Yesterday while watching the Today show I was surprised to see a commercial for binge eating disorder. All I could think was: Wow — it’s really a mainstream thing now. Where was that fancy diagnosis 20 years ago when I just thought I was the most inept bulimic ever?
I have always been awesome at bingeing. I once heard some dietitian describe eating three cookies as a “binge” and I thought, Lady, puh-leeze. I don’t get out of bed for three cookies. (That’s a cheap joke — I would get out of bed and walk to the kitchen three separate times for three cookies; I just don’t kid myself, so I bring the whole package into the bedroom to save time.) I’ve always thought it a shame that being able to outeat a grown man doesn’t carry the same cachet as being able to drink him under the table. I really could have wowed some dudes.
So I had half of the equation down; I just couldn’t purge. I almost never gag (a strength that has served me well during 15 years of cleaning up all kinds of human waste in virtually every room of our house, our vehicles and the occasional hotel) and find it nigh impossible to make myself vomit. So I ended up wearing the weight that “real” bulimics barf off. I felt like an abject failure because I couldn’t even get an eating disorder right. Anorexia and bulimia seem glamorous compared with being considered a fat slob.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. I eventually realized that I could (and damn well SHOULD) work off what I couldn’t throw up. I read up on exercise and nutrition and made them my religion. Ninety minutes of cardio seven days a week (with strength training added in on alternating days) was my minimum; the day after Christmas required at least two hours to atone for my sins. I prepared all my own foods (all of them healthy, many of them “super”) in huge quantities (because I was still always extraordinarily “hungry”) and kept a calculator handy to tally every calorie. I drank gallons of diet soda and green tea. I stripped naked to weigh in and measure all my circumferences first thing every morning (sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m. because I just couldn’t wait for dawn) and recorded the shrinking numbers with relief. And when it all became too much and I couldn’t stand it another second, I binged, but this time on “healthy” foods: bags of granola; bowls of homemade sugar-free pumpkin pudding; bottles of calorie-free chocolate syrup; so many raisins. The consumption was all-consuming.
The next morning I would get up and work it all off again. I became a runner, constantly pushing myself to go farther, constantly pulling muscles, constantly terrified I would injure myself so badly that I would be unable to keep the workouts up and the weight off. I was in training to be strong enough to burn off my own flesh.
I lost about 80 pounds this way. (It always bothered me that I hadn’t recorded my exact starting weight and measurements so I could accurately quantify my success.) I was lean (I will never forget the time my doctor calculated my BMI and remarked, “You’re very thin” — the opposite of every weigh-in I’d ever experienced), except for the deflated ass flesh that literally clapped when I exercised (that’s the kind of applause you never want to hear), and I felt mean. I had no patience for my kids or my husband or anything that got in the way of my working off the weight. Sitting down for two hours to watch a movie was unthinkable; I had to keep moving — I was a furnace that existed not to warm others but to burn fuel. I had to keep burning to consume the food that I desperately needed. I lived to eat and to burn; everything else in life was secondary to those two functions.
The day my dad told me he thought I had an eating disorder, I was PISSED. Here I was, eating healthy foods, exercising, losing weight, doing what the world insists you must do to be acceptable, finally SUCCEEDING at life, and instead of being commended for my discipline and hard work, I was being criticized for it. The nerve of that man. Screw him and the aunts who were “worried sick.” I could finally wear size 4 pants and nobody was going to take that away from me.
It took some time for me to admit he was right, and the road back to sanity (if you can call it that) was long and agonizing. In 2008 I wrote: “I am deeply disappointed in myself. I raised expectations for myself (and, I feel, in the minds of others) that I would be able to stay ‘normal’ — be a ‘normal’ size and weight. I feel deeply bitter toward myself because I have ‘let myself go.’ I have humiliated myself before [my family] and everyone else whose criticism I perceive. Far better that I had never lost the weight than to fail to maintain it.” (Note to self: Should time travel become possible, steer clear of 2008.)
I am even heavier now, though I consume much less; I finally learned to distinguish physical hunger from emotional need, and even though I don’t always eat appropriately, at least I don’t experience that insatiable hunger that made me feel crazy. I exercise consistently and moderately — years ago I decided that I was only going to do what I could reasonably keep up, that I would never be driven to burn again — and I have pretty much broken up with all the super foods (except pumpkin — I can’t quit you, pie).
I’m not thrilled to be plus-size (the “curvy-girl revolution” notwithstanding — the size and configuration of my “curves” are never going to be cause for celebration), but I wouldn’t trade what I learned from this experience to be back in those size 4 jeans. When I was thin, I (like many people who lose weight) was insufferable — proud of what I’d achieved and judgmental of those who I thought weren’t willing to sacrifice as much as I had. During my lean, mean years I used to pray to become more empathetic and compassionate, and nothing fosters those traits like failure and heartache. Just as I can never look down on anyone who is overweight (those are “my people”), I can’t blame anyone for any addiction. (Smokers, you have my undying sympathy — I can’t imagine how hard it would be to have to go outside every time I ate a piece of cake.) I can only hope and pray that we all keep walking — however slowly, however erratically — toward sanity and health, looking at each other (and ourselves) with kindness along the way.