For the past 3 years, I have been “out and proud” about my relationship with anorexia. But there’s another part of my disease that I’ve been less “out” about – food addiction. I have struggled with food addiction since before I turned one year old.
I probably “came out” about my anorexia first because it was visible and got treated first; it was salient. As I say on the home page, it held center stage in my life. I also didn’t have language for food addiction. I didn’t know it was a real disease, just as real as anorexia and alcoholism and drug addiction. I thought I was alone in it. I didn’t know that it was diagnosable and treatable, that I wasn’t an aberration, that other people had it, too.
Why is it easier for me to talk about my anorexia than it is for me to talk about my food addiction?
Because anorexia is glamorized.
When I was anorexic, people wanted to know my “secret.”
When I was binging, I was a “fat sow” or “pig.”
My anorexia exposed itself full-throttle right before my junior year of high school. In the fall of my senior year of high school, I pursued in-patient treatment. To gain entry into these rehabs, you have to complete a wide array of medical tests, including an EKG and a bone scan.
When I went to get my bone scan, the woman complimented my thinness, then proceeded to question me. She asked about my last menstrual period. I told her it had been 14 months.
She asked, “Is there a history of anorexia or bulimia in your family?”
“Me,” I said. “Me. I have anorexia.”
I hopped on the table and she scanned my bones.
Lo and behold, I had osteoporosis.
I think she felt a little weird after that.
Then there was the time I went to Urgent Care because I had strep throat. I hopped on the scale: 95 pounds.
“I wish,” the nurse howled. “Don’t you wish?” she asked my mom.
Then, she asked about my period. I told her, many months.
She asked if I was pregnant.
I’m sorry. Do I look pregnant to you? I HAVE ANOREXIA!
Another awkward silence.
Everyone wants to lose weight, right? That’s what eeeeveryone wants to do. So how am I supposed to talk candidly about the years leading up to my anorexia, the years where I was stuffing my face day in and day out, completely powerless to stop?
The truth is, obsessive over-eating and obsessive under-eating are two sides of the same coin. Both need attention and both must be helped. I thought anorexia was the solution to my binge-eating. I thought if I committed, full-throttle, to my anorexic lifestyle, I’d be completely safe from food’s grasp – that I would never binge again.
I wanted to supersede my humanness. I wanted to transcend it.
But that’s not how recovery works.
There’s no easy way out. There’s no cheating.
Much like tap dance, or piano playing, or vinyasa yoga, sober eating is a skill. Listening to your body is a skill. Learning a new skill requires patience and practice. It requires trial and error. You can’t just go into a half-moon pose in your first yoga class and expect it to work.
In recovering from anorexia, I had to reintroduce food into my life, and since I didn’t know how to eat properly before I had anorexia, things can get a little binge-y now. In fact, things have gotten very binge-y. In the past 15 months, I have had full blown, food addiction relapses. And I’ve sat on them in silence, to ashamed to bring them to the light. That stops now.
My life used to revolve around eating and food. Whether in the food addiction or the anorexia, I had only two modes of being: eating and not eating. I worked so hard to come out of that, to cultivate life between meals – to eat to live, not live to eat. But these days I’m back where I’m started. My food addiction is triggered, both the physical craving and the mental obsession, and thanks to COVID-19, I can’t seem to escape. I can’t seem separate myself from food, since I’m around it all the time.
Where there once was life between meals, there isn’t anymore. With no places to go and no people to see, I’m back to my two modes of being. My life has turned into eat, and wait…to eat again. Food is the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night.
Food was and is my first love, and it is very difficult for me to be present with other people when it is, quite literally, on the table. I’m not as bad as I used to be, and I don’t think I’ll be this way forever, so long as I never abandon my recovery upkeep – but this is where I am now.
I let food literally stop me in my tracks. I give meals way too much time and attention. I enter a different state when I’m eating – an altered state of consciousness, but not the good kind. COVID-19 has made it worse because I am depressed, and I track passage of time with food. I wallow in between meals and count down the hours, or minutes, till it is “appropriate” for me to eat again, because that means more time will have passed.
But what am I waiting for? Why am I so eager to leave this moment and enter the next one? If my current self is depressed, I will only bring that depression to my future self. I have to clean myself up in the here and now, treat now like the only moment I’ve got. Treat now like the destination. That’s recovery. (See what I did there?)
