Overcoming Anorexia: Healing My Relationship With Food
Some years ago I was chatting with Masterchef Ray McVinnie, someone I respect deeply. Not only is Ray an incredible Chef, his food philosophies and straight to the point, no nonsense approach to food is refreshing.
Over our 15 years of working together at the Food Show, one of the questions I would always get asked was ‘Why, if you’re a Chef, are you so skinny?’ his answer was always the same: ‘I watch what I eat. I eat when I’m hungry. I go for a walk. I eat a wide variety of foods. I eat a lot of plant and I just don’t stress about it.’
I remember clearly at one stage over that 15 year journey when I was desperate to lose weight and was obsessed with drinking protein shakes as meal replacements to help with my weight loss, Ray walked past me and said ‘What’s that love?’ I replied, showing him the packet. He looked at me and very seriously said ‘This is not real food. These ingredients are chemicals. This stuff will kill ya. JUST EAT REAL FOOD, NOT TOO MUCH AND YOU’LL BE FINE.’ I felt like a naughty school girl in the principals office.
It was hard being the fat kid. My parents were awesome and pro celebrating all my amazingness. The bullying from both children and adults however, was horrific and chipped away at my confidence.
In my experience, I felt like I was never good enough, never acceptable and food was my solace. That moment of getting a sugar rush from bingeing on biscuits or chocolate was intoxicating and like any ‘addict’, dulled the pain of those humiliating taunts……..for a short period of time……until I needed to do it again and again.
I remember when I was about 7 being questioned about hiding food. There was always an open pantry policy in my house, and plenty to eat, but I still had this need to sneak treats, hide them and languish in the sugary rush. My earliest memory of hiding food this way was when I was about 5 and that behaviour continued for me into adulthood.
Fast forward to 1992. I was in my first year at university. This was my daily routine:
- Breakfast: usually a cup of tea with biscuits sandwiched together with butter
- Bus to University
- Go to the Uni cafe to do work and eat a pinwheel cheese and bacon scone, washed down with a litre of coke
- Lunch: a bowl of wedges with chicken salt and sour cream
- Afternoon tea: a Quarter Pounder or a giant custard square
- Bus home
- Then dinner……
Not a picture of health and I’m assuming, as you probably didn’t know me then you didn’t know what I looked like. I was big. I was a size 22-24. I puffed walking to the letterbox and stretched all of my t shirts to make them look baggy.
Now keep in mind that I was an adult at this stage and could make conscious healthy choices, but I was and had been for many years, an absolute obsessive food addict. Part of this obsession let me to eat the same thing every day which is why I remember it all so clearly and while I’m a firm believer in ‘letting food be thy medicine’ in this instance, food was my pain suppressant for a number of reasons and I can freely admit that being 19 and morbidly obese is not a lot of fun to be fair.
My first turning point
I still remember it so vividly: I was invited out with friends to an ‘all you can eat’ Pizza Buffet restaurant and gladly accepted the challenge. A large pizza, fries, pasta and coke were all consumed and by the time I got home that night, I knew something wasn’t right. I sat on my bed and firstly got the cold shivers, then had a hot flush and that’s when the heart palpitations set in. I was tipping the scales at 110+ kilos, I was a size 22-24, miserable and experiencing my first full blown anxiety attack.
I literally thought I was dying. I lost my Dad in August of 1991 and believe that part of what I was experiencing was associated with grief and post traumatic stress. I also saw my Dad struggle for years with heart conditions so assumed I had the same condition but was literally too anxious to ask for help. So I self medicated and hid it from the world.
Eating disorders, anxiety and depression, or as I called them ‘The Holy Trinity’, for me all had very similar central cores which I believe from my experience to be about control. (Please note: I’m not a doctor or healthcare professional. This is simply my observations from my own experience and if you’re struggling or if any of this blog resonates with you, I urge you to talk to someone and ask for help. Doing it alone, as I did, is hard work!) It’s a case of ‘when things around you are out of control, you have to take control again in whatever way you can.’ For me, it had always been associated with food.
