Recent events have caused me to re-visit a very dark and private time in my life...a time I felt hopeless, depressed, and so very alone. Very few people know about this struggle. My secret was ugly and I was prideful. It snuck up on me and robbed me of happiness and whatever self-worth I once had. I didn’t see it coming, and before I could stop it, it had consumed me.
Now from a better place, I can look back at this terrifyingly unhealthy time from a perspective of gratitude for overcoming, and a sincere desire to help others who are experiencing similar things. If this post helps one person, the darkness is absolutely worth re-visiting. It is in this spirit that I recount the events of such a trying time in my life.
July of 2011, with four children ages 2, 3, 5, and 8, I left my marriage of 9 years. It was the most difficult decision I had ever made. Though I finally felt free from the misery of a perpetually unhealthy marriage that we had tried so hard to make work, and though I knew without a doubt it was the right thing to do for me, I felt an extreme amount of sorrow and guilt for putting my children through it.
As a child of a broken family myself, divorce was something I never wanted my children to experience, and here we were. To say I felt guilt for putting them through this is a gross understatement. There are no words to describe the anguish I felt breaking our family apart, and yet, I knew I had to do it.
That July, I moved from our large, beautiful home into a small apartment. The first night was difficult. I held my four babies as they cried. How did we get here? Why did I act so selfishly? How did I mess up so badly?
Eventually, they fell asleep. I took a deep breath and quietly walked into a kitchen full of unpacked boxes. I was alone. The quiet was deafening. The weight of my decision crushed me. For selfishly putting my children through this nightmare, I deserved punishing. I needed to silence the voices telling me I had failed…telling me I had ruined the lives of my children. I needed to numb the pain.
I filled a large blue bowl with Frosted Mini Wheats. I ate it as quickly as I could. I felt a little better. I poured another. I ate it just as quickly. My stomach started to ache. I deserved that pain. I found a bag of chocolate chips. I ate them by the handful. One after another after another, as quickly as I could. I didn’t want it to taste or feel good. I wanted to replace the emotional pain with physical pain and it was working. I continued to eat until I was sick. I couldn’t move. It felt appropriate to be in so much pain. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I fell asleep, my first night alone.
That night was the beginning of a problem I didn't see coming. Though I could not recognize it at the time, bingeing became a powerful drug to me. Around other people, I fantasized about when and what my next fix would be. As soon as I was alone, I binged as quickly as I could.
The experience of a binge was almost exactly the same every time. The first few bites produced an intense feeling of euphoria. Waves of pleasure spread down my arms and legs and covered me entirely. Everything felt wonderful for a few moments. The next phase was numbness. The stress and anguish and guilt were silenced. I continued to eat until it hurt. I wanted to feel sick enough that I felt properly punished. When I was finished, I felt disgusted with myself and often tried to vomit. I used toothbrushes, chopsticks, and my hand but nothing worked. This frustrated me. I’d lay there, aching and hating myself for doing it again.
“Why did I do that? This is awful. You are so stupid. NEVER do that again.”
It was easy to see the stupidity of my actions after I had given in to the urge, but it was impossible to think clearly in the midst of the temptation.
Night time was the worst. After a night of waking up and binging multiple times, I would get out of bed and look in the mirror. Some mornings, my face was so swollen with edema I almost didn’t recognize myself. My feet and hands swelled. I was horrified. I'd decide not to eat that day. If I could just go one or two days without food, I’d start losing the weight and get back on track. By afternoon, I was starving and the urge to binge was overwhelming.
The cycle continued.
I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I did not tell a soul about my secret struggle. I was determined to fix it and move on, but every day proved to be another failure.
I became obsessed with my weight. I joined a gym and started exercising more than I ever had. I weighed myself when I woke up, after every meal, after working out, every time I used the restroom, and before I went to bed. The extreme workouts only increased my hunger and that damn scale continued to reinforce the voices telling me what a failure I was. I’d step on that scale, feel hopeless and discouraged and say “f**k it,” and binge once again.
I gained 54 pounds in 7 months. I was out of control and I didn’t know what to do. It felt bigger than me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't figure out how to escape.
