The answer that might first come to mind is ‘ruining your life’ but that’s collateral damage. Eating disorders are without doubt detrimental for both your mental health and physical health, but they weren’t born out of an evil desire to hurt yourself. Eating disorders are, more often than not, a coping mechanism for some sort of emotional distress.
It is always difficult to determine when and why an eating disorder made its first stage appearance in the life of a person and it takes a fair bit of self-awareness and scrutiny to recognise the starting point. When I went to therapy, one of the first things I had to do was draw a chart. The vertical axis showed my weight and the horizontal axis my age. I had to draw a line that more or less showed my weight fluctuation since I was born. Once I had done that, I had to draw or signal on the chart points in my life when special or important events had taken place. My chart included things like when my family moved from France to Spain, when my aunt passed away or when I moved here. I struggled to get too much information onto the chart, it was difficult to remember on my own but my therapist helped with questioning and we ended up covering the chart in signs and drawings. That’s how we identified that my first disordered behaviors – in my case, eating in hiding – started when I was 9 or 10 years old, two or three years after moving to Spain.
Still, it’s difficult to pin point what exactly at that time triggered this behavior. In part, it was because all the kids in my class had chocolate treats at recess and I didn’t have anything. I don’t even know why, snacking was never really a thing in my household, so I suppose it didn’t come to mind to give me anything for recess and I never asked. I also had difficulty making friends and, like many other children, I was teased for… well, many things, being French, having freckles, the clothes I wore, even the size of my backside, although that was when I was a bit older. It’s not a time I rejoice thinking about but there you have it. Either way, that was the early steps into my eating disorder.
Later we moved out of town and I started in a completely different high school. I have to say that I wasn’t bullied in any way there, but I still struggled with feeling accepted. Still, in my second year I made a small, but good group of friends with which I remained in touch well into university and with some until long after I moved to the UK. That helped a bit, but I still ate in hiding. My parents worked all day and I spent a lot of time alone at home. I was not interested in studying, no shock there, but, in hindsight, I was interested in escaping. I read a lot, I watched TV, anything that would make my life slightly more exciting, even if it wasn’t first-hand excitement. And food helped that a lot. I cooked myself food in the middle of the afternoon, usually pasta, for no reason at all.
There was a turning point for the worst when my aunt passed away. Food, again, came to my rescue, but I was the heaviest I had ever been. So I did what every other human being would do, I went on a diet. It wasn’t super strict at first, but the summer before I came to the UK, when I was on holiday in France, I went for a good stretch of time when I starved myself. I ate moderately for breakfast and lunch and I’d have a piece of fruit for dinner. I went to bed really hungry every night for a couple of months. I lost a lot of weight too. I was the thinnest I had been since I was ten probably, which made my grandmother and my parents so extremely happy.
I came here as a volunteer a few months after that. Coming to the UK was not what made things worse, but it was when it got out of control, especially once I lived on my own, on my second year. I had a job, my own money and absolutely nothing to limit what I did… or ate. Being as lonely as I was before and free from any parental judgment, I simply went for it.
As you might be able to see, for me, eating was a coping mechanism to help me with being alone and, really, lost. I didn’t know what I really wanted to do with my life, not until recently anyway, I had no focus. But was finding a direction in my life the solution to my problem? Well, no. I realised I had a problem long before I decided what I wanted to do with my life and it wasn’t until last year that I committed fully to therapy, and that was what made all the difference, and what helped me realize the extent to which I had become dependent on my eating disorder.
The thing is, once you’ve developed this system to help you cope with something, there is always something else. Through therapy I’ve been able to identify my triggers and when I feel like binging I know easily why I want to binge, something that wasn’t the case before. The thing is, once you have discovered why you binge, it’s much easier to put the tub of ice-cream back in the freezer.
Now, this was a brief biography of my eating disorder and, therefore, a personal story but I am hardly the only one with this problem. A minimum of 85% of people who try to lose weight are unsuccessful when dieting. It is easy to imagine that some of them fail because they don’t care enough or lack the willpower, but 85% is too high a number not to be statistically relevant to the efficiency of dieting. As I said in my previous article, Sound the Alarm, I believe a lot more people than is thought have some level of disordered eating, if not a full blown eating disorder, without knowing it or recognizing it. And why would they? In the US alone, thirty-four times more money is spent on researching obesity than eating disorders. You will have no doubt of whether you are obese or not thanks to the nonsensical BMI charts, but you will have to suspect you have a problem, then embark in some research and then, if you can’t afford private therapy, hope that the NHS accepts to give you treatment, which is not something to take for granted, since my GP told me that, although they refer people, they are not always accepted into treatment. But the same GP will happily give you slimming pills, very few questions asked.
So, if it’s so hard to get help, how can you identify your triggers? What is this emotional issue that BED is helping you cope with? It’s different for everybody. A friend of mine who suffered from this same issue told me once that a good guide of triggers is HALT, meaning triggers such as when you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. For me, some of them prove right sometimes. The way I identified mine was by keeping a food journal. It wasn’t about what I was eating, really, but about relating that to the rest of the information that was included in there. The two most important pieces of information included were hunger levels (in a 1-10 scale) and a description of my feelings as I ate or prepare to eat.
My therapist told me once that, in a conference she attended, she heard the speaker at the time explain about BED being a coping mechanism. Addressing the audience, the speaker asked ‘how smart is that?’. Eating disorders are damaging to your mental and physical health, but don’t forget we didn’t start doing it as an effort to self-destruct, we started because this habit protected us from other painful situations in our life. Now those situations are gone and we don’t need this comfort blanket anymore, but it’s difficult to let go. I remember thinking it was almost as if I was losing a friend, even if the friend was a bad influence now. Still, if you have recognised that you have a problem, don’t be afraid to let it go. Get help, even if it’s a support group online, learn about BED (books are cheaper than therapy if you can’t afford it), learn about yourself and you will see that you are much more than this illness. You are strong, you’ve coped all this years, you can cope with this, all you have to do is take it one step at a time.