*Contains a candid discussion of disordered eating.
Once you begin binging on food around the age of ten, using it as a drug to numb your fear and loneliness, it takes hold. It becomes a part of your existence. You don’t recall trying to stop, only to be strategic about what you’re eating so as not to draw attention. You learn to get food out of the kitchen silently while others are in the house. You stand in front of the fridge and drink chocolate syrup as it it’s a beverage. You can get the lid off the Old King Cole glass cookie jar and back on without the familiar clunk. You eat from many different bags, and boxes and packages. It is sugar, grains, and processed non-food food that draws you in. Your weight remains normal, somehow, allowing you to be perceived as normal. The binge eating poisons you, but you cannot stop. It is like this for two or three years until you begin to drink alcohol and use drugs. Once that begins, the food takes fourth place behind drugs, alcohol and men. It is still there. The obsession. You still binge. You do not purge. Not yet. There is no reason because you are not fat. Not yet.
By midway through your 16th year of life your drug addiction, alcoholism and sex and love addiction land you in treatment. The last of those, the addiction to sex and love, will not be identified or understood by you until you are 50 years old. It is the member of the trifecta that escalates the other two such that you can’t sustain them any longer. You are living a double life. Good grades, always employed, missing curfew only twice in your life, a polite, affable family member that does your chores and checks all the required boxes, so that you can hit it hard in your alternate universe and go undetected. At the point at which you are betrayed and discarded by your boyfriend, you are drinking a fifth of liquor each day and smoking weed from waking to sleep. It gets away from you. You are exhausted and your body is thin enough to draw concern.
As you walk up the steps to the treatment center, having used drugs with a schoolmate earlier in the day in a last desperate grab at your soon-to-be old life, you wonder what will become of you. What will you be without these addictions that define you. That fill the void and quiet the voices in your head. In treatment, the food comes back to its rightful place. It has been waiting patiently. Your compatriot, who has since died from kidney failure, sits across from you in his assigned seat in the dining room and gives you his German chocolate cake, which you stack upon your own. He knows you like it. After 28 days of pancakes and cake and various other foods one would expect to find in an adolescent treatment center, your tiny clothes are a little bit snug. You are still quite thin by all standards, but the boyfriend, the one who discarded you, comments on it. Yes, you go back to him. Knowing he is a liar and a philanderer. You are addicted. He pinches a tiny bit of flesh on your side and expresses disbelief that YOU are capable of gaining weight. As if you are immune. You are not, of course. He confirms all the messages you’ve received in your life. Fat is bad. If you are fat, you will not be wanted. You will be worthless. How dare you gain weight. How fucking dare you.
You stay clean and sober, knowing that you brushed death, or at least brain damage, a few times as you tend to drink until you drop. There is no off switch. Sex and food are now number one and two on the anesthesia list.
In addition to dating two boys from your treatment experience against all advice, you also move on to a young man you meet at Narcotics Anonymous. He is in his early 20s to your age of 17. He has a level of maturity that you enjoy. You have sex constantly. He remarks one day that you are “not noticeably fat”. What he means is that you are not muscular. You are soft and fleshy. It is reinforced. You are your appearance. You must meet the standards of these men or you will be discarded. You are a normal sized person on the thin end of the spectrum and it is still not good enough. How dare you not have an ideal body. How fucking dare you.
You start college at 17 in another state. You are 16 months clean and sober. Your sober support group is left behind. You are terrified. So much so that you go to the university health center and tell the doctor you’re sober and have no support system there. He very helpfully walks you to an AA hall that is a mere block from your dorm. It is what is called low-bottom, with its dirty sofas and smoke stained walls and dinginess. You don’t look like you belong there, and the older men at the noon meeting ask you if you are lost. No, you tell them, you are here for the meeting. You share and as is always the case in these genius 12-step fellowships, are accepted for your shared malady.
