Regret. Guilt. Shame.
I’d lost count of just how many desserts I’d eaten, just how many chocolates, just how much food. It was more than just holiday eating, I realized, as I knelt over the toilet, staring at the pristine white rim. As I stuck my finger down my throat, gagging but not puking, I finally accepted that there was something wrong with me.
It was Christmas, and I really shouldn’t be spending it doubled over in the bathroom, trying to make myself throw up.
I’ve always been a perfectionist. Neurotic and definitely a control-freak. Obsessive and compulsive. They were the traits that made me successful, but I didn’t know they were also the traits that made me prone to an eating disorder.
I don’t remember knowing what normal eating was.
As a competitive swimmer in high school, I was absolutely starving half of the time. The other half I was simply mildly hungry.
The stereotypes you hear about swimmers eating enormous meals are true – I’d be eating twice as much as my dad for dinner and still be losing weight. I was happy, healthy, and active. Food wasn’t something I thought about too much. I ate healthy, I was careful about what I put in my body, and I ate enough to keep me full.
Sometime before senior year of high school, something changed. I’d listened to people praise me for so long – “You have the perfect body!” “Wow, you’re so pretty!” “Can I just be you?” – that I felt pressured to maintain that image.
Stress wasn’t helping either. College applications loomed in the near future. The pressure to be perfect was too much. I wanted to be the golden girl, and in many ways, perhaps I was: varsity swimming captain, California Scholarship Federation president, National Honor Society executive board member, American Cancer Society Volunteer, 3rd in my class of over 500, National Merit Finalist… I could list off my accomplishments by memory, but it wasn’t enough. It was never enough.
I got it in my head that maybe my life would be better if I was prettier. And if I was skinnier, maybe I’d be prettier.
Between sophomore and junior year, my boobs had grown two cup sizes in three months. Puberty, it seemed, had finally hit me. I felt like a cow compared to my stick thin friends, like a heifer compared to the rest of the typical California girls that looked like they stepped out of Brandy Melville ad. I wanted to wear those flowy tops like they did, but they just looked like tents on me. I jumped from a size 0 to a size 7, and that scared me. A lot.
I was spinning out of control. And one of the things I lost the most control over was eating.
I’d always been a healthy eater – I hate junk food; chips and fried food make me nauseous – so I thought nothing of the first couple of times I ate maybe 20 servings of fruits and veggies in a sitting.
But it happened again and again, with dark chocolate, with nuts, with granola, and I realized the feelings I had were always the same. I knew in the back of my mind that I should stop, that I needed to stop, that any rational person would have stopped already, but it was like my hand had a mind of its own.
It was like an out-of-body experience almost, like my rational mind was floating above me, watching as I shoveled food in my mouth.
I didn’t call it binge eating though.
The summer after senior year was better. I traveled to Paris, spent days at the beach with my friends, ate when I felt hungry, stopped when I felt full, finally felt at peace with my body. Life was good.
Freshman year of college was good too, or so it started out. But like all good things, that too came to an end.
I’d lost weight over the summer since I stopped emotionally eating, and the comments of “you have the perfect body” began again. I felt proud of my body, I accepted the fact that I had the coveted hourglass figure, I knew that I had lost weight, and I wanted more than ever to maintain that image. I felt victorious at beating the Freshman 15.
Winter break destroyed all of that. Going home had always been tumultuous. I love my family, but they have an unique way of getting under my skin. “Eat more, I made this especially for you,” my mom would say. And then, “Why are you eating so much? You’re going to get fat! I can already see your waist getting thicker.” My parents made me irrationally angry, and my way of handling that was to eat everything in sight. “Stop eating,” they’d tell me. I’d only eat more to compensate.
Second semester of my freshman year did not sit well with me. I was stressed, tired, unprepared to deal with the snow, and the all-you-can-eat dining halls were not kind to me. I ate bowls and bowls of carrots and peanut butter (“It’s healthy,” I told myself), to the point where I was eating more than my guy friends. In the span of 4 months, I’d gained 25 pounds.
