My Struggle With Eating Disorders, Part II

To pick up where Part I left off, I made my way to begin anew in San Francisco…

It all started off quite swimmingly. The entire environment in California, even Northern Cali where there aren’t really any beaches and generally the scene isn’t that stereotypical sunny, OC, blondes-in-bikinis thing, encourages a healthier lifestyle. At least from my experience. All the hills in San Fran kept me active (I don’t drive, and have always had this mentality of even $1.25 for a bus ride is more than the FREE that walking costs ;P), and living with my non-cooking aunt meant tempting things were never around at home to test my resolve to abstain from bingeing.

I ate reasonably healthy things whenever I was hungry for about the first month or so, but then I succumbed to my long days at work with often no real breaks and returned to the habit of not really eating anything. I managed to drop about 30lbs in the first few months I was there, and by the time Thanksgiving was approaching, I was subsisting on two coffees a day and nothing more.

Around Halloween, I’d met a few people my age–the only people my age within the city that I’d befriend in any way the whole time I lived in SF–and got a bit worked up over something related to them. Between my growing inability to cope with experiencing any sort of emotional ups and downs and the feast that was available to me at the Thanksgiving dinner I was invited to, that uncontrollable desire to just eat anything until I was stuffed to bursting kicked in again.

It never quite got as bad in San Francisco as it had during University, the whole mindless bingeing thing. There were definitely days I was seriously out of control, but probably the combination of regular work and lots of travelling kept me somewhat grounded. It’s impossible to ignore the reality of day-to-day living when you HAVE to go to work or you HAVE to get on a plane. I simply didn’t have the option of bingeing to the point of stupor and laying in bed recovering for days like I did my last year of Uni.

I had good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, and fluctuated within a 15lb range for the majority of my time in Fog City. Then I met the guy who ultimately was the driving force behind me coming here to Australia. We were insanely active together, and for the first time in years, I wasn’t thinking nearly as much about food and my weight and appearance. Part of it was probably that I simply didn’t have time to stress over it, with all the activities I was getting up to: a multi-day road trip from Portland, Oregon to Flagstaff, Arizona; many trips between San Fran and Portland; visiting Australia for the first time; buying a boat… I was more absorbed in life than my eating disorder.

Of course, I had to break my foot just as it was going so well. Compounding that obstacle was the fact that it happened shortly after he was laid off and came to live with me in San Francisco. We both, therefore, had way too much time to sit around and do a whole lot of nothing with far too easy access to food. I’ve always had a horrible habit of eating like the people around me do, and his metabolism is insane. He can put away food like there’s no tomorrow, has a penchant for things like potato chips and Domino’s pizza, and doesn’t easily gain weight. I, however, have a completely screwed up metabolism from years of suffering from anorexia, so even looking at junk food can send it straight to my hips.

After three full months of being laid-up in bed with a severely broken foot and giving in to the temptations of junk food, heavy meals, and home delivery, I’d put on nearly 40lbs. It was quite devastating. I felt more disgusting then than I ever did at even my heaviest weight. Surely, the fact that I had more time to reflect on it didn’t help.

Once I was back on my feet, though, I was determined once more to actually get healthy. That’s when I moved to Australia, and as far as weight control is concerned, it’s been the best place for me my entire life. I’ve eaten quite reasonably the entire time I’ve lived here, sometimes a bit more than I need to, sometimes a bit less, never fasting like I did in University. I took up really hardcore exercising again, and basically got into the best shape of my life. After about nine months of living here, I’d worked off all the weight I’d gained while incapacitated, and I’ve maintained quite well since.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I’ve recovered, as much as my behavior and appearance might seem like it. The reason is, the mental processes are still there. It’s a genuine FIGHT to eat enough and not overdo exercising. And a lot of the isolating and deceptive habits I developed while at the mercy of full-blown anorexia persist.

At it’s core, an eating disorder is about lies. Lies you tell yourself, and lies you tell other people. Thoughts in your head telling you horribly untrue things about food, exercise, your appearance, and what other people must be thinking. Behaviors and statements you use to deceive people into believing you couldn’t possibly have those thoughts on your mind.

From the lies, isolation comes into play. In practice, it’s easier to give in to the disorder the less time you spend around other people. While psychologically it’s much harder, because the isolation breeds even more extreme entrenchment in the disordered thinking and eating, at least you don’t have to be weaving tangled webs of explanations. It becomes a truly vicious cycle, the thoughts leading to the desire to give in leading to isolating yourself from other people leading to even more thoughts and more desire and more isolation and so on…

I still have a lot of issues with eating, whether or not I’m spending time with other people. Anytime I’m faced with a situation where I can’t avoid eating with others, it’s impossibly intimidating (unless I’m drunk). I have absolutely ZERO tolerance for people obviously monitoring my food, and actual comments about what I’m making, eating, or not eating are about the worst thing for me psychologically. I have to try hard enough as it is to not overthink food because it’s the biggest trigger for me to either binge or fast, and if someone specifically draws attention to it, I can’t escape the inevitable train of disordered thinking.

Additionally, I still have problems with the lies. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with the food-monitoring thing. I can’t NOT lie about what I’ve eaten or not eaten when faced with direct inquiries. The vast majority of people just don’t get what I live with every day, being someone who still suffers from an eating disorder. There are very few people that I can converse with completely honestly about anything related to food without it dropping a nuclear bomb on my thought processes.

I’m hoping that finally putting it out there, a lot of the things I’d kept to myself these past few years, might help a bit with that. However, I’m quite convinced that even after reading these past two entries here, it’s not enough for someone to really grasp what I’ve been through if they haven’t experienced an eating disorder firsthand. At least maybe if some people in my life are aware that I’m still struggling, that every day is a fight to not give in to fasting or bingeing, they’ll be more sensitive about the things they say to me.

That’s really the best thing that could happen for me at the stage I’m in right now. The few people who I feel completely comfortable eating around and talking with about the nitty-gritty is enough. Everyone else, I just want them to be completely unconcerned. The less I feel pressured, the less I’m tempted to lie, the less I’m made hyper-aware of food and my habits, the better.

It would be truly nice if I could someday reach a point where none of this is affecting me anymore, but in the meantime, I’m happy I’ve made baby steps at recovering. I’m happy I’ve maintained weight for nine whole months for the first time in several years. I’m happy that I can actually think seriously about recovering for the first time EVER, even if I’m still not there.

Everything in time.

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…