Long Reads is a bimonthly feature, showcasing long-form essays.
CN: binge eating disorder
A few years ago I went dress shopping with a friend. We were talking across dressing rooms as friends tend to do, and one of my friends mentioned her frustration with college weight gain. “Girl I feel you,” I sympathized. “I’ve gained about 50 pounds over the years since I quit sports, and it took some adjustment.”
The women in the stall next to me gasped and burst into muffled laughter. “Oh my god, what a cow,” snickered one of them. Her grandmother laughed in agreement, both of them hushing their voices.
Of course I could hear them. It stung, but I shook it off. Talking openly about my weight gain and not hedging the numbers was important to me, and it was a tactic that I had been advised to take on under medical supervision. The women in the next stall heard my offhand, sympathetic comment about my weight, but they’ll never hear my story about recovering from an eating disorder that I’ve battled for 17 years. They’ll never understand that, in some ways, I am grateful to my weight gain, because it’s what alerted me to the fact that I had a problem at all.
More importantly, they’ll never understand how terrified I feel when I think of life without my disorder.
I’ve been sneaking food in large quantities since I was eight or nine years old, shortly after we moved from my East Texas hometown to the unfamiliar, wealth-dappled suburbs of Houston. Puberty hit me early, and coupled with a busy schedule of sports and a misunderstanding about the need for increased caloric intake during puberty, I was quite literally going to bed hungry. I would wait until my family was asleep and go downstairs to get a snack, or raid the leftovers in the fridge.
My body was changing, riddling me with acne and pubic hair and periods in fourth grade, and I towered several inches over my peers. I was uncomfortable — othered because I was a new kid and because I visually stuck out, and my natural barrel-shape worried me constantly. Unfortunately, my hormone-crazed metabolism meant I truly needed to eat more than an average nine-year old, but I didn’t have any idea how to communicate that to my mom, who generally doled out my snacks and meals. She was my mom; I trusted her to know how much I needed to eat.
My habit of sneaking food was borne from physical hunger, but it was sustained and expanded by my emotional and psychological emptiness.
I hid my eating habits and obsessive thoughts about food for well over a decade. One day when I was visiting home during my freshman year of college, I picked up an issue of Teen Vogue and saw an article about Binge Eating Disorder. At that time, I had no idea other eating disorders besides anorexia and bulimia existed, but I read about a girl my age discussing her uncontrollable desire to eat as much as possible, about hiding food in her room, and about the numbing relief she felt during a binge followed by a devastating tidal wave of shame and self-hate.
It was like I was reading my autobiography.
Frozen by shock, all I could do was reread the article over and over while scrambling to put some of my memories and behaviors together. When I went back to school, I looked up the author of the article and downloaded her book on my Kindle. I called the mental health center and made an appointment. Shortly after, I was diagnosed with BED and signed up for weekly group meetings and bimonthly individual sessions. It was the first time I had ever talked about my eating habits in a context other than weight gain and dieting.
My habit of sneaking food was borne from physical hunger, but it was sustained and expanded by my emotional and psychological emptiness. I’m an anxious adult and I was an even more anxious teen, terrified of failure and reluctant to challenge the competitive culture that pervaded my high school.
As many teens from high-performing suburban high schools do, I put a lot of pressure on myself to make excellent grades, excel at sports, and get involved with as many extracurricular activities as possible. I was a good student, mature, polite, well-spoken, and I enjoyed interacting with adults. Conversation with authority figures came easily and often left them impressed, which of course made me feel giddy. She views me as an equal, she thinks I’m really smart I remember thinking once in fourth grade after talking to a teacher about a book we had both read. She told me I reminded her of a friend from college and praised my maturity and advanced literary analysis skills.
Approval from authority was like a drug to me. I got hooked on how good it felt to be told I was special, that I was different, that I was going to become someone amazing. When volunteering at the library in seventh grade, a woman came up and asked me what year of college I was in because I was wearing a Texas A&M shirt. After confessing that I was still in middle school, she was visibly shocked and said I carried myself like someone seven or eight years older. Hearing that felt amazing (I still have a clear memory of the moment, so obviously it meant something) and further fed this narrative that I should hold myself to a higher standard than the average teenager.
Bingeing became a way for me to satisfy the need to do something “bad” that wasn’t really all that bad.
Looking back, I wish I could go and thump the nose of every adult who made those kinds of comments and observations to my face. By praising my maturity and composure compared to my peers, they subtly communicated their disdain for teenage chaos, expression, emotion and sensibilities. As an empathic, sensitive, insecure person, my need for validation and approval from people I considered authority became overwhelming. If something happened that I thought would anger my parents, I would dissolve into tears, on the brink of hyperventilation, because I didn’t want to be reduced to a “dumb teenager.” If I were to be called out by a teacher or youth minister, I would be humiliated for days. Their reprimands were often accompanied by disappointed head shakes and “I expected better from you”-s.
The thing is, all teenagers, regardless of their intelligence and maturity, need to rebel a little. I would feel stirrings of misplaced anger, anxiety, volatile emotions, and a desire to do things that “other teens” did, and it frightened me. Bingeing became a way for me to satisfy the need to do something “bad” that wasn’t really all that bad. It was like a release valve for my teenage emotions and desires, something I could indulge in unnoticed, without breaking any rules. My mom would make vague comments about food disappearing, and I would pretend not to notice. It was a release, allowing me to numb out and ignore the socially induced anxiety while subsequently being consumed with the gut-wrenching feeling that what I was doing was not normal.
