I’ve been trying to write this blog for a long time. I started it once, but abandon it a few sentences in and wrote something different; something well-intentioned but far less honest. I want to tell this story, but each time I sit down in front of my keyboard, the words get slippery and sentences fall apart. So, instead of telling this story from beginning to end, I’ll start in the middle and move horizontally: I am a compulsive overeater. That’s a pretty broad term and can manifest in a lot of different ways. In my case, I eat the way any addict uses their substance or behavior. Like everyone else, I eat for sustenance, but my relationship with food is much more complicated than that. I eat to celebrate, to commiserate, for religious reasons, at gatherings of family, friends or coworkers, to mark the passing of time and the changing of seasons. My unhealthy behavior happens outside of those occasions. I fast for long periods of time, then binge until I am physically sick. I cancel plans so I can eat alone. I hide food. I often buy two containers of things so that no one will notice when one is gone. I am overwhelmed by shame and promise, again and again, that this will be the last time. It is feast or famine. It is feast AND famine. I eat to feel more and to feel less. I am a compulsive overeater and this is the first time I’ve admitted it to anyone, outside of my immediate support system.
A while back, I logged onto my doctor’s Patient Portal to look over an appointment summary from a recent visit. Most of my doctors are part of the same medical network so the opening page is an overview of primary health issues. There, below kidney stones, allergies, and hypothyroidism, a brand new medical condition had been added: Obesity. My initial response was not surprise. I own pants AND a mirror so I’m completely aware of my body. In my mind, however, being overweight had always been about aesthetics. There, on my chart, I understood quite clearly that this was different. Obesity isn’t a subjective opinion about my appearance. It’s a medical condition that requires a diagnosis and treatment. I suppose because I have almost no health problems associated with weight – cholesterol, blood pressure, heart, blood sugar – I was able to compartmentalize my behavior. I am fine. I am fine. I am fine. Clearly, I’m not fine and someone noticed.
Over the years, I have been every size, from a six to a twenty-six. Thin or heavy, I’ve spent just as much time and energy NOT eating as I’ve spent eating. I have been quite cruel to my body at every weight. Being 120lbs was no more a reflection of my overall health than being 220lbs. I’ve tried diets, eating plans and eating modifications. The Cabbage Soup diet was the first diet I remember really committing to. I spent years trying not to eat after 4:00 pm. I once spent a month or so laying my fork down beside my plate between each bite and not picking it up again until I’d completely swallowed. (I know this sounds simple but it gets really weird after a while, I promise.) Media messaging can also be problematic when it comes to conceptualizing weight. Most overweight people in the media are either trying to lose weight or learning hard-knock lessons about moving through the world as a big person. Conversely, if you believe the stereotypes, big people are also really funny and make great best friends. (You rarely see a television character, red faced with shame, whispering to a flight attendant about a seatbelt extender.) Beyond the usual fat/thin tropes, there are all the well-intentioned people who genuinely believe they have the answer: Go for a walk after dinner. Try acupuncture. Get a to-go box at restaurants and divide your food before taking the first bite. Keep a food journal. Drink a large glass of water before eating each meal. “Think about your daughter. She needs a healthy role model.” Those are all truly fantastic ideas, if food was my only problem. It isn’t. Food is my current drug of choice. The compulsive part of compulsive overeating is my problem.
Years after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and gaining the tools and support to manage that disease, on some unconscious level, I stilled fundamentally believed that losing weight would “fix” me. The fly in that ointment was that whenever food was restricted, the underlying issues were still bubbling, just below the surface. Trauma, mental illness, unintentional messaging, co-eaters and enablers, and shame have cleared a path from there to here and no diet or walk after dinner or leafy green vegetable is going to get to the heart of child sexual abuse or abandonment or crippling shame. And, there it is; the obvious. It’s not what I eat. It’s not when I eat. It’s not even how much I eat. It’s why I eat. Obviously, it’s why I eat! I suppose I’ve always known that I was using food (or drugs or alcohol or sex) to fill a void at the center of me. Getting healthy means finding something better/safer/kinder to put there, and then learning to live in the spaces in between. “Fixed” isn’t an attainable goal, for therapy or for overall health. Lifetime wellness requires attention to the mind/body connection. So, this time, I walked past all the usual quick fixes and good intentions and found BOTH a good therapist and a trusted support group. It’s still pretty new and peeling my life like an onion is ridiculously hard. Cake was easy. Accountability is not. So, my mantra: I’m a mess but I’m worth it. (Also, a food journal and a short walk after dinner… not such a bad idea.) As I said, this is the beginning of something quite new. I’ll keep you posted.
*** I am a blogger. I am writing only about my own experiences. I am not an expert on eating disorders so here are some resources I found helpful.
National Eating Disorders Associations – www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
Eating Disorders Hope – www.eatingdisorderhope.com
Eating Disorders Coalitions – www.eatingdisorderscoalition.org
Bring Change To Mind resource page – www.bringchange2mind.org/learn/resources
National Alliance on Mental Illness www.nami.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Text Line – text HOME to 741741
If you feel like you’re a danger to yourself, please call 911. You’re worth it!