My World in Numbers
Eating disorders are serious medical illnesses that currently affect over 30 million people in the United States alone. There is still a high percentage of people who believe eating disorders are related to vanity—eating disorders are not about bitches wanting to be skinny to look good in a bikini. While the etiology of eating disorders is not fully known, there are many abnormalities in the brain, immune system, and hormone regulation that have been associated with physiological and behavioral symptoms of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa has one of the highest death rates of any psychiatric disorder (~20%) and is characterized by an intense fear of weight gain leading to inadequate food intake, excessive exercise, and other behaviors to prevent weight gain and promote weight loss. People who suffer from anorexia nervosa are dangerously underweight. Bulimia nervosa, on the other hand, is not defined by being underweight but by out-of-control binge eating episodes, after which a person will attempt to prevent weight gain by vomiting, taking laxatives, or excessively exercising. Binge eating disorder is characterized by out-of-control binge eating episodes without an attempt to prevent weight gain. There are other eating disorders like night-eating syndrome and purging disorder, but one thing all eating disorders have in common is an extreme emotional and behavioral connection to food and body weight.
Because most people who have eating disorders do not meet the full criteria for either anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder, EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) is the most common diagnosis given when people seek treatment for eating disorders. Orthorexia is another common type of eating disorder but is not yet “officially” recognized as a diagnosis. Orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating to a point that it becomes unhealthy. But what does an eating disorder really look like? When most people think of eating disorders, they imagine a skin-and-bones woman with nothing but a piece of lettuce on her plate, or they imagine a woman running to the bathroom to vomit after every meal, but eating disorders are all-consuming in every facet of life. Eating disorders manifest differently in different people, but this is how it grew in me:
I don’t know how it started—it seemed like I just woke up one day and I could feel the burden of my pathetic, shameful life weighing down on me. If I could just lose five pounds, maybe I would feel better about myself. I started exercising and dieting and lost over 30 pounds in just a couple of months. A spaceship-looking machine at the gym told me that I was at a “normal” weight and body mass index for my age and height, and that was the first time I realized that I was even overweight to begin with. I wondered how I had never known that I was chubby before (I was not obese but my weight at my first workout was approaching 180 with a very high body mass index, which was definitely unhealthy). It’s intriguing how I didn’t become aware of my body until it started disappearing—it was like I had never looked in a mirror before, I didn’t think anything of my size 12 or 14 jeans, and I had no idea how many calories were in that chicken strip basket and Oreo Blizzard from Dairy Queen that I ate for lunch. I now know that meal was over 2000 calories—my brain may forever be branded with nutrition facts for every food and meal on the planet. I really wish I could forget how many calories are in a chicken breast or how many grams of fat are in an avocado, but for the next 5 years after this initial weight loss, my whole world revolved around numbers. Calories. Weight. Grams. Pounds. Inches. Servings.
I felt so good in my new clothes and so comfortable in my new body—it was a high like I had never experienced. I never wanted to gain another pound. I arbitrarily assigned myself an 800-calorie daily limit when I decided that 500 calories a day seemed too anorexic, but consuming 1,000 calories just sounded…huge. Most days, I could adhere to the 800 calories, or if I was particularly triumphant, maybe 500 calories or none at all. Of course, the calories from all the alcohol I drank every day didn’t factor into this limit. Alcohol was a necessity. It was like a medication I had to take, so I wasn’t going to think about how many calories I was ingesting when I drank. If I ate under 800 calories a day, I would allow myself to drink whatever I wanted—as long as it was light beer or white wine or whiskey with diet soda. I learned those were the “cheapest” ways to drink. I started referring to my daily calories as if they were money:
“Pizza is too expensive.” (too many calories)
“I think I can afford this sandwich.” (350 calories will not put me over 800).
“Oh no, I spent too much today.” (I went over 800 calories)
I was already an alcoholic at this point, and my life was quickly spiraling out of control—knowing that I could still control what I put into my body and I could control that number on the scale made me feel like I was still healthy, or at least functioning. As the frequency and quantity of my drinking started to increase, I decided that I needed to be even stricter about what I ate in order to maintain my weight. I would only eat baked chicken breasts, eggs, green vegetables, canned tuna, and baked salmon—those were my safe foods. If I was in too much of a hurry to cook, and I felt like I couldn’t make it through the day without eating (because I was too dizzy or nauseous), I would allow myself to get a Subway sandwich. The guy on the commercials lost a ton of weight eating Subway, so I couldn’t feel guilty about that. If I knew I had to go out to dinner with friends or family, I would eat as little as possible the day before, nothing else the day of dinner, and I’d make sure to order a healthy option on the menu (after spending hours beforehand looking over the restaurant’s menu and adding up what each menu option would cost me). If dinner plans came unexpectedly, and I had already eaten that day, I would make up an excuse not to go, or I would just promise myself I wouldn’t eat the following day. All of this seemed perfectly normal to me, and I started to feel successful in life.
