My dear friend food and I, we’ve experienced more than a few ups and downs together. I have gone from being someone who didn’t eat, to a vegan, to a vegetarian, and finally to a pescatarian in the past four years. As a senior in high school, I was diagnosed with EDNOS, short for “Eating Disorder Not Other Specified”, since changed to OSFED, or “Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders” under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition. You’ve probably never heard of this disorder, and that’s not surprising seeing as I had never heard of it until my therapist at the time handed me a piece of paper with her diagnosis. Basically in short, those with OSFED don’t fit neatly into the requirements for anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating, because they do some of everything.
For me personally, I would starve myself through extreme dieting, throw up most meals, and go through episodes of intense binging and purging. This combined with excessive exercise created a monster that I can proudly say I have since defeated. The process was long, difficult, and frankly painful at times. I had to completely reinvent how I saw myself and my own worth, something we all struggle with in the current cultural climate where a woman’s value is based on her jean size and the number of likes she received on her latest Instagram post.
The most difficult part for me at least was not changing the actual habits, but my mental relationship with food and essentially myself. While it took less than two years to cut the habits of extreme dieting, binging, and purging, it has taken me the past four years to finally get to a place where I don’t see food as an enemy – waiting in the shadows to sabotage me as soon as I turn my back. It was always about control for me. I can’t control many aspects of my life, and frankly that’s a whole other issue I think we all battle, but food… that was an area of my life I could exert all the control I desired.
I used to train myself to eat less and less, slowly shrinking my stomach until a mere chicken breast and a handful of spinach made me to the point of being uncomfortably full. It was a triumph if I could defeat the growls of my stomach begging for food, silencing the noises until I no longer felt anything. Every bite of food caused anxiety. As for unhealthy food, don’t even get me started. A piece of cake could have me in tears. I would avoid going out to eat with friends or going to parties because I was afraid that I would not be able to control myself around all the foods I had convinced myself would instantly make me fat. I remember one time my senior year of high school my friends convinced me to come to someone’s birthday party after days of making any excuse I could to stay home. That night I threw up eight times in less than 4 hours. Starving from barely eating all day and finishing a two hour cardio workout, I lost control and ate everything I could get my hands on.
Food was public enemy #1. It represented every facet of my life that I couldn’t meticulously plan to perfection. It represented the body I so desperately wanted to forget I had.
Luckily, over the next 6 months following diagnosis and lots of therapy, that relationship began to change. I soon found comfort in a vegan diet. However, looking back that vegan lifestyle was still my way of controlling food, keeping it under tight surveillance. While I did eat more and the extreme binging and purging ended for the most part, I still planned out every single meal 24 hours in advance. I would still avoid social situations if there weren’t foods there that fit my new vegan diet. While I am in no way saying veganism is bad or unhealthy (I firmly believe it is actually one of the healthiest and most socially responsible diets around), I didn’t use it responsibly. For me it was a veil of health. I used a healthy diet to hide my still unhealthy mental relationship with food.
As time went on and I left for college, I slowly started to figure it out. I found that a vegetarian diet and eventually a pescatarian diet was easier to maintain and still left me comfortable. I began to balance the amount of food I ate to how much I worked out. I picked up running and yoga, and actually found the gym to be not as terrible place as I initially thought. The anxiety at the thought of pizza for dinner was still there, but it had slowly been subdued with time and a lot of mental effort.
However, with the start of college came a new battle. Prior to college I didn’t really drink at all except for one glass of wine at dinner with the family, but now there were parties. Lots of parties. Aka drinking a LOT more than I was ever used to, and that scared the hell out of me. Not because I was afraid of losing control or being too drunk, no I was afraid of the calories. Every shot was one more mile I would need to run, every beer another hour at the gym. For the next two years, I would make up any lie I could, come up with any assignment that needed to be done, so that I could avoid going out more than once a week. Yes I love to sleep, but not that much. I lied about needing 9 hours of sleep every single night. I didn’t have to be up at 7am the next morning for a yoga class. I was just scared of drinking my calories.
Fast forward to the beginning of this year, my junior year, where I experienced a messy breakup and the loss of a person very dear to me. I no longer had a support system in my life that I relied on for so long, someone that could distract me from the self-doubt that still lingered from my eating disorder.
I had to kick myself in the ass and finally face a lot of the baggage I had tucked away. While I was then able to go out more than once a week without having a panic attack and loved every bite of a sprinkle ice cream cone, I still criticized myself constantly for not being enough. I had cut the physical bad habits, but I still treated myself like shit. I was mean; I was abusive. I spewed the most hateful words to myself, words that I would never speak to anyone else in a million years. For so long I had pretended I was over everything and happy with myself, but I wasn’t. The breakup proved that.
I needed to learn to love myself in every way possible, and fast – so I did. I went back to therapy and forced myself out of my comfort zone. I picked up boxing, worked my way through all the recipes I had been dying to try (even if they weren’t healthy!), and started to go out more with my friends. I put myself in situations with food and alcohol that would make me uncomfortable because I knew that was the only way. I stopped myself from staring in the mirror every morning, analyzing my naked body to see if it looked larger than the day before. I had to face that lingering self-deprecation head on. I did… and it worked.
I can now say that after four years since my diagnosis, I am happy. I love myself and food no longer makes me want to go hide in the corner. I am writing this from my apartment in the south of France, where I am studying for the semester, eating a fresh pain au chocolat, drinking tea, and reveling in the fact I finally feel at peace with myself. Do I still mess up and make a snide comment about myself every now and then? Hell yes. The difference now is that I forgive myself. I recognize that I am not perfect, I never will be. But you know what, that’s my strength. My struggle and relationship with food over that past four years has been the most unforgiving journey, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It has forced me to face myself, my biggest critic head on. It made me realize that food was never the problem; it was how I viewed my worth and myself. The relationship with food and the eating disorder was simply the way in which it manifested.
If you’re struggling with an unhealthy relationship with food, I encourage you to speak out and ask for help. I did, and it was the greatest decision of my life. The strongest people are the ones that admit they aren’t perfect. It’s okay to not be able to accomplish everything alone; it’s normal. Open your heart to yourself – be vulnerable. Wear your struggles like a badge of honor. Be proud of where you are and how far you’ve come. If you do, I promise so much light and happiness will find its way into your life.