I try to bring up my eating disorder as little as possible. To me, bringing up my ED is equivalent to telling people about a giant zit I had last week. It’s awkward, it’s embarrassing, and honestly, it’s kinda pointless – that zit is gone already, so what’s the point of bringing it up?
As time goes by, I’ve managed to convince myself that it really wasn’t a big deal. It was just a part of ‘growing up’. I don’t have a problem with eating anymore. I like working out and going to the gym. Food and weight maintenance is easy for me. On the daily, people tell me, “You’re so skinny.” “How are you so tiny?” And the more I believe what other people tell me, the more I worry that I’m selling a lie.
I don’t want to bury or minimize my ED, just as how I don’t want it to define me. This week is NEDA – national eating disorder month. This story is for all those who may not know this about me, but more importantly, it’s a reminder to myself – that a long time ago, it was really fucking hard.
My Binge Eating Disorder
For a lot of people, self-image problems start up right when they reach adolescence. I was more concerned about my status in the high school honour band – so that phase managed to skip right over me.
I had a pretty good relationship with food growing up. My parents cooked a traditional Chinese diet, high in vegetables/fruits/legumes and low in processed foods. My weight was pretty steady all throughout high school. When I went off to university, I was about 115-120lb and 5’3 – a very normal weight for my stature.
The freshman 10 hit me in my first two years of university. I changed from my parent’s healthy home cooking to greasy dorm food. I was about 125lb when I noticed that my clothes weren’t fitting very well anymore. I vowed to lose the freshman 15 the summer before my 3rd year.
The summer I turned 19, I started being serious about weight-loss. Even though I didn’t know the first thing about nutrition, I told my mom that I wanted to lose 10lbs and signed up for a circuit gym. I went to the gym every day after my summer job and I ran on the weekends. My mom substituted starchy noodles for vermicelli, and put lots of tofu/greens in my lunch rather than meat. I lost the freshman 10 I gained and acquired some muscle definition. By the time 3rd year started, I managed to hit my goal of 115lbs.
I went back to university and tried to keep up my ‘diet’. I still went running, but I didn’t know the first thing about nutrition. Instead of eating breakfast, I would drink a French vanilla from Tim Hortons – I thought that counted as ‘weight loss food’ because I wasn’t actually ‘eating anything’. (No, don’t ever do that.) Sometimes instead of eating lunch, I would have a few cookies from Starbucks. (Don’t do this either.) I would skip dinner and drink a lot at night time – thinking this would offset the calorie intake.
Unsurprisingly, the weight crept back up. By the time I went back home for Xmas, I had gained the 10lbs I lost – and more. I was around 130lb now. My mom was shocked, “What happened? I thought you were super into weight loss?? How did you gain it back??” I didn’t know either, but I knew I wanted to lose it again.
This began the worst year of my life thus far.
The spring before I turned 20, I was determined to get back to my ‘skinny’ weight. I read about how Beyonce lost 20 pounds doing something called the ‘Master Cleanse’ – basically a 10 day fast where you don’t eat anything except drink lemon juice mixed with maple syrup. It sounded crazy, but I did it. I ended up starving myself for 7 days. During that period, I thought more about food than I had thought possible. I was so hungry that even previously unappealing things seemed delicious.
I won’t get into too much details about that diet, but I did manage to lose about 7 pounds. Unfortunately the weight was mostly water and muscle.
My weight on the scale went down to about 123lb (I was ecstatic) yet my clothing showed just how flabby my midsection was. I didn’t understand that losing that much muscle actually made me look worse.
A few days of regular eating, and I regained some of the water weight. I was devastated – starving myself for more than a week was for nothing?! During my week without food, I had intense cravings for foods I had never craved before – mostly sweets and cheesecake. Well, whatever, since my diet failed I might as well have those foods.
I gained back all the weight I lost and then some. Worse, I didn’t gain back any of the muscle so I looked larger than I previously did before the diet. My face become bloated due to water retention.
I tried a few more crash diets after this, Atkins, Cabbage Soup Diet, extremely low calorie diets (1,200 per day). After losing a few pounds from each, I would resume normal eating habits and gain it back. I thus began the cycle of the dreaded “yo-yo dieting”.
For a few months during that summer when I was 20, I decided enough is enough – I can’t just do these short stints of dieting. If I wanted to be skinny, I needed to put in serious time and energy. I decided to become a raw foodist. I ate nothing but fruits and vegetables (which severely limited my ability to socialize) and I signed up for the gym again. I got up at 7am to go jogging, and I counted my calories every single day – I even kept track of the calories I burnt by going for a walk.
The raw foodist stint was the ultimate deprivation so far, and I craved so many different foods (likely due to a mineral/vitamin deficiency). Everything looked appealing.
