The world is ending, and all I can think about is losing ten pounds. Alright, fine. Maybe it’s not ending. Even I, grown-up theater kid and perpetual seeker of attention with a flair for the dramatic, can admit that it’s possible that all hope is not lost. Be that as it may, it’s no secret that we, as a country, have been navigating through the throws of chaos and a relentlessly flowing stream of bad news at a particularly high concentration this year. While disaster unfolds in the news, I find myself fixated on the one piece of news I receive on a daily basis that affects me most personally. This piece of news is delivered to me promptly at 9 am every day (fine, it’s not prompt, and sometimes it’s noon) by the bathroom scale I purchased at Target for $17.99. I have gained seven pounds since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And sure, I’m thankful for my health and I’m glad that these months of inactivity have prevented myself and those who I love from getting sick. But every morning, when I see that increased number on the scale, COVID-19 and the current executive board of the United States of America slips onto the back burner as my own personal self-loathing heats up in the front.
It’s a nice distraction, really. When thoughts of chaos and destruction slip out of my mind to make room for musings of inadequacy, things begin to feel, dare I say, normal? It provides an avenue for me to separate my fears and anxieties about the world around me as it seems to become less and less inhabitable and focus my brain on something I can control. Except I can’t control it, because I still haven’t lost the damn ten pounds.
Ever since I was a child, I operated with the idea that losing all of my extra weight would make my life perfect. As an adult, it feels like it’s perhaps the only aspect of my life I can control and achieve perfection in. I may be unemployed and out of my anti-depressants with little hope for the future in both my personal life and on a societal level, but I’ll be damned if I don’t perfect my hip-to-waist ratio by Christmas. Will COVID-19 mutate into a Stephen King-esque superflu that kills 90% of the population by December? Who knows! What I do know is that if I’m about to die, I need to reach my goal weight and I need to reach it yesterday. Although, once you’re emballed, you do lose all the water weight.
When you’re convinced that everything would be perfect if you just lost the weight, any other problem, macro or micro, fades to the background as the idea that perfection is an achievable state takes center stage. It’s always been this way. When the major parts of my life, romance and career, for example, fall apart, I’ve refocused myself on my body with the notion that if I fix everything about it, I can feel better about everything else.
At this point, it’s fair to let you know that I am bulimic. What you’ve read until this point has been an inside look at the way I process my desire to be thin in the midst of all that’s happened this year.
I have struggled with disordered eating habits, sometimes in recovery, and sometimes fully immersed in battle with my weight-loss demons, for the better part of the last two decades. I can remember the first time I experimented with disordered eating. At eight years old, I had begun to receive comments from relatives at family functions about how much bigger I was than my older, smaller sister. Her arrival was met with compliments and adoration of her developing figure while mine was met with diet tips from aunts and cousins who had been trying to lose their own ten pounds. Being an eight-year-old, I didn’t have much understanding of the way bodies work. It seemed simple- I would eat exactly what my sister ate when she ate it, and I would become thin. Spoiler alert- I did not lose a single pound. After a couple of years of copycat dieting, I learned the word bulimia.
I read a book in the sixth grade about a diabetic girl who started purging to maintain thinness and slipped into a diabetic coma. I know, I was supposed to take the story as a warning. I can almost guarantee that the author has no idea that she gave a preteen girl instructions for how to undo food regret. This information came to me around the time that my parents became comfortable leaving me home alone, so I would wait until they left, and then I would feast. Once the feast was over, it would be digested by the toilet.
This sort of behavior escalated for years, and like most people with a problem their not ready to solve, I became very good at hiding it. The only people I opened up to about this issue for years were friends with whom I shared an apartment in college who had caught me. Eventually, even the most skilled criminals are caught when they’re making repeat offenses.
I’ll never forget the first time I was really caught. I went to my dorm bathroom after a trip to the dining commons with floormates who knew I had been perfectly well while consuming the same food they did. One of them came into the bathroom, said “girl, are you making yourself puke?” and left once I’d ignored her long enough to make it clear that I wasn’t interested in being told not to do what I was doing. That was when I learned that I had to be stealthy, and that was when I began vomiting into trash bags in the privacy of my dorm room while my roommate was in class.
I can’t stay that I’ve ever fully committed to my recovery. That being said, I do not want bulimia to be a part of me. There is a part of me, though, that feels as though I could never be cured of my disorder unless I reached my elusive goal weight. I have gained some control over the years, but I’ve never been ready to admit that it’s something I can’t handle on my own. The only psychiatrist I ever spoke to about the issue assured me that it was a compulsive habit brought on by my OCD and prescribed me Prozac. I tried recovery her way, did not recover, and resolved to take care of things my way.