At your parents’ first visit, your Dad remarks that you look thin. You surmise this is from the fear and loneliness, which you mostly treat with Cat Stevens and J.D. Salinger. Eventually, though, you gain some comfort and familiarity and a few friends. Food becomes important again. In addition to all one would expect in the cafeteria there are late night burgers and junk food. You eat past the point of fullness most of the time. Somehow you avoid significant weight gain. You date someone who is dishonest, cheats on you and discloses late in the relationship, past sexual practices that give you an AIDS scare. It is the late 80s, so it is a bona fide scare. You seek out a test which is not easy to find. Your Dad helps you. You don’t want to ask him, but you must. The test is negative. You return to this man briefly. It is a reflection of the way in which you do not value yourself. The way in which you conform to the needs and preferences of the men you are with, so they will accept you and not betray and discard you. It doesn’t work. You find out he is also having sex with another woman in your dorm. That is finally enough to end it.
When you return home the summer after freshman year, you dabble with the old boyfriend who used and tossed you aside. You try to entice the young man from Narcotics Anonymous with more than friendship and he rejects you with his adult boundaries. You can’t bear to be without a man.
You go to a new AA meeting and meet a man 14 years your senior. You are 18, he is 32. He pursues you. You have an intense summer romance. You try to break it off, the suffocation beginning to envelop you, but he reacts so strongly that you acquiesce. You acquiesce because he is somehow more important than you are. He moves to your university town three hours north so that you can live together six months into the relationship. You have not married him yet, but you will at the ripe age of 23. You begin to eat in a way that shows up on your body. Although your husband yo-yos up and down 40 pounds many times over the course of the 17-year marriage, it is your weight that is his focus. After several years of binge eating, your body reflects it. Your husband tells you that you are fat and unattractive and that you are not the person he met and fell in love with. He removes his love, criticizes and shames you, monitors what you eat and questions it. The person who promised to love and cherish you removed his love because you don’t look the way he wants you to. The way you looked at 18 years old. How dare you not look like you're 18. How fucking dare you.
Again, you are your appearance and your appearance is inextricably tied to your weight and your weight is inextricably tied to your value. You are objectified and dehumanized. You have experienced this with such regularity that you believe this to be true. During the years that you live in a larger body, even strange men that don’t know you feel free to comment. You are out running one day and from the golf course a man standing with several other men shouts “run faster”. You want to scale the chain link fence, march onto the green and punch him square in the throat, crushing his windpipe. Instead, you cut your run short to avoid passing them again and most likely binge. When you share the painful experience with your husband, he further shames you, agreeing with those men.
You had started working in your chosen field the summer before your senior year so you begin full-time work immediately upon graduating from college. You find meaning, satisfaction and success in your work. You and your husband are eventually able to buy a nice, big house in the country under the majestic shadow of Mt. Rainier. You are still binge eating, as is he. It has become one of the things that bonds you. The abuse of food. It is counterintuitive to his hateful attitude about your weight. He wants an eating buddy and also wants you to look a certain way. You try many diets and exercise routines over the years. You take weight loss supplements. Buy many things from late night infomercials. Nothing works because the binge eating outpaces any antidote with which you try to treat it. One day you catch yourself in a reflective surface at the mall. Your brain doesn’t recognize the woman at first. It then computes that it is you. During this same period you attend a wedding of an old friend and one of the guests whom you knew growing up remarks, “I wouldn’t have recognized you”. You know what she is referring to and want to disappear. To die of the shame of being fat. You are fat now. You are not a regular weigher of your body, but you estimate you top out at around 210 pounds. On your tall but slight frame, it is a lot. And objectively, you don’t carry it well, because it is the unnatural symptom of food addiction. You have what you refer to as 'punkin head'. You carry the weight everywhere, including your face. You change your hair countless times in these years trying to escape the inescapable.
