“Disordered eating refers to a wide range of abnormal eating behaviours, many of which are shared with diagnosed eating disorders. The main thing differentiating disordered eating from an eating disorder is the level of severity and frequency of behaviours.” – Eating Disorders Victoria
I was one of those kids that was extremely fussy when it came to food. I was aware from a young age that it was something my parents were concerned about. Dinnertime was a scary thing to me when I was a kid of five or six. My brother and I both had our own little tables in the corner of the living room where we sat to eat – his was facing the wall which granted him privacy, whereas mine faced the sofa where my Dad sat. Every now and then as I stared at my plate of food, I could feel my Dad’s eyes on me – it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My stomach would be in knots as I looked at the food on my plate – I don’t know how to explain why eating a meal felt to me like an impossible task. His eyes pierced through me, paralysing me with anxiety. It wasn’t a gaze of concern, it always felt like punishment: “Eat your tea.” He was angry. I would look at my brother, cleaning his plate while I was still trying to force down the first few mouthfuls, and wonder why I could not be like him.
On one occasion, when my grandmother was over for tea, it all became too much. I could tell, because my father’s emotion was the first language I became fluent in, that my Dad was ashamed of my eating habits and wanted me to act normal at least when his mother was there. The added pressure of the expectation from my grandmother and how ashamed my Dad was of me, and the idea that everyone was watching to see if I would eat, made me excuse myself to go to the toilet, when instead I ran up to my bedroom to lie on my bed and howl. I can still remember how it felt. You know when you’re crying so hard from your belly that it physically hurts you? I can’t remember who eventually found me.
I had this anxiety about eating most evenings when I was a kid. When she was around, my mother was a big source of comfort at these times. She had a much more nurturing and understanding approach – her solution was to feed me like a toddler even though I was old enough to feed myself. She’d pick up food on the fork, make the helping smaller by eating some herself, then feed the food to me, saying: “Just one more, just one more…”. I’m tearing up thinking about it, actually. My brother used to ridicule me tirelessly about it, calling me a baby and my mother could’ve been embarrassed about it but she wasn’t. Her feeding me in this way provided a respite from the usual anxiety and stress of mealtimes that plagued me every single day. I felt looked after, accepted, understood. But my parents split when I was six and she left, so this respite was more or less short-lived.
As I got older, I slowly developed more of an appetite and could manage bigger portions. So for a few years, it wasn’t so much of a big deal – except when I went round to my friends’ houses and couldn’t finish their parent’s strange food and got told what a “waste” it was. There is a theme of shame that is persistent throughout this storyline: my father was ashamed of me, my brother was ashamed of me, my friends were ashamed when I couldn’t finish their parent’s food and it’s probably one of the reasons that my problems with eating came back in adolescence.
When I was fourteen, I went through a phase at school when I had virtually no friends. This led to countless lunchtimes alone and this was a source of enormous embarrassment to me. Sometimes I’d just get a hot chocolate because at least this would mean people didn’t have to see me eating alone like a loser, sometimes I’d hide in the bathroom and I mostly didn’t eat anything at all. I felt that everyone was watching me eat and I couldn’t take it. Naturally, this stemmed from the way my Dad used to stare at me during mealtimes as a kid. My anxiety was terrible at this point.
Seeing the effect this new habit had on my body was a strange thing. My stomach was suddenly concave. I felt lighter, thinner. I’ve always been thin and I’m one of those people with an annoyingly fast metabolism, so the weight just dropped off. I felt like I was floating sometimes – I felt free. I started to weigh myself fairly often – I wanted to stay at seven stone. I’m quite tall (5’7″) and was actually in the middle of a growth spurt at the time, so I needed all the food I could get. Denying myself this gave me a sense of power I couldn’t get anywhere else in my life. Although I’m willing to accept that my Dad was concerned about my eating as a kid, he also shamelessly used mealtimes as a way to control me and watch me squirm under his gaze. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but I longed to seize that power back for myself and starving myself was a way of doing this.
I felt like I had been failed in some way by my family and I spited them. I wanted to make them worry about me. I felt so alone in the world, maybe starving myself was a cry for help. In one counselling session I had when I was sixteen, my counsellor remarked on how thin I looked. She said my face looked slimmer and I started crying, saying no one else had noticed.
I went to a nutritionist at sixteen because I had started working odd hours in a supermarket which only made my eating habits worse. She gave me tips about how to put on weight but I only went to two appointments and never got back to her. I guess I didn’t truly want to help myself.
I only really started eating properly when I went to university because there it was all down to me. It was down to me to learn how to cook and it was down to me to choose what I wanted to eat. That, along with going on the contraceptive pill, allowed me to gain some weight. But it’s also when I became aware of my tendencies to binge. I can’t remember how often it was but on multiple occasions, I would overeat. Overeating from time to time is normal but for me it was like trying to fill this bottomless void when I felt depressed. I needed to feel as full as possible to black out everything else I was feeling.
Binging is what I’ve been doing the past few days, actually. Last week, I could barely eat anything and I lost weight and this week it’s the opposite. I’m eating things that are terrible for my skin and I’ve started eating dairy again (for health reasons) which has made the binging even worse. This morning, I had a big breakfast and the feeling of being full almost filled me with anxiety because I didn’t want that feeling to go away. I was already thinking of the next thing to eat. I know it’ll balance out eventually, though. Binging after a breakup is normal, apparently, so I’m not being too hard on myself.
I know what it comes down to is that my addictions to starving and binging are ways to deal with the way I was brought up and the control my father had over me. I thought I’d let these addictions go but clearly I have more work to do. In the book I have about enmeshment, it says:
“Addictions rob you of your sense of power and personal authority. They block you from your feelings and your inner reality, which are crucial to the process of recovery” – Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners – Kenneth M. Adams, Ph.D.
Right now I need to honour my feelings, instead of plugging them with food or a lack of it. I need to look my fear in the eye and see it for what it is. I’ve come too far forget who I am and what I’m capable of. Fall down seven times, get up eight.
– SMUT. ❤ xxxx
Art by Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir a.k.a. Shoplifter