I have shared about my history of using food to numb my feelings, but the reality of my experience is that food is one of the most complicated aspects of my mental health. I can often be heard saying that the human experience is messy and that mental health is complicated for everyone; I truly believe that we all carry different heavy pieces of life. For me, my relationship with food has been arguably the heaviest. Growing up, I always felt like my body was simply too big, and because of this, food was the enemy. My negative feelings about my body began when I was incredibly young. In fact, my earliest memories include a negative view of my self, my body, and food.
Picture it: Chicago, 1987. For my kindergarten Christmas Pageant, I was granted the leading role as Mary, the Mother of Jesus (traditional Catholic school, traditional holiday celebration). The role requirements included that I, as Mary, sit on the back of a crawling classmate who was assigned the role of the donkey throughout the show.
We can dig into how inappropriate and weird this detail is later.
While I adore the holidays, and was excited to have a role in the play, more than anything else, I was terrified. My fear was not based around the idea that I was playing a lead role on stage in front of the church congregation; but rather, my terror came from the assumption that I was going to crush my classmate under the weight of my fat body.
Note the awkward look of fear on my face, and most importantly, the small boy dressed as a donkey under me.
I was 5 years old.
There is something that happens when you grow up feeling too big. I felt that I needed to apologize for taking up space, put others needs before my own, and please everyone else first. In addition to feeling like I was not worthy, my relationship with food became a source of distress, as I was convinced that every time I ate, I was growing fatter, more disgusting, and an even bigger disappointment to my loved ones. Connecting my value in life to the size of my body created a shame based relationship with food. After every meal I felt guilty. Nourishment is a requirement for life, yet every time I ate it felt like a failure and I was deserving of punishment.
As one could guess, this pattern led me to the world of restriction as I made my way through grade school. There were many times that I could be found with a brown bagged lunch filled with 3 saltines and a Diet Rite as my lunch, thinking that this would prove that I was not a failure. I recall a classmate in 8th grade looking into my brown paper bag, jokingly calling my lunch anorexic. I felt a wave of heat through my body, a mix of embarrassment sprinkled with hope that someday I could be in control enough to match that assessment.
With this punishing restriction came the swing of the hunger pendulum. I would limit my food intake until I was dizzy, existing on the fumes of diet pop and sugar free Jell-O, dreaming of some day looking like the other girls in my grade school class. Eventually, of course, my brain would take over, as these miraculous organs do when survival feels threatened. I would inevitably eat a meal, finally giving in to the biological drive that keeps us nourished.
Sometimes, I would eat a “normal” meal, feel guilty, and shift right back into restriction. More often than not, though, the hunger felt endless. Walking around with an empty hole inside is incredibly uncomfortable, and I found that filling it took more than a “normal” meal. When I was young I never intended to binge. Every meal felt like a shameful act, so the idea of a binge was not even on my radar. Often without realizing, I would be so relieved to have a moment where I wasn’t restricting, where I was finally allowing myself to eat, that I would just lose myself and disconnect from all the negative feelings and stories that were on repeat in my brain. Those moments briefly felt like freedom, until I would snap back into the reality of my self-hating mind. There is a cycle that kicks in when eating feels shameful. Every time I ate resulted in viewing myself as a failure. Feeling like a failure would sometimes lead me to “screw it, I am disgusting” or “I will change my life tomorrow”, which would then land me elbows deep in food.
As a highly sensitive empathic human, I feel a lot of energy and emotions. When I was growing up, I had no idea that this was even a possibility, and I definitely did not understand what I was feeling or why. Anxiety and depression became a major part of my life, as I did not understand the power in sensitivity and empathy. On the days when I felt really bad, food became the easiest, most accessible, and most socially acceptable tool for me to disconnect myself from my feelings. I sought control (restriction) or disconnection (binge) in an ongoing cycle. My binges were triggered because I was seeking moments of freedom from feeling all these feelings. My restrictions were triggered as punishment for the binges, and a desire to fix my unacceptable body.
This cycle would continue for decades. It turns out; this truly was just the beginning.
Continue reading the second installment Anatomy of a Binge: Disconnected>>