When you’re bullied, as I was, what people say about you is out of your control. Bullies have an opinion of who you are and your value in the world and, particularly if it happens when you’re a child, it really affects how you perceive yourself. Science proves that repeated messaging creates neural pathways in the brain that affects our behaviours and our choices. I was constantly reminded as a child, as a teen and an adult, that I was fat. I was ugly. I was called ‘the Titanic’, ‘The Whale’ and one of the worst insults was when another child asked me if I ‘ate a tyre for breakfast because it was showing on my stomach’. Bullying is not new and sadly many of us experience it. We also all process it differently and can in our adult lives re-wire our programming to ensure those messages no longer affect us. My response at the time, in my chaos driven out of control world, was to control what I ate, using sugar and processed foods because their intoxicating ‘short term rush producing chemicals’ was a way to put my world back together again. Food was literally my medication for most of my life.
Losing a family member at any stage of your life is hard. After losing my Dad at the age of 18, I started controlling what I ate by bingeing to help medicate myself and gain control again. It’s a common story I hear from many people experiencing grief, trauma or stress – or it goes the other way and you don’t eat at all – also a control issue.
Anxiety is another control reaction. Your fight or flight response literally goes haywire letting you know that you’re not safe and that things are out of control. I now understand that this can be triggered by exhausted adrenal glands that are so used to overworking, they continue to remind you that the world is in chaos. At the time when I experienced this, it WAS chaos and the anxiety lasted for 15 years, sometimes with multiple panic attacks throughout the day.
In my situation, being a size 22 – 24, experiencing panic attacks or anxiety for the first time I had no idea what was going on. My only assumption (because I was too scared to go to the doctor and there was no ‘Dr Google’ back then) was that I was having similar heart problems as my father and literally overnight a switch was flicked. I researched every diet in every magazine. I was low fat and sugar free everything. My diet changed substantially from 2000-3000 calories a day to just 700. Suddenly it was an apple and a diet drink for breakfast, a bun with something in it for lunch and some vegetables and a diet drink for dinner. That was it! The the apple was skipped and when a friend told me that bread was essentially ’empty calories’, I skipped the vegetables as well.
I can sadly say, it was exhilarating. Suddenly my mind had changed and I began to think about and obsess about all the food I wasn’t eating and all the calories I was saving. I was losing weight FAST and the comments and the attention were amazing. Size 22 dropped to an 18, to a 16, Large to medium and then suddenly: My first proper pair of jeans – a size 11. But it didn’t stop there! I’d already come this far and like all of my other eating addictions, I needed the rush.
I lost more and more. I was starting to wear children’s clothes and I loved that I could lift up my top and see my ribcage.
The last time I weighed myself I was just 42 kilos and this process happened in just 8 harrowing, addictive, anxious months. 68 kilos in 8 months: That’s like losing a whole person! And that’s exactly what happened. I lost weight, I lost my personality and the other downside was that I had loads of excess skin and my boobs ended up looking like a couple of pancakes with a raisin on the end. Sorry for the overshare, but I believe in sharing the honest truth here.
I was also working in retail and I have vivid memories of taking home food magazines and spending evenings ripping out the recipe pages, storing them in a box for when I would become a TV chef, while languishing in all the calories I was burning every time I ripped another delicious recipe out of a publication. The irony of this is that I couldn’t actually cook, so I have no idea what crazy manic episode I was experiencing, but the rush was real.
It was around this time that I started hearing the term ‘Anorexia’ thrown around by a number of people. My arms and legs were stick thin and it wasn’t until I ended up in hospital after collapsing in a toilet in a bar that I thought something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t so much the collapsing that did it, but the fact that when I was being dressed in the hospital to go home, my size 10 leggings were loose and falling down and my hip bones were sticking out. That was the first time in the harrowing experience that I admitted to myself that something was wrong. I spoke to a Doctor about it and was told that ‘the eating disorder will never leave me’ and for 20+ years he was right.
Anorexia in my experience, was also about control. I couldn’t control the world around me, but I could control what I ate – or didn’t eat – every day. I could also control the fact that if I ate certain foods, they triggered symptoms of irritable bowel, something I secretly loved as it ‘gave me a good clean out’. I can’t even believe that I’ve just admitted that……..
Over the following years I got into relationships, ate and socialised and gained a lot of weight, then through separations I would end up on what one of my friends recently described as the ‘post relationship sadness diet’ losing vast amounts of weight again. However underneath it all, what really haunted me was this constant control issue chipping away at my happiness and helping me find order in the midst of all the chaos. I would tell myself over and over again that the Doctor was right – I would always be plagued by this crippling eating disorder, this constant voice of self loathing and feeling of inadequacy……until I changed my focus.
