There’s Nothing Extreme About Hunger

There was no specific wake-up call that prompted me to start recovering. It just happened that at some point, I decided I wanted to live again.

(CW: no weight or calorie talk/numbers in this, but some disordered behaviours are mentioned — proceed at your own risk)

I had been living in the safe bubble of my anorexia for long enough to have experienced a dozen different types of rock bottoms. There had been broken friendships, funerals, endless family fights and meals bordering on force-feeding as I repeatedly ignored even the most well-intentioned pleas to get help. Although this version of me seems like a completely different person now, I can still recall entire days spent crying my eyes out as I walked in circles around my room, too tired to do anything remotely joyful, yet absolutely terrified by the simple idea of sitting down. There was no logic to my actions beyond a need to lose weight that didn’t even exist. At my worst point, it was a sad, exhausting pastiche of an existence. At my best, it still was no life at all.

Eating disorders are anything but simple. The past few years have seen more people raise awareness regarding the diversity of experiences within the community. Although there still is a long way to go, more people than before understand that anorexia is not only a thin white girl who fasts for days on end and cries at the sight of a single almond — for all you know, it could be your macro-obsessed coach, your favourite celebrity or your middle-aged colleague reminiscing about her prepartum body.

Yet the illness itself is difficult to understand from the outside, perhaps because it is so difficult to spot as it settles in, and so easily socially acceptable. Two years before I decided to recover, I was only trying to shed a few pounds. A few months later, I was only counting calories. A few months later, I was only exercising for hours on end every single day, most of the time in secret. A few weeks before I decided I finally had enough, I was only spitting out half of the ridiculous amount of food that made its way into my mouth. When I started to lose weight, all I saw were diet communities encouraging my methods, women who never said a word to me before asking for my advice and men looking at me in ways that convinced me that I wasn’t doomed to be invisible. How could I believe that I was doing anything wrong?

Of course, I was also losing everything else — a simple night out would turn into a nonsensical mental calculation of the calories in my drinks, I spent hours in the bathroom trying to pick up the strands of hair falling out of my head every morning and I could barely hold a coherent conversation for more than a few minutes. I was only starting out college and spent more time napping and weighing out broccoli than making friends. On all accounts, I was miserable; yet anorexia kept patting me in the back, congratulating me for my progress, and I was too numb to realize that what I was feeling was utter loneliness.

Cheating biology is pretty much impossible, and after restricting for an extended period of time, bodies stop sending hunger signals. A brain needs a lot of energy to work (about twenty percent of your total energy intake, as I learned a few years after), and if it’s not getting food, it will use what it has to keep the essential parts working. Heart, lungs, kidneys, sure; anything perceived as unnecessary to survival is put on hold. Any healthy person would have been alarmed by the other clear signs that my body was shutting down; the constant dizziness and feeling of cold, the lack of interest in sex, the bleeding gums that came along with a simple tooth brushing. Yet there was also a sense of superiority that my anorexia tried to convince me I had in between its insults. Normal people were hungry, and I wasn’t. Maybe there was something special about me after all. Maybe I was worth something, despite how awful everything about me undoubtedly was. It was a deeply selfish and reductive look at life — but it was also the only way my eating disorder kept me from examining how unhappy I truly was.

Deciding to recover wasn’t sudden. For months on end while I was still restricting, I was reading material, browsing Instagram and Reddit recovery communities, watching videos of what a recovered life could look like. Scroll after scroll, I was learning everything there was to know about the stages I would go through, dreaming of a life where I could do all those things that recovered people seemed to do effortlessly. Once I realized that recovery wasn’t only for other people, I mentally prepared myself for the fact that my body would change in ways that I could not control. However, my knowledge was all but theoretical. Hunger had turned into a distant memory. I knew I needed to eat, and so I did — but I truly had no idea of what that would entail.

When hunger came back, it came back with a vengeance. Nothing about it is illogical — once a deprived body realizes that it can eat again, it will do everything in its power to make you want to catch up on lost time. That’s how our ancestors survived through periods of famine, and quite the testament to our bodies’ inherent intelligence. However, a lot of time has passed, and the act of consuming a lot of food at once has been moralized to an unprecedented extent, a belief which unfortunately bled into a lot of eating disorder treatment. There are few things as distressing for an anorexic mind than to be put on a meal plan that is guaranteed to make you gain weight, and still be painfully hungry by the end of it without understanding why.

