I first started seriously entertaining the idea that I had some type of eating “problem” about a year ago. I was dragging myself through Half Price Books in a state of despondency over everything and nothing when I caught sight of a self-help book on the subject of binge eating. I started reading it. Just out of curiosity. Except not, because I absolutely felt worried and excited that maybe all this information really applied to me, and maybe this book could help me out.
As with anything in a Half Price Books, the book wasn’t guaranteed to be recent, and in fact was several years old. I remember it placing significant emphasis on the number of calories consumed in a binge, as a determining factor in “what type” of binge eating someone might be engaging in.
In the following months, those numbers came up a lot as I sat alone, often eating until I felt sick and still not feeling whole, sorting through my memories of food and trying to arrange them into some sort of narrative that made sense to me:
Being an overweight child and sharing food with my older, thinner cousin, always forcing myself not to take the first bite until after she did, then making sure I paced myself so that I was “ahead,” aka had more of my portion left to eat at a given moment.
Coming home from school to an empty house and heading straight to the pantry to eat as much as I could—multiple packages of Ramen, several bowls of cereal, maybe both—while I could be alone.
Hearing a high school friend tell me how she and her mom were on an “apple for dinner” diet to lose weight and save money for a vacation, and putting this down as a goal I hoped to one day achieve.
Calling my college mental health hotline in tears because I felt so guilty for eating two mini-brownies in addition to my regular meals. I asked my phone counselor to help me, meaning help me figure my shit out, and she lectured me on how we all need to practice healthy habits and moderation.
Being absolutely, silently furious with my roommate for coming home before I had a chance to empty the kitchen trash bag, because she might notice how many empty mac and cheese boxes I had added in a single day.
Ordering two breakfast tacos from a coffee shop, eating them, then going to another coffee shop and ordering two more, and shamefully repeating this until my next class started. (There were a lot of places to get breakfast tacos on my college campus.)
And so on and so on.
I finally started to do something about it in January. Sick of feeling sick, I set myself a very responsible, reasonable diet and exercise plan to try to stop bingeing and also hopefully lose some weight.
I went to yoga three times a week, and on weekend mornings I jogged on a trail. I found a healthy breakfast, and I ate it every day. I refused to cook pasta, which was pretty much the only thing I used to eat, avoided processed foods, and made vegetables, lean protein, or legumes the focus of every meal.
And this worked, most of the time, except when something interrupted my routine and I was drawn into a binge, where I’d zero in on the foods left over from my pre-diet days and charge. I’d gorge myself on everything, bouncing between spoonfuls of this and handfuls of that, hating the loss of control. Loving the taste and hating that I loved it. Loving that I hated myself. Feeling and doing all the things that by now I recognized were identifiers of binge eating.
You know it’s bad when you read through the list of binge eating symptoms and they’re all so familiar to you that your brain barely registers them as words with meaning. They’re not symptoms, they’re just your life. Looking at a list of “binge eating characteristics” is like looking at my own name written out over and over.
It should be noted that my brand of binging is slightly more complicated, because, yeah, sometimes -- and maybe sometimes more than sometimes -- I stick my fingers down my throat right after and puke it up. So I guess we might call that bulimia.
Six months into my diet and exercise plan, I’ve lost 20 pounds, am more regimented than ever, and I know my habits better, so I keep my entire kitchen empty of anything that could even add up to the number of calories I used to eat in a single meal. Foods that have serving sizes over 200 calories make me wary, over 300, a little terrified.
The exact same things happen: I’m triggered by emotional stress or a disruption of my routine, and all of sudden it’s two single-serving oatmeals and a Skinny Cow bar and two Smart Ones lasagnas and several spoonfuls of no-additives peanut butter and an apple.
My low-calorie binges feel exactly like all the ones from before. They feel the same as eating three bowls of fettuccine alfredo, a dozen Girl Scout cookies with milk, and a pint of ice cream. The hate is still there, and the resentment and the awareness of control and lack thereof, and the terror over what I just ruined -- my body, which feels like everything most days, like all of me that matters.
And now on top of it, I have undone the work I put in by exercising and dieting. This fear, oddly, comes out mainly as a fixation on my cheekbones, which have become more prominent since I started losing weight. When I binge, I’m putting the life of my cheekbones at risk. I could wake up tomorrow and they could be gone.
Weirdly, my new, more calorically responsible brand of binging has only led to me purging more.
I suppose in my ye olde classic binge days, I was so stuck in my body at the size it was that I had no hope it would ever change, so I'd just eat to the point of severe discomfort, then collapse into a pile of self-loathing, criticizing myself for not even having the ability to puke anything up, waiting for the painful sick feeling to pass, and also reassuring myself that the absence of vomiting means I don't have any eating problems at all. Nothing disorderly about this. I'm normal, just worse than everyone else.
But now I’ve seen results. Now I know I can control my body for “good” (weight loss), and it’s easier to go all in and use every tool I have, including throwing up. And at the end of the day, all of this, the restricting and indulging, the dieting, binging, and purging, is about controlling myself.
The Mayo Clinic says, “Because it's related to self-image -- and not just about food -- bulimia can be difficult to overcome.” And that’s the truth. The difference between binging on fruit & peanut butter versus Ben & Jerry’s is meaningless. The chaos inside me might have a slightly shifted focus, lasering in on skinniness to a more extreme degree, but it’s the same chaos.
So right now, I can’t help but think, screw “health” food and “healthy” eating and diet food, and screw just as hard “clean eating” and the people who shame others for choosing to eat in any certain way. Because for me, and for others dealing with disordered eating tendencies of various stripes and degrees, no food is health food because we’re not healthy about how we’re eating it. My unprocessed, all-veggies meal looks a lot less “clean” when I’m staring at the post-purge version floating in the toilet.
This is very scary, because it means I’m far less “okay” than I am comfortable with being. After all, I thought the change in my diet would be my first step to become more OK. To being less obsessive, more normal. Better.
But here I am, stuck with the realization that changing the food doesn’t end up changing anything about me at all.