How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 2

This is How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 2. In case you missed them, here are links to my Intro and Part 1 posts of this series.

“Disordered Thinking”

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.

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Eat hardly anything, eat everything, repeat. Through all this madness my weight and body hardly changed at all.

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.

Restricting

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.

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Here I am at a friend’s wedding. Disordered thinking still kept me in its grip: at this point in time, I still believed I was horrendously fat.

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?

addicted to food
Another picture from the days where, in my distorted mind, I believed I was still problematically fat. Isn’t that sad?

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.

Sarah McConkie wedding day
Me on my wedding day with Mark. 🙂 I’m so lucky he’s mine. He’s known about my eating struggles since the early days of our marriage, and he’s never been anything but supportive and loving and amazing through all of this.

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.

Guilt

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.

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My beautiful oldest daughter, Sophia, at just 3 days old.

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.

sure I was addicted to food as a new mom
Here we are on a hike with baby Sophia in the fall of 2011.

Pregnancy #2

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.

Coming next: How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 3

How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 1

How I Started Bingeing

Here’s Part 1 of the story of how I stopped bingeing and emotional eating. In case you missed it, here’s my Intro post to this series.

Where to start? I don’t like rehashing what I was like at my worst, but the rest of my story doesn’t make sense if you don’t know what I’ve been fighting to leave behind. So here it is. This is How I Stopped Binge Eating: Part 1, though maybe a more appropriate title for this part would be How I STARTED Binge Eating.

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Sarah. Now, I’m not a scientist or expert of any kind, but I truly believe there’s some addictive component to sugar, and that some of us out there are more prone to be hooked by it—and comforted by eating it—than others. I think I’m one of the genetically unlucky in that way who is just plain prone to overdo sugar.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a hard time eating just one of anything sugary. In fact, my mom tells me that as a child she’d occasionally catch me scooting a chair to the kitchen counter, climbing up to sit by the canister of white sugar she kept there, and digging right in with a spoon. Emotional eating had been part of my life pretty much as long as I can remember. I think I was just plain pre-disposed to it.

I began emotional eating even as a child
Me as a kid. Cute, right? 🙂 I was never a tiny, skinny little girl, but I was never unhealthily overweight either.

Junior high school was the first place anyone called me FAT. I was mortified. I decided to simply stop eating sugary foods, period, to try to lose some weight. And it worked. I don’t know how much weight I lost because I didn’t really weigh myself back then, but it was enough of a difference that people noticed.

And they were so, so, SO  nice to me about it.

I got piled with positive attention. Other kids at school, neighbors, and relatives were all telling me I looked so great. And I loved every second of it. I did eventually begin eating sugar again after 8 months of zero sugary anything. But the weight stayed off even with sugar back in my life, and I stopped worrying about my weight. High school was a much kinder place to me than junior high had been, and those food and body image worries faded away into almost nothing. I was too busy having fun with friends, keeping up my grades, and loving all the extracurricular music/piano/choir things I was involved with to care about the size of my pants. Life was good.

 

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Hiking with my high school besties the summer before college.
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Me on a high school choir trip to NYC in 2006. I’m on the far right.

However, something important to note, I think, is that I never really learned how to cope with stress healthily. Why not? Well, I was never seriously stressed. Sure, school was hard sometimes. I played the piano, and that came with its share of stress too on occasion. But it just wasn’t big, scary, real-life stress. All was pretty much peachy for Sarah Montgomery. Also important to note: all that praise for losing the weight when I was 13 would also come back to haunt me and inform some of my terrible, terrible decisions later down the road.

Freshman Year: the Start of Emotional Eating

I don’t think I was emotionally prepared for everything that was about to change in my insulated little world. I expected life to be handed to me on a silver platter, just as it had been before. Up to this point, everything I wanted for myself had just kind of worked out: grades, scholarships, making it into choirs I tried out for, you name it. I worked hard, sure, but I was also really lucky.

But then I hit the university setting where I was no longer a big fish in a relatively tiny pond. Everyone else out there was smart and nice and played the piano and excelled at everything I did and then some. I found I wasn’t that great at making friends, either. I’d taken for granted that I had friends in high school, but suddenly I found that I wasn’t all that talkative or, really, very nice. I cringe to think how standoffish and ticked about dirty dishes I got at my roommates. I was stressed and cranky and insecure.

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Me with some of my freshman year roommates.