And then one day you are reading Redbook and in the back there is an add for a yet another miracle diet. The investment is small. Maybe $15 including shipping. You have invested thousands at this point and think this is a small price to pay for something else that might work. When the book arrives, you read it cover to cover and commit to its guidelines. One thing is made quite clear, there is no sugar allowed. You are encouraged to weigh your food portions to retrain your brain as to what a normal portion size looks like. But, there are still grains allowed in limited amounts. You do this diet as written for awhile and your body begins to shrink. Even when you begin to cheat on the diet, eating more bread products and less fruit and vegetables and occasionally allow a sugar binge or a pizza, you shrink back down to around a size eight. The approval starts almost immediately. You are no longer the subject of scorn, exclusion and disapproval, a waste of a woman who would otherwise be attractive if only she were thinner. You are acceptable again. It feels like a drink of water after a long thirst. But the acceptance from others is juxtaposed by the lack of acceptance of yourself. You are constantly in search of the next size down. A size six is surely more valuable than a size eight. Surely life will be better at that size. And then the terror of gaining the weight back sets in. You are still very much in conflict trying to manage the cravings and hold off the binges. You begin to control this by eating endless large bowls of air popped popcorn with chemically simulated butter spray on it. It allows you to shovel large amounts of food in without adding weight to your body. But one day you feel overly full after one of these huge serving bowls of chemical popcorn and decide that perhaps you should vomit. You go into the powder room, the only downstairs bathroom, and purge. Although painful, it comes up relatively easily. There is an odd euphoria. You feel successful. Maybe this is the answer. You can eat what you want and purge it before the dreaded calories are absorbed.
You will spend the next 10 years of your life on your knees with your head in the toilet in this powder room. Wiping the walls, baseboards, counter, and mirror. You will carefully pick vomit out of your hair and splash water on your face. You wretch with such force at times your back is strained and you fear a slipped disc. You awaken with swollen lymph nodes and not much energy as only lunch from the day prior is allowed to stay in your body. You routinely feel this way as you start your four-mile daily run. Your husband tries to sabotage you by bringing home cake and holding it under your nose, literally. You seek help a few times, but eating disorders are extremely hard to treat and your efforts are unsuccessful, one therapist saying “I don’t really know what to do with you. Have you read this book?” You respond that you have read it and that it made you a better bulimic.
Over time, the binging outpaces the purging and your body begins to get larger. In 2005 you are having to buy new, larger clothes. It is happening again. You are filled with shame and terror. You have been in the marriage at least 5 years beyond loving him. It is fraught with conflict and mental illness. When you attempt to discuss separating, his reaction is extreme and involves threats of suicide and returning to active addiction. He has begun to gamble as a replacement for drinking and using. Given your joint finances, which reflect the mental illness that infiltrates your marriage from both sides, you are terrified he will decimate your credit and your future.
Your friend, who also struggles with food, reads a book called Passing for Thin. The memoir details participation in a 12-step food program, the name of which is kept anonymous, per Tradition Eleven. She deduces what it might be after some online research and finds a local meeting. She is scared to go. She has not been to a 12-step meeting before. You have been to thousands and offer to accompany her. You clearly state that since seeing a new psychiatrist and getting on a new medication that will hopefully be the magic bullet you have been seeking for the last 15 years, you are not interested in doing the program. But, you will support her.