Over the past few years, a few eating disorder specialists have been talking more about the phenomenon, dubbed “extreme hunger” — a perfectly normal and perfectly distressing phase of recovery when a patient may experience a never ending hunger leading to the consumption of amounts of food in one sitting that a regular person would probably eat over the course of a few days. You could be full for a minute, then starving all over again the next, with seemingly no end or coherence. It’s an anorexic’s worst nightmare, the “proof” that they really did need to restrict after all, that they are too extreme without controlling their hunger. Even the name sounds scary, but it’s still barely anything compared to living through it.

In truth, the all-consuming drive to eat everything in sight after an eating disorder is about as “extreme” as running towards an oasis after days spent crawling your way through a desert; but this kind of thinking is impossible to acknowledge while still under anorexia’s influence. To me, and to many of the hundreds of people suffering from restrictive eating disorders, this biological reaction meant complete and utter failure. My lack of hunger was what made me different; it was the only thing setting my painfully bland and quiet self apart from everyone else.

When hunger came back, I had to learn how to be a person in ways that had nothing to do with food. It’s harder than it sounds — and I don’t know if I’m quite there yet.

The only thing that saved me from my eating disorder was that I was tired of its shit. Every night in the early weeks of my recovery, I went to sleep crying, thinking of all the mostly imaginary weight I had suddenly gained, trying to appease my anorexia and promising it that I would come back to it the next day; only to wake up, remember why I was doing all this, and eat everything in sight again. In these moments, eating was pleasurable, but it wasn’t soothing. I had to do it fast, almost in a trance, before my brain would understand what I was doing, then deal with the thoughts that would plague the completely unfamiliar feeling of fullness.

You’re just using this as an excuse to become a binge-eater. You’re not really that hungry. You can’t control yourself around food. You’re the exception to the rule — if you don’t restrict, you’re just going to keep eating and eating and eating until you explode. You need me. I didn’t have the energy to respond to my eating disorder’s allegations through words, so I did it by consistently proving it wrong. I had spent years listening to it, and not once had it delivered on the happiness it had promised me.

The most radical thing you can do in a world that constantly tells you not to listen to your body is to have blind faith in it — and that’s exactly what I did.

It’s normal to feel panic when consuming food after such a long time convincing yourself that it is your biggest enemy. People experiencing it often wonder when extreme hunger finally goes away; many unfortunately relapse, thinking the seemingly bottomless pit in their stomach is a sign that they need to restrict more. You can blame the illness, or the lack of awareness even among mental health specialists, or even an entire society that seems to declare war on natural bodily functions at any chance they get.

The truth about hunger is that it’s human, and that it never goes away without a good reason to do so — and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Normal, perfectly healthy people get hungry. Most of the time, they eat, and then move on with their day. If they forget to eat for a long time, they will probably eat more than they usually would in their next meal. And sometimes, they even eat when they’re not hungry — because it sounds good, because they know they will need the energy later on in the day, or just because it’s their birthday and they want a damn piece of cake.

It sounds groundbreaking after listening to voices telling you for years that food is something that needs to be earned — and yet, it’s so simple that most people don’t even have to think about it.

It would be a lie to say that extreme hunger stops. Despite my best efforts, recovery is full of ups and downs, and eating still is a part of my day that takes a lot of my mental energy. I’ve always been prone to stress dictating my appetite, and it does sometimes get the better of me. I’m in recovery, not recovered. There’s still a long way to go — living in the world from the comfort of my room, I’ve settled into routines, homemade meals and certainty that will have to be challenged to live fully in a post-pandemic world. But nowadays, when hunger comes to visit me, I don’t have to fight to respond to it. I certainly eat more than I used to, and when I succumb to the comparison game, I can’t help but notice that I probably eat more than most people around me. It might take me some time to feel at peace with food, and even more to accept the body that will result from it.

Yet all these caveats can’t erase the fact that I’m now able to get through meals without rushing, afraid that my anorexia would catch me red handed and yell at me that I don’t deserve a life outside of its grasp. I eat, and I eat, and I eat. And it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also making me into a person whose life I actually want to live.

My eating disorder is not gone, but it is slowly turning into a whisper rather than a scream; and if hunger is the way to get rid of it and take back control of my life, then it might be the least extreme thing that ever happened to me.

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