I have an eating disorder; however, you would never know. My belly button does not “touch my backbone” and to be frank, as much as it shames me to admit it, I am overweight. I eat. I do not exercise compulsively. My cheeks are not rosy red due to numerous broken blood vessels and my hair does not fall out in clumps; I do not purge. I am a binge eater.
Binge eating has been recognized among practitioners as an eating disorder, however, the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR), it is often classified under Eating Disorder NOS (That’s Not Otherwise Specified—it’s ok guys, I’m a social worker). Just like it is invisible to the American Psychiatric Association, it is invisible to society, as well, and quite frankly? I’m drowning. This wasn’t supposed to happen, especially not to me.
I have been struggling with some form or another of disordered eating and body image my whole life, for as long as I can remember, and then some. When I was little, somewhere between age 2 and 3, I told my parents I did not want to eat. Not even McDonalds. Why. Why?!? Every little kid loves McDonalds, right? Hey, I’ll be the first to admit it, I still like McDonalds (ish), or at least I do after several cocktails. But as my parents report, I didn’t want to eat “because the voice in my head told me not to.” That is some seriously effed up shit. I guess I got over myself, because I was a happy, chubby, but healthy kid. However, fast forward to July, 1998 and everything changes.
I can pinpoint almost the exact moment that my current struggle with eating disorders began. I was thirteen at the time, on vacation with my mom and step-dad in Myrtle Beach, SC for a family reunion/vacation. I was walking to the beach with my step-cousin Sarah when two very handsome gentlemen said hello to us, just being polite; but at that moment I had an epiphany of sorts. Ew, I thought, I don’t want them to look at me in my bathing suit; I’m fat. From that second on, I vowed that I would be thin. I became anorexic.
I hardly ever ate. I counted every gram of fat, every calorie. I stopped eating red meat. I exercised relentlessly. I lost forty pounds in the just over a month period until school started; everyone noticed. My parents, teachers, kids; one friend even said to someone in the locker room, “I wish I could be like Elyse.” Even then, I knew what I was doing was wrong. I told her she didn’t want to be like me, I wasn’t healthy and I knew that, but I didn’t care, so long as I was thin. It didn’t last long, though, maybe a couple of years. My dad, who I grew up living with, couldn’t handle it. He begged me to start eating. He bribed me with material goods, anything, to see me eat healthily. I didn’t enter any type of treatment program, but the price was right, and I agreed that I would eat. Next stop: Bulimia Nervosa. I just couldn’t handle eating again. I found that once I started eating, I was so hungry, I couldn’t stop. That of course, was followed by tremendous guilt. I taught myself different ways to make myself throw up. This continued for some time. I thought I was so sly, no one would ever find out. But my face was lined with broken blood vessels; my hair was thinning (I was literally pulling handfuls of it out in the shower). I had never had a cavity, but suddenly, my teeth were riddled with them. I had terrible stomach pains, due to intestinal cramps and I often would double over in pain. Eventually, my parents caught on, and I began seeing an eating disorder specialist, and a social worker, and a psychiatrist. Medication, diagnoses, meal plans, notes to school nurse allowing me to eat in class. I was told not to weigh myself, and to this day I haven’t. And then magically, everything got better…except it didn’t.
When I went off to college, I stopped treatment. I thought I was fine, recovered. I stopped taking my medications. I drank, and drank, and ate, and ate. I got to a healthy weight; but it was too much. I started eating healthier to manage the weight gain, going to the gym, but it wasn’t enough. I thought I was so slick requesting my doctor to re-fill my amphetamine prescription for ADHD (inattentive type). It was exactly what I needed to lose weight, and I did. What I didn’t expect was the complete mental breakdown that followed from weeks of not eating or sleeping from taking the medication virtually unmonitored. I got fired from my job and my relationship was crumbling. I moved home temporarily, and stopped taking the medication. I even had the good sense to re-visit my specialist. I would be ok again, I told myself. But, I wasn’t. I stopped treatment and moved back to the life I had lead before.
I started putting on weight pretty rapidly, after my boyfriend at the time went to rehab for heroin. I was stressed; food was the only thing that made me feel better. I had control over that, I thought, when I had no control over anything else. It was comforting. I started graduate school while maintaining full-time work, more stress. A break up, after five years…I was on a downward spiral. My thoughts were constantly on food. What I ate, when I was going to eat again, what I was going to eat, who I was going to eat with. What I should buy. I needed a snack. Even when I wasn’t hungry, if I had it in my mind that I wanted to eat something, I was going to eat it, despite the feelings of guilt that would follow about eating more. Always in private. When going out to eat with friends, I would merely pick on my food and bring the rest home, so I could binge alone.
My ex told me he wanted to get back together, but only if I lost weight. He wasn’t attracted to me. I told myself I could do this, I could get control over my eating again. I would exercise. I yo-yo dieted. My clothes size went up and then down, and then up, up, up. Since starting grad school, I have gone up two pants sizes (and I think that number just upped again). I was begging for help, but, my cries were ignored. When I shared my story in class, after another girl disclosed her history with anorexia, I was brushed off, it wasn’t important. I wasn’t unhealthy or at any risks like someone who didn’t eat….the class, you ask? Diversity & Oppression; it was a slap in the face, especially since obesity has become so front and center in our society.
Eventually, I started seeing a new therapist, who specializes in eating disorders. I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and we agreed that I need to address some underlying issues before I can make any real changes with my eating. It’s too much and I know the best ways to self-sabotage; at this point, I’d just be setting myself up for failure. I’m doing what I can to make little changes in the interim though. Buying groceries instead of eating out all the time, taking walks, being open with my struggles; ditching the ex. I’ve even started a half-sleeve tattoo called “Killer Sweets” in an attempt to signify my history with food in a method of re-framing my thoughts and accepting myself, no matter how I look.
These types of issues are deserving of attention, beyond eating disorder awareness month. I urge those of you who are like me, or who have friends that demonstrate these symptoms, to get help, before it’s too late.