I had intended to write this post during Eating Disorder Awareness Week; however, I am a day late.
There are a few reasons why. The first and most obvious is that the last several days have been busier than I had thought they’d be.
The second is more humbling, and therefore perhaps more important, to admit: whenever I thought about writing a post about my personal past with disordered eating, I felt very vulnerable. While I have shared quite openly about this with some of my friends and have spoken about these issues in a more general way online, I have never before been so public about my own direct experiences with this very important matter.
I’ll start by saying this: I have a long history of overly identifying my self-worth with my appearance.
This has resulted in a series of choices and behaviors throughout my younger life that got in the way of health and happiness. It is not surprising that some of these choices and behaviors have had to do with food.
And, at their worst, these choices and behaviors manifested as pendulum swings between orthorexia and binge eating disorder that were extreme enough to interfere with my life, self-esteem, relationships, and health.
My experiences with disordered eating are not as extreme as some people’s. The bottom that I reached with these behaviors thankfully came early for me, and thankfully I had a support system in place that enabled me to find a healthier way to relate to food and nutrition. Because of these facts, my experiences are not identical to those of many others…
and because I can only share from my own experience with any authority, the perspective that I offer will be limited, and is not all-inclusive of the experiences of other people with eating disorders and/or disordered eating.
That is something that I have used as an excuse to avoid writing about this before: I have preemptively devalued my pain and experiences because they were different than other people’s. And that ends now.
How It All Began
That heading is deceptive, because to be fully honest… I don’t know how it all began.
Because it all began long before I recognized my relationship to food was unhealthy.
For instance, I remember writing a goal in my journal when I was in first grade: “Get back down to 60 pounds.”
In first grade. I was six years old, at an age when I optimally would have been playing and eating and growing with no thought to my weight, my belly, or my thighs, and already I was caught in the trap of thinking that there was too much of me.
What followed were years in which the most obvious ways that this low self-esteem manifested itself were in areas other than food. I phrase that carefully: this does not mean that I wasn’t already practicing unhealthy behaviors regarding how I viewed food and my body. In fact, as I look back, I can see many periods of time when I swung between starving myself and stuffing myself, between feeding myself and shaming myself.
It’s just that I wasn’t aware of it because other aspects of my life at the time were painful and difficult in a way that precluded my noticing these behaviors with enough clarity to focus on or articulate them. (Although you can read a bit more about this time of my life in this post…)
As such, there’s a big fast-forward here to a time when much of my other healing work had taken place. After I spent time working with a trauma specialist. After I quit drinking and smoking. After I became more vigilant about seeking out and preserving relationships that were loving. After I left the jobs that had, in a variety of ways, deadened my spirit and enthusiasm for life.
It was then that I began consciously trying to manipulate my approach to food to be “better.”
This was not, in and of itself, a bad thing! Not at all! It came from an honest desire to get healthier… the problem was that I did not have a personal or cultural context that enabled me to keep it in right balance.
I discovered the Paleo diet, and I dove in. Fully.
I threw out all the “unclean” and “unhealthy” foods in my home.
Not organic? Gone. Contains grains or sugars or dairy? Gone. Contains an ingredient that I didn’t recognize or couldn’t pronounce? Gone.
I spent a bizarre percentage of my paychecks on restocking my pantry and fridge with the “right” foods.
I posted about how amazing it made me feel. I posted about the super healthy recipes I was making. I told people about how easy and worth it these changes were.
This wasn’t about before-and-after pictures, and my motivation wasn’t to get smaller; one gift that I had already received from discovering strength training was that I knew that getting skinny wasn’t going to help me meet my fitness-related goals. My motivation was instead to be more than healthy… I wanted to be as healthy as humanly possible. I didn’t just want to eat well… I wanted to eat perfectly.
I was part of a gym community that encouraged these changes and where many people were also adherents of the Paleo diet. The increasingly strict changes that I was making were viewed as laudatory.
The praise I received from others didn’t stop at the gym, either. People at my graduate school and workplace provided further validation with statements like, “You’re so good,” “I wish I had your discipline,” “I admire your commitment,” and “Wow, you’re super healthy!”