I have an allergy. Once I cross a certain threshold with food, I can’t stop eating. I can’t go back. Fortunately and unfortunately, I am still discovering what that threshold is. The insatiable urge to keep eating kicks in, and so does the mental obsession. The last time it happened, on February 1st, it ended with me vomiting – on February 2nd. This binge – one of my worst of all time – certainly one of my worst in the post-anorexia – lasted a full day – a full 24 hours.
This was not a bulimic style purge; this was involuntary vomiting, my stomach rejecting the food it simply had no room for. And yet, when I finished vomiting, I still wanted to eat more. I was suicidal that weekend. I have been before and I have been since. That’s the nature of my relationship with food. For as long as I can remember, it has been a chronic source of suicidality. It has “made my life a living hell,” a cliche I hate to use – as I hate to use cliches – but will do so here because it feels appropriate.
This is a good a time as any to come clean about my recent binges. There were approximately 8 in 2019 and have been 2 in 2020. Since February 2nd, I’ve had no more true binges – February 3rd marked Day 1 of abstinence; today is Day 69 – I have engaged in compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors since then, perhaps triggered by the quarantine. Last night, for instance, I compulsively ate an apple in the shower.
When I say I “compulsively,” what I mean is, I had absolutely no control over what I was doing – no control over what I was putting into mouth. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with eating an apple in the shower – if it’s a conscious, sober choice. But I wasn’t consciously, soberly eating this apple. I wasn’t even eating this apple. This apple – this plus-sized, Granny Smith apple – was eating me.
I was lying on the couch, trying to fall asleep (the AC is out in my room, so I am sleeping on our living room sofa), and I was out of alignment. Restless. Anxious. I couldn’t get still. I hadn’t brushed my teeth, hadn’t changed my clothes, hadn’t showered – rather than meditate or do something to clear my mind, I went for food my body didn’t need. I went for a giant piece of fruit, even though my stomach was full. “Safe, right? It’s just an apple.” Not safe if what you’re doing is completely disordered. Not safe if you’re a “recovered” food addict!
And really…sober or not sober…who the f*** eats food in the shower? Doe that sound healthy to you? Normal to you? Maybe it’s your kink, your fetish, something fun you do with your partner – but alone?
(I’m calling myself out here, not you.)
When I need to distract myself, I go to food. Stuck on a math problem? Food. Stuck on a crossword clue? Food. That is my disease. That is what I do when I’m out of spiritual alignment. When I’m connected to my recovery, I don’t reach for food. I meditate. But lately, I’ve been out of touch with my recovery. That apple had been sitting in my purse all day. I thought, I might as well get rid of it. If I’m not going to take care of myself, I might as well be “productive.” Might as well “be of service” by consuming the produce before it goes bad.
I took it into the shower so I could mask it with “self-care.” But I barely washed my body. I demolished that apple like there was no tomorrow, lightly brushed my teeth with the toothbrush I keep in the soap dish, and then emerged with a dripping wet, bloated body – with hair that was damp but not clean – feeling worse than I did before.
I can’t tolerate having uneaten food in my possession, especially if it doesn’t fit perfectly into my meal plan. It confuses me, torments me, taunts me. That’s why I hate having leftovers and cannot keep dessert in the house. If the food isn’t necessary, it has to go. Otherwise, it activates The Committee – the panel of “representatives” that live inside my head, some healthy, some disordered. I enter a battle between the Left and the Right – the Left consisting of my healthy voices, the Right consisting of their opposites. Note: this distinction is arbitrary and contains no hidden meaning about my political affiliation. Or does it? If you’re curious, ask. I’m an open book.
Okay, fine. I’ll tell you. I’m an independent with a liberal sway. Just like I’m a bisexual with a lesbian sway. I might look like a liberal and a lesbian on the outside, based on my core beliefs, life choices, and practices, but I don’t believe in binaries. My outer expression only alludes to my inner experience; it does not expose it. The same goes for my relationship with food. What you see on the outside tells you zilch about the inside. What you see me eat tells you nothing about my relationship with food. You have to be inside to know.
