This story starts with a tub of vanilla ice cream and a Costco-sized jar of Nutella but I don’t know where it ends. What I do know is that I was at my wits end after starting yet another round of dieting and intense exercise, only to find myself too soon sliding backwards; tumbling into another downward spiral of binge eating and self-destruction. Back into a daily ritualized routine of excessive calorie counting, agonizing over nutrition labels and trying to push my body further and further to atone for my dietary sins.
I’m no stranger to dieting, body-image issues, and pitifully low self-esteem; my world has always been colored by the idea that in order to somehow be more loved or accepted, there needed to be less of me. There isn’t a conscious memory I have that isn’t tainted by pressure to be smaller, to eat less, to move more—and that if I could just get my shit together and commit to prescribed diet plans and go outside and run, then I’d be okay. Life could actually start because I’d be small and small means you’re happy, right?
After a battle with antenatal and postpartum depression, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder that left me raw, numb and nearly dead, I shakily reached out for comfort in one of the only ways I really knew how—with a trip to my pantry. Despite medication, therapy and family support, I still wasn’t really sleeping at almost eight months postpartum. Insomnia had ravaged me for close to a year at that point and my body and mind were desperate for reprieve.
So I opened my jar of Nutella, grabbed a spoon and began to eat. The thick, chocolaty sweetness provided me that momentary relief I was after. I could get lost in the taste and texture and if one spoonful wasn’t enough there was nothing to stop me from going back for more. I felt like I’d earned it; that no one could blame me if I did a little comfort eating.
The problem was I wasn’t just comfort eating. One spoonful quickly turned to six. Then the guilt would overwhelm me and I’d silence it with a bowl of ice cream with more Nutella. Then when I was nauseated from the sugar I’d dip my hands into a bag of chips and level things out with some salt. By that point I might then grab my peanut butter and shovel it in while eating handfuls of chocolate chips, straight from the bag.
When I finally reached the point where I couldn’t possibly eat another mouthful, I’d be sick and riding high on a wave of sugar coursing through my veins. My binges were always in the evening, so I’d get ready for bed and then spend hours laying in silence as my body would literally shake from the sugar rush. It was during those ugly moments I’d plan my workout for the next day. The mighty purge. My reckoning. Punishment.
My days would start with the same vow to never binge again and in order to make right my food choices from the night before I would have to spend hours exercising. Still carrying deep shame from my birth experience and failed launch into motherhood, I didn’t want to meet other moms and try and find something to talk about.
I didn’t want to try and drag my son to infant swimming lessons and mommy and me bullshit at Gymboree. Instead I chose to fill my monotonous days that began to seemingly blur together with either a hot yoga or spin class, followed by an hour or more of running and cap it all off with an hour long walk with my son in his stroller. I’d restrict my food intake to just enough to keep my hunger at bay and blood sugar from flat lining. This strategy would work during the morning and afternoon, but by the time evening would roll around and my son was in bed, all bets were off. I would binge, eating thousands of calories over the course of an hour or two and repeat this cycle five or six nights a week.
I gained 20 pounds in a month. Overwhelmed and devastated by the number on the scale I knew that my eating was out of control, but I was so utterly exhausted from the months I’d spent trying to find the right treatment for my depression that I had nothing left. Nothing left to ask for help or admit I had yet another problem. My sleep was still a disaster and my exercise program was quickly falling apart, along with my body. But I convinced myself that I just needed to try harder and I’d be okay.
I was able to curtail my binges to a more “reasonable” once or twice a week, meanwhile I pushed through injuries and trained for a 10k race. Something was wrong with my pelvis because of my pregnancy and even though I’d had x-rays, seen my doctor, a chiropractor, massage therapist and acupuncturist, I would lose all feeling in my legs about three kilometres into a run. They would go completely numb but I would just keep running.
I was told to stop. That I was risking serious injury. But I couldn’t stop running; running from my depression, my loneliness and my shame. Running from my failure as a mother, wife and woman. Running from the reality of my heavily distorted eating habits and a rapidly failing body.
My weight continued to climb and I responded with more crash dieting and exercise. The guilt I would pile on my shoulders for every “bad” food choice would result in yet another binge. Meanwhile my body began to burn. I would get numbness and tingling sensations in arms and legs after so much as walking up the stairs. Then the pain started and would go on and on for days.
“Describe it to me”, my doctor asked.
“I feel like a giant bruise or that I have the flu all the time” I replied. “I still barely sleep and can’t think straight most days. I’m terrified of going back to work because I’m in a constant fog and I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up.” Silence followed.
Finally, we landed on a diagnosis: fibromyalgia. With this new problem came more drugs and more weight gain. More binging and comfort eating; guilt and crash dieting. I couldn’t exercise with the same intensity but my sleep was getting better. And my pain was being managed. But my pants didn’t fit.
I kept on with this cycle for months, trying to manage the best I could and lose some weight, but shortly after my 30th birthday it all came crashing down. Another diet, another failure, another binge, and then physical rebellion on the part of my body. Pain everywhere, together with constant digestion issues, complete exhaustion, and a black sinking hole of depression.
I sat down in front of my computer, started researching and was hit square in the face the cold reality that I have an eating disorder—and that I’ve actually been struggling with one for most of my life. A call to an eating disorder specialist confirmed my diagnosis and within a week I started treatment with a nutritionist and psychologist.
The work I’ve done since my diagnosis has been painful and infinitely more difficult emotionally than any I’ve done in the past. We’re digging right into the deepest hurt in my heart and undoing the self-destructive attitudes, beliefs, and coping mechanisms that have kept me afloat.
It’s so much easier to open up that peanut butter and grab the chocolate chips and pretend that the last three years never happened. Or to be seduced by yet another diet and the belief that “this time will be different, you’ll see!” But the relief is momentary and leaves me sick, guilty and ashamed. And I’m done with that. The binge and purge cycle stops here and I’m doing the work now so that this story finds its happy ending.