The Decade Challenge: My Ten Years With An Eating Disorder

In my childhood kitchen, there were four stacked drawers. The top three were orderly, their contents organised and pristine: polished silverware, freshly laundered tea towels and neatly nested bowls. The bottom drawer, however, juxtaposed those above it. It was the candy drawer, and upon opening it one would be subjected to an avalanche of sugar. No one touched the candy drawer except for me. It was it’s own box of chaos, and it was all mine.

In my childhood home, there were many rules. The most distressing one, however, was that I was only allowed one dessert per day. This artificial restriction turned that single daily treat into a deity of dopamine. Like in the world of macroeconomics, the supply was low, the demand was high, and thus the value became great.

My parents knew they could use the threat of no dessert to get me to behave. Just the thought of losing that treat would send me into a spiral of tears and acquiescence. This desperation reared its head outside of the home, too. I’d foam at the mouth for other kid’s treats during elementary school lunches and ravenously nab as many snacks as I could at friends’ birthday parties.

The control over what I ate naturally extended beyond sweets, and “bad” foods never made an appearance in our home. These included fruit juices (added sugar), beef (mad cow disease), anything containing hydrogenated oils (obviously)… the list went on.

In middle school, I hit puberty and my hips started to grow. I was thin – my weight in the double digits (pounds) – but I thought the way my thighs widened when I sat down in a chair was disturbing.

In high school, I had to take health class. We had a two-week assignment where we wrote down the food and calories we ate every day. As I grew more insecure about my maturing body – the boobs, the hips, everything – I took this assignment as an opportunity to get things in check. In order to make sure I wouldn’t keep growing, I tracked my calories meticulously on pencil-lined paper, aiming for what I believed would lead me to stay the same weight going forward.

In health class, we learned that a stick of gum contains two calories, but we did not learn that the metabolism burns loads of calories to keep the body alive. Without that knowledge, I thought that I had to exercise off every calorie that I ate in order to stay the same weight. In woeful ignorance, I tried to burn off 1,000 calories a day while restricting my food intake to 1,000 calories a day.

We also measured our body fat percentages in health class. My reading was 21% at that time. Even thought our calorie counting assignment was only two weeks long, I kept it up for months. By the time summer came around, I reached a reading of 14%.

I spent the rest of my summer at the gym, in sports, running through my neighborhood, and watching the Food Network while using the elliptical in my mom’s room. I spent hours researching nutrition and drawing up charts to track everything I ate. I would have panicked thoughts like, “Does toothpaste have calories? Might they get absorbed through the mucus membranes of my mouth? I should probably add a few extra calories for that in my daily allotment – just in case.

During that time, I stopped having my period. When I eventually learned that my low body weight was the cause, I stopped worrying. I was relieved to know that there wasn’t something “wrong” with me.

Weeks before I entered sophomore year of high school, the “one dessert” rule was revoked. Yes, my consumption of sugar was scrutinised until I was 14. It was over a plate of peanut butter cookies that my mom stated she had raised me well enough for me to make my own food decisions.

My first day of sophomore year was filled with anxiety, discomfort, and a sense of impending loneliness. Upon returning home, I did something I’d only ever fantasised about doing before. After a year dedicated to caloric restriction (and a lifetime dedicated to “bad foods” restriction), I opened the pantry, grabbed a peanut butter jar and dug in.

The peanut butter that I’d embraced for comfort turned against me. That thick substance crept down my throat, forming a brick of horror in my stomach. It temporarily satisfied my physical starvation and emotional distress, but in that moment, standing with a spoon in my hand and an open jar in the other, I promised to compensate the next day by eating eat significantly less. By the next day, I was back to restricting.

But it wasn’t long before I gave in to the temptation to binge again. It wasn’t just the taste of forbidden calories or the fact that I was starving – it was also the anticipation of the brief, newfound emotional relief that the first few uncontrolled bites would bring.

Binging and restricting became a cycle that quickly spiraled out of control. My friends pointed out how weird it was to see me swinging between eating crudities for lunch one day and pepperoni pizza with pop tarts the next day (not to mention the bags of cookies I’d sneak in each class). Eventually, my dieting evolved from cutting calories to intermittent fasting. Sometimes I’d fast once or twice a week because my binging was so excessive. Near the end of my senior year, I added purging to my arsenal of weight loss techniques.

A binge would start as a cosy blanket meant to calm me, but as it continued it would begin to constrict and suffocate me in guilt and self-hatred. In those moments, the binging would transform from a form of comfort to a form of punishment. I’d eat as much as I possibly could in order to make myself feel sick. I no longer enjoyed what I was eating. I felt disgusting and in physical pain. It was a form of self-harm I could inflict upon myself without leaving physical scars.

