Trigger warning: Eating Disorders, Binge Eating, Mental Health
I remember very clearly aged sixteen writing down things I was grateful for. It was probably part of some exercise in Religion or SPHE class where they tried to teach us about mental health and spirituality (but in the Church-approved way). One thing I wrote was “I’m grateful I don’t obsess about my weight”.
At the time, that felt like a real achievement. I’d spent many PE lessons in the gym changing rooms listening to girls compare their bodies, pointing out “fat”, remarking on flat stomachs and skinny thighs, talking about what diets they were on. It sounded like a different language to me and one I felt I couldn’t engage in. I’d felt superior in thinking that these things were trivial, they didn’t matter to me, they didn’t affect who I was and what grades I got. More important things mattered like cakey makeup and going to Penney’s with my friends.
By the time I was 18, I’d begun to feel a little self conscious about my body, particularly my legs and arms and by the time I was graduating school, an inferiority complex began to edge in. I criticised my body in every reflection in a glass door as I walked to class. I hated what I wore to my class graduation that I refused to have photos taken of me. I ruminated over our informal end of year photos highlighting the things that other girls had that I admired and didn’t have. I skipped end of year events because I didn’t look good enough. I began to hate my body but I thought hating your body was normal – that’s what society and the media were telling me – so I didn’t think much more of it.
Life then took over. I sat my Leaving Cert, I dyed my hair (hardly anyone noticed and for that I’m glad), and I got into college. I met someone who believed that I was perfect and my weight issues took a back seat. Things were fine for a while. And then I got sick.
My mental health had been deteriorating from early 2012 but it wasn’t until a year later that it took a very bad turn. I’ve written extensively on OCD/Depression/Anxiety before so I won’t rehash what has been said other than it sucked the life out of me. I could barely function. I was a shell of who I had been. And I dropped a lot of weight.
I wasn’t eating adequately, I was spending mornings and evenings ruminating, engaging in compulsions, driving my poor boyfriend mad. But looking back on it, that wasn’t the worst part, it was then that I began to get praise for what I looked like. I don’t like to discuss sizes but to illustrate my point, I’ll make an exception. I dropped from a size 14/16 to a size 8 in six weeks.
That’s really fucking dangerous.
But in spite of the shit that brought me to that point, I celebrated it. I was happy with my sudden weight loss. I was finally “thin”. I could wear nice clothes and have boys look at me in a way they didn’t before. I felt worthy for the first time in my life, not to myself, but to others. I remember, being in the grips of a bad episode in a Marks and Spencer’s trying on a parka and being overjoyed that a size eight fitted me. I was so sick and all I cared about was that the reflection in the shop mirror made me happy. That should have been the first clue that something other than OCD was wrong.
By the end of 2014, I had gone through a breakup and began exercising routinely. I somewhat got back on track with my food and began to eat foods that would fuel me and for a while, I felt good, I felt strong and I began to feel worthy to myself.
In 2015, I went on a J1 to Berkeley. The balcony collapse happened three blocks away from us and I dealt with it badly. I began to comfort eat and before I knew it, I began a binge-restrict cycle that lasted nearly six years.
A binge-restrict cycle is pretty much self explanatory. I’d binge eat whatever I wanted and then I’d feel guilt or shame for what I did. I’d then try and restrict my food intake, leaving me hungry and even more ashamed, starting the binge cycle again. It had become so normalised in the media that I assumed this was what we as humans were supposed to do.
Most of the time, I’d hide my food to eat it away from other people so I wouldn’t be judged. I’d often feel a total lack of control over what I was eating, eating rapidly and eating for the sake of it. I’d enjoy nothing. I’d excessively comfort eat which were exacerbated feelings of low self esteem and value. Sometimes instead of restrictive eating, I’d enter into excessive exercise which I wasn’t fit enough for or capable of doing, causing more shame, guilt and hatred of myself.
I began to blame my body for everything: for being ghosted, for not doing well at work, for bad behaviour and for failing at things I didn’t even try to do.
I would strictly prohibit myself from buy nice clothes. I told myself I couldn’t pursue a career in the arts as I was too disgusting, too awful and too terrible to be anyway wanted or worthy. I blamed every failed relationship on my hips, my tummy, my thighs.
I punished myself constantly for existing. There are no words to describe how much I hated myself. I’d wake up in the morning and feel as though my hips, my thighs, my stomach were expanding. I was embarrassed to strip down into anything less than a shirt and shorts.
I hated anything that forced me to do anything with my body. I began to hate performing, the one thing in my life that gave me a sense of belonging became a threat. I began to resent other people and project my hatred for myself onto them. I’d bail on plans because I hated being in public, I felt like everyone was looking at me, judging me. I was scared of how far shaming myself would push me and yet I didn’t stop and in a way, I stopped living.
My mind only had one use which was to punish me and keep me on the binge-restrict cycle. It killed my social life, my interest in bettering myself and my career path. And could possibly kill me.
The pandemic hit and I knew that I couldn’t take it anymore. Being at home 24/7 opened my eyes to how sick I was of the rhetoric in my head, the hatred I spewed at myself every day, the rules I’d made up in my head of things I could (not many) and couldn’t (lots) do. I was tired of comparing myself to every single person I saw, trying to guess their clothes size just by looking at them, trying to hide coats and jackets so that people couldn’t see the labels.
I finally admitted this to my therapist, who thankfully not only deals with the side of mental health battle with but also with eating disorders. I didn’t think I had an ED. I hated saying the words ‘eating disorder’ because I felt they didn’t apply to me. How different was I from other people? Not much, my therapist said, but just because it’s common doesn’t make it any less of an eating disorder.
I felt (and sometimes still feel) uncomfortable to say “I have an eating disorder” because there are some horrendous EDs out there between anorexia and bulimia. I’m always afraid of being accused of attention seeking so for ages, I kept my mouth shut. But no problem gets solved by staying silent. I know many people out there are experiencing a binge-restrict cycle and maybe aren’t even aware of it. I hope this helps them.
Right now, I’m working on my relationship with food, viewing it as a need, not a choice. Food is something we need to keep us alive. No food is inherently good or bad. Balance and moderation is key. Restrictive eating leads to binge, giving yourself permission to eat freely is the only true way of breaking away from the rules that this eating disorder has laid down. I have had to learn to slow down and be alert when I have urges to binge – I have to ask myself why, what am I actually feeling here, is it shame? Inadequacy? I still fall into the trap now and again and I’m learning to forgive myself for that, to not beat myself up for eating more over Christmas or allowing myself to eat a little more after a long hike or exercise. Your body needs fuel.
I’m not an expert at all and nothing about this recovery is easy. Even as I write this I can recognise binge and restrict patterns cropping up in my head. But if anything, I know that it’s possible to get away from it. Life doesn’t have to be dictated by food, how you feel about yourself doesn’t have to be dictated by food and your self worth should never be dictated by food.
And once you realise that, you’re already halfway there.