I tried to stay under 1200 calories everyday. I counted calories to the point where I was not sure anymore if I was hungry or full. I was starving myself and yet I wasn’t losing any weight. Everything at this point became topsy-turvy. I didn’t understand what I did wrong, how come I ate healthy/ran a year ago and lost weight and now I can’t anymore? (The answer is because I screwed up my metabolism and body by losing all my muscle and then going long periods of time without eating – causing my body to freak out and hold on to its fat in case I tried to do something crazy again)
The first mini-binges happened around here. Frustrated by my lack of progress and craving just about everything, I would sometimes eat 2-3 granola bars in one sitting. Looking back, this was probably good for me (I needed those calories) – but I would feel so guilty about all the ‘unplanned’ calories I didn’t budget for that I would tell myself that I will be more vigilant tomorrow! I must stay under 1200 calories.
On some of these occasions, I ran to the bathroom to try to throw up the food I ate. However my binges were small and I wasn’t good at making myself throw up – so that saved me from being bulimic.
My classmates at school saw me eating nothing but healthy food and remarked how ‘amazing that you’re a raw foodist!’. Yet I’m sure they wondered in their minds, “But why is she chubby when she eats so little?” This juxtaposition was not lost on me, and I was so ashamed of how everyone must have known how I’m a huge failure for not being able to lose weight.
The longer I restricted myself calorically, the more food obsessed I became.
Binge eating disorder affects approx. 3.5% of women. Until 2013, it wasn’t actually recognized as an eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is characterized by a period of extreme over-eating (often to the point of physical comfort) along with a sense of loss of self-control.
I binged because I was obsessed with food. At that point, I had been on-and-off dieting for over 6 months with many of those stretches bordering on extreme deprivation. My body was lacking minerals. My hair started to fall out and stopped growing. My nails were brittle and weak. I didn’t have as much energy to socialize and my mood was low constantly. I think binging was my body finally crying out for help.
Because I was so strict with calorie counting during the day, I only gave myself room to fail. On the days when I managed to stay under my goal, I didn’t binge. Yet on others when I exceeded my caloric goal, I would consider that day a write-off and eat a ton of food at night.
I kept a blog in the fall of 2010 and I kept track and photographed every morsel of food that went in my mouth. My friends joked that I was a ‘food blogger’, but really it was just a manifestation of how obsessed I became with food. My binges didn’t make it on to the blog – how could they? I didn’t know this was an ED back then, and the only thing that kept me from throwing up after each binge was that, “If I don’t throw up it’s not Bulimia. I’m still healthy. There’s nothing wrong with me except that I’m fat.”
What started as very episodic mini-binges became more frequent. I feared judgment from my housemates about my binging and stopped keeping food in the house. I only kept raw ingredients so that I couldn’t binge on anything – just more deprivation.
My life became all about food, what to eat, when to eat, and what I definitely couldn’t eat but wanted to.
Why I’m afraid of scones:
I had a period of time when I became obsessed with scones. Made with sugar, high in carbs and calories, because they were a ‘forbidden food’ for me I was drawn to them. Sometimes I would go to bed so hungry (a good day) and tell myself that I could have a scone for breakfast as a reward. I would literally look at what time the bakery opens, and set my alarm for a few minutes before (5:45am) so I could walk to the bakery in the rain in pitch black to have a fresh scone for ‘breakfast’. Then I would be on campus at 9:00am and have a ‘second breakfast’ scone, followed by a lunch scone. Why did I eat three scones? Because the previous day I would spend hours thinking about them. By this point I was feeling pretty shitty mentally and physically, and would eat little else for the rest of the day. My eating cycles were beyond fucked up. Food was my enemy.
When I went home for Christmas, I was at my heaviest weight ever at 145lbs. My mother hadn’t seen me in a year and was shocked. My poor nutrition also made my face extremely bloated, making me look even larger.
My mother tried to ‘help me’ the way she did a year ago, by cooking healthy food and encouraging me to exercise – but I was pretty far off the deep end by then. Every single comment about my weight, about food, or about exercise was extremely ‘triggering’. “God I know I’m fat why do you have to comment? You think I haven’t been trying to lose weight? You don’t think I know I need to eat less?!”
I felt so ashamed and yet I pretended that I was fine. I tried to eat as little as possible in the presence of company so my relatives would not comment on my weight (but Asian relatives love to do this regardless). Instead, I snuck portable bits of food up to my room during the day (crackers, instant jam packets, small buns, chocolate bars) and ate everything when everyone else had gone to sleep.
That was probably the lowest point. Sitting in my childhood room where I had mostly good memories in the pitch black of night. Silently unwrapping food and scarfing it down so fast I could barely taste anything. The whole time adrenaline pumping through my body because I feared being discovered. I couldn’t even stop myself from eating – I thought that if I left anything, I’d just eat it later anyway, better that I finish now and start over tomorrow. Tomorrow, I won’t binge. Tomorrow I won’t eat very much at all.
