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I remember watching her in the bathroom as she weighed herself. There she was, standing on our beat-up white metal scale with her head bent, squinting her eyes to see the exact number. A number my mom was apparently unhappy with.
“Should I lose some weight?” I asked her.
My mom stepped off the scale and said, “You could lose a little, I guess.”
That comment was like a gun at the starting line. It put me on the fast track to an eating disorder.
Food can be a source of pleasure and comfort. It can be a source of struggle. For others, like me, it was both.
My relationship with food changed that day in the bathroom when my mom and I went on a diet together. I was 17. It would be another 14 years before I would have a healthy relationship with eating, exercise, and my body.
I didn’t need to go on a diet. I was at a healthy weight. I didn’t see it this way, though, and my mom’s comment just further confirmed that.
It was the Woman’s Day magazine’s “Eat-All-Day Diet.” What’s not to love? Eat all day and lose weight? How good is that? Well, it wasn’t good. At all. That’s where it all began with a puny article from a US monthly.
Well, to be fair, it didn’t really kick it off. My eating disorder was a symptom of myriad underlying issues: early trauma, undiagnosed anxiety, witnessing daily rage and emotional abuse at home, and living with parents who had a mental illness (one diagnosed, the other not).
I was sort of a textbook case. I was controlling food as a way to cope with the uncontrollable situation at home. I didn’t know those were the reasons. I didn’t even know I was experiencing an official disorder. I just called it my “food problem.” I have pages after pages in journals where I write about my “pig-outs,” binges, and inability to be “normal” with food; my desperation to find a solution.
Binge. Restrict. Over-exercise. Repeat.
The diet started a pattern of restricting calories and an obsessive focus on food and body size. One day after too little food for too long, I inhaled what seemed like the contents of our fridge and kitchen cupboards. Nothing was off-limits. To be so out of control was frightening. The scale of shame and guilt I felt was matched only by the militant restriction of food and grueling compulsive over-exercising that followed.
Binge. Restrict. Over-exercise. Repeat. It escalated when I transitioned to university and continued after I graduated and into my early 30s.
Those of you reading who relate to this know the thinking patterns and behaviors are almost identical to someone with a substance use issue. The substance just happens to be food. Unlike an issue with alcohol or drugs, however, you can’t just give up food. I italicize the just because abstaining from alcohol and drugs isn’t simple either.
Over time, I started experiencing severe depression and more severe generalized anxiety: this compounded food, body image, exercise, and rumination challenges. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 1 with psychotic features (the diagnosis and psychotic part is a whole other story). I didn’t accept the diagnosis for four years. I was in and out of the psychiatric ward and continued to struggle both with my mental health and my eating disorder.
After too many hospital stays, too many failed attempts at finding solutions on my own, the fear my life would be a revolving door of being in and out of the psych ward and eventually meeting an excellent psychiatrist who I trusted, I accepted the conditions and began to understand my eating disorder behaviours.
Now I was able to engage in my own treatment proactively. I attended support and outpatient groups, went to therapy, found medication that worked for me, and read as many books as possible. I was a ravenous (pardon the pun) learner, wanting to extricate myself as soon as possible from the quicksand I found myself in.
New Strategies That Don’t Include Food
My binge eating and overexercising began to subside. As my bipolar disorder and the roots of the anxiety and depression started to heal, I related less and less on food as a coping means. It took a long time, but gradually I transitioned to using self-soothing and wellness strategies that didn’t include the use of food or that focused on exercise, weight, or body shape.
Going for a walk instead of a run; writing poetry; writing in my journal; meditating; taking a hot bath; hanging out with friends; choosing to feel instead of choosing to eat (that was a hard one, still is sometimes).
My eating disorder is now part of my history but not my present. No one’s more surprised than I am that I have a healthy, enjoyable relationship even with food, eating, exercise, and my body. I consider cooking to be one of my favorite hobbies! I would never have imagined that to be possible. As cliched as it sounds: If I can do it, I know others can too.
If You’re Struggling
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, don’t give up. Don’t give in. Reach out for help. The journey is hard. But recovery is possible. Life can feel like a gift again. I promise.
© Victoria Maxwell