I didn’t call it binge eating though.
I lost most of the weight over the summer, but ever since then, I’ve been terrified of gaining it back.
I no longer know how much normal people eat, how much I need to eat. I started counting calories in my head, repeating over and over again to myself, “You need a calorie deficit to lose weight. Don’t consume more than you expend.”
I became obsessed with working out – it was a new method of control. And with a packed schedule (classes, work, meetings, swim practice), it was easy to skip meals. I could have an apple for lunch and a granola bar for dinner.
But I found myself exhausted, found that there were some days where I had pounding headaches that wouldn’t go away for hours, found that I got sick constantly, that my body felt like it was breaking down, that my period had stopped completely. And I still wasn’t losing weight. I knew I wasn’t exercising as much as I had been, and my way of dealing with that was to cut down on my food intake even more.
My goal? To get back to my freshman year body, pre weight gain.
My thought process? That I’m too neurotic for anyone to truly like, so I need to be pretty in order for people to want to be around me.
My facade? That I was a foodie, have always been one, and foodies don’t have eating disorders, right?
I considered that maybe I was a binge eater.
I came up with the idea of writing an article about holiday overeating, inspired by all the web posts on preventing Thanksgiving weight gain. When researching, I came upon a textbook section on eating disorders. Bulimia, I found out, wasn’t just consuming huge amounts of food and making yourself throw up. In fact, many bulimics don’t even throw up after binging. Instead, most bulimics purge by extreme exercising or severely limiting their calories the next day. It wasn’t until reading this that I realized I was a bulimic and a binge eater, depending on the instance.
Everything came rushing back to me: drunkenly eating a whole pizza at 3am and running 6 miles the next day and skipping lunch and dinner, getting up when no one was around to eat 15 servings of nuts and chocolate, eating an entire box of granola and lying on my bed, feeling like a beached whale…
I tried intuitive eating, tried eating until I was full, stopping when I was satisfied. It worked, for a time. Winter break always starts out good. I began kickboxing to replace swimming, and found it a prime way to release my aggression and pent up frustration. But Christmas meant no kickboxing, and no kickboxing meant no outlet. How easy it is to slip into your old ways when no one’s there to watch…
It began with breakfast. Upset at the fact that there was a lack of Christmas brunch, I ate chocolate after chocolate. I lost count after 10. I felt disgusted at myself and considered going on a run, but took a nap instead.
Christmas dinner was just as disappointing. Yes, my family had spent the day preparing a Chinese feast, but I was sick of Chinese food. I found myself eating a croissant after dinner, then an ice cream bar, then more chocolate, then random desserts I found in the fridge…
That led me to trying (unsuccessfully) to make myself throw up for the first time ever, knowing that it would make me feel better. My stomach felt stretched out to the point of serious pain; I laid down on the couch in an attempt to speed up my digestion. “I’m not going to eat tomorrow,” I found myself thinking, and realized that something had to change.
I accepted that I was a binge eater.
It’s not easy to say this. I’m laying on my stomach, still reeling from the amount of calories I just consumed, still nauseous at the amount of food I just ate. I feel like I just gained 30 pounds, like my thighs grew thicker and my stomach flabbier.
But the first step to recovery is acceptance, and I hope that by telling my story, all the people who are experiencing the same thing are brave enough to reach out for help. Eating disorders aren’t something that are acknowledged in Chinese culture, just as psychological disorders aren’t, and maybe if I had acknowledged it sooner, I could’ve sought help.
I could’ve stopped this vicious cycle.
By writing this, I hope that I’m taking the steps to get better.
It’s selfish, in a way – writing has always been my therapy – but I also want everyone who feels the same way to know that I understand, that I struggle with this too, that it’s something we can overcome together.
Maybe they don’t realize they have an eating disorder, maybe they don’t realize it’s self-destructive, maybe they don’t know how easy it is to relapse, but with my story, maybe they will.
It’s not easy to say this, but I have an eating disorder.
Find resources here, at the National Eating Disorders Association website.