When Food Was a Drug
Hello friends. I’d like to preface this entry by commenting that it reflects a time in my life when I was not actively pursuing joy, but that this story, and the self-analysis that went with it, were critical for me to move forward in understanding why I have the issues that I do, which is one of the most important steps in overcoming them. This is a painful story for me to tell, but I look back on the girl I was with love, compassion, and forgiveness. I want to tell her that she is beautiful, that she is not broken, that there is no void inside of her that she needs to fill with food. I can’t give the girl I was these messages, but I can remind the woman I am, and I can share that message with those of you out there who battle the same demons. You are beautiful, you are worthy, you are not broken. You don’t need to fill a void with food. Fill yourself with self-love instead.
When I decided that I wanted to remake myself into a healthy, active person, I knew that my greatest and most complex battle would be in changing my relationship with food. This is not an easy feat, and it requires a constant self-awareness, even now. When I am healthy and eating well, food can be a source of joy. But, for much of my life, it was anything but. For many, many years, food was a source of guilt, shame, self-loathing and sadness.
As a child, I was not overweight, but I was tall and broad. I was always one of the tallest kids in my class through elementary school, and I was the first girl in my class to reach puberty, much to my horror. When I hit 7th grade, other kids started to notice and began teasing me about my weight and my development. I was teased and bullied because of my size, even though I was still healthy for my frame, and when I started to be made to feel shame about myself and my body, I turned to food for comfort. I ate to fill the void of loneliness that I felt because of my weight, which in turn, continued to increase, separating me from my peers, exacerbating the problem.
At the age of 13, after I was caught having consumed an entire bag of Hallowe’en candy prior to Hallowe’en, my parents decided to send me to a nutritionist. Unfortunately, the experience was rather ineffective. The nutritionist had me write down the food I consumed every day, which I posted on the fridge for the whole family to see. Of course, I only wrote down food I knew would be ‘approved’. I knew exactly what I was supposed to be eating. I ate everything else in secret. As a result, when I returned to the nutritionist and she reviewed my food diary, she declared that I didn’t really have a problem.
She was wrong. Food had become my drug of choice. I sought the dopamine it released in my brain, and I was developing a neurochemical dependency on binge eating. Obviously, at 13, I didn’t understand any of that. Food tasted good. Food was a quick pleasure fix at a point in my life when I didn’t have many other sources of pleasure. Food was a friend in my loneliness, an activity when I was bored, and a high when I was low. I had developed compulsive overeating disorder, and was both a binge eater, and a grazer. Both habits, binging and grazing, lead to large overconsumption of calories in a given day.
At the end of high school, I could only shop in plus size stores, and weighed 230lbs. In the summer before my first year of university, I decided that I wanted to lose weight. My primary motivation was because I was afraid that no one would like me at school because I was fat. That summer, I lost 30 lbs in six weeks by running and carrying my golf clubs when walking the course, and reducing the fat and carbs in my diet. It was another 7 years before I would try to lose weight in a meaningful way again.
When I arrived at Carleton University in Ottawa, where I spent some of the happiest years of my life, it quickly became apparent that finding friends wasn’t going to be a problem. I started out the year well, continuing to run, and eating healthily, but quickly that changed. My motivation was removed by landing in a wonderful group of artistic and musical friends from my university residence. Suddenly, I had a rich, happy social life, which had been my primary motivator to lose weight. It didn’t take long for my efforts to fall by the wayside, and the unhealthy student lifestyle to take hold.
My binge habits resumed. I was no longer eating to fill the void of loneliness, but I was eating for the dopamine and pleasure. I still ate out of boredom, and I ate mindlessly. The majority of my friends were eating similarly, however. We ate VAST quantities of junk food together, and would embark on collective binges. My concealment behaviour decreased, but my relationship with food remained thoughtless and compulsive.
After I graduated, I travelled to Korea, where I taught English for a year and I reached my all-time largest size. I have no idea what I weighed during this time period, but I would guess it was somewhere around 280lbs. I was no longer just a binge eater, I was a binge drinker as well. I was incredibly unhappy, and incredibly unhealthy, and I wore my misery on my body like armour.
Eight months into my time in Korea, my parents came to visit me. I saw my weight in the expressions on their faces, but we didn’t discuss it. We travelled to Japan, where many of our hotels had communal hot spring baths, where men and women would bathe separately. For the first time in many years, I allowed my mother to see me naked. After my parents returned home from Korea, my Dad, who had once been 300 lbs, but had lost the weight and kept it off, called me to stage an intervention. He told me how worried they were, that they thought I might be a candidate for type 2 diabetes, and that when my mom saw me naked, she cried afterward out of worry. To this day, that is one of the most painful things I have ever heard.
After the phone call, I threw out all the sugary drinks that I used as mix for my binge drinking, and attempted to eat a little better, but I didn’t eliminate the excessive alcohol consumption that was causing a lot of my health issues. I still wanted to lose weight for the wrong reasons. I wanted it because I hated myself and my body and because I wanted my parents to be proud of me, and not ashamed. Unfortunately, those are not reasons enough to make that type of change. Like quitting smoking, you have to do it for yourself, because YOU want it for you. Nothing else will ever be sustainable.
It was another two and a half years before I was ready to remake my life. My issues with compulsivity and binge eating are not gone. Like any addiction, it requires constant vigilance to prevent myself from backsliding. Unlike other addictions, you can’t quit food cold turkey. Some days are easier than others. I don’t expect perfection of myself, but I do expect self-awareness, and self-forgiveness. When I fall off the wagon, I get back on it the next day. I have a good workout, and move forward like nothing happened. I do not dwell in the guilt anymore. Guilt and shame lead to bingeing, and bingeing leads to guilt and shame.
At 2am after the end of my sister’s wedding, my Mom saw me changing out of my fateful bridesmaid dress and saw me naked again for the first time since our trip to Japan. When she saw me, she gasped and said “oh, Ashley, look at you”! And started to cry again. This time, they were tears of joy.
Resources and References:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3795306/ Dopamine Signalling in Reward-Related Behaviours
https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/binge-eating-disorder Binge eating disorder page on the National Eating Disorders Association website
http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/compulsive-overeating-and-how-to-stop-it Compulsive overeating and how to stop it
http://www.medicinenet.com/bingeeatingdisorder/article.htm Medicinenet.com article, which includes facts, risk factors, causes, diagnosis, and treatment
http://casapalmera.com/7-signs-of-compulsive-overeating/ Includes common signs of a compulsive overeater, and an overview of the disorder.
http://aweighout.com/about-emotional-binge-eating/emotional-compulsive-overeating/ An interesting overview of ‘food thoughts’ which prevent you from focusing on the problem at hand.
http://www.stopcompulsiveeating.com/foodquiz.php Bodywise food attitudes quiz: help you recognize whether you have an unhealthy relationship with food.
http://www.iwk.nshealth.ca/sites/default/files/BingeEatingDisorder.pdf Binge eating disorder weight control information network