Today I spoke to 2 classes at a local high school about experiences in the less rosy parts of life, including mental health (depression and eating disorders), mistakes, and failing.
I received an email after asking if I’d share how I overcame bulimia and binge eating. This question really made me think. What actually was helpful?
After typing out a bit of a novel (the road to recovery was neither short nor straight), I figured the thoughts could be interesting to share.
Let’s see, where to start. In full disclosure, getting out of bulimia and binge eating was a winding road. I wish I could say it was quick and easy, but that’d be a lie. Recovery came in stops and starts — I had to unwind lots of tangled up shit inside myself (I hadn’t realized how deep it went that I thought I’d never be good enough, and that I was broken and bad).
First off, there were two big shifts in how I was viewing things:
1) Seeing that my eating disorders didn’t really have anything to do with food or willpower. I’d spent so long thinking I had a willpower problem and just needed to get myself under control. But regardless of how “in control” and strict I could be (for a short while), it was never enough. During the wild binges when I felt like a bottomless hole, one day it struck me the hole was unfillable — I could eat and eat and eat until I was physically sick and it still wasn’t enough. No matter what I did, I felt empty, and the more I restricted or ate, the emptier I felt (+ shittier my life became). Trying harder was making everything worse. I could see I was going to implode or explode if nothing changed.
2) Coming to see that food (and later alcohol) had become a crutch/way to cope that had become overused — it wasn’t some personal moral failing. Also, that I had to stop being so mean to myself when I went to food. The continual mental beating myself up (“you suck, why are you such a loser, get it together,” etc.) wasn’t helping. Maybe instead of being mean, I could be curious. I started to ask myself whenever I felt the pull to eat (and yes, I felt really dumb asking myself this at first): “Interesting. I’m feeling a need to eat right now. Am I actually hungry? If not, how am I feeling?” And I told myself whatever I chose was okay. I just had to ask myself this question first. While I still ate, especially at the beginning, it started to change the first response from just going straight to eating to noticing how I was feeling — and I got to see that most of the time when all I wanted to do was eat, eat, eat, I was feeling really stressed out or upset about something, or some other “bad” feeling — and I wanted to numb out the feeling and make it go away, I wasn’t actually hungry.
On the tactical end, a few things I started to try when I got to the end of my rope (vomit episodes were leaving my eyes hugely puffy, bloodshot, and with little broken blood vessels around them that I couldn’t hide with makeup anymore — I hated how I looked and it took longer and longer for the red spots to go away); I figured trying couldn’t be worse than not trying:
1) To stop puking after a binge, I made myself sit down and wait as along as I could handle it (and I was in tears and hysterics at the beginning, thinking I was somehow going to die being so full). After a few minutes, I began to see that the “must puke now or I’ll die” feeling would start to pass — and I wouldn’t die. Yeah, I was way too full, but maybe, just maybe I could deal with that. As I made it through a minute, I’d try to wait a little longer each time — and found I could make it through. Not having to deal with the puffy/red eyes (as much) started to help me feel a tiny bit better. And this was some motivation to keep going.
2) Per #2 above, I started to ask myself if I was hungry/how I was feeling + be as non-judgmental as I could be about whatever action I’d take. (Got the idea from a book I came across dealing with eating disorders: Eating in the Light of the Moon. While I found the book heavy and wordy at times, this idea was pretty helpful — asking the question stopped the spinning in my head of “must eat now/I’m so bad” and moved me into “huh, how am I feeling?” — very different energies.) When I could see I wasn’t actually hungry, I tried to do one teeny tiny thing to do something about how I was feeling (for example, if I was feeling upset about a conversation with a family member (but didn’t feel like I could talk directly to them), maybe I’d talk to a friend or jot down a quick note on a piece of paper that I’d just crumple and throw away later — I tried to do something, no matter how little or insignificant it seemed, to acknowledge the feeling). I also started to practice telling myself it was okay if I chose to go and eat something anyway, even if I wasn’t hungry — and I noticed these small, little things started to help. When I’d do them, the pull to eat more somehow wasn’t quite as strong.
3) I still felt too afraid to share with anyone, but I decided to write. I’d open a blank notebook or Word doc and just do a brain dump when I’d start to feel overwhelmed. One day, for the first time, I wrote down: “I struggle with bulimia”. Holy smokes — I felt lighter inside, somehow, just writing that down and getting it out of my head. Eventually, I shared with a really safe person who I knew had struggled previously (and I knew wouldn’t share) – that, too, dropped a weight I had no idea I’d been carrying. Somehow, with getting the words outside of myself, I started to see binge eating and bulimia were something I had struggled with — not who I was.
4) This took longer, but I had to start throwing diet advice I’d gotten over the years out the window (about how to get thin fast, what diet was best, and other crap like that) and start to see what I ate that actually left me feeling good (not bloated, constipated, still hungry, etc.). I also started to see that whenever I was focusing on weight or body, I was really stressed out about something else. This came a few years after stopping throwing up but still bingeing (and drinking too much alcohol). I’d lost some weight (and was at a weight I’d have been thrilled to be at several years prior) — and I realized I really felt no different and my life still felt like it sucked. Losing weight hadn’t proved to be some magical thing that fixed everything. This realization smacked me in the face, and I started to consider that maybe focusing on my weight was a distraction from what I really needed to look at (e.g., staying in a sport I was tired of, being in a job I hated, dating the wrong people). Ironic, but trying to control my weight was a “safer” distraction than feeling a “bad” feeling and then speaking up about something I didn’t like or choosing to do something different (I’d spent so long thinking I needed to be good and not rock the boat). I could focus on my weight all I wanted, but I never felt any better if I did. However, if I risked speaking up (however bumbling it came out or stupid it sounded), I’d actually feel better. And whenever I spoke up and felt a little better, this, too, was motivation to keep speaking up.
It shocked the hell out of me at first, but as I tried whatever baby steps I could do on a day, I noticed that I was spending less time counting and recounting calories in my head, wondering about my weight, and eventually my weight stabilized to a place I was feeling good at — and it didn’t happen because I “tried harder”. It happened when I quit trying so hard.