Now, let me be clear: I was NOT fat. At 5’5″ at 145ish, I wasn’t huge by any stretch of the imagination. Yet my critical view of myself distorted everything I saw in the mirror, and I seriously believed that I had a weight problem. In retrospect I can see how messed up my thinking was. I now think I look pretty fit, cute, and awesome in the pictures in this post. I wish I could go back in time and both whack myself upside the head for being such an idiot and then immediately give myself a big, big hug to help with all the hurt and fear I was dealing with back then.
But anyway. I made a firm promise to myself that purging was no longer an option for me. It was something I never wanted to revisit. But instead, I decided I’d get “healthy.” I was convinced that I was fat and needed to lose weight, and that somehow all of my problems were rooted back to the inadequate, unacceptable way that I looked. I felt like I was addicted to food, particularly sugary food. But if I could work hard and have willpower, I though, I could change everything about myself and my life.
I still catch myself defaulting to this crazy logic in times of high stress. I think it’s easier to decide weight loss is the answer to your problems in life than it is to actually face your real problems. I see now how irrational, how stupid this line of thinking is. But in any event, I moved forward both determined to never purge again and to lose about 20 pounds.
The Beginning of Intentional Dieting
So I joined a gym. I hit the fitness and diet magazines, cutting out and saving 1200-calorie diet plans and sub-300-calorie dinner recipes. I began doing sets of exercises from the magazines that promised to thin my thighs and flatten my abs. I decided I was going to become a newer, better, infinitely hotter and happier version of Sarah.
I sincerely thought that by losing some weight and getting my eating back under control, I’d solve all my problems at once because I’d then be not just healthier but prettier too, which would mean more dating and more friends. Ta-da! I remembered how kind everyone had been when I’d lost weight back in junior high, and whereas one day it seemed like no one noticed me or liked me much, the next day I was bombarded with attention and praise simply because I’d dropped a jeans size or two. I wanted that again! I believed I was going to have EVERYTHING once I lost 20 pounds. And sticking to my new regimen of “healthy” meal plans and tough workouts was my ticket there.
By this point, all my overtly dangerous and disordered behaviors were gone. No more purges, no more sub-500-calorie days. But my thinking was so jacked up that I was still doing watered-down versions of full-blown disorder behaviors. I ate, but not enough. I didn’t make myself throw up, but I still used exercise as a less-intense form of compensated when I felt I’d eaten too much. And my thoughts were nothing but FOOD. FOOD. FOOD. FOOD. LOSE WEIGHT. GET SKINNY. FOOD.
I think a lot of people currently or in the past fall into this category. We don’t have full-on disorders that need swift and serious medical attention, but we’re not living in a healthy and happy way. Food and exercise and weight loss become obsessions. It’s not so much a state of disordered eating but a state of disordered thinking. It’s being almost anorexic. Borderline bulimic. Often orthorexic. It’s not glaringly dangerous or unsafe, but it is miserable. And it’s a zone I lived in for far too long.
Yet the bingeing raged on.
Before this, I was bingeing not out of hunger but solely due to emotions. I ate fairly healthy and normal meals and snacks throughout the day before I’d ingest an excessive several thousand calories of sugar in the evenings. But starting in the second half of my freshman year, once my first real efforts to diet began, my eating took on a whole new pattern. For the first time ever, my caloric intake became chronically low. And I honestly believed that I was being HEALTHY at this point: after all, the magazines were telling me to do all the things I’d started, and surely they weren’t advocating disordered behavior, right?
The best way I can sum up the shift here is that my binges began solely as a comfort mechanism when I was met with stress I couldn’t handle. But then they morphed into a biological, inevitable rebound effect as I was perpetually hungry. Consistently undereating is what kept the flame of my bingeing alive and well. Label it as restricting, dieting, or whatever you want, but it’s the #1 reason I could never stop binges from happening.
Addicted to Food?
My binges never again reached the sheer amounts of food they did during that brief, awful time during my first semester as a college freshman. But the frequency of my binges? I found myself overeating if not all-out bingeing once or twice a week. I could “stick to a healthy eating plan” for about 5 days before giving up, it seemed. I’d do just fine with my bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, sandwich piled mostly with spinach for lunch, then chicken and veggies for dinner for a few days. But every time, like clockwork, I’d snap around day 5 or 6. I’d walk past the campus bakery and feel my brain screaming at me that I needed brownies—and buy not one but a dozen. I’d go to a party and wolf down a huge plate of chips and dip plus a half dozen desserts. My hunger would get the better of me every single time after a few days of “good” eating, and despite my best intentions, I’d binge. Every. Single. Time.