I used to think my committee has two voices: healthy and sick. It has grown. There is neither one sick voice nor one healthy voice. There are several of each, constantly arguing and compromising with one another, ultimately trying to pass the vote that will steer me in the right direction – or what they think is the right direction. If the Diseases get the house, it’s the wrong direction. If the Recoveries get the house, it’s the right direction. I believe in democracy.
My head is a country with many states, each with many representatives. Excess, unnecessary food makes the compulsive eaters hungry and the restricters scared. It makes the impartials overwhelmed. It sends me into turmoil. Into paralyzing turmoil. No longer am I present with whatever is going on in my life; I am gone, down a rabbit hole or darkness and mental obsession. You don’t have to be morbidly obese to be a food addict, and you don’t have to be thin to be a restricter. You don’t have to any specific body type to have any specific eating disorder.
I am the only one who gets to define my relationship with food. No, not define – understand. I am the only one who gets to explore, investigate, comprehend, discover, and experience my relationship with food. “Define” suggests I can control the nature of my relationship with food, to design and craft it myself. My mission is to tune into it and accept it for what it is – accept the relationship that is already there.
I do believe you can change your relationship with food – I am living proof of that. We are all a product of nature and nurture, but in this context, I am talking about the fundamental nature of the relationship, rather than how I’ve nurtured it. First, I have to familiarize myself with the nature of my relationship with food.
Once I have an understanding of that nature – a peaceful, serene understanding, not a “firm grip” – then I can choose to nurture it appropriately. I can decide which aspects of the nature should thrive, or simply remain, and I can decide which to alter, through conscious daily practices.
This journey and the choices it comes with are mine and mine alone, and are not subject to feedback from family and friends. To judge somebody’s relationship with food is disrespectful and inappropriate. To judge somebody’s relationship with food while their disease is active is one thing, but to judge somebody’s recovery? To judge somebody’s relationship with food when they are in recovery, when they are happy, healthy, joyous, and free for perhaps the first time in their life, when they are practicing a program of sobriety that works for them? Is a sin.
To judge a person’s recovery is a sin.
To call somebody who does not eat dessert or table bread restrictive, when that person has an 18 year history of both food addiction and anorexia? Is a sin. It is bullying. And it is not appropriate. It is a deal breaker in any kind of relationship, romantic, platonic, business, or otherwise.
I am writing from experience. From deep pain and lived experience. I have had friends outside of recovery judge my relationship with food as restrictive, perhaps unaware of the fact that I spent 18 years living with an allergy and mental obsession easily triggered by sugar.
To abstain from dessert is, at times, the difference between life and death for me. It is the difference between sanity and suicidality. The difference between sobriety and relapse.
To abstain from mindless snacking is to abstain from 8-day cycles comatose binges. And yet I have been judged for that by people who claim they love me. Those people have no place in my life. My recovery is not a point of compromise.
If somebody’s relationship with food triggers you, ask yourself why. Examine your own relationship with food. You do not have to spent time with that person. You can set boundaries. But you cannot control or change them. You cannot make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. You cannot voice your judgments to their face. For people with eating disorders, food is and will likely always be the single most sensitive topic of conversation. The kitchen table will always be the singing most sensitive place. So respect that, and back off.
Yes, I am angry. Yes, I am angry at the people who have self-assigned themselves the role of “Food Police” in my life. Yes, this is a raw, unhealed series of wounds. Yes, you hear conviction in my tone. Yes, you hear defensiveness, but no, I do not mean offense. Rather, I hope to help and heal. I hope to teach and heal.
For the record, I am still discovering my boundaries with food. My relationship with food is a work in progress. I know some people whose boundaries with food in recovery are very clear cut. I know people who must abstain from sugar, butter, and flower. I know people who must abstain all “red-light foods” that trigger binges. I know some people who need to eat 3 meals and 1 snack every day and abstain from all deviations from that plan.
Everyone’s abstinence has different terms. Some have no terms at all. Some people’s boundaries with food remain the same over the course of their lifetime. Others change, perhaps year by year, perhaps month by month, perhaps, in the beginning, day by day.
I am in the “day-by-day” stage, still waiting for my boundaries to fully appear to me, still experimenting, still crossing them to find them. Hence the fact that I’ve had 10 major binges in the past 16 months, preceded by a period of low body weight. Finding balance has been messy.