You arrive at the church just prior to 9 am on a Saturday morning. It is a sunny spring day. There are about eight women present including you and your friend. They start the meeting. The readings and structure are based on AA and are very comfortable and familiar to you. They then pivot to what is referred to as a first step meeting. This occurs when there are newcomers present and typically involves people sharing brief summaries of their story in order to orient you to the program and demonstrate the recovery that can be achieved. You can’t really believe what you are seeing and hearing. These women are beautiful, intelligent, successful, and thin. They are talking about abstinence from food. You are an abstinence veteran. You know you can abstain. You have abstained from drugs and alcohol for 18 years at that point. You wished often that there was a way to simply abstain from food. Then you could do it. This abstinence that they describe and the freedom that comes from it sounds like an utter miracle. They describe weighing and measuring three meals a day, choosing foods in specific amounts from the food list, nothing in between meals except coffee, tea or diet soda. You have some experience with weighing from that Redbook diet. This weighing is not optional. It, as well as the approved food list, is the basis of the program. That and a daily commitment of your food to a qualified food sponsor. It’s the last bit that gives you pause. You don’t want to report to anyone. Even during your years of addiction recovery you have resisted sponsorship. It is required in this program. You cannot be abstinent without it. You and your friend stay after the meeting and make your first food commitment to a lovely woman who stays after to help you get started and temporarily sponsor you. You stop at Red Robin on the way home and eat greasy, fatty, fried food that will no longer be part of your new life. That night, alone while your husband works swing shift, you plan and execute your last binge. You write down everything you eat, how it tastes and how it makes you feel. It is an exercise in self-abuse, shame and ultimately honesty. The next day, April 24th of 2005, you are abstinent. It takes less than four months for your marriage to end, this last vestige of shared dysfunction stripped away. On August 15th you separate from your husband and start the year-long acrimonious trudge that is divorce. You understand why people kill their spouses instead of divorcing them. You hate him and tell him so. He is hanging on like a child being ripped from a parent, because you have been taking care of everything for so long. Your codependence and enabling are incredibly sticky. Like flypaper. A year later, you are finally, legally freed.
On September 10th of 2005, just 26 days after you have ended your 17-year marriage, you go on a date with a man you have sought out, having met him a year earlier on a rare night out with friends. Again, you cannot stand to be without a man. It is a drive as strong as all your other addictions combined, but somehow does not occur to you as that. You are clean, sober, 26 days separated and barely 5 months abstinent in your food recovery program. The weight you carried in with you to that first meeting is mostly gone; around 35 pounds. It is a nearly 75 pound difference from your top weight. As in the past, the world begins to open back up to you, the sun shines a little brighter and the comments of approval start to roll in. You are acceptable again, no longer a disappointment of a woman.
You will weigh and measure your food three times a day for nearly 17 years. You will do it when you travel to other countries, when you are debilitated by cancer treatment, at family gatherings and special events. The core guidepost of this program is “no matter what”. There are no exceptions made for when it’s just too hard. So, you use your highly disciplined nature as well as your terror of falling back into bulimia to anchor your commitment. This program is termed “the last house on the block”. In recovery terms, it means nothing else has worked and this is your last stop. Those in the other, less rigid food recovery programs term you and your compatriots “food nazis”.
The date you went on easily transitions into a relationship. Again, you are unable to be without an intimate partner, it is like oxygen. You will be with him for 14 years. He is accepting and supportive of your recovery. He runs back to your apartment to get your food scale, your forgotten fruit, orders things you can eat, waits for you to weigh in case you need more vegetables. He patiently goes from restaurant to restaurant as you travel the world together until you find one that will be able to provide the 1 to 1.5 pounds of vegetables required at each meal. He does not criticize your appearance, but rather focuses on it intently and delivers constant compliments about it. He also routinely expresses his disdain for the fat and the gluttonous. Given how you have been treated in the past, the compliments are welcome and reassuring. However, they sneakily have a similar effect. They reinforce the belief that your value is intrinsically tied to your appearance and your appearance is intrinsically tied to your weight and if it changes in the wrong direction, you will no longer be wanted.
There is always a subtle feeling that he is looking for something or someone better, which keeps you from feeling accepted by him. So, you try to be better. For 14 years you try to be the perfect partner, so, you will not be betrayed and discarded. It does not work. You are betrayed and discarded anyway. By the time the years-long betrayals are exposed you can no longer smile from all the botox and filler you have in your face. The years in this relationship with its undercurrent of insecurity and subtle and not so subtle acts of exclusion have driven you to hammer away at your outsides. It is a form of self-harm that distracts you from your inside pain, you just pay others to do it.
The end of this relationship and the way you are treated by this person whom you loved, plummets you into the darkest and lowest bottom of your life. You are still weighing and measuring your food. You are still diligently working your food recovery program and staying connected with the fellowship of others that share your malady. You think that this will be necessary for the remainder of your life. And then something else begins to happen. You are determined to climb out of this hole, this abyss of dehumanization by men and to not tumble again into its depths. You have had enough. How fucking dare they.