For the most part, I have relied on techniques one could equate with bandaids on a broken bone to deal with the issue. I always exercise in the morning to offset any empty calories or random beers I might consume on any given day. Before the stay-at-home orders were issues, if I couldn’t stand the temptation of the food I had in my pantry, I would simply leave my home. I stayed busy. For long stretches of time, I wouldn’t even grocery shop. I would only purchase the exact amount of food I wanted to consume on a given day. Earlier this year, when the world took a nosedive into chaos, some of my methods no longer seemed viable.
Do you remember the very early days of the pandemic? You know, the days when toilet paper was a rare, hot commodity? It was at that point that my mother instructed me to go to the grocery store and stock up on nonperishable food items. I bought frozen pizzas, boxes of pasta, and the fancy ramen packets that come with actual sauce rather than an envelope of chicken-flavored powder. I bought several family-sized bags of chips, and some peanut butter cups so I’d have something sweet at night. I got home with my groceries and popped a frozen pizza in the oven. I told myself that I would eat half of the pizza, and at least save the other half to be consumed cold the next morning.
As the pizza was baking and my stomach began to rumble, I opened my pantry doors and felt an immediate sense of overwhelming regret at the number of consumable items inside. I saw the three large bags of chips, and I panicked thinking about how badly I wanted to tear into all three at that exact moment.
I never know that I’m going to lose control before it happens. It feels as though I’m always one bite away from spiraling into the manic stare I enter when the urge to purge hits me (I’m so sorry for the rhyme, I simply couldn’t resist). It’s as though I have I tightrope stretched across my brain and as I’m eating I have to tiptoe across it, being very careful not to teeter over the edge. It’s a very delicate balance, maintaining my sanity, and at this juncture, I have to say that I am ill-prepared to join the circus.
That night, I lost control. It had been months since I’d done so, and I’d been sure that this could potentially be the time that I was done with disordered eating for good. The lost progress worked it’s way into my head somewhere between the second and third bag of chips, and I kept going on an empty promise that tomorrow would be better. Tomorrow was not better, and neither was the next day or the day after that.
I am not unique in this experience. The conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic have created a breeding ground for the types of triggers that can cause someone in eating disorder recovery to relapse. We receive a barrage of news that feels traumatizing that we have no control over, so we turn to the coping methods that grant us a sense of control. We’ve been told to prepare for disaster with stockpiles of high-calorie foods in our pantries, leaving us susceptible to surprise binges. There’s very little to distract us from our own thought processes, so we spend entire days staring at the same four walls with nothing to deflect from the irrational thoughts that creep in to let us know that we might feel better if we just lose those ten pounds.
Having an eating disorder feels like a substance abuse problem with which you can’t avoid the substance in question completely as an alcoholic might do. If you avoid the substance, food, completely, then you have a full-blown eating disorder on your hands.
In a logical state, I can admit that losing ten pounds during a time of global crisis should be the least of my worries. I often wonder what I could use my brainpower for if I didn’t use up so much of it thinking about how to shrink my waistline. But the thing about disordered eating is that it’s not really about the weight at all- it’s about control. At the point when my brain feels like it’s going to buckle from the pressure to figure out the magic formula for fixing the entire world, I begin to zero in on what I can solve right now. What I can solve right now is the issue of the extra layer of fat that spills over my jeans when I sit down.
In truth, if I were to get rid of that layer of that I would simply find another area of focus. As I’m typing this, I’m feeling the jiggle of my upper arm fat and wondering what, exactly, I can do about that. It has been about two weeks since I’ve last binged and purged, and while I’m proud of that stretch of time, I know that this battle is not over. Like an alcoholic, I will have to spend the rest of my life on the watch for triggers and cleaning up my own messes when I fall off the metaphorical wagon. If I continue to put bandaids on my broken bones, I know I’ll end up with deeper emotional scarring. I’m looking to my habits as a way of processing my emotions regarding the state of the world, but in reality, all I’ve found is an escape similar to that you’d find at the bottom of a bottle or at your credit card’s max limit. What I can do is continue to check in with myself, and eventually get myself proper treatment. It’s true that you can’t change a person until they want to be changed. Right now, I’m not there yet but wanting to want to change feels like the first step on a journey of a million steps. At least a million steps burns calories.