A couple of weeks ago I spoke on my IG stories about how I feel about food and it got such an amazing response from you guys. I followed it up with a poll asking if you’d like a blog post on how I’ve healed my relationship with food and guess what? You said Yes! So here we are. Almost a month later and timed to be published on National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, here is the deepest darkest recesses of my heart and soul poured out into almost three thousand words. This blog post is a long and heavy read. And I dedicate it to you, the girl with the eating disorder. There is an end to this. You’ll get better soon.
The Early Years
Like pretty much everyone in Western society, I’ve had a deeply unhealthy relationship with food for as long as I can remember. While I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had an actual eating disorder (although I strongly suspect I had a binge eating disorder), there’s no question in my mind that I had developed extremely disordered eating habits by my mid teens.
Now I’m not going to blame this on my parents. I don’t do that. It’s unhelpful and doesn’t actually serve me in dealing with the issues I face. But I will say this. From a very young age I was taught that there were good foods and there were bad foods, and the kind of person you were was very much dependent on the kinds of foods you ate.
Good people didn’t eat carbs. They didn’t put sugar in their tea. They used low-fat everything, ate small portions, never had take-aways and would sooner die than be seen in McDonalds. They ate to feed their bodies, not their emotions, and exercised militant control when it came to eating. Good people only ate foods that were super nutritious, homemade, ‘clean’, you get the point. Those people were admirable, inspiring and more valued. And we must always strive to be less like us and more like them. That’s what I was taught. And not just by my parents, but by society, by my teachers, by the media. We’ve all been taught this, whether we realise it or not.
I joined Weight Watchers for the first time at 14 years old. I was thrilled to be joining my Mum on her weekly visits. Body shame was already a big issue for me and knowing that Weight Watchers would help me finally figure out how to control my eating and be more like the ‘good people’ was such an exciting prospect. Over the following 11 years I was a member of one weight loss club or another. I had varying levels of temporary success, but overall, I steadily gained weight over the years. Clearly, it wasn’t working for me. So, what changed?
I kicked off my twenties with an unplanned pregnancy. If you didn’t know this about me, remember it. It explains a huge amount about me and was really the major turning point for my mental health. Pre-Rosie, my mental health wasn’t great, but I wouldn’t say it was in serious decline. However the shock of having her just a month after I said goodbye to my teens and watching my friends live the life I felt I was robbed of while I was locked up in a house on my own every night with a screaming baby who frankly, I didn’t understand, was the beginning of a long road to extreme depression.
And guess how I tried to distract myself from the pain I was in? Yep. With chocolate. And pizza. And ice cream. And crisps. And biscuits. And cake. And buns. And everything else I could get into my mouth. I ate my pain.
Funnily enough (insert sarcastic tone) this method of distraction really didn’t work very well, and over the years my binges became more extreme and more frequent. While initially my binges only consisted of maybe an oven pizza followed by a bag of crisps and a sharing bag of Maltesers 2 or 3 times a week, by the time I had reached 25 I was ordering a large Dominos pizza almost every night and finishing it off with 2 sharing bags of Maltesers (or any other chocolate that was on special offer), a bag of microwavable popcorn and a large tub of ice cream in one sitting. I know. It’s hard to believe. But every night as soon as Rosie was asleep I was on the phone ordering my nightly pizza and then rushing into the kitchen to gather my ‘snacks’ for the night.
Now I don’t think there’s a single person alive who could consume that volume of food in one sitting without throwing up. So, guess what I also started doing every night? Yep. I threw up. I’d make it about halfway through my binge before the urge to vomit took over and I’d throw myself onto the bathroom floor and throw up violently into the loo. This was usually when I’d start sobbing.
I honestly don’t think I can ever describe the way that felt. I really don’t. The lowest moments of my life took place on that floor with my face resting on the toilet seat, tears spilling onto the floor, vomit on my chin. My first suicidal thoughts took place there in those moments and I’ll never be able to describe them or forget them. They’ll never ever leave me.
My Eating Disorder
I began writing this post thinking I had never had an actual eating disorder, just disordered eating habits. Ok maybe I always suspected I might have had an eating disorder, but I guess I was always very very reluctant to label it that way. But writing about my binges forced me to relive those memories, and I gotta say – I cried like a baby. I was really shocked by my reaction, but I guess sometimes having to put our thoughts into words allows us to unpack them and leads us to see things from a new perspective.
