It is a common belief that eating disorders begin in adolescence, and while this is true for most, this was not the case for me. I had made it out of adolescence without an eating disorder, but once the dust settled on my rocky childhood and I was out on my own, I began to process my upbringing. It was then that I began a decade of obsession and dieting, entering into a shameful cycle of quietly binging and compulsively exercising, a cycle that I simply assumed was a by-product of being a young woman.
Only now do I see how the cycle was a product of my past, a latent response to surviving years of abuse and struggle. I could not control my past, and I could not control my future, but by God, I could control the person I would become. And that person would be skinny, as opposed to how chubby I was as a child and teen. If only I could shed the pounds, I could also shed my shameful past and be free to enjoy a healthy future.
So I focused on becoming the person I longed to be – a thinner, more élan version of myself. Each day, my life was gauged by the weight on the scale and the size in my closet. Size 6? I am a champion. Size 8? I have work to do. Size 10? Failure. Utter and complete failure. Upon waking, I did not greet the day with gratitude, rather, I would wake to tally the daily calorie count, my exercise routine for the week, how many calories I had burned the day before, and scheduling in my head when and where I would burn extra calories that day.
In the periphery there was the rest of my life: love, jobs, friendships. Thanks to my focus on food, calories, and exercise, I was a self-contained island in a world of potential hurt. If I avoided connecting too deeply to anything, I could avoid being hurt altogether. I had something else to focus on instead, something that didn’t hurt me, and something that I could control. I had learned early on that everything was impermanent, and that the pain of loss was always just around the corner.
Faced with uncertainty and fear, I focused instead on what I could control, and that was entering in my daily calorie counts into the application on my smart phone. Apple: 60 calories. Toast: 110 calories. String Cheese: 80 calories. Running: 30 minutes, or 300 calories. I was always working towards a weight and size I felt best represented the better part of me, always needing to lose 5 more pounds. If only I can get to a size 4, everyone will see what a strong, beautiful woman I am. Only then would someone see my value. Only then would I find love, and therefore, a purpose. I did not realize at the time that my obsession with food and calories was really my way of maintaining control of my life, and a way to feel a sense of pride in myself that I couldn’t seem to find anywhere else.