My eating disorder is the best friend I ever had

Dear Reader: The following is my submission for our Blogapaloozaa hour, an event wherein we bloggers at ChicagoNow have one hour to write and post on a topic. This week’s challenge was to write on an obsession that we used to have, so I chose to write about one that became an addiction: food. I didn’t intend to go into the detail that I did, but once I started writing, this post wrote itself. What follows is a brief, frank account of my life with an eating disorder. 

It’s because I developed earlier than the other girls. That’s when the eating disorder started. It’s started simply. Innocuously. Making cookie dough just to eat it. Sneaking just enough ice cream, or cookies, that no one would notice. Riding my bike to the 7-11 just for junk food and ex-lax.

Soon I learned how to make myself throw up. That was the key that opened all the doors. Getting food was easy. Getting rid of it was hard.

As long as I was living at home, in high school, it was easy. I was the last child at home. Mom was out playing bridge club. I’d come home and raid the fridge. Before mom came home I’d relieve myself in the bathroom. Sometimes, once I had my license, I would buy binge food on the way home and lock myself in my room. I didn’t have a toilet, so sometimes I had to be creative.

When I went to college it got worse. Things got desperate. I once walked 6 blocks in a blizzard to bring food home from a store just to binge (because my roommate was gone for once). I had scouted out the most out of the way bathrooms on campus just so I’d have a place to use when I needed to purge.

I never got caught. Except once by my mom in high school. She sent me to a shrink and I said what they wanted… but didn’t intend to change.

Later in college, my behavior strayed to other areas. I was stealing phone service (remember when long distance calls cost an arm and a leg?). I was missing classes to binge and purge. I was isolating (also to binge and purge). And also self-harming.

It finally became too much… I called my shrink and asked to go into an inpatient treatment program.

Short term, the treatment worked. While I was in treatment, it worked, that is. I learned some really good information about nutrition and self-care, but still… as soon as I was out of the fold I went right back to old habits. It wasn’t until I spent the summer with my sister in San Francisco that I was finally able to make the decision that I no longer wanted to be sick. I thought I’d start over and fake-it-til-I make-it and see if I can’t magically just go back to being normal.

And guess what. It worked! But only because I became a binge drinker instead of a binge eater. And that’s perfectly normal in college.

Still I made it through college. Did a year abroad. Graduated. Got a job. Had a kid. Got married (yes, in that order). Had more kids. I was perfectly happy!

Then I got sick. I turned 30 and immediately had a horrible flare up of rheumatoid arthritis. After three medications, prednisone cured it… but it also made me blow up. Once I was fully functional I stared practicing yoga. I rapidly went from crippled (fingers that could straighten, hands that couldn’t grip, ankles that couldn’t go down steps in the morning) to actually fit – I was able to do a back bend and push ups. I started doing more exercise – walking and running whenever I could. I was happy to be able to use my body again. I’d lost 30 pounds and realized I wasn’t planning on stopping.

I told my doctor that I had an eating disorder :

“Now tell me why you think you have an eating disorder.”

“Because I had one before, and I thought it was gone. But it’s back.”

This time I didn’t binge and purge. I was exercising and purging if I ate to much. I was counting calories I ate, and calories I burned on the treadmill. I walked for hours. I did yoga day and night. When I dropped twenty more pounds my doctor became more concerned. I went in for weekly weigh ins. The assistant would say, “My girlfriend would die to be your weight.” My doctor was a little more serious, “You need to go the hospital.” “Please please I’ll do better. One more week.” Over and over until I’d dropped 88 pounds in six months.  My hair was falling out. I was feeling faint a lot. I spent a lot of time in bed, when I wasn’t exercising.

I couldn’t afford treatment, but found a psychologist to treat me on a sliding scale. She eventually encouraged me to go into an IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program). I was supposed to go for six weeks. I was still there when my insurance ran out. The wonderful directors of the program offered to cover the costs insurance wouldn’t cover so I could continue receiving help. I stayed for six months, until my husband lost his job and I needed to step up and do for my family (fake-it-til-I make-it once again).

As much as inpatient and outpatient programs helped me (and they did), there was no better therapy than having to step up and be the head of the family. Applying for food stamps and medicaid changes things for a person. Poverty keeps things real. You can’t just go spend good money on binge food when you have so little to begin with. And you can’t just exercise when you need to find a job…

But the thing is… these unhealthy behaviors… whether they be binging and purging, or starving and overexercising. These behaviors become a presence in your life when you’re sick. When you’ve alienated yourself from your friends and family, and hide from you kids, your eating disorder is your only constant – and your only confidant. The only thing that knows you at your true self. While you are sick, your eating disorder is your best friend. And it’s not a friend who goes easily.

In fact, I’ve learned it doesn’t really go at all. It sticks around… silently… not intruding… until you need it. Then, suddenly, when things aren’t going right, your old friend pops into your life and offers you comfort…

If you or a loved one has an eating disorder, please call the National Eating Disorders Association helpine at 800-931-2237 or click here for more information

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