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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.