I was a skinny kid and a lanky adolescent, but my days of carefree consumption ended after one afternoon's typical post-school, pre-dinner hog-out. I was about 15, and I remember looking up from the table in shame, realizing I had put myself at risk for the greatest sin I could think of—gaining weight.
That year, I had started to recognize objectification of my body, and hear the messages that we send to all female-bodied people: you're doing it wrong. You're girl-ing wrong. Your body is incorrect, and you need to do something about it.
That day, I took a walk along the twisty country roads where I lived and, when I found what seemed like a suitably private spot, stuck my fingers down my throat, and yakked up the offending microwave burrito. When I realized I could undo just about any crime of consumption as long as I had a toilet and some privacy, I started bingeing with intention. Years passed before I stopped.
Eating disorders are complicated dances with chaos, full of syncopation and key changes. They are different for everyone they touch. For me, arresting my bulimia took making a radical and mindful change in what I did and didn't eat—and my experience, it turns out, has somewhat of a basis in clinical practice.
Sondra Kronberg is a clinical nutrition therapist based in Long Island, New York. She specializes in treating people with eating disorders, and is also a spokeswoman for the National Eating Disorders Association. (She has never treated me—our conversation was in general terms.)
Eating disorders, she explains, are a result of a combination of intrinsic traits and the impact of a culture that fetishizes certain body types. Each person with an eating disorder expresses their own combination. Bulimics tend toward impulsivity, while anorexics are more controlling and perfectionist.
I tried therapy and medication, but nothing helped much. When I got to college, I spent my graduation money on big bags of Reese's Pieces and pints of ice cream. It was awful, and I didn't see any way out of it.
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At around 21, I decided that the vegetarianism I'd begun at 17 wasn't enough. I'd encountered people at school who objected to the means by which we harvest milk from cows and eggs from chickens, so they opted out. They were vegans, and they were right, I decided.
I wasn't motivated by my own failing health, or a desire to do away with my rituals and my isolation. I didn't go vegan to lose weight or control what I ate. For me, veganism turned out to be more important than my bulimia. I was taking a stand and eating my politics in a way that felt unassailably correct. It was an adventure, and it came with a profound and unexpected benefit: It gave me relief from my bingeing and purging.
For the first time in years, I felt like I had real business being in the grocery store. It wasn't the furtive and creepy midnight sorties for fat and sugar that I had been about for so many years. Most of my go-to binge foods now represented the mistreatment of animals, which kept me happily far away from them. Trying recipes and learning about the vagaries of tempeh and nutritional yeast brought new purpose to eating. I wasn't just doing it to numb out. I was doing something new, something that I thought was important, and something where I had a lot of agency.
When treating an eating disorder, Kronberg says, it's important to reset eating habits. "Following a structure, what I would call mechanized eating, [facilitates] the healing process of an eating disorder," she says. Eating according to a healthy plan also ensures proper brain function, nutrition, and digestive tract health—all of which need to be in good shape for healing to begin.
I was a very careful vegan. I didn't want to let my own messed up relationship with food get in the way of helping animals. Maybe I was also just ready to outgrow my behavior—I don't know, but I have always felt like my time as a vegan was instrumental in getting me on the right track. I haven't purged since then.
I'm also not vegan anymore. I stuck with it for about five years; it's been more than 20 since I ate meat and I can't see that changing. But eggs and dairy are back in my rotation. I still think vegans are right, too: Industrial animal husbandry is brutal, and I can get all the nutrition I need from plant sources. But I don't need veganism like I needed it back then, and I have other priorities.
Having preferences is reasonable, Kronberg says. But rigidity can signal trouble. "In long-term recovery, you'd be flexible about eating another way, rather than not eating," she says. "What's the joy, pleasure, and satisfaction you're getting? One of the ways we gauge an eating disorder is not necessarily by what you eat or the overt symptoms, but the degree of torment that goes on inside your head." Disordered eating influences your ability to be social and spontaneous and creates a level of isolation. It ultimately cuts out nutrition, and finally becomes a health risk and can become fatal.
By no means am I saying that my happy experiment is the answer to all disordered eating, either. It happened to be very useful for me. Inflexible eating for its own sake can be a fast track to trouble. While I wouldn't call myself cured, I'm miles away from that sad teenager barfing alongside the road. There are plenty of times when I eat slowly and mindfully, savoring the meal. Sometimes I get ambitious—as I write this, a from-scratch improvised root vegetable soup is making my kitchen smell like a very nutritious, nurturing version of heaven.
Other times, Ben and Jerry step in as my therapists, and they are not good at the job. But while I may feel bad, purging is no longer an option. I can eat a regrettable amount of Chubby Hubby, regret it, and move on.
If you need help with an eating disorder, or you think you do, contact the National Easting Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
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