I began to develop obsessive thoughts about controlling my food intake and weight. I spent countless hours looking at nutrition facts on the internet, and I knew the caloric content of basically every food on Earth and every item at any restaurant or fast food chain. If I didn’t pass out drunk somewhere before being able to put myself to bed, I had a routine of lying in bed counting the calories of everything I ate that day. I would start at the beginning of the day and add up everything I ate in order, which wasn’t too difficult because I usually only ate once a day. But just to be sure I wasn’t forgetting something, I would then start at the end of the day and work backwards adding everything up I ate back to the beginning of the day. If I couldn’t convince myself that the half chicken breast I cooked for dinner was actually under a hundred calories, I would hop out of bed and run to the kitchen to look at the package of chicken, even if I had to dig through the trash for it.
“If the whole package was 0.93 pounds and I only ate one half of the three breasts, then I ate 0.155 pounds of chicken, or 2.48 ounces. Since there are 110 calories in 4 ounces of chicken breast, or 27.5 calories per ounce, I only ate 68.2 calories of chicken. Okay I can go back to bed now.”
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t control the calories scrolling through my head as I lay in bed, like an adding machine from hell with a mind of its own. But at least when my mind was completely consumed with calories, I wasn’t thinking about being raped as I was trying to fall asleep, so it was a compromise I accepted. It also seemed to minimize the frequency of my nightmares as I would often just dream about food.
I tried to not eat at night because I was afraid if I went to sleep too soon after eating, all the food would turn to fat by morning. Every morning I woke up, I would begin by feeling my ribs and hips to make sure I could at least feel some sort of bone. Then, I would proceed to the bathroom to weigh myself. The number on the scale determined how good about myself I would feel that day, and I was usually disappointed. I didn’t even care how I looked to other people, but I needed the scale to say 145.0 or below. If it said 145.1, my heart would drop into my stomach and then I would wonder how many calories my heart cost me in that moment. During my morning assessment of my body or any time I looked in a mirror, my eyes always only focused on my stomach—what looked like a disgusting, protruding, flabby stomach. Maybe I was only concerned with this area because that’s where I could feel the burden of my self-hatred, in the deepest part of my gut. I hated myself for being a lesbian, and I hated myself for being an alcoholic, and I hated myself for getting raped, but if I could just get rid of the gut, maybe I would approve of myself.
Eventually, the people closest to me started to notice that I wasn’t eating normally and would make comments that irritated me. When I was out of town with friends who stopped at Burger King for lunch, I ran across the street to buy a can of tuna at the gas station. And then I had to run to a grocery store when I realized I didn’t have a can opener. They didn’t understand why I didn’t just get some “real food” at the grocery store instead of insisting on finding a can opener for my gas station tuna. It’s not like I was underweight or even losing weight anymore, so I didn’t see what the problem was. To get my friends to leave me alone about my eating habits, I wanted to make sure that when I did eat, it was around my friends. If I wanted to eat an apple at some point during the day, I would carry it around in my purse until I was with one of my friends so I could eat it in front of them. Pretty soon, I almost never ate anything alone.
This all got so exhausting after a couple years, and I was tired of being hungry all the time, but I only felt satisfied when my stomach was growling. When I was weak and starving, hunger was the only thing I could feel, and hunger could drown out my emotional pain. It was hard to focus on my thoughts or much of anything when I was starving. Like my weight and the food I put into my body, my success in school was one of the only aspects of my life over which I felt like I had any control. I had survived the complete loss of control over my body twice already, and I was desperate to grasp any source of control over my life I could find—so as long as I kept doing well in school and didn’t gain any weight, I was in control.
After 5 years of severe food restriction, I started binging more. I was just so sick of being so hungry, but I felt like I was going to die every time I ate anything. After my last binge, I realized what I had done—I just ingested more food in one hour than I usually ate in a week, and I could feel the shame and guilt and hatred for myself settling on my stomach with every passing second. I had to get this out of me—I had to regain control of my body. I curled myself around the toilet shoving my fingers down my throat, then my toothbrush when that didn’t work. How could I possibly not be able to vomit after all that poison I just put in my body? I eventually gave up, feeling like even more of a failure for not being able to get rid of the food I just ate than I did for eating it in the first place.
I knew I needed help, but I didn’t think anybody was going to be able to help me. I wasn’t even underweight, so nobody would believe me if I told them I needed help with an eating disorder. That thought made me feel even more hopeless—all these years of hard work trying to obsessively control my weight and I didn’t have anything to show for it. I got help for my disordered eating at the same time I got help for my alcoholism (see this post for that story), and I can say that learning to eat healthily again was just as difficult as learning to live sober (read: excruciating, but absolutely worth it). But with both of these issues, I was only able to recover by identifying the underlying emotional issues that fueled them (why did I hate myself so much? why was I scared all the time? Why did I feel so alone?), and that cannot be done alone.
I have no idea how much I weigh now, I am able to eat whenever I’m hungry and until I feel satisfied. I exercise regularly because I enjoy it so much, but I don’t try to figure out how many calories I burned so I can subtract that from my daily total. I enjoy eating and cooking and baking. I enjoy treats every now and then (okay, I enjoy treats a lot). I go to sleep without a single thought of what I ate that day. I am healthy. And that is how it should be.
Please see these websites for more information on eating disorders and how to get help: