Editor’s Note: This story is being published anonymously for the safety and protection of the author and those involved.
More than anything else, food (its preparation, display and uniqueness) has come to dominate almost all aspects of our daily lives. When browsing Facebook, there’s a 70 percent chance that the first thing on my newsfeed will be a Tasty video demonstrating how to make the best chocolate chip pancakes in the world, or an article about a restaurant claiming to serve the best chocolate chip pancakes in the world. When catching up with friends, we’ll most likely end up meeting at a cool, semi-hipster café that we heard serves the best coffee or tea. I even know people who go on “Yelp adventures,” using the Yelp app to find a highly-rated and/or hyped-up restaurant to try and then going simply based on the reviews of the newest product, like a rainbow bagel with birthday cake cream cheese. And this mainstream obsession with food isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I actually consider myself to be a “foodie,” because I do love to seek out new places to eat at and I am guilty of going on Yelp adventures.
However, my relationship with food is not as wonderful and nice as an aesthetically pleasing, Instagram-worthy brunch layout. It would be more accurate to say that I find myself in a love-hate relationship with food. To clarify, the struggle is that while I absolutely love eating and trying out cool new food creations, I absolutely hate myself after eating them. To clarify even further, I suspect that my struggle is actually an eating disorder known as bulimia nervosa. I want to discuss eating disorders not because I want pity, but because it’s important to realize that these disorders are very real and relevant in today’s food-dominated culture and I want to give my own perspective of what it’s like to live in a world where you’re constantly surrounded by the one thing that tears you apart.
First, I want to explain what bulimia nervosa (BN) is, since it tends to be less understood than other eating disorders such as anorexia. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), BN is “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating.” Its main symptoms include frequent episodes of consuming a very large amount of food, followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain; a feeling of being out-of-control during binge-eating episodes and having self-esteem overly related to body image. One of the biggest differences between BN and AN is that it can be hard to tell whether someone is bulimic or not, because a person with BN may have an average, healthy body weight. In contrast, those with AN tend to be characterized by a very low body fat percentage, and as a result, they appear very, very thin.
When I first found out that a person could appear to be perfectly healthy while suffering from an eating disorder, I was mind-blown and quite frankly, very scared. I was scared because for years I had been telling myself that I didn’t have an eating disorder simply because I looked healthy. This is one of the main misconceptions about eating disorders that I want to clarify. Stereotypes of people with eating disorders tend to be limited to those who are abnormally thin. However, suffering from BN has made me realize how completely wrong this stereotype is. An unhealthily low body weight is not necessarily a symptom of an eating disorder; instead, what characterizes an eating disorder is an unhealthy mentality about eating.
During one of my lowest points, I would carefully plan out every meal, snack and drink I would consume that day. If I deviated even in the slightest from that strict plan, then I believed that the extra food would appear on my body as fat. Spontaneous snacks were my worst enemies. For example, if my predetermined lunch was a plain bagel and my friend happened to give me a cookie, I would take the cookie, but then later throw it away because I could not bear to let those extra calories into my body. But of course I was never as strong-willed as I wanted to be, and about once every two weeks, my will would crumble and I would give in to that cookie. And then the binging would commence — after eating that cookie, I could not stop. It was like my mind was reasoning that, “Since you already compromised your diet by eating that one cookie, you might as well just go crazy and eat everything else.” So that one cookie would turn into two, three and then maybe a two bags of chips, followed by brownies, and on and on; even when I felt as if my stomach was going to explode, I would keep going. You may think I was stupid for not stopping, and you’re right, I was. However, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to stop — it was that I couldn’t. This intense, overwhelming need to eat everything that I had deprived myself of for weeks would push me to keep eating.
This brings me into another misconception that I want to address: that people who have BN always engage in self-induced vomiting. After binge eating, I would engage in certain “compensatory behaviors,” but vomiting was never one of them. Truthfully, I never had the guts (no pun intended) to make myself throw up. However, I would feel absolutely disgusted with myself and then continue my unhealthy meal plan with even more vigor the next day, and on top of that, I would skip meals and exercise vigorously. It was an endless cycle of hell: nearly starving, binging and exercising, over and over again.
If I am being absolutely honest, I’m still in that cycle, still engaged in the constant struggle of loving to eat but then hating myself afterwards — but that cycle has come to play a much less dominant part of my life. I am learning to deal with it day by day, to treat myself to dessert and to teach myself not feel guilty when I feel full after eating a proper meal.
I hope that my own personal experience will stop people from belittling eating disorders. I have been living with one for three years and am still struggling to change my attitude towards eating to support a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. I am learning that, rather than simply looking healthy, I actually want to be healthy, both in body and in mind.