My Struggle With Eating Disorders, Part I

I was going to write about performing, since it’s something I’m considering getting back into when I return to NY for however long, but reading things around the Internet changed my mind. I haven’t ever written at length about my struggle with eating disorders–only ever a single entry in my LiveJournal years ago when I first admitted to myself that I was anorexic.

Growing up, I was always the Chubby One. As far back as both I can remember and have pictures to document, I was plump. It’s excusable when you’re very young–the whole baby fat thing, and generally people do grow out of it, but for some reason I was still conscious of my weight. Even as little as my 5-year-old Kindergarten self (with a September birthday, I was always young for my grade level), I can remember looking at the other girls in class and envying their thinner-than-I-was state. There was one girl whose mother bought her the smallest size pantyhose she possibly could (as I’m sure pantyhose are only made for people ostensibly at least grown enough to be in High School, even the smallest size was baggy on her), and for some reason I came to associate the right to wear pantyhose–apparently a marker for “fashion” in my 1988, Kindergarten mind–with being thin and thus, being beautiful. Since I only ever got to wear little-girl tights, and I was most definitely thicker than this girl who was so fashionable with her tiny knobby knees and saggy pantyhose, I felt awkward, unpretty, and fat. At 5. How I came to think about these things at only 5, how I had any awareness at all of fat-versus-thin, how I already associated fat with bad at just 5 years of age, I have no idea. But I did, and I hated being fat.

Since I’m now 26, that makes over two decades of criticizing my body. Since I can’t really remember much of anything before Kindergarten, it’s essentially my entire life–I honestly can’t remember not feeling fat or otherwise displeased with something about my body. Even now, while third-party opinion has confirmed my hotness for years, and I will most certainly go on about being damn sexy and confident and mean it, I still compulsively weigh myself and critique various “trouble spots” on a daily basis.

I’ve tried to be accepting over the years. Considering it’s how I always was until after I started college, I did eventually reach a point where I just gave in to being fat–resolved that it’s how I was meant to be and should just deal with it. I’d tried exercising, dieting, willing the fat to go away, anything to be “thin” and “beautiful.” The only good thing about my first relationship was the fact that he never complained about my weight or told me I should be thinner. Oh, he definitely had criticisms of my body, but at least I felt okay being fat. Not happy, mind you, by any stretch. But at least relatively accepting of it.

When I had to do a physical before starting college, that’s when things changed dramatically for me. Stepping on the scale and seeing 250lbs was truly an eye-opener. Aware of the fact that my dad had his first heart attack at the devastatingly young age of 32, I did not want to wind up in that same boat–even if my vitals were otherwise all healthy (which they were), the clinically obese weight I was at meant it was frighteningly likely I’d suffer a similar fate if I didn’t do anything about it.

So armed with the best weight-management advice I ever received, even to this day (“Only eat when you’re hungry”), I started on a quest to get to a healthy weight. It began very well–I ate reasonably healthy choices and limited my eating only in the sense of that mantra: any sort of food was fair game, but it would only cross my lips if I was actually hungry. Over the course of my first year eating mindfully as opposed to mindlessly, I managed to lose a very healthy and respectable 80lbs. I wasn’t counting calories, exercising excessively, or otherwise thinking about it much at all. I simply asked myself anytime I went to eat something: Am I genuinely hungry right now, or just reaching for this food because it’s there?

It was over the course of the next year that things started to go downhill. Still, it wasn’t a very dramatic decline, but it laid the foundation for what became anorexia. It started with actually counting calories. My weight loss had plateaued a bit, so I had looked into how I could make a change to jump-start it again. I came across advice on calorie-counting and daily limits. Diet tips suggesting limiting yourself to 1500 calories a day when wanting to lose weight, so I began to do that. Being a type-A, perfectionist personality, it was a breeze for me. The counting and tallying and planning was like second nature and became actually comforting as the realizations of the extent of abuse I’d suffered during my first relationship hit me and the emotional roller-coaster of a long-distance relationship that ultimately failed took its toll. The numbers were sanctuary. In a world that was seemingly getting out-of-control and overwhelming, I found security in keeping track of my calorie intake and religiously abiding by my daily limit.

My weight started to drop again, and I started to really challenge myself. Rather than adhering to the new 1500-calorie rule, I started to see how little I could get by on and how long I could go without eating. During this year, it never got too severe. The littlest I ever ate in a day was about 800 calories, and I never, ever went a full day without eating anything. While it was the beginning of transitioning from healthy, aware eating to disordered eating, I only slowly dropped another 30lbs. By the end of my Sophomore year in college, I weighed a very-healthy-for-my-height 140lbs, and I decided that I should make an effort to stop losing and start maintaining.

Unfortunately, the satisfaction of seeing the number on the scale going down had taken hold, and an unfathomable fear of regaining the weight crept in. I found it impossible to convince myself to eat more than 1500 calories a day, and I began to exercise (lightly) most days of the week in an effort to make sure my weight wouldn’t go up again. I was literally mortified of being faced with the temptation to eat more than my self-imposed limits, and meals had to be concretely planned in advance. If an invitation to go out to a restaurant wasn’t extended or anticipated at least a day in advance, I would refuse. I’d gotten so strict with my eating that a surprise meal out couldn’t be compensated for in my plan unless I was aware of it well in advance. I became the Queen of excuses–I’d just eaten, I’d be eating with friends later, it was too close to when I’d be working out/dancing/otherwise doing something physical, I simply wasn’t hungry, those two little bites did indeed fill me up, etc. etc.

