When Your Eating Disorder Isn’t About Food At All

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I don’t know how long I’ve been sick. Or rather, I’ve been sick for a very long time, but I don’t know when this new symptom started. It was a slow slide. Almost imperceptible until I was in the middle of a deep hole I dug myself with no idea of how I got here or how to get out again.

I think if someone had complete access to my head and daily life, I would probably have been institutionalized at least once by this point. Part of me is glad that no one can read my thoughts. Part of me wishes someone could so that I didn’t have to try to force the words from my lips and hate every time I fail.

I remember how much I used to enjoy food, when I was younger. How delighted I was at little fruit tarts after school from the bakery down the road, how I eagerly asked for Corned Beef and Cabbage for my birthday dinner several years in a row and couldn’t wait for it to be in my stomach. I ate anything and everything put in front of me and I loved meal times.

This probably all started about the time I moved out of my parents’ house for the first time. I had a happy but hard childhood, many of the unintentional lessons I learned in those early years centered pretty heavily on how to take care of others. Thanks to a long and storied genetic lineage on top of the stress of that time, I developed a fantastic cocktail of deep anxiety, depression, and ADHD on top of struggling to cope with an unstable home life. I made myself as small as possible and tried to stay out of the way.

I spent so long putting others first in my mind that it wasn’t until I was faced with having to take care of myself, I was forced to admit that I didn’t know how.

My dad is the primary cook in my family as well as the main provider. By the time he’d get home at night he was exhausted and just wanted to get through the remaining tasks for the day. Occasionally I would ask how he did something while making dinner, but cooking lessons were pretty much constrained to watching over his shoulder and trying to learn through osmosis.

By the time I got out on my own, I knew random tips and tricks but no actual cooking skills. There were a few simple recipes I’d memorized from those afternoons when I got home before he did and needed to eat. They got boring very quick in those early days.

Like many disasters, this started slowly and then snowballed quickly. Breakfast was the first to go; I would much rather sleep right up to the point where I have to get up or be late for work. I’d eat a snack on my first break so it wasn’t terribly long from the time I first woke to the time I first ate. It was okay, nothing to be concerned about. A lot of people skip breakfast. It’s okay.

After breakfast started to go, so did the quality of my dinners. Dinner has always been the most consistent meal for me, but as time went on it became too much effort to throw things together. Especially as I was only cooking for myself, it just didn’t feel worth it. So I fell into that early-20s diet of take out, ramen, pasta, frozen pierogies, stir fry, and what my dad always called Colorado Hash. I don’t know why it’s called that, but it basically involves any veggies in the freezer, possibly some kind of meat if available, sauteed and then doused with eggs to make a scramble. Top with all the cheese in the fridge and maybe some hot sauce and/or salsa and you got yourself a meal.

I was still eating regularly enough though. My first job was a big store in a mall (rhymes with smarget) so I would usually grab something for lunch on my break. My second job was front desk at a small inn, they had a restaurant inside and was close to downtown so good food wasn’t hard to find. I used to bribe one of my managers when it was busy and she didn’t really have time to cover my breaks. Hey, buy me food from the restaurant and I’ll skip my break, I can eat in the back office in between guests. It was a great gig and I ate more bowls of spicy seafood stew, rich risottos, more truffle fries than I can recall.

Partway through my time at the inn I moved back in with my parents. I needed to save some money up so that I could try to move out of state. At that time my eating habits had started to become more about snacks — anything to make me feel full without having to expend energy to get it in my body. The other issue that had started to develop but eased when I moved home was grocery shopping.

I was an anxious and shy child, it only got worse as I got older and my various struggles started to become defined.

It became hard to run errands on my own, to be around strangers without some familiar person beside me. I never learned how to appropriately handle the executive dysfunction that comes with ADHD so trying to break down tasks filled me with dread and I was easily overwhelmed. I suck at writing a grocery list: that requires planning and committing to recipes and then breaking them down to their components. I avoided anything that required me to go out alone unless I had a strict plan in place of how I would handle whatever could possibly go wrong.

I didn’t leave the house much.

A couple of years after moving back in with my parents I had enough saved to be able to move 800 miles south. I left behind my friends, my family, took the cat, and tried to build myself a new life. I had a great local roommate to help introduce me to the area and I got a job pretty quickly to occupy my time. I was anxious about moving confidently about my new neighborhood though and grocery shopping quickly became a task I only did when I had literally run out of anything edible. Even then, it was mostly snacks and easy grab-and-go kinds of food.