Going to college added different kinds of stress and anxiety, but it was one of the first wake up calls that I got that something was wrong. Even though bingeing didn’t feel good and I never discussed it with anyone, I’d never been forced into a situation that brought my issues with food to the light.
A couple months before I read the Teen Vogue article, I was on a particularly bad binge cycle. I was lonely, stressed, and insecure about being away from home — and I ate an entire box of my roommate’s granola bars. My freshman year roommate also happened to be one of my best friends from high school, and it was extremely awkward to explain to her that I had eaten her food. This was the first time I could remember that I had to verbally admit to another person, in one way or another, that I didn’t feel in control of my relationship to food.
That first semester of college ended up being an experiment in how miserable and uncomfortable I would let myself get before seeking help.
Without the structures and feedback cycles of high school, I was unmoored from my usual authority figures and left to figure things out on my own. My professors were all exceptionally wonderful and encouraging, but I was now one among many high achievers in my honors program. Without pressure from authority, I began to understand just how much of my anxiety and pressure was applied from within myself. I was personally uncomfortable with the unstructured, raw, chaotic, emotional sides of myself. Being thrust headfirst into those feelings during freshman year of college created a cycle: feel a strong emotion, stuff it down with food, feel like fiery garbage, rinse, repeat.
My energy reserves were continually being tapped out as I fought against the impulses of my disorder, constantly shoving it down into the pit of my stomach.
Group therapy, one on one sessions, and antidepressants did wonders to help me curb my binges. I read books, developed coping mechanisms, and banished “binge foods” from my life. After a year and a half of therapy, I hadn’t had a truly out-of-control binge in several months, and I sustained my record even after I stopped going to therapy. I still gained some weight, but it was because I was terrible at eating right and even more terrible at working out. I proudly told my mom, my friends, and myself that I was “recovered.”
Except, I wasn’t really recovered. I still spent almost every night using my “coping mechanisms” to ward off a binge. I still used food to self soothe my anxiety, even if it wasn’t what could be technically considered a binge. My energy reserves were continually being tapped out as I fought against the impulses of my disorder, constantly shoving it down into the pit of my stomach. Inadequacy and fear of failure hunted me down daily, and, instead of facing them and enjoying the challenges that accompanied them, I hid behind my binge urges.
I went back to therapy about 9 months ago to a new therapist with different ideas about how to approach my issues. We focus a lot more on building a trusting relationship and talking about emotions as things to be taken seriously on their own. My first round of therapy was focused on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) —changing my behaviors with mindfulness and adjusting the mechanics of my brain — and getting out of that mechanical, logical, regimented mindset has been hard. Every therapy session I am challenged to not think of things “intellectually” or “rationally” and instead consider how they make my body feel, what memories are associated with the emotions, and whether or not certain emotions drive behaviors.
I have resisted this kind of therapy with every fibre of my being, because it feels too much like the fuzzy, drippy, pink and fluffy teenage feelings that I have banished my whole life. That’s what teenagers are, after all—boiling pots of feelings and energy constantly simmering, steaming, and overflowing.
Since I never really let myself be an uninhibited teenager, honing in on these emotions and allowing myself to feel them feels gross and uncomfortable, but also exhilarating. In a way, I view my therapist as an authority figure, and for the first time an authority figure is telling me “Hey, be loud, be messy, be irrational and just feel as much as you possibly can.”
It feels strange and wonderful to be experiencing my teenage years the way they were meant to be experienced, since my actual teenage years were masked by a veneer of poise, control, and achievement covering up a secretive loss of control and late-night binges. Since I couldn’t let myself be a teenager in front of other people, I used food as my rebellion and emotional expression in private.
It was an empty, stale, inadequate substitute for a proper teenage era.
My new therapist suggested that CBT only got me halfway there because, on a deep level, I don’t see my eating disorder as a behavior. Since I don’t really feel connected to my teenage self, the memories and feelings that my teenage binges evoked have filled her place. It has been part of my life for so long that I have woven it into the fabric of my personality and sense of self. CBT was only going to teach me new behaviors to suppress the disorder instead of healing it.
As soon as she said that, it was like I was reading the Teen Vogue article all over again. My perception of my disorder had been completely altered a second time, and it scared the shit out of me.
Anyone who has had an eating disorder or a similar mental health issue likely knows what I mean when I say that BED feels intrinsic to my personality, ingrained into how I experience the world. I think this is especially true for me since I have dealt with BED for going on two decades, and I have literally no memories of what it’s like to not abuse food and my body to avoid my inability to process emotions in a healthy way.
My eating disorder is like a safety blanket.
If I were to own BED as a behavior instead of a trait, it would imply that it’s something I can let go of without having to reshape who I am. I am a whole person without my eating disorder, and accepting that fact has been a fraught and — until recently — impossible journey.
My eating disorder is like a safety blanket. It’s the shield I use to protect myself from my own power. Because the thing is, the teachers and parents and strangers who told me how smart, capable, and interesting I was were right. I have immense potential to really make things happen for myself and for others around me.
That potential is scary as hell.
When I really think of the things I could do with my life if I let go and fell into it wholeheartedly, my heart races and my breath shortens. My eating disorder is the railing preventing me from falling, keeping me safe and holding me back at the same time. Because I know that, if I were to tear that railing down and jump into what my life could be without my disorder, there would be no more excuses if I just fell flat on my face.