This is a guest post by Madison Wise.
I used to read health + psychology mags underneath my textbooks in high school because I was obsessed with feeling good. And by that I mean, being the happiest + skinniest bitch in school. I studied the latest diet trends, repeated 10-move workout routines for toned arms before I left the house each morning, and set goals that would help me to be my best self. I promised myself that I would lose that bulge of fat peeking over the back of my sports bra and one day, eventually, have the washboard abs I always dreamed of. An innocent, earnest desire to care for myself was so intertwined with self-loathing and shame that it manifested as a binge eating disorder, anxiety, and depression.
When my boyfriend didn’t call, my friends and I were fighting, or we lost an important game, I would self-soothe with bowl after bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats until I was miserably numb. This soon turned into late night kitchen rampages that continued throughout college. The next day I would promise to be better, restrict myself to 1,000 calories, and exercise to undo the damage I’d done the night before. But, to my dismay, nighttime or an unpleasant feeling would come again, and I’d find myself surrounded by empty chocolate wrappers. I felt out of control and hopeless. I read all about sugar addiction and swore it off for months at a time, only to turn to other foods, and eventually return to my usual habits. Overeating was a compulsion, something like a monster that could override my better senses no matter what I tried to do to control it, and it wouldn’t stop until I physically couldn’t fit another bite in my body.
I went to a therapist on campus my freshman year to talk about what I was going through. I sat down for my first appointment and cried for five minutes before I could speak. I knew she didn’t understand my eating disorder when she suggested I “try eating carrots in large quantities, rather than sweets.” But rather than voice my struggle, I nodded and said I would give it a try. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. I continued to try and manage these episodes on my own, and could be “good” for a few days at a time, until the weekend came or I had a bad day, then I was out of control again.
Restricting myself didn’t seem to prevent my binging, and I had no idea what else could help. I started to explore my relationship with food more than the calorie content of it, to see if there were any secrets there that could help. The book “Women, Food, and God” by Geneen Roth helped me to see how my relationship with food was about more than just food – a lot more – and how intricately it was tied into my relationship with myself, with others, and my spiritual side. I continued to seek out teachings like this and one day stumbled upon “Spirit Junkie” by Gabrielle Bernstein. This marked a huge change in my life as I started to internalize the idea that my problems with food weren’t really with food… they were with my beliefs about my own worth, how I deal with stress, and how to let go of my need to control my life and surrender to something bigger than my desire to be perfect. I continued to work through these issues and feel better about myself, my body, and my relationship with food.
Better, yes, but I was still obsessed with being thin. I wanted to love myself, but I wanted to love my thin self, my controlled self, the one that could adhere to strict diet guidelines and control her urges. I didn’t want to love my self that could play with abandon, eat with abandon, take a day off and enjoy it with abandon. I wanted to bury that self, and let my skinny self reign supreme. But this wild self of mine let me know it was going anywhere without a fight. That it was just as much worthy of being loved as the me I envisioned with the help of my thinspiration Pinterest boards. Eventually I listened to it. And I gave up.
I remember going home from college for Christmas break and seeing pictures of myself in high school. I looked at myself in those pictures and didn’t see a chubby, plain, unlovable girl, the girl I saw myself as when those pictures were taken. I realized I was wrong for wanting to change myself so badly. And I realized I didn’t want to look back at pictures of myself in college and feel the same way. Something clicked, and I decided to focus on loving my body as it was, right then, without the expectation or anticipation of it ever fitting into size 0 jeans. While this mindset didn’t immediately fix my warped relationship with my body or with food, it did give me a new direction to travel.
I started to focus on mindfulness, on cultivating a spiritual practice, and on forgiveness. When I found myself wanting to binge, or binging, I did my best to witness it, without trying to control it or change it – something I learned from a friend who began sharing her own story with binge eating – someone I never suspected would struggle with the same issues. (Thank you Macy <3) When I found myself talking shit on my own body, “feeling fat,” or stressing out over whether or not to have a piece of cake on my birthday, I laughed. “How ridiculous am I!? I’m beautiful, I’m fine, and I’m enjoying this.” I tried yoga – something I used to scoff at as I worked through my BodyBuilding.com routines (no pain, no gain, right!!?!) – and I fell in love. These practices helped me to know myself a little better, love myself a little better. They also helped me realize when it’s time to ask for help. (Ahem, not my strong point.) So, five years after my first interaction with a therapist, I chose to seek guidance around my eating habits from someone with a deeper understanding of food-related issues. I hired a health coach (hi Abbi <3) for six months to continue to work through my issues with food and body-image. Working with Abbi helped me to add body-loving habits into my routine, to be present with my emotions, and to trust the natural cues of my body. The idea of trusting my body seemed so foreign at first – how could I trust the thing that led me back to the roll of cookie dough in the fridge again and again and again!? But I learned that when I fed my body what it really wanted, in the amount that it wanted, i.e. no more obsessively counting calories, it was able to regulate itself without the need for late night binges of garbage. As good as this sounds, it terrified me. I didn’t know what had “cured” my binging, I just knew that I wasn’t doing it anymore. I wanted to explore what worked for me, but I was scared to even think about it, for fear it would wake the monster.
It’s been a few years since then, and I’m still afraid of talking about it. To be honest I still don’t entirely understand what “cured” my eating disorder, nor do I think it’s really cured. It’s a part of me. It shaped so much of my life in secret, and it still pops up to say hi every now and then. But that’s ok. We’re old friends. Now I just welcome it in for a cup of a tea, or an ice cream run, or I pound my fists on the floor and cry and scream and dance its hatred out of me, and I try to listen to what it’s really trying to say – listen to what part of me is asking for a little love. I don’t have a checklist of how to cure a binge eating disorder. I just know that listening to others talk openly about their own struggle was an invitation for me to get to know mine. I’m infinitely grateful to those who’ve shared their stories, who’ve listened to mine, and who in turn have helped shape mine for the better. And I hope that reading my story can offer some healing to you. Healing is there – it’s at the heart of it. Be present with it. Say hi.