Maintaining didn’t work, and by the end of my Junior year I weighed a shocking–at 5’9″–120lbs. I’d had a couple of minor binges at Thanksgiving and Christmas and my first mini-fasts of a couple of days with no food afterwards, but for the most part I made a point of eating an excruciatingly well-planned 2,000 calories a day during that year. I just made up the difference with an unbelievably intense workout schedule: during the second semester, I was spending a minimum of 7 hours a week in competitive ballroom dance practice, along with at least six solid hours in one of the campus gyms every week, and that was in addition to all of the walking I did around campus (I utterly refused to use campus buses, no matter the weather, and took every opportunity to make the trek back to my dorm room during the day between classes–at least a 20-minute walk each way, depending which class I was going to). It’s really no wonder with that level of activity that 2,000 calories still wasn’t enough to maintain my weight.

The summer before Senior year is when I really started bingeing and subsequently fasting. At some point my body just rebelled, and I spent a night eating everything I could get my hands on until I was so bloated and sick to my stomach, I literally couldn’t fit another bite in. Admittedly, it was nowhere near the amount of food a long-time bulimic is capable of consuming, since my stomach had shrunk considerably from my constant under-eating. It was enough to send me into a guilt-ridden tailspin, though, and I went the next few days taking in nothing but water. My weight balanced out, but my sanity deteriorated, and a cycle of days where I’d eat something normal and suddenly have to eat everything I could find followed by as many days as I could stand not eating a thing began.

Despite the frequent compensatory fasting, I managed to put back on about 15lbs that summer. While officially just barely back into the healthy range for my height, I felt absolutely revolting–both with respect to my eating and my fuller (but still extremely thin) shape. I vowed that returning to campus meant returning to controlled eating, and I succeeded. The first three weeks I was back, I ate only once a week. After that, I resumed daily, but severely restricted, eating. By the end of November I had not only dropped all of the weight I’d gained over the summer but even more, down to my lowest and most-truly-emaciated weight of 113lbs. If it wasn’t for the fact that being on birth control ensured I got a period, I met all of the diagnostic criteria for anorexia.

During finals, my body took control again and I returned to the cycle of bingeing-and-fasting. I’d get out of my mind with the desire to eat something, anything as a result of being so deprived, and I would. I’d make up excuses to go on long walks and came up with convoluted ways to eat as much as I could along the way. I was embarassed by my uncontrollable desire to consume so much food, so I would stop at different places and buy reasonable amounts at each, standing in empty stairwells to eat what I had just purchased before moving on to the next place.

I’d memorized the hours of the assorted dining halls on campus for the winter break and the locations of various vending machines in relatively-secluded areas so I could get something hopefully without being seen, find a stairwell, eat, and then go to a dining hall and not have someone know I’d just eaten a bag of chips and a whole candy bar right before walking in to get a full meal. I’d then stop someplace else to take food back to my room and eat even more.

I also took great advantage of the weekend buses that brought students to the nearby mall. Especially since it was Christmastime, I could eat up a storm there and not feel concerned about anyone noticing amidst the throngs of people thoroughly absorbed in their holiday shopping and navigating the masses while juggling bags and bags of gift purchases. Plus, I could take a route that was quite spaced out–the food court was at one end of the mall, so I could start there with some sort of fast food, and then there was an Auntie Anne’s pretzel stand in the middle, where I could grab something and sit on a bench to eat before making my way to the exit at the opposite end from the food court where there was a Cinnabon that could supply more food for the start of the bus ride back to campus. I could then get off at one of the stops along the way and go to Starbucks for a Venti-size sugar-laden coffee drink before stopping at a grocery store to get food to take home with me all in the time before the next bus headed back to campus would be going by. Back at my room, I could prepare whatever I’d just picked up at the grocery store, and sometimes if I could still actually walk and it wasn’t too late, I could make one last outing to a dining hall and bring back more food to my room.

Of course, I didn’t do that every day. Usually the day or two after such binges, I’d be in a terrible food coma of sorts, unable to do much of anything but lie around and let all that I’d eaten slowly digest. Yes, I eventually reached a point where I could eat so much at once I’d feel full for days afterwards.

Fortunately I’d gotten to a sort of tipping point by the time the second semester of my Senior year commenced and people returned to campus. It would have been impossible to hide my massive, entire-day-long binges with my suitemates back on campus and other students milling about everywhere. I still managed to get in occasional double meals and extra snacks, courtesy of the vending machines and stairwells, and a schedule that often let me have an hour or two to myself in the suite to eat whatever I wanted.

To this day I have no idea how I didn’t run out of money, eating food at the rate I was. I didn’t even come close, though. It was unbelievable.

By the time April rolled around, I’d climbed to 150lbs, and that’s when the all-consuming desire to eat until I couldn’t eat anymore petered out. My eating normalized, and I managed to get back to a healthy 140lbs without restricting.

At this point, I’d gotten a job at a bakery. Probably not the best idea for someone with an eating disorder, but the part-time schedule to start didn’t get to me, and I maintained weight for a couple of months. Once I moved out into what became an incredibly dramatic house-share situation and was working full-time at the bakery, though, it did become a problem. I returned to mindless eating and occasional binges on bakery food I got to take home with me. Leftover bread, old pastries, and various things I bought to bring home…over the year and few months I worked there, I fluctuated up and down, topping out at about 185lbs by the time I quit. It wasn’t nearly as bad as my binge-fasting, by all accounts my eating wasn’t really all that abnormal, but the combination of stress from the bizarre living situation, the types of food I had access to, and the havoc I’d wrought on my metabolism from the years of anorexia added up to a predisposition to put on weight no matter what.

It was at this time that I had the wonderful opportunity to move to San Francisco. Like when returning to campus after that binge-fast-ridden summer, I made a new vow to eat healthier and return to a healthy weight that I would truly maintain for once.

And here is where I’ll take a break…I still intend–really, need to tell the whole story, but this particular entry is getting massive and my move to San Francisco is a good place to interject a To Be Continued…

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