In college, I lost 25 pounds in 10 weeks. The time I spent at the gym and meal prepping meant that I had no time for a social life. I lost my period for the second time, which I considered to be an accomplishment.

I was the president of a residence hall club and had to participate in weekly meetings, which sometimes involved getting on the floor and painting posters. I had a difficult time getting up and down from the floor to the chair because every movement was exhausting and dizzying. So, those activities became something I avoided.

Eventually, a teammate confronted me to report that the club members felt that I wasn’t being a good leader because I acted like I didn’t want to participate in activities. I cried, because I couldn’t tell her why.

After losing those 25 pounds, one of my classmates asked me out. He’d had classes with me before my weight loss, but that was the first time he’d ever approached me.

Now, with a boyfriend who had a car, I was suddenly reintroduced to social eating. And after 10 weeks of starving, I was thrown back into the bottomless lagoon of binging. I gained back almost all of the weight in three weeks.

Losing 25 pounds hadn’t changed a thing, but gaining it all back did. I was finally convinced that what I was doing was not working and might (might?) be a problem. Desperate and alone, I made an appointment with the college counsellor.

After an hour of chatting, she referred me an eating disorder clinic – one that was far away. The thought of bussing 45 minutes twice a week paralysed me.

My college boyfriend had always teased me about what he called my “paralysing social anxiety”. Even as a college student, I had never actually heard about social anxiety and thought he was making it up. But I now know, after being diagnosed with it, that that’s what prevented me from going the eating disorder clinic.

After I’d gained weight, my college boyfriend complained about my mood change. Feeling pressured to explain my obvious distress and negativity, I told him about my visit to the counsellor, to which he responded, “eating disorders never go away” and “I don’t want to carry your burdens”.

I only stayed with him because I had no one else at that time. Living on campus with social anxiety turned out to be a nasty combination. This, plus my preoccupation with exercise and meal planning gave me an excuse to avoid parties and isolate myself, preventing me from forming essential friendships. That boyfriend – that one social connection – was like an inflatable arm floaty thrown at me while I was bobbing in the turbulent waters of some mental darkness I couldn’t define. My other floaty was binging.

After college, I gradually started losing more weight with every restriction than I gained with every binge. With a few years of tinkering with my dieting ways, I reached a new bodyweight low.

A year ago, with that new bodyweight, I looked in the mirror. I examined ribs that were previously hidden. I admired the way my face looked with protruding cheekbones. I focused on the newfound line between my quadriceps and hamstrings. During that moment in the mirror, I looked at myself both excited and terrified of the progress I’d made, because I knew just how easily it could slip away.

But I still wanted to lose weight. I wanted to reach 99 pounds. Or maybe 95. 

And in that hypothetical double-digit future, I realised that I’d need to set new goals. I’d need to tone up, exfoliate-away my stretch marks, find a new diet regimen that would allow me to maintain all of this….

My obsession with my body was transitioning to something other than the fat, and I realised for the first time that my search for “perfection” would not simply end when I returned to the double-digit weight I was familiar with in middle school.

In 2019, I finally took that step that I’d put off for five years after talking with the college counsellor. I started therapy – ten years after my disordered eating took root.

I learned to pay attention to what I was feeling when I started binging. I knew that I ate to quell emotions, but it took a lot of mindfulness to figure out what those emotions were. I had been so good at smothering them with food (like the way I smothered my brownies in buttercream frosting or my Hawaiian pizzas in ranch dressing) that I truly did not know what I felt.

I can tell you now that food kept me from spiralling into the void. It kept me from being alone with my thoughts. It kept me from truly sinking into the lagoon – the one I’d been treading water in with a single arm floaty this whole time. The floaty – my coping mechanism – was binging. The thing I was coping with was depression.

Being able to recognise and identify feelings of depression made it easier to seek out healthier coping mechanisms other than food. It took a while, but I learned to have compassion for myself, too. Both of those things were keys to my gradual recovery.

2020 marked a new decade. Many people celebrated by posting photos of themselves from 10 years ago, but I celebrated by taking an eating disorder test. I found the test online and answered the 16 questions as two different people. First, I answered it as my high school-self. Then, I answered it as my current self.

My high school self scored 43 out of 46.

My current self scored 14 out of 46.

For the first time in over 10 years, “Lose Weight” was not on my list of New Year’s resolutions. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather enter the new decade with than with the newfound freedom, sense of peace, and self-compassion that I’ve gained in this new decade. While my trek is still not over, I can certainly celebrate that I’m no longer diagnosable with an eating disorder.

To the college boyfriend who told me that eating disorders never go away: fuck you.

PS: My therapist had me read Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to destroy the diet mentality

If this piece has brought up any issues for you surrounding eating disorders and you would like support, information or to speak to a counsellor, visit The Butterfly Foundation or contact 1800 33 4673.

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