I Have an Eating Disorder and It's Not What You Think

I Have an Eating Disorder and It’s Not What You Think

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This post was originally published on October 22, 2014.

In 2010, I was on a “taste everything, eat nothing” diet. The idea was to not deprive myself, to enjoy a bite or two of whatever I wanted, but to not eat all of it. Like any other diet, after about a week, I started changing the rules.

One night, on a date with my husband, I ordered four appetizers and two entrees that I wanted to taste. I think he tasted one or two, but I finished everything on the table that night—including the bread, butter, cocktails and dessert.

Later, with my heart palpitating (a feeling I had become accustomed to after a “meal”), my clammy fingers typed “binging” into Google. I found a 12-step website that asked me 15 questions about my eating habits. When I earned a near-perfect score on that little quiz, I realized that I had been suffering from an eating disorder most of my life; I just hadn’t known what to call it.

Everyone knows about anorexia and bulimia, but few talk about the dirty middle ground; about food addicts who binge but hold onto their food—the compulsive overeaters.

I began researching eating disorders at a young age, but I grew into adulthood without realizing I had one since I didn’t fit into either the anorexia or bulimia paradigm. In order to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, I thought, I had to find a way to get rid of my food or stop eating altogether. But I kept it all inside me—hoarding it, keeping it hidden, just like my feelings. The food was a barrier between me and how I felt and the extra weight I carried was a barrier from the world. It made me, I thought, invisible.

Reading was my first escape. I was always an avid reader. From a very young age, I would come home from the library with a mile-high pile of books that I couldn’t wait to devour. I would disappear when I read.

In one of my early adolescent trips to the school library, I found a book about a girl with anorexia. She would divide her food into tiny portions, eating only one section of each. She would chew her food and then spit it into her napkin so no one would notice she wasn’t swallowing. She loved the feeling of her rib cage and marveled at her pointy hipbones. She ended up in the hospital more than once from starving herself to near-death, and her family was desperately worried about her.

I also read a book about bulimia where the main character found clever ways to throw up quietly, and hide it from everyone she knew. When she developed obvious blisters on her fingers from the purging, she used the handle of her toothbrush to do the job. I saw this as a possible solution to my body problem, if only I could find the courage.

I did most of my binging away from home where my food wasn’t controlled, usually at the homes where I babysat. They were countless houses in cul-de-sacs with cable TV and pantries. I don’t remember the kids’ names, but I remember which house had ice cream, which had candy, which had cookies and which had something frozen that tasted like cookie dough but was more likely hot buttered rum mix.

My chubby body betrayed my secret eating shame. As a pre-teen I didn’t know I had a food problem, but I knew I had a body problem. The way the anorexic girl described her tiny body in the story was how I was supposed to be—not chubby. I was supposed to control my food like she did, not hide the candy wrappers between sofa cushions, or wrap them in paper towels before throwing them in the trash. I hid the evidence of what I ate. I lied about what I ate; I stole what I ate.

By junior high, I was chubby enough for my mom to put me on a commercial diet program. Each Saturday morning, while my peers were sleeping in, I was the lone child among unhappy adults who sat on folding chairs and talked about salad dressing and cottage cheese. I endured the humiliation of public weigh-ins, where I stepped on the scale and a stranger moved the lever to the right or left, depending on what I could get away with that week. Standing in line for my turn, I prayed that I was one of the people who got applause as I stepped off the scale, my face red with shame as either verdict was announced. If I gained weight, shame on me. If I lost weight, it only proved my shame in needing to be there.

In high school, I had friends like me; we would eat a package of cookies and ice cream and a pan of brownies, and sit around calling ourselves disgusting and fat and unworthy of love from any boy. I would look at myself in the mirror with disgust, then lean over the toilet praying for the courage to purge the food and the feelings. There was a high pitched wail in my brain that was my feelings, screaming to be let out, but I knew no one cared; my feelings didn’t matter and I didn’t matter. The food for the most part drowned out the internal keening.

In my late 20’s I began dieting again, and throughout my 30’s I would have success with any diet that restricted my sugar and flour intake, but my disease would always tell me “You can control it now—have some candy.” So I would gain the weight back. I would binge, then restrict with diets, one after another, each time thinking “This is the diet that will fix my body, once and for all!”

Each Monday was a new beginning.

Each first of the month.

Each morning after a holiday.

Each January.

I would lose weight then gain weight then self-flagellate for my lack of discipline and suffer a downward demoralizing spiral of self-hatred and abuse. It never mattered what size my body actually was; it was never the right size. And I was sure I would feel like this for the rest of my life, because the only help for someone like me was finding the right diet.

I am grateful that the last diet book I read led to that last binge that led me to my computer and eventually into the rooms, for when I found myself in my first 12-step meeting surrounded by fellow bingers, as well as anorexics and bulimics, I found a place where I belonged. Our bodies are different, our habits are different, our food is different—but our addiction is the same. We have a malady of the mind, spirit and body that is beyond our control. I discovered that my body is not my problem, food is not my problem, other people and circumstances and the diet-du-jour is not my problem. My problem is that I am sick, and part of that sickness is believing that food and restricting will cure what ails me.

I’m not anorexic—yet. I’m not bulimic—yet. And I’m not obese—yet. I know from experience that this is a progressive disease, and I am one bite of candy or cake away from a Costco-isn’t-big-enough-sized binge. I also know that I can get through anything in this life and keep my abstinence as long as I remain spiritually fit.

My body doesn’t look the way I want it to, but my recovery tells me that it never will. It is only important that on most days I am happy living inside this body. Some days I want to live in someone else’s, to know what “normal” feels like. But the cavernous hole of emptiness that I used to try to fill with food is now filled with life.

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Halina Newberry Grant has written for Cosmo, The Next Family, The Hairpin and The Huffington Post, among others. She lives in Culver City, CA with her husband, daughters and dog, Mr. Manfred.