You take on your own healing as a second full-time job. As you begin to shift from self-hate to self-acceptance to self-love, you find yourself unable to eat these high-volume, regimented meals. You slide over to the anorexic end of the eating disorder spectrum. It does not seem to be about control, however. It feels like your spirit and your body are rejecting this regimen that had once saved your life. It no longer seems to suite you and instead of feeling loving it feels punishing. You speak to a sage old friend who recounts a similar bout of anorexia in her youth that landed her in an institution. She simply says, “I think I just could not swallow any more shit”. This resonates. You are done swallowing shit. You don’t know what it means to be done, but you know that you are. It is scary to break from this program that has been an anchor in your life. The first time you eat unweighed food, you do so with your brother. Your first best friend and soul mate. You have eaten three weighed and measure meals a day with nothing in between for nearly 17 years. As you tread into this new relationship with food, you are cautions and seek refuge in your family. They have supported and accommodated this food program in every restaurant and every family holiday. Now, they are quietly supportive and accepting of you, as they have always been.
You abstain from sugar, grain and certain other foods. These things do not agree with your gut and activate craving. You know they are not for you. You continue to eat foods from the food list and eventually allow in some fruits, vegetables and nuts which were not on the food list. You travel domestically and internationally and experience the joy of being able to order something off the menu without all the special requests and extra sides of vegetables required to meet the 2.5 pound per day vegetable requirement of your former program. You eventually allow yourself a snack in between meals. You no longer require yourself to eat three meals a day if your body doesn’t seem to want it. Your body, already small, becomes smaller. First from not eating much and then from only eating what it seems to want and require. You always had a naturally small frame even with your 70+ inches of height. Your body is allowed to be what it is naturally. It is not being force fed nor starved. It just is. You eat until you are not hungry. You bump up against a subtle feeling that signals you are satiated, but not yet full, and you stop eating, no longer interested in the food. This feels like love. It is new. It is a revelation. You no longer weigh your body. It is allowed to just be what it is without being subject to a metric.
You travel to Belize alone and delight in the delicious food and the lack of struggle. You spend a month in Malta and enjoy the wonderful fruits and nuts sourced from Turkey and Greece and Italy. Whilst in Malta you meet a man. It has been more than two years that you have abstained from sex and romantic entanglements with men. It is your first such abstinence in 36 years. It is an epiphany and an opportunity to heal and experience a rebirth of body, mind and spirit.
As you walk down the street in Valetta, having just feasted on a plate of lamb chops and vegetables, you are open hearted, completely natural and free of pretense and self-consciousness. He is the same. He strikes up a chat, asks for your number, you give it, he messages immediately, you go on a date, and then another and another. He delights in your food and its healthy discipline. You explain what you used to do, but he is Turkish and only a certain amount of your extensive English language lands. You realize it doesn’t matter. Now is now. Life is now. You are intimate and it is wonderful and natural and unselfconscious. Eventually he comments on the kilos that he perceives to be extra on his own body. You tell him he looks good and feels good and that you love and accept your body and his without judgement. There will be no body shaming. It has no place here. Oh, yes, this is how you fucking dare. You dare to accept yourself and your body unconditionally and reject all judgement.
You could not have known that your food and your relationships with men were extricably tied. You could not have known that the core wound that needed to be healed was the lack of acceptance you felt from your father, that you then chased after in all the men that followed. You could not have known that you were choosing men that would never give you this approval, no matter how hard you tried to secure it. You could not have known until you knew. It took being empty. Scarily empty, dark and unrecognizable inside. It took being done.
This morning you arise and come out from the bedroom and plop down in your favorite chair. Before your funny, honest, picky, intense, playful, unselfconscious partner leaves for work at one of the hotels here in Malta, he asks you why you haven’t eaten breakfast yet; your favorite Turkish figs and Lavazza coffee. You simply respond that you are waiting until your body feels hungry.