This outside validation helped me avoid seeing some of the other changes that were happening:
I had stopped going out to restaurants or to friends’ houses for meals and social connections.
I planned my days and weeks around when I could cook and eat. I even missed sleep and neglected school and work obligations if I felt that my dietary needs would be jeopardized by not spending more time with “food prep.”
I claimed to have allergies to foods in the absence of any medical tests to substantiate my statements.
I became obsessed with thoughts of the various possible consequences that “unhealthy” foods could have on my mind and body.
I felt anger when I saw posts and articles decrying my dietary choices. I “unfriended” people who dared share information that contradicted my nutritional outlook, and felt that so many people would feel so much better if only they would “wake up and see the truth about food.”
I stopped meeting friends for coffee due to the threat that I could be tempted to drink or eat something “unclean.”
I even preemptively rejected plans to make trips to visit family and friends without a second thought because the time when I could have visited them conflicted with various nutrition “challenges” that were held at my gym, and my loved ones surely wouldn’t understand the importance of preventing any “unacceptable” foods from entering my body.
In fact, it was one of those very challenges that helped to bring me to the point where I recognized that my behaviors around food qualified as orthorexia and that my relationship to “healthy” food was no longer healthy.
This particular challenge was a national challenge that involved tracking the foods we ate and strict limits imposed on some of the foods that we could eat. All of the above-mentioned behaviors rose to a crescendo, and any semblance of balance in my life crumbled before my very eyes.
My gym was the national first-place winner of the challenge, any my inner sense of manageability was the loser.
With this insight, I knew that I had to change. I reached out to people within my support network and began, little by little, to be more upfront about how controlled I felt by food and to start admitting that maybe I had embraced some ideas about health that weren’t quite true. I opened myself up to a deeper willingness to love and care for myself. I began to let go of some of my perfectionist ideas about food, nutrition, and my body.
I would love to say that I magically swung from that extreme to a nice, centered place of health, but that’s not what happened. In my fear of allowing the grip that orthorexia had over my life to continue, I swung towards the other extreme and fell prey to unmanageable binge eating.
Of anything and everything.
Until it hurt. And then a few bites more. And a few more. And a few more.
I constantly carried food in my purse, “Just in case.” If I was on an overnight trip to a friend or family member’s home, I packed nonperishable food along that I could eat when alone in my room. I lived in fear of there not being “enough.”
My binges were never followed by purges, so I was able to convince myself that it wasn’t disordered. But the truth was that I was just as controlled by food when I was binging as I had been when I was obsessing about how “clean” my food was.
My healing process has looked a lot like the movement of a swing when it is coming to a stop: as I mentioned, I didn’t go from one extreme to the middle and then stop right there, perfectly balanced and healthy.
Instead, I alternated between catching myself in binging behaviors and catching myself in orthorexic behaviors, but each time it swung from one side to the other I was able to catch it a little bit sooner, and so each time the arcs covered less and less ground and I was able to catch myself as being off balance based upon less and less extreme behaviors.
It’s been an active process. I have to remain vigilant in my attention and honest with myself. I need to reach out to my support network and be humble and honest with them.
Learning how to have a healthy, intuitive relationship to food that is balanced has been one of the most difficult and worthwhile processes I’ve ever been through.
I’m now at a point where I consistently exhibit a sustainable approach to nutrition that equally considers nutrition, pleasure, convenience, and community in a way that is not tied to either shame or obsession, but I’m not at an endpoint and I’m not perfect: this is something that I need to be continually willing to check in on and take inventory of.
I never got to a point where my disordered eating reached obviously life-threatening proportions, and I know that my story pales in comparison to the experiences of others. I also know that others live long-term with a lower-grade of disordered eating than I experienced, never reaching a point of desperation great enough to open them to the willingness to change. I know that there are as many unique experiences with eating disorders and disordered eating as there are people who have them.
As such, nothing that I have shared here is meant to be an absolute statement about what it’s like to have an unhealthy relationship to food.
It’s merely to say that I understand and I care.
If you feel that you may have an unhealthy relationship to food, please seek help. Please reach out to a loved one. If you don’t know where to begin, please feel free to reach out to me: I would be happy to help you find the resources you need.
You are not alone.