By that time, my now ex-husband had moved from Utah to Texas and I was planning to move so the kids could be closer to him. I had had enough of this nightmare. I decided that Texas was going to be a new beginning for me. I would NOT binge in Texas. The drive out there was a long one. I ate all the food I wanted because I knew once I got to my new home, a healthier version of me would reside.
This was my chance, my new beginning. I was not going to mess it up. I had punished myself long enough. It was time to love myself again, no matter how unworthy I felt.
When I arrived in Texas, I had an empty pantry and fridge to fill and decided it would only be with wholesome foods. I went to the store, bought a lot of healthy food and a big green poster board. I avoided any “health foods,” that had a long list of ingredients I couldn’t pronounce and instead focussed on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole-grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa, nuts and beans.
That big ugly green poster helped me immensely. With it, I made a giant 30 day calendar. Each day contained 4 small squares to check off: 1 square for each meal and 1 square that said 9:00. It was so important that I did not skip a meal. I had figured out that hunger was my enemy. Each meal I ate, I crossed off a square. If I felt hungry between meals, I ate fruit or vegetables or a handful of almonds. I set an alarm for 8:45 pm every evening to remind me to have a snack before my cut off time of 9:00. I crossed off each day with a sharpie and kept it on the fridge where I could see it when I needed it most. Two days each week, I wrote something extra on the calendar like a treat I'd been craving or a free meal or a Starbucks drink. I looked forward to those things and when I wanted to eat unhealthy food I reminded myself I could wait to have the things on the calendar. Crossing off those boxes was powerful for me and seeing that giant X through each day gave me the strength to not look back and keep moving forward.
Those first 30 days were not easy. The urges to binge were overwhelming. Just writing about them makes my heart race. I previously thought the only way to get rid of an urge was to give in to it, but I realized those bastards were indeed temporary and I would NOT let them win.
I learned to separate myself from the urge and observe it with my mind’s eye. An urge was like a giant, powerful wave. From a distance, I watched as it grew more and more powerful. I’d talk to myself like a crazy person. “Look at that wave. It’s huge. I can't believe I used to be a slave to that f**king urge. My god, it is powerful. I can observe it from a distance now and not let it control me. I am in control now. I hate that wave. I will not give it power.”
As the urge reached it’s highest point, my body shook. My stomach growled, my head pounded, every part of my body ached, and I cried as the voices in my head begged me to give in. With tears streaming down my face, I watched that giant, ugly wave with my mind’s eye. After what seemed like forever, the wave started to go down, down, down until it was finally gone. I felt relieved and proud of myself every time I was able to remove myself from the wave and observe it from a distance. I took a deep breath and moved on.
I had some set-backs of course. There were times I gave in. The temptation when I stumbled was to feel like a giant failure and return to binging in full force. I told myself during those times that it was not about winning every single battle, but about winning the war. I WOULD win this damn war. I could not live like this any longer. Two steps forward and one step back was still progress, and I would keep moving forward no matter what.
I made a promise not to weigh myself for those first 30 days. The scale was not my friend. I went on regular walks no matter how much I didn't want to, and I immediately made a fruit smoothie when I got home to curb my urge to binge after burning calories.
Eventually, I was able to look at food as my friend and not my enemy. Eating, I had learned, was my key to overcoming binging. Oh the irony! It was all about feeding and nourishing my body with healthy food instead of punishing it with junk. I had to believe I deserved better. I was learning to love myself again. After three months, I had lost 20 pounds, but so much more importantly was that both my body and spirit were healing. I was beginning to regain the sense of self worth I had lost so long ago.
I look back on that dark time in my life with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having overcome it. My children are all doing well and I am in a healthy and loving relationship. Learning to love my body has been an ongoing process, but I get better every day.
What is your relationship with food like? Are you feeding your body to nourish or harm it?
If you are struggling with a similar issue, I want you to know that there is a bright future for you on the other side. There is hope. It is absolutely possible to overcome. Don't be prideful like I was. Seek help. If I had reached out and allowed those that love me to be a support, the struggle would have been easier to conquer.
You are loved. You are worthy of happiness. You deserve to be healthy. This is not stronger or more powerful than you are, and you are NOT alone. Buy yourself a big ugly green poster! Each new day is a clean slate, and this day could be your new beginning.