Disordered Eating Has Been a ‘Companion’

By November 23, 2012

I’m sorry for the long message, but I guess I needed to voice it all. I will be turning 37 years old in several months and have been struggling with an eating disorder for the past 3 years. There was a period of less than a year when I was in 11th grade in HS that I suffered from anorexia and bulimia. It was very extreme but somehow, I was able to “snap out of it” and was able to live a life without letting food rule me for over a decade. This was until about 3 years ago when my husband of less than 2 years (we were together for a total of 10 years) left me abruptly for another woman. It was very traumatizing for me and happened so quickly and without warning that it left me devastated, depressed and barely able to cope with activities of daily living. I am only 5 ft. tall and though I was at my highest weight prior to him leaving, I was probably never considered clinically overweight. At first, the weight came off because I was too stressed, depressed and just wasn’t eating. I also started to go for long walks and to do yoga to help out with the stress? Losing some of my “extra weight” and looking better (didn’t help that people commented on how good I look), was what spiraled me back into my ED. A series of events including a divorce and having to move probably added to my need to gain control over my life. Unfortunately, I had chosen food as a medium to gain this empowerment. Yes, I was seeing a therapist over this time. At first it was to deal with my depression which was severe. Then later on, it was to deal with my ED as it gained more prominence over my life. I have now lived with this for 3 yrs and have seen it morph into different forms. Very restrictive at first, severely restricting calories while over-exercising. My efforts to become healthy emotionally and physically then lead me down an unsettling road that is both uncomfortable and frightening. It’s a struggle to find the “balance,” and as I try to listen to my body and allow myself to rest when I’m exhausted instead of going for more walks, or to allow myself to eat more, I have slowly gained weight. Of course, this has become distressing as I have slowly seen my body shift away from the body that I wanted and had. (But I can honestly admit that it is probably not the body that nature had intended for me if I eat and exercise for what feels good). Eating more food also has given me a taste of the foods that I had banned as “bad” and has left me craving for the taste of it. My problem is that while I am struggling with trusting myself to eat my “bad” food, (which I can’t seem to completely do), I overcompensate by eating my “good” food. Unfortunately, I binge on this. I only eat 2 slices of whole wheat bread and 1 triangle serving of Laughing Cow Light cheese for lunch. (This was an improvement from no lunches at all). But at dinner, I will always eat at least 3-4 oz. of some type of lean meat (fish, chicken, turkey) fixed in an asian soup with tons of mushroom, herbs, etc to total about 3-4 cups in size. This is accompanied by a whole medium head of cauliflower plus at least 8 cups of broccoli steamed. Then my treat to myself every night is 2 pints of chocolate frozen yogurt. I am detailing the amount because this large amount of food causes my stomach to protrude to such an extent that I look like I’m pregnant. I know intellectually that I need to shift a portion of my evening calories throughout my day to become more healthy but I can’t seem to do this. For some reason, only the uncomfortable feeling of a tight, protruding stomach in the evening; and my obsessive, exacting preparation of my same meal every night gives me comfort. Working with my therapist, I know that much of my behavior is still linked to my inability to cope with my continued pain, sadness, loneliness. But how do I break from this and be able to “sit” in this gray area that has comforted me and has been my companion over the past 3 years? And can I add how difficult it is to deal with an ED given all of the attention EVERYWHERE about low carb or nocarb, or the fact that everyone in America is on a diet? Thank you for your support. – anonymous

Dear anonymous,

Thank you for taking the time to share your deeply personal facts, sufferings and questions. I REALLY like what I read in the last sentence of your letter: “And can I add how difficult it is to deal with an ED…?” Yes, you may!

Remember it is generally accepted amongst clinicians that the primary purposes of disordered eating is to avoid and deflect what is painful. The eating rituals, food games, extra attention to exercise, calorie counting, etc., distance the sufferer from what they need to feel and thus trick them into believing that they feel “relief”. This cycle of anxiety/worry/obsessiveness/need for perfection and “relief” when they practice disordered eating bonds the sufferer to the pattern.

Since I am not your therapist, it is difficult to give an adequate response, but as a professional and concerned panelist I read two things in your letter that stood out to me. You wrote: (1) the uncomfortable feeling you experience in the evening hours coupled with (2) the “exacting preparation” of the same meal every night gives you “comfort.” As much as you appear from the letter to realize you have a problem, you find it difficult to be different (as defined by spreading your calories out during the day in a healthy approach to feeding the body). Finally, you wrote that the disordered eating has been your “companion” for the past three years.

I challenge you to consider that perhaps you are “stuck” at not doing anything different because you would have to abandon your lover. You describe something you do in secret (desire the overfull stomach), you put off what is good and healthy for you during the day in order to experience the fullness of the evening ritual, and you fall in to seduction when you utilize exacting preparation to take your lover (the food). I understand in some ways how it would be difficult to do one thing different given this scenario. You were already abandoned “suddenly” by your husband (betrothed) for another (a lover). And you are very aware of how it feels to be left. How could you reject that food? How could you not meet that cauliflower or broccoli at night? You justify that it does not count because it is a “good” food. It is not the food that is the problem. It is the power and expectation you give the broccoli. You want it to take you away, to carry you off across some threshold where the truth of your life (being left by your husband) does not exist.  

There are many ways to be involved in affairs or hold various idols. But to establish a strategy for feeding your body, for believing that you are worthy, valuable, lovable, and created for purpose when you know rejection is hard work, too. Stop reenacting what has been done to you. Food is not meant to be a companion. Food rituals are not meant to be a companion. They are a fearful person’s friend because food can’t speak, can’t touch, can’t leave. We have all the power to decide what food is, how it looks, how it tastes, and what it can mean to us.

Consider confronting your own self about how you have created an identity around what you do in your home in the evenings. Realize that you are perhaps returning to the disordered eating again because you don’t want to cope and live “after the fact” (the divorce, other events, etc.). Multitudes of us are living “after the fact.” The facts may vary from situation to situation. But we must choose life. You are not alone. Tonight, when you arrive home, if you just do one thing different (like wait ten minutes before starting the ritual) know that you are not alone. All over the world you can be sure there is at least one other person who is attempting to do one thing different and take back their lives, their minds, their value, their dignity, their self respect, and ultimate identity.

Although you have been abandoned and betrayed by your husband you must face your roles and responsibilities in YOUR affair with food. My hope is that you will continue processing with a professional (1) your strengths (you did have a decade where you “snapped” out of it before and must have done something different to not be triggered and needy of this companion) and 2) your challenges in facing your responsibilities in how you got where you are.

When you are able to define who you are outside of what has happened to you, you will generate hope and comfort for your own spirit and won’t need an inanimate companion like food.

Good luck,