Today, I’m writing about something that has been on my mind quite a bit recently. As I have tried to piece together the last 23 years of my life to gain an understanding of why I gained so much weight as an adolescent, as well as why I eventually developed anorexia, it has felt like trying to assemble a puzzle while the pieces are constantly changing shape. Almost daily, I have new realizations and gain new understandings into what led me to this place. Recently, I have been thinking about how my disordered relationship with food began, where it is now, and how it all relates to the concept of self-care.
I developed normally for about the first decade of my life. I was in a healthy weight range, and I have no memories of any moral connotations or implications regarding food. Then, when I was about ten, my dad started dating the woman who would become my stepmom. Around the same time, my mom was working through graduate school and out of town several days a week. I was also beginning puberty and taking antidepressents. Some may call this a perfect storm, but I prefer the term “clusterfuck”.
Although food had never been complicated in my early childhood, it became extremely weighted during this time. My dad’s remarriage was incredibly difficult for me to comprehend and accept, and my stepmom’s attitudes toward food were downright dangerous. She mocked people for eating what she interpreted as too much, openly called my stepsiblings fat, and had a cupboard in the house that children were not allowed to access, which contained any foods that might likely be consumed as snacks.
It was around this time that my relationship with food took a painful turn. Suddenly, food was scarce. It needed to be eaten secretively. I felt that I had to eat as much as I could whenever it felt safe to do so. When I would go to friends’ houses, I looked forward to eating their food more than I looked forward to them. I snuck over to my grandparents’ house after school and made myself a sandwich or two, eaten with some sour cream and onion potato chips and iced tea. My mom did not have food rules like my stepmom did, and I took advantage of that fully when I was at her house. Bring on the four slices of pizza, the pint of Ben & Jerry’s, or the half batch of cookie dough. I don’t think that I often binge ate in the traditional sense, but I definitely took advantage of food not being off limits whenever I was with my mom. During the hard years of my early adolescence, I had learned the painful lesson that I had to look out for myself. I was the one who had to take care of me, and I did that with food.
Over the next couple of years, I gained a lot of weight. Along with the weight gain came deep-seated feelings of shame. I was painfully ashamed at my size and ashamed of the way that I ate, but I did not feel that I had any power to change my behavior. I had pushed the pain that I felt so far away from me that I did not acknowledge its existence whatsoever. Thus, instead of seeing how my life had led to my dysfunctional relationship with food, I saw that relationship as a personal flaw. Normal people didn’t have these problems. Normal people didn’t feel protective around food or fear that it might run out. Normal people could eat much less than I could. I wanted to be “normal” more than anything in the entire world, but I just didn’t know how to do it.
This idea of normal versus abnormal followed me like a cruel, taunting shadow for the next decade. Over the years, I developed into my own person and gained confidence in many aspects of my personality, but I never addressed the reasons that I had turned to food so many years ago. Instead of looking at myself as a ten-year-old girl and feeling empathy, I felt shame and anger about not being able to control my food intake. I felt weak for not having the willpower that everybody else seemed to possess. I did not see myself as a girl trying to care for herself in the only way she knew how. Instead, I saw myself as an irreversibly fucked up individual with no control. I firmly believed that I had to learn to control myself, and I tried time and time again to do so.
In my senior year of college, for God knows what reason, my attempts at gaining control over my weight and strengthening my willpower were finally successful by the standards of many. Taking care of myself took on a new meaning for me, one that was more dangerous than before. Instead of caring for myself by eating whenever and whatever I could and feeling ashamed for it afterward, I cared for myself by adopting what many would consider a “healthy” lifestyle. I no longer felt shame around food because I had developed the once-coveted ability to restrict my intake. The relief of no longer feeling so much shame was exhilarating and empowering at first, but my life soon slipped through my fingers as a full-blown eating disorder took over my body and my brain.
I did everything that I, as an overweight person, believed that I needed to do. I exercised for hours on end. I meticulously counted calories. I did each thing that mainstream society told me I would have to do to find happiness. I believed that weight could not be lost too quickly for somebody my size, and I thought that I was finally becoming a person acceptable enough for this cruel world. I believed that I had learned how to take care of myself, and that taking care of myself was synonymous with punishing myself for my unacceptable weight. Whereas I had been shamed by adults as a child and led to believe that food was scarce and undeserved, I was now my own worst critic. I made food scarce for myself, and I believed more than ever before that I did not deserve it. In retrospect, no matter what society would have you believe, I was in no way practicing self-care. I never allowed myself to rest, I tormented myself mentally with lists upon lists of everything I had to accomplish, and I made myself go hungry every night before bed. I suppose it is no surprise, then, that this time in my life is the one that could have ended it had I not sought help.
As I piece together this ever-changing puzzle of my life, I am learning what true self-care means. As a young girl trying to make sense of the world around me, I learned some unhealthy coping mechanisms for the chaos and pain in my life. I learned that I had to care for myself, and I learned to do so by eating. As a teenager and into early adulthood, I absorbed the bountiful unhealthy messages about why I was overweight and what that meant about me, and I ultimately bought into those messages and embarked on the diet that shattered the life I knew. And now, as a 23-year-old, I have the chance to genuinely care for myself. It is hard to know how when it is not something that I have ever done before, but I’m working on it. Each day offers plentiful chances to care for ourselves as adults, knowing what we now know. I often feel frightened of this uncharted territory. I wonder how I will ever relate to food in a healthy way when I have not done so in many years. When I get especially anxious or discouraged, I try to give myself the grace that I have never known how to give myself before, the grace and understanding that I so desperately craved all those years ago. I try to remind myself that I am practicing caring for myself, and that one day I will be able to do it effortlessly. And maybe, just maybe, I really will.