And the lack of general response from boys I was interested in? Well, maybe I should have tried harder to TALK to said boys. But in my head I began to worry that the problem was what I looked like. I began to view my reflection really critically again, like I had in junior high but about 100 times worse. I was a size 8, not a size 2, and once again, that really bothered me. I didn’t have huge, wide-set eyes or gorgeous cheekbones. It seemed like every other girl I compared myself to was prettier than me and thinner than me. All this resurrected insecurity about my likeableness and attractiveness began festering within days of my stepping on campus.

Then things really hit the fan.

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Jumping into group pictures and faking smiles. I got good at that back in the fall and winter of 2008.

My All-Time Low

It was so many things all at once. The economy began to slide. Yes, this lovely year was 2008. This meant my dad, who had always had good, steady employment, was suddenly laid off. One of the scholarships I’d planned on receiving sent me an email that essentially said they probably didn’t have funding anymore, so sorry. WHAT?! My mom was suddenly dealing with losing her dad in the aftermath of a stroke he’d recently suffered. A friend and neighbor from back at home was diagnosed with terminal cancer—after that family had already lost one other member suddenly just months before. I found out about someone close to me who had been abused as a child but too scared to come forward about it until that fateful fall of ’08. And to top it all, my first wave of midterms had left me reeling. Wasn’t I one of the smart kids? And now my first-ever college finals were imminent.

I found myself breaking down and crying in bathrooms around campus so my roommates wouldn’t hear me. I would hit up a vending machine to order a king-sized candy bar as a pick-me-up, only to decide I wanted more and to go find another vending machine on campus to buy another from. Emotional eating became the bandaid that held my fragile self somewhat together. I’d bounce around from place to place on campus, buying the sugary foods that seemed like the only stable, comforting thing in my life in that dark time. Without a mother cooking for me and watching over me at home, it was easy to get and eat huge quantities of food without a soul knowing.

I was embarrassed about the amounts I’d eat and would then rebound by living on nothing but diet soda and carrot sticks or Slim Fast shakes for the next day or two. There was also a huge set of stairs on my college’s campus that I’d make myself run up and down over and over and over in the evenings as I tried to erase the effects of my binges.

Then, one night after a particularly bad binge and cry-fest, I had an odd flashback to a movie I’d watched in a high school health class about Karen Carpenter. I think its message was intended to be a deterrent for young girls to turn to disordered behaviors, but for me it became a how-to-become-bulimic manual. I also had the twisted, horrible notion that everyone felt so BAD for Karen Carpenter, and it’d be nice if someone ever noticed and cared about  me like that. So I purged for the first time.

For about an hour, I was on cloud nine. I felt like I’d gotten away with murder. I can eat anything I want and never pay for it! I thought. I will lose so much weight! I’ll look like my cuter friends and roommates! Everything is going to get better!

But soon the seriousness of what I’d done settled in, and I was even more frightened than before. What was I doing? I couldn’t ever do this again! I’d just start eating healthily as of tomorrow, I decided, and then I’d never have a reason to purge again. That was that.

my emotional eating worsened in college
More college. Thank heaven again for my good roommates who were kind to me even though I was pretty much a mess.

Until the next time I couldn’t deal with my feelings, that is. I did it again a few days later. And then again. I began to wonder if I’d be able to stop. And that was terrifying.

Getting Help

One night about three weeks after that first purge, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I found a dark, secluded bench behind a building on the far corner of campus and pulled out my phone to call my mom and tell her everything. I couldn’t live this way. I felt weak. I felt shaky. My throat hurt. My head hurt. My heart hurt. I needed help.

My mom responded quickly and lovingly and rushed down to my college town the very next day to help me find counseling. I also let my roommate know what was going on—who was kinder to me than I deserved, both that awful night and up until today—and felt a glimmer of hope that it was going to be all right. I promised myself I’d go talk to a counselor and that I was DONE purging.

The counselor I met with was a nice guy. I think he sincerely wanted to help me. But I also think he didn’t realize how seriously overwhelmed and incapable of dealing with stress I was. We chatted weekly a handful of times, and I told him each time that my purging had stayed stopped. Our conversations were pretty much, “Hey, how are you? No more purging? Good job.”

At one of them a “Here’s a good book we like to give to eating disorder patients” was thrown in with a recommendation to read Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole (side note: I flipped through it, thought its ideas were baloney, and chucked it under my bed). Then he let me know he felt good about where I was and we didn’t need to meet anymore unless I really wanted to. I gave him a hurried thanks-but-no-thanks and scooted on out of that office for the last time. I took his blessing to go as a sign that I was “better” since my purging was all gone.

I could now get back to what I had by then decided my real problem was: being fat.

Next: How I Stopped Binge Eating: Part 2