going to sue me for my student loans, learning that my aunt would be taking the car back, and working long hours (just to name a few crazy things that happened this past year) I turned back to bingeing. However, because I was so worried about losing weight, I started purging anytime I binged… and I loved the feeling. It was freeing. I got this high off of getting everything out of my system. I started doing it even when I didn’t binge; I did it just to feel skinnier.
Outwardly, I didn’t think people really noticed. I lost a little weight, but not as much as I thought I “should” have. After all, bulimics are skinny. I couldn’t have been doing it right… so I continued to beat myself up. I tried elimination diets, cleanses, and the Whole30 but every time I denied myself, I binged and purged even harder. I couldn’t stop myself.
Finally I confided in the boy and a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I WAS good enough without bingeing. Purging was not making me thin. Neither were helping my performance in the gym. So I became determined to stop.
It hasn’t been easy. I haven’t been perfect. I haven’t binged since October, and while I’ve purged here and there, it was always a momentary lapse that in hindsight, had I just reached out to someone, I wouldn’t have had to lose my lunch.
I know my bipolar has a lot to do with my triggers, as do my dietary choices. Too much sugar and too many unrefined carbs are a surefire track to a bad mood and a desire to purge. Too much alcohol and social anxiety will lead me to binge. I’ve realized my two disorders are quite separate. I binge because of feelings of inadequacy, lack of self esteem, and a general emptiness. I purge because I have a poor body image and get frustrated by my inability to “just be skinny again.” On the one hand, it’s nice that I know myself better now, but I’m still trying to maintain control over it. Fixing my mineral levels and blood pressure with supplements helped get me to want to make a change, but it’s the support I have around me that enables me to stay on track.
So if you’re struggling, know you’re not alone. If you’re about to binge or purge, take a breath and step back. Try to do something else; anything else. Reach out to someone. You don’t need to tell them exactly what’s wrong; just say you wanted someone to chat with. If there’s no one you trust to confide in, shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m more than happy to listen, and if you’re in the LA area, we could even meet for a walk or coffee or something. I know how much it sucks to feel alone in this. You don’t have to be.
So as you enjoy your Thanksgiving and holiday festivities, keep in mind that even those who appear happy and look healthy on the outside, could be battling crazy things inside.
And so I give thanks. For my health, for those who give me love and support, and for being strong enough to want to make a change.