I chalked it up to my pathetic lack of willpower. I’d swear to “start over” the next day. Often, I’d revise my diet or eating plan to be even stricter than it had been before, and the vicious cycle would continue.
In retrospect, I now see that anyone living on 1200 calories a day and burning another 300+ in daily workouts would react exactly as I did. My binges were a result of the physiological need to stay nourished! My brain was telling me I needed brownies because there was in fact a serious lack of carbs, fat, and general calories in my system! I didn’t see what I was doing as “starving myself,” because in my mind I was eating 3 “healthy” meals a day.
But I literally was starving most days, netting about 900 calories where a girl at my age, weight, and height could have and should have eaten somewhere near 1000 more calories than that daily. Yet because of my frequent bouts of overeating, I was probably averaging roughly the correct amount of calories: it just came about by under eating for several days and then stuffing my face.
Keeping Up Appearances
No one would have imagined all this was going on by simply looking at me. With what I felt was herculean effort, I dropped only a few pounds (at my lowest, I was 142) due to all the bingeing. And at my all-time high when my binges were at their peak as a freshman, I was in the low 150s. The few people I confided my overeating problem to acted confused: I hadn’t lost or gained a lot of weight at any point, and I wasn’t purging anymore, so what was the problem?
I’ll tell you what the problem was. The problem was that I felt like garbage. The problem was that at any given moment I was either ravenously hungry or overstuffed and sick. The problem was that I inwardly screamed at myself and called myself horrible names any time I put one toe out of line from whatever stupid diet or cleanse or meal plan I was currently on. The problem was that I looked in the mirror and saw only UGLY. The problem was that I was unhappy and confused and had no idea what “healthy” even was anymore.
The Emotional Damage of Disordered Eating
I kept most of these feelings locked up inside. And it’s not like everything in my life was horrible. Not by any means! I found myself loving the major I’d chosen, finally making more friends and dating more, and honestly feeling fairly happy a lot of the time. So much of my life was great. I landed several writing and editing internships in a row that were fun and fulfilling. I got married to a wonderful, wonderful guy. I graduated from school. I had my first baby, my darling daughter Sophia.
But this undercurrent of constant dieting, constant fighting for a goal weight, and constant self-loathing was always in the background. The time after I had Sophia especially was brutal as I starved/binged myself down from my delivery day 200ish to my pre-baby 140s in just 4 months. The overtly dangerous purging was long gone, but the way I was living sure didn’t make me happy.
And ironically, a new emotion crept in. I read in lots of places that bingeing was a result of trying to cope with stress and problems, and that made me feel so, so guilty. What stress did I have, after all? What problems did I have? My husband loved me, and I loved him. My new baby girl was healthy and gorgeous and perfect. I’d found work to do from home that kept my passion for writing and editing alive (and also helped our meager college-student budget all work out). I had made wonderful friends in the town we’d moved to after I finished my degree.
By pretty much any standard, my life was amazing. What kind of crazy, whiny, ungrateful, broken loser was I to feel the need to binge with so much GOOD in my life? By this point, I’d decided and firmly believed that I was fat, but I now also believed I was fundamentally a bad, pathetic human being.
This is what my life was like for the next 4 years.
Life had settled into a groove of good with hidden bad. I was constantly dieting and restricting, and as a result, constantly overeating. Disordered thinking dominated my thoughts about eating, exercise, and my body. But it was livable. And so I lived that way, pretty much from the second part of freshman year on until I became pregnant with my second child in 2013.
At the beginning of that pregnancy, both my husband and I were hit with a terrible, terrible stomach flu. Think stomach convulsions as painful as childbirth. Dry-heaving in 10-minute intervals for two hours straight. An ER visit because I seriously thought I was either experiencing ectopic pregnancy or dying. It was horrendous.
Yet the end result of all that misery was a bit of weight loss—and people noticed. I was hit by waves and waves of “You look amazing! What are you doing?” and I loved it. It was like when I lost that weight in junior high all over again! I liked the slightly thinner version of myself too. So? I found myself dreading the inevitable gain that was going to come with this pregnancy. I next found myself lying about having morning sickness (which I really didn’t) so I could skip meals here and there. But within a week or two, I realized this was NOT okay.
I felt horrible. What kind of monster would start all this disordered stuff up again while PREGNANT? How could I be DREADING weight gain when the reason for it was that I was bringing a beautiful baby into the world? What selfish, shallow, superficial, small-minded brat could justify intentionally undereating that would put my unborn baby at risk? I was so ashamed.
The phrasing I used when I talked to myself was overly harsh, but my core feeling was right. If this kind of thinking and behavior was resurfacing while another little life was dependent on mine, I needed help. ASAP.