I have tried reintegrating dessert into my life in the past 2 years, with mixed results – some joyful, some benign, some disastrous. Many disastrous. But more on that later. Restaurant table bread is almost always a no for me, unless I’m starving. These are my triggers, for me to get to know and learn, but not for me to justify or defend to a single soul, especially someone outside of the eating disorder recovery community.
If you have never had a food addiction, you will never understand the food addict. If you have never had an exercise addiction, you will never understand the exercise addict. If you have never had bulimia, you will never understand the bulimic. If you have never had anorexia, you will never understand the anorexic. If you have never had a combination of these addictions at once, you will never understand the addict who has.
If you have never been completely and totally compromised – incapacitated – by these life-consuming, life-threatening diseases, you will never understand. Thus, you cannot judge the antidote. You can never judge the medicine. You cannot judge the individual dose or prescription.
Do you judge a diabetic for monitoring their sugar intake? No. Why would you judge an anorectic, who knows the sugar level that will drive her again to restrict, or the food addict, who knows the sugar level that will drive him again to binge? Why?
Eat your sugar if you can handle your sugar. And leave the rest of us alone. Diet if you can diet. And leave the rest of us alone.
While part of me – the obsessive-controlling part of me – wants to know the answers already – wants to know, in this moment, exactly what my boundaries with food are, the boundaries that will keep me from slipping into either my physical allergy or binging or my physical allergy of restriction, the boundaries that will keep me from slipping into mental obsession of suicidality, and wants to know what those boundaries will be for all of time. To get current, it wants to know if I should eat cake on my 21st birthday coming up this month. It is panicking, because it doesn’t know the answer.
That is where I surrender.
I’m not 100% sure yet what my boundaries are, and for all I know, I never will be. For all I know, my relationship with food will continue to change for the rest of my life. The question is, can I be okay with that?
The answer is yes. After 18 years of illness, finding boundaries should take time, and at the end of the day, my recovery is not about the food I do or don’t eat. It’s about my inner state of being. What my food plan consists of us, what my relationship with food looks like on the outside, might continue to ebb and flow, but what I’m concerned with is the interior, the invisible. All that matters is that inside, my orientation towards food is healthy and harmonious; neutral, rather than charged.
Waiting for my boundaries with food to present themselves is like waiting for teeth to grow in. My eating disorders were my baby teeth. My healthy food boundaries are my adult teeth. They are growing in slowly, steadily at their own pace. They may need braces and retainers, some dental care here and there, but ultimately, they will manifest as a very nice smile.
I vow, forever and always, to keep my relationship with food – and with my body – healthy and harmonious to the best of my ability. I won’t be perfect, but I will do my best, and my best is all that matters. My truest intention is the only thing that matters. At the end of the day, my relationship with food is an inside job. Just like happiness is an inside job (click below to read post by that name).
It is an honor and a privilege to listen to my body each day and to watch, in awe, as my boundaries with food appear. After my final binge in 2019, which took place on Christmas Eve, in which I ate so much I blacked out and woke up 14 hours later hungover, prompting my brother to say, “You look like you got hit by a truck,” I began affirming the following words each day:
I am actively healing my relationship with food. I feed myself with love and food takes care of itself. I am restored to balance.
I wrote them 25 times a day for 35 days. That’s 875 times, all by hand. These are the seeds I’m planting in my psyche. These are the words that will lay the foundation of my recovery for, I hope, the rest of my life – but at the very least, for now.
I have been sitting on blog posts of this nature for months – more than a year, actually. I have drafted multiple posts titled “Food Boundaries” and “My Last Binge Ever” and attempted to “get going” on outing my food addiction. But I’ve been blocked in some way. Hesitant, reserved. Not ready to get near it.
Each one of my last 10 binges has been “my last binge,” only to be followed by another. I truly hope that my February 1st-2nd binge was the real last binge. As my Fairy Godmother always says, knock on wood. We are only as sick as our secrets, and now that I’m getting more honest, I’m probably safer from relapse.
This blog is called “Destination Recovery,” and I am on the journey. I don’t even know what the destination is. But I don’t need to. I just know I’ll get there in due time, and that if I needed to be there now, I would. I have already reached my destination – the right destination for me at this point in time. My boundaries with food may still be partially obscured, but I trust that, one day, they’ll emerge. And today, that trust is enough.
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