Six months after I moved, I met a girl and I fell head over heels in love for the first time in my life. I had no idea in those early halcyon days that it would be almost as damaging an experience as my childhood had been. I felt so seen and loved for the first time, I was willing to do anything to keep her eyes on me. As we slipped out of those first months little touches of emotional manipulation and narcissistic tendencies began to emerge.

Before her, I had no understanding of why people stay in relationships that actively hurt them. After her, I wondered how anyone ever made it out.

As our relationship ground to a halt but somehow dragged on over the next year, my anxiety and depression got worse. I couldn’t point to the source of the thoughts racing through my head and I had a hard time seeing quite the effect they were physically having on me. Not good enough, not worth the effort, what does it even matter?

Breakfast already a distant memory, good dinners equally faded, I went from two-four meals a day to maybe one if I was lucky. I no longer work in a place I can easily get food and I’ve never been good at bringing lunches so that went out the window as well.

Most days I pound coffee throughout my shift and then snack on whatever I can find when I got home. I learned to ignore my stomach when it growls. I stopped feeling hungry, now when it becomes too much and my body demands to be nourished it immediately throws me into nausea which makes me want to eat even less.

A vicious cycle ensued and everything that had started slowly was quickly becoming dangerous. A tsunami was bearing down on me and I had no idea what was coming.

Because it had all happened so gradually I didn’t notice how bad it had gotten until one day I got out of the shower.

I stood in front of the mirror and even without my glasses I could count my reflection’s ribs. None of my bras fit anymore and my favorite skirt that used to sit perfectly now slid too low on my waist.

What got me in the end wasn’t the weight — I could write that off too easily. That day what caused me to break down and cry on the floor of my bathroom was how thin my hair had gotten.

One of the reasons it took me so long to come to terms with the fact that I had developed disordered eating was the fact that I lucked out genetically. Most of my family is small and skinny and I didn’t cross 100 pounds until I was in high school. Then I gained about five inches and forty pounds. From birth I’ve always had a thick head of curly hair, too thick for a comb kind of curls. As much as I hated how hard it was to manage, I loved my hair. Getting to the point where I could see bald patches through the strands was a devastating wake up call.

I didn’t get better, but I could no longer deny that something was going very wrong for me.

I got so many comments from people that I looked great, I’m thin and blessed. Every time I hear it the words burn. I was sick — I’m still sick — I’m killing myself slowly and all you can say is I wish I could look like that! An already dangerous spiral got worse as my mental and physical health did all they could to drag me down.

Here’s the other thing about all this: my disordered eating was never been about the food, it was never about the weight. It was a direct result of my mental health and my own deep lack of self-worth.

I know that all eating disorders are a mosh pit fight between mental and physical issues, but we don’t talk about these disorders when the food or weight and the issues surrounding them are not the final boss. What happens when you get through that dungeon and standing at the end is you, exactly as you are?

How do you fight what you are in your core? How do you rewrite stories that used to protect you and now are actively trying to kill you?

At the time this came to a head I was already in therapy, before I could use the term eating disorder all I could say to her was that my eating had gotten bad. No disorder, no I think I need help. Just “my eating has gotten bad,” with a small frown on my face like it was a minor inconvenience instead of the death wish it was.

Bless her, she made me sit and call a nutritionist in the middle of our appointment. I didn’t do great, but better. It made me responsible to someone else for my health and it has always been easier to do something hard for literally anyone other than for myself.

After a few months an insurance issue popped up and I missed an appointment with the nutritionist. Then another. Then I was supposed to call and set up a new appointment but never did. The little progress that I had clawed out of this shitfest of a year was gone and I felt so guilty for being back at square one. Several months went by and I got worse.

My therapist finally made me call again, in the middle of our appointment. I got back into the nutritionist. I admitted my shame at failing what should be basic instinct. I tried to focus on one foot in front of the other. There was nothing else I could do.

I’m still not well, there are still too many days where I don’t eat until after work and there are still too many days where the effort to survive just doesn’t feel worth it. Every step forward leads to a stumble back and there are so many times where I don’t think I’ll beat this. I worry that I don’t want to.

I struggle. I fail. I try again. This is all that I can do.

This is something that I will likely deal with for the rest of my life; the war that lies at the core of it isn’t one that I will ever be completely free of. But the first good therapist I ever had once gave me a piece of advice that in the dark moments I cling to, a life preserver that struggles to keep me from going under. I hear the murmur of it in my heart when I want nothing more than to let the world fall silent.

Life is like a spiral: sometimes you’re at the top and everything is great, but sometimes you’re at the bottom. Wherever you are on that spiral, you are still moving forward.

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