Growing up, I didn’t want to grow up. Suddenly I had curves, and that was scary. I didn’t know how to talk about how my body was changing. But I knew, deeply, I didn’t like it.
I was terrified of gaining weight. The taller I grew, the more terrified I became. I weighed myself every day – sometimes two or three times in a day. I thought if I never got above 115 pounds I would be okay. For a teenager at 5’6″, that’s not okay.
I became obsessed with calorie counting, and it quickly became obvious to me where I could cut calories. I stopped eating all fat. No more cheese or butter or milk for me. I ate no more than 1000 calories per day and I exercised like a fiend.
And I still grew curves.
So I ate less. And I started trying to throw up what I ate. Because I still loved pizza, and even one slice was so good going down but so much regret and guilt afterwards. It was easier not to eat.
By the time I got to college I was eating about 700 calories a day or less and exercising about two hours per day. I was still struggling to stay under 115 pounds. It had become easy to refuse food. Hunger, for me, was a normal state of being.
Hunger meant I was doing something right. Hunger meant my body would use all my stored fat for fuel. Hunger meant I would lose weight…right?
Every time I ate, I could barely think past the noise in my head – counting the calories, planning the next visit to the gym, forcing myself to push past the next bite so people wouldn’t notice how much I was struggling.
Science Daily has published some research on the differences in the brains of normal eaters versus those with eating disorders. In November of 2016, they wrote that:
Scientists at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus have discovered the neurological reasons why those with anorexia and bulimia nervosa are able to override the urge to eat. In a study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the researchers showed that normal patterns of appetite stimulation in the brain are effectively reversed in those with eating disorders.
In another study, in July 2017, researches found that:
Magnetic resonance imaging scans suggest that the brains of women with bulimia nervosa react differently to images of food after stressful events than the brains of women without bulimia, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
In women with bulimia, the researchers found decreased blood flow in a part of the brain associated with self-reflection, compared with increased blood flow in women without bulimia. This suggests that bulimics may be using food to avoid negative thoughts about themselves, the researchers said.
What’s interesting to me about these studies is that, fundamentally, the brains of those with eating disorders are wired differently than those who have a normal relationship with food.
My story is an anecdote that validates this research. Even now, in recovery, I still find it very easy to say “No” to food. Even when I’m hungry. I find it easier to schedule my meals and snacks and eat whether I feel hungry or not. I can’t rely on my body cues. I’m not wired that way.
As I grew older, my eating disorder progressed. It became easier to throw up what I ate. I think this is because of my drinking. When I started drinking, I accounted for the calories and ate even less, choosing to drink my calories alcoholically instead.
I began a cycle of bingeing and purging. I found relief in eating, but the shame and guilt I felt after eating was too much. Imagine my surprise when, after arriving at rehab, I learned that my “binge” was a normal eater’s regular meal!
I’m not stable in my recovery from my eating disorder. I still relapse from time to time. But I have the self awareness now to recognize what I’m doing and why I behave the way I behave – why I respond to food the way I do. Food has become a mechanism of avoidance for me. Instead of looking at what’s bothering me and feeling my feelings, I can eat and then purge.
On the other hand, food is a method of control. I use it (or rather, the denial of it) to feel powerful and “in control,” at least over myself.
Being in recovery from alcohol and drugs has helped me in my recovery from my eating disorder. I’ve learned some coping skills to help with stress and anxiety. The same skills that work when I want to take a drink or a drug usually work when I want to binge and purge.
Fighting the eating disorder, though, is a harder fight. I’m not saying that staying sober is easy. I fight for my sobriety every day. But I’ve had my eating disorder since I was 13 (maybe even younger if you want to talk about how I would hide food as a child). That’s more than 20 years of trained, ingrained behavior, deeply rooted in my psyche and my character.
I do believe that I can recover. I start every day with new hope.
Each day is its own battle. One day at a time, we can conquer our demons.