I’ve since then done a lot of research online and come to the conclusion that I absolutely suffered from Binge Eating Disorder, a form of eating disorder that isn’t as well known or taken anywhere near as seriously as bulimia or anorexia but affects a massive amount of people nonetheless. It’s also helped me to see why I binged the way I did, although I did a lot of work on this area while I was in therapy and so had a good understanding of it already.
While I had always assumed my binges were down to ’emotional eating’, the truth is that I used food as a weapon against myself. My sense of self-worth had hit rock bottom once I had Rosie after a steady decline throughout my teens and all the weight loss clubs they had involved. Having such a low opinion of myself, believing I was nothing but a weak willed, ‘fat slob’ who could never and would never be one of the ‘good people’, I used food as a way to confirm that belief.
I’m a big believer that every thought is an affirmation, and if you tell yourself something often enough, your subconscious brain will eventually accept it as absolute fact. Once this has happened, our subconscious does what it does best. It drives our behaviour to align with our beliefs. So…. if I tell myself that I have no control around food and I’m nothing but a ‘fat slob’ enough times, eventually my subconscious forces me to behave in a way that backs that belief up. Hey presto, my head is hanging in the toilet while the bowl fills with my vomit and tears. Nasty stuff.
I guess the perversely great thing about hitting rock bottom is the fact that there really is only one way to go from there – up! Around Christmas 2015 my suicidal thoughts had become pervasive, and in January 2016 I managed to get help in the form of medication and therapy. And while I’ll never deny that those antidepressants were essential to me then, it was my therapist who saved my life. He helped me to understand how our thoughts can shape our behaviour and introduced to me to wonderful world of affirmations.
We realised soon enough that my eating disorder was fundamentally caused by my bone-deep self-hatred, and that the only way to address it was to replace it with unconditional self-love. This was such a new idea to me at that time. The very term ‘self-love’ made me cringe. I was like most people and assumed it meant being full of yourself, vain, up your own arse for want of a better phrase. But as I said, I’d hit rock bottom, so what did I have to lose?
My approach to healing my relationship with food was threefold. First, I learned to use affirmations to change my thought patterns. Secondly, I immersed myself in the world of intuitive eating. And finally, I threw myself into trying to gain a better understanding of how my relationship to food had been formed.
I spoke earlier about how every thought is an affirmation and how, by intentionally choosing to repeat very specific thoughts over and over again, we can change our thought patterns and ultimately, our behaviour. Well when I began therapy, this was a brand-new concept to me. It made sense though, it’s logical. So, I threw myself into cultivating a strong affirmation practice. This meant choosing an affirmation that really worked for me, and basically trying to create a brand-new habit of saying this affirmation, either out loud or in my head, regularly throughout my day.
After some experimentation with established affirmations used by experts but which just didn’t feel good to me, my therapist got me to create my own. The affirmation I chose was; I love myself, I accept myself, I am enough. I guess I chose these words because they represented thoughts and feelings I really wanted to have, sincerely. That’s how I wanted to feel about myself. They were the three things I really wanted to believe. So, they felt right to me.
Developing an affirmation practice is like trying to form any other brand-new habit. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. It’s not without frustration. I would go back to therapy each week and the first thing my therapist would ask is how I got on with my affirmations, was I remembering to say them, were they feeling easier to say, was I believing them yet? Most of the time I felt like a total failure, because the truth is it took me months to really nail my affirmations down. But again, like with all other habits, one day it just happened.
My affirmations were there in the back of my mind, on repeat. I’d hear them every time I got a moment of quiet during my day, as though they had been there playing quietly like background music the entire time. I didn’t even need to try anymore. And very few things have made me happier or prouder than discovering I’d finally done that. Nearly two years on, those affirmations are still there every time I pause during my day to listen out for them. They’re like old friends of mine at this stage. They always make me smile.
Intuitive Eating was a term I had never come across before my therapist mentioned it to me. I didn’t get the concept at all. Soooooooo….. You just eat whatever you want, whenever you want? He smiled and nodded. It wasn’t the first time I suspected he might be more of a basket case then me. But when I investigated the movement on the big bad web, I realised that actual, this was an established idea that was well founded in scientific research. I still struggled to believe in something that frankly, just seemed too good to be true. But once again, what did I have to lose?