Over this time I did many jobs, from working in a bank, to a massage therapy clinic and I also opened my own performing arts school to help build confidence and self esteem in young people. I also worked in the field of children’s entertainment and trained with a magician who taught me the art of misdirection.
Misdirection is a way of directing the focus of an audience to my left hand, so they don’t see what I’m pulling out of my pocket with my right hand. Parents do it instinctively when their little one falls over and cries. They instantly pick up the child and get them to ‘look at the pretty butterfly’. In that very moment, not only does the crying stop, so does the child’s pain which comes down to the fact that the brain can only process a certain amount of data at any one time. This concept was totally fascinating to me and I started to apply the same principals to my own life.
A panic attack would happen and I would consciously focus on something different: on the scenery, my breathing or a funny comedy video. I’d then have a glass of water and tell myself that ‘I am safe and all is ok’. Through this process alone, I consciously started to create new neural pathways in my brain and after 15 years of horrific panic attacks, they began to subside. If you’re a bit surprised by this, well so was I.
As I started to regain control in this way, I started making better food choices and it’s pretty clear that when we eat better and provide our bodies with better nutrition, our brain functions better too. As a result, we make even more better choices and that continues to grow.
And now, I sit here 25 years later and can happily admit that I no longer live with an eating disorder. What changed this? By misdirecting my paralysing fear of food, into a love affair WITH food.
In August of 2017 when my weight was all over the place and my health was terrible, I discovered that I was carbohydrate intolerant. Finally I had to learn to cook, which resulted in the opening of a whole new world to me, and with it, profound healing. I learned that I could consciously control what I eat in such a positive way that affected my health, my mindset, my energy and my happiness and the negative controlling thoughts started to fade away. Now instead of waking up each day thinking of how many calories I’m not going to eat, I think about the possibilities of flavours, combinations, experiments and adventures.
We are all products of our own creation. We always have choice. We may not like our options but we always have choice, so while our subconscious mind with all it’s intricate neural pathways contributes to our personalities, our choices and behaviours, the power to change our lives is held in our conscious minds.
For some people getting treatment to overcome their eating disorder is vital. That may be in the form of counselling, medication, cognitive treatments or what ever it takes, but know that the choice to get help is the most powerful as it’s one made by the conscious mind, in that one fleeting moment when we misdirect our thoughts away from that obsessive enigma of control and choose to look in a new direction.
I read somewhere that we are what we think about. What we CONSCIOUSLY think about.
Where are your thoughts at? Be well X
IF YOU NEED HELP PLEASE REACH OUT
An eating disorder is a condition that involves eating in a disordered way, such as eating very little or very large amounts of food, or purging (getting rid of) food you have eaten.
Women are more likely to develop an eating disorder, but anyone of any age may develop one.
The causes of eating disorders are complex and don’t involve just one factor.
Getting support is crucial to recovery, so seek help sooner than later. If eating disorders are not treated, they can result in serious medical problems.
However, with treatment, most people with an eating disorder make a good recovery, although it may take several years.
People at risk of an eating disorder often have experienced the following:
- having feelings of low self-esteem or worthlessness
- living in a western culture in which being thin is considered the ideal body shape
- living in an urban area
- taking part in activities in which body image is a concern (eg, professional or competitive dancing, gymnastics or fashion modelling)
- having a history of strict dieting and body dissatisfaction
- having lived in an environment in which leanness or obesity has been a concern
- experiencing depression or loneliness
- being a perfectionist or impulsive, or having difficulty managing emotions
- migrating from a developing country to a western culture
- experiencing stressful life changes (eg, leaving home to go to university, a relationship breakup or the physical bodily changes of puberty)
- having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
What should I do if I have an eating disorder?
Self-care and getting support from others is vital in recovering from an eating disorder and feeling happy again. If eating disorders are not treated, they can result in serious medical problems, so seek help sooner than later.
Start by talking to your GP as they can refer you to an eating disorder specialist who understands what you are going through and knows how to help you. Find out more about eating disorder services in New Zealand.
It also helps to learn about your condition. Read more about anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder.