This post was originally published on September 11, 2015.
I’ve often wondered where my eating disorder came from. Could it have been avoided? If my life circumstances had been different, would I behave normally with food? Or was I born with a genetic predisposition that was just waiting to manifest itself?
I have had enough therapy to recognize the emotional triggers that lead to my binging and restricting, and to identify the feelings I’m trying to numb. I’ve also worked enough steps to know that it’s my spiritual condition that keeps my behavior in check; environmental triggers will always be there, that’s part of life. It’s up to me to stay tapped into something bigger than me, to keep my addict behaviors in check.
Before I began recovery for my eating disorder, I couldn’t figure out what my problem was. In therapy, I talked about my self-esteem, my childhood, my feelings, my goals and how they were always out of reach. There was some unseen obstacle, keeping me from living a full and fulfilling life. This obstacle was a blind spot, and in that blind spot lived my relationship with food. When I was acting out (binging or restricting), my brain would go to the blind spot—like an alcoholic black out—because for some reason I wasn’t emotionally ready to see the truth.
I recently came across a psychological study that linked PTSD and eating disorders. It was interesting to read about how the anxiety produced by traumas I’d experienced could be a comorbidity with my eating disorder, the two disorders fueling each other.
I immediately thought about when my eating started spinning out of control as an adult. I was an eye witness in New York on 9/11, and the trauma from watching the planes fly into the towers, the towers crumble and witnessing so many lives reduced to rubble and smoke was affecting me even 10 years later. I didn’t know why I couldn’t get past it, and it certainly never occurred to me that this trauma could be linked to my relationship with food.
When I began recovery from my eating disorder five years ago, I gave up sugar, gluten and diets. I even gave up researching diets, cleanses and exercise regimes, looking for that “easier, softer way.” I surrendered my will and I surrendered my attachment to my “story”; those old tapes that played over and over about things that happened to me, things people did to me and all the reasons I was entitled to my resentments and hurts and suffering. The reasons I acted out no longer mattered, it was better that I focus on letting go, rather than holding on. That vice grip I had on my life in an effort to keep everything together wasn’t working. I could let go, and in letting go I found freedom and relief.
So what about the earlier disordered behaviors I had prior to 9/11? I remember longing to be alone with food from a very young age. There was a National Geographic book we had that displayed how much killer whales ate with a photograph of cheeseburgers; I longed to eat my way through that pile. We had a scratch-and-sniff sticker book, and I am pretty sure I took a bite out of the strawberry sticker. I was an expert at sneaking cookies without making a sound replacing the cookie-jar lid, and eating all the candy from Gramma’s candy dish, hiding the wrappers in the trash in tissues so no one would see the evidence.
While there was emotional turmoil in my childhood home, I don’t remember any specific, isolated traumatic events large enough to create PTSD, at least as it’s explained in the psychological studies. Maybe I depended on food to help me cope with big emotions as a child, but it was the doozy of 9/11 that unleashed the addiction lion later on in adulthood.
So what does this “evidence of an association” between trauma and eating disorders mean to me? How does understanding the psychological implications of PTSD and its connection to my binging and restricting change my ideas about recovery? Is there a black-and-white cause and effect when it comes to my relationship with food?
Here’s what I’ve decided: It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter if childhood trauma, emotional duress or witnessing catastrophic events as an adult caused my eating disorder. It doesn’t matter if I was born with it. It doesn’t matter which came first, the chicken or the egg, the trauma or the binge.
I’m glad these studies exist. I am happy to see more research into food addiction. I get tired of hearing people dismiss eating disorders as merely “control issues,” and less serious than other addictions. Food addiction is real, progressive and deadly; just ask anyone who has lost someone they love to heart disease or diabetes. In my four years of recovery, I know of at least two people who have died—one of bulimia-related heart failure, the other a recovering alcoholic who had over a decade of sobriety, but couldn’t put sugar down and died of a massive heart attack. I believe more people would stop eating foods that they knew were killing them (or would “eat a sandwich,” as callous, uninformed observers of anorexics like to suggest) if it were that simple.
My cognitive understanding of my eating disorder is helpful, but it’s not enough. I’ve learned my sanity around food depends upon the triad of mental, emotional and spiritual recovery. Therapy has helped with the mental and emotional, but being among my fellows and doing real, daily spiritual work is where my quality of life truly comes from. I may be a statistic, but I’m also a grateful recovering addict who hopes others like me find what I have; serenity.
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