I started trying to loosen the restrictions I placed on my eating throughout the day. Up until this point, I lived on a strict diet of low fat carboard and rabbit food during daylight hours (when other people could see me) and saved my binges for the privacy of my home at night. But my therapist encouraged me to change that. He told me not to worry about the binges, if they continued that was fine. But instead, he wanted me to focus my attention on how I ate during the day. I guess he thought if I was freer with my eating during the day, the urge to binge at night might sort itself out. As usual, he was bang in the money.
Being less restrictive with my eating during the day was really hard. It sounds like I would’ve jumped for joy at the idea of being given permission to eat whatever I wanted, but my shame around my body had reached a point that I was honestly terrified by the idea of ordering carrot cake instead of salad. I was so afraid of the judgement of others. I felt sick at the thought of letting myself have a hot chocolate with cream instead of a skinny latte.
The way I tackled this was by being extremely picky about who I involved in this process. I chose the three people who knew about my depression and whom I’d spoken to at length about my therapy, and I used them as my guinea pigs. I explained to them how I felt, was really open with them about my shame and fears around my body and being judged for eating, and I relied on their compassionate guidance (and very often, humour) and support heavily. I’ll never stop loving them for this. They know who they are. And like, with everything, it got easier.
And even less surprisingly perhaps, my therapist was right again. As soon as I started to be less restrictive with my eating during the day, I noticed my urge to binge slowly mellow out until a binge became nothing more than half a tub of ice cream or just one sharing bag of Maltesers. After a few months the binges became fewer and further between, until eventually they disappeared.
My Relationship with Food Today
One of the reasons why it’s taken me so long to write this blog post is because it forced me to ask myself; what is my relationship with food today? Honestly, this wasn’t an easy question to ask for the simple reason that I put absolutely no thought into that question on a daily or weekly or monthly basis. I never think about my relationship with food any more. It’s a non-issue. It just doesn’t take up any space in my mind. Neither does my relationship with air.
Both relationships are equally as important. And both are equally as unemotional. I don’t think about food in any greater depth than, ‘what do I want to eat’, or ‘that was delicious’. I think this is in large part down to the fact that I’ve lost any desire to lose weight, and since that used to be the entire focus of my eating habits, I don’t think about my eating habits now.
Do binges still play a part in my life? Damn right they do, and I hope they always will. But now they look very different. The vast majority of nights I don’t feel the need to binge at all, and not because I feel I shouldn’t, but because I feel happy and content and it just doesn’t occur to me that I should be crying into a toilet of my own vomit. It’s as though I feel, for the first time, that it’s ok that I’m happy. I deserve my contentment.
However, when I am having a rough week, or I’m on my period, and I feel the urge to drown my sorrows in calorific comfort, I don’t stop myself from doing it. I’ve learnt to depend heavily on food for my emotional sustenance. I don’t see anything wrong with emotional eating now. Even though I’ve been told my whole life that ‘the good people’ would never eat to sooth their emotions, I do it and I do it proudly.
Food is there to nourish our bodies and our souls, and I think as long as we remain mindful of our eating habits and observe how they might reflect on our emotional health, there’ absolutely nothing wrong with ending a shitty day neck deep in Dairy Milk.
In other words, binge when you want to binge. But if you’re noticing your binges are becoming more and more frequent, look at it as a symptom of something that may be going on in your emotional health. Just as the decrease in my binges was symptomatic of the vast improvements in my mental health, I’ll know that if they become more frequent again that could be something to examine.
Today I go to eat with my friends and family and feel absolutely no shame when I’m face planting a burger or licking chocolate fondant off my fingers. I cook about 75% of my meals from scratch, but not because it’s healthier to do it that way. I give extremely little thought to the nutritional content of my food whereas I used to obsess about it. And yet my physical health is better than it ever had been in the years of dieting. Food is my friend, my buddy, my pal. Food isn’t my enemy anymore. It’s not a weapon I use against myself. I don’t employ it to punish myself or demean myself. I use it to fuel my body, to comfort my mind, and to express the unconditional love I have for both.