When I went back to school that semester. I felt defeated. It had been a whole year of yo-yo dieting, and my eating habits have only gotten worse. I gained more weight over the holidays (to a high of 155lb at one point after binging) and I just felt like I couldn’t keep living like this. And yet I couldn’t stop myself – I don’t think I had a single day in over a year where I did not obsess about food. I could not stop the compulsion or the cycle.
When I went back on campus, I was finally done with pretending to other people that I was fine. My weight gain was apparent to everyone, and I felt like the charade was finally up. There’s no point in dieting if I was just getting fatter, and I slowly became a recluse. Refusing to go outside except for classes, avoiding talking to others if I could. I hated picking up the phone. I hated waking up. Most of all, I hated myself. I hated myself for being fat, for being a failure, for trying so hard to lose weight and still not managing to do so.
There were days when I would walk down the street to my bus stop, and think about how freeing it would finally be to just get hit by the bus. A few times an inner voice urged me along, telling me to stop being a fat coward and to finally do something right.
When the voices grew louder and more frequent, I finally went to see a counsellor on campus. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew these suicidal thoughts were something I shouldn’t keep to myself. I told her about my thoughts and my hatred of my weight, and she made me fill out a survey that tested for depression. My answers corresponded with ‘severe/high-risk depression’ and when she found out that my triggers were all food related she referred me to an eating disorder specialist on campus. When I went to see the eating disorder specialist. I was alarmed at the people sitting in the room. Most of them looked perfectly normal. There were no bones-thin women or overly obese women. Everyone looked like a normal college student. I noticed we were all female.
The ED specialist was a doctor in his 50s. When I told him what I had been doing, I felt ashamed and broke down in tears – it all seemed so stupid and disgusting – and yet, he asked me questions patiently and without judgement. I was relieved that it didn’t seem at all new to him. He prescribed me Prozac for my depression symptoms and told me to take it first, and that we would work on the ED in the subsequent visits.
I was sick of being sad all the time and I missed socializing with friends. I decided after seeing the ED specialist, that I would come to terms with being fat. I would be ok with being whatever weight I ended up being – I didn’t want to diet anymore. I didn’t want to look in the mirror and hate myself any more. I just wanted to stop feeling so bad. The little green pills he prescribed gave me the first glimmer of hope I had seen in a long time.
For the next few months, I stopped counting calories. I wanted to focus on loving and accepting myself, regardless of what the scale said. I went back to see the doctor regularly and focused on school. Since I started eating realistic portions, I stopped binging naturally.
I had to relearn how to eat food and to listen to my body. I had trained myself to be scared of a lot of foods and it took a long time. Over and over, I had to remind myself that not being depressed >>> physical weight. I ate foods that were traditionally comforting to me, like noodle dishes and Chinese food that reminded me of home. Once I stopped binging, I lost some weight.
By the spring I was much happier with myself. At this point I was 135lbs but more importantly – I was mentally healthy. The ED specialist suggested I try a physical activity in a classroom setting, and I signed up for a techno spin class.
The class was fun and boosted my mood. Exercising helped me gain muscle and boosted my endorphins. It also allowed my to experience the initial joy I had in 2009 when I exercised regularly. I realized that healthy living, both physically and mentally, was the true goal. Weight loss is merely a byproduct.
After a few months, my weight went down to about 120-125lbs. I was very happy to have regained control over my ED, and I vowed to never diet again. I was able to stop seeing my ED specialist at that point as well.
My ED ended over 5 years ago. To this day, I have many regrets about that year and a half. From onset to recovery, my ED consumed me for almost half my university career. I sometimes look back and try to think about what I did those last two years of university, and I can’t remember anything but obsessing over food.
Some people say that your eating disorder never goes away. I definitely believe that to be true. There is always a fear of relapsing into that state, and that very fear forces me to act in a way that wards off any potential relapse. To this day I still have some remnants left over:
1. I weigh myself every single morning.
2. I’m afraid of eating scones.
3. Over-eating makes me feel extremely guilty, sometimes to the point of causing anxiety.
4. I abhor people giving me advice on food or telling me to change my eating habits.
5. I’m afraid of becoming fat.
The moral of the story isn’t: I was unhappy because I was fat, and now I’m happy because I am skinny (although it may seem that way). When I loved myself more, I dedicated more time to exercise and less time to dieting. Now when I find myself in a cycle of dieting, (for example these past few months) I have to stop and ask myself why I’m doing it – is it out of self-love or self-hatred?
This story is to be continued, as my relationship with food and body image is sure to evolve throughout the years. If you’re reading this right now and you too, have issues with food. Please feel free to reach out to me anytime – even anonymously. I wish I had been able to open up about my ED while it was happening to a friend – maybe I could’ve saved myself a lot of time and heartache. If you have any questions about BED, I’m not an expert, but I’ll try to answer what I can for you.