Why I Binge: Unraveling a Lifetime of Disordered Eating
I can never come up with a simple answer.
People ask me sometimes: “Why do you do it?” (Binge, that is.) “I mean… you look great. You seem healthy. I just don’t get it.”
I can never come up with a simple answer.
But here is my attempt.
To begin: I was a chubby child.
And, no, I don’t mean that in a degrading sense. I’m not ashamed. It’s just a fact. I had cheeks the size of tennis balls, a “coconut-head”-style haircut; and a persistent, wide-mouthed smile. Everything about me was round.
In retrospect, I was pretty darn cute. But of course, at the time, I didn’t see it that way.
Rather, I saw myself as oversized and un-proportional. I constantly felt like other kids were staring at me, annoyed at how much space I was taking up. In reality, I’m sure no one gave me a second thought — goodness knows prepubescent kids each have their own insecurities to obsess over. But my anxious mind convinced me otherwise.
Both my parents are athletic, especially my father. And I mean, overzealously athletic. Still to this day, he wakes up at 4AM every morning and immediately goes to the gym. He exercises for 2 hours before heading to work, and then in the evening, plays squash or golf for another hour. Growing up, I always felt an immense pressure to live in his example.
So I too, tried to be healthy. I attempted sports — ballet, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, field hockey, tennis — but I was never particularly talented at any of them. They merely added to my insecurities. On the field, I felt exposed, running around in those tiny gym shorts, comparing myself to all the slender, toned girls sprinting past me. And at the same time as all of this, there was the food.
One of the first instances I can remember: a box of M&M Chips Ahoy. I was probably 9 or 10 years old.
It was an afternoon in mid-Winter. My mom had just run to the pharmacy; my dad was out at work; my brother and sister were at band practice. It was, I think, the first time my mom had left me home alone. And though it was only 20 minutes, I utilized my time for all it was worth. I grabbed the cookies from the pantry, ran to the upstairs TV room, and shoved bite after bite in my mouth. Instant comfort. Gratification. An ease for my nervous little brain.
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. It was the beginning of a lifelong struggle with bingeing.
While I will never be able to say for certain what drives my brain into a food-obsessed frenzy, what I do know is that it’s always been tied to my anxiety — a catastrophic, obsessive, all-consuming anxiety that has plagued me since before I can even remember.
I’ve always worried. I worried (for seemingly no reason) that my parents would get a divorce, get injured, or disappear when they left my side for 10 minutes in the grocery store. I worried about the kids in school, who bullied me for reading during recess and wearing oversize polos from the Gap. I worried about my older sister, who had tantrums and screamed scary words that I didn’t let myself understand.
I tried anything I could to fight that worry, and through that, I was lucky enough to find writing. But I also found food.
After that day with the Chips Ahoy, I realized something that changed the course of my life — when I eat, my brain goes silent.
When I eat, I don’t think about my sister or my parents or my body or my anxiety. I don’t think anything at all. I just move, mechanically — my arm like a robotic appendage that I no longer control.
Years passed, I ate, and the chubby toddler Lily only got chubbier.
Middle school was the apex. Even then, I wasn’t what doctors consider “overweight.” If I showed you a photo, you would probably think I was deluded for believing that I was. But still. Delusions prevailed.
In 8th grade, I complained to my mom that my legs were chafing together when I went on sprints before field hockey practice. “I’m thinking of going on Weight Watchers,” my mom said. “Maybe it would be a good idea for you to do it with me? Lose some weight?”
I know now that she didn’t mean any harm. To this day, my mom is one of the people who supports me most wholeheartedly in my journey to body-positivity and self-love. But back then, her words cut like a knife. Maybe you should lose some weight.
I tried the diet for about four months before I quit, hunger and rebellion getting the better of me. I’m fine just the way I am. How dare she tell me to change!
But then high school started, and in the rush of hormones and cliques, I was haunted by the feeling of oversize with even more intensity than before. Everyone was so pretty, so popular, so accomplished. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to thrive, to excel in high school so I could get accepted to an amazing college, leave my small-town bubble, and escape the chaos of my older sister’s shadow. My mother’s advice echoed in my brain: Maybe you should lose some weight. So, in junior year, I started dieting, this time of my own volition.
It became an obsession. I counted calories. I drank low-cal breakfast smoothies. I drove to the gym after mock trial practice and exercised for an hour-and-a-half, perching my AP study books on the elliptical. I kept tiny notecards to read every day for weight-loss motivation: “You’ll be confident for college. You’ll look so great in bikinis. You’ll get boys to like you.” By the end of senior year, I had lost forty pounds, and I headed into my new collegiate life with a body that I was finally not afraid to display.
I’m not so sure.
📷📷Photo by Gioavana Thayane on Unsplash
For a while, in college, I was the the healthiest and happiest I’d ever been. I made amazing friends, who to this day keep me grounded and sane when everything is spinning. I found my stride in extracurriculars, from the outdoors club, to a peer counseling group, to theater, to even (shockingly enough) a sorority. I was busy and engaged in an active social life. I loved my classes — writing workshops and film production seminars that gave me the sort of creative collaboration I had always dreamed about in youth.
All of this, still, remains true: I will always look back fondly on college as the greatest four years of my life.
But even in all that splendor, my struggles did not escape me.
In my early years of school, the issues with food were minor. Like: I ate when I was drunk. After a late-night frat party, my friends and I would stop by the local market, as per my request, and I’d load up a plastic container with chocolate and candy, which we’d binge on — together — on the floor of my dorm. In the strangeness of college-party culture, this was a-okay.
Then, in junior year, I broke up with my first serious boyfriend.
I had fallen in love with this guy in the fall of that year, during a film study abroad program in Prague. We were only together for 6 months — it’s embarrassing to admit how deeply this affected me. But really, I’ve never been capable of feeling anything part-way. When I fell for him, against the backdrop of European beauty, us both in a time of emotional vulnerability, and he the inspiration to make me want to pursue my art — I fell hard. Fast. To be fair, so did he. And when we broke up — he telling me that he couldn’t make long-distance work — I felt the self-confidence I’d strengthened in our 6 months together shattering like a fist through a sliding-glass door.
He doesn’t want to make it work, because I’m not worth it. I wasn’t enough. I’m not enough.
Though this comparison may seem a little too on-the-nose, I’ve done enough therapy by now to know: he made me feel the same way that I did when my sister left.
After the break-up, this deep-rooted sense of abandonment welled up from the place where I’d buried it in my subconscious. I was haunted by my confusion, my self-doubt, my feelings of loneliness. So I drank and I ate and I tried to numb the pain away.
In spring of 2018, an older girl in my sorority taught me the art of shoving one’s finger down your throat.
“It’s a great trick if you’re too drunk,” she said. “Pull the trig.”
Of course, in my disorder, I knew this wasn’t only an antidote to alcohol. You can probably anticipate what happened next.
📷📷Photo by Dave Lastovskiy on Unsplash
I didn’t do it all the time. As junior year made way for senior year, I got over my ex and fortified my independence once more. Things were fine. I was good. But then, there were still those nights when I wasn’t. Those nights when I had too much fun at parties, chatting and befriending strangers, drinking to excess, winning people over, thriving.
I would come home at 3am, brain deep in blackness, and only then, allow myself to indulge in everything I so drastically restricted during daylight. Egg rolls. Nutella. An entire bowl of pasta. I was a feral animal, attacking the innocent fridge, eating anything and everything, even food that wasn’t mine.
When my brain blurred back into focus (sometimes that night, sometimes the next morning), I would run upstairs and shove my finger down my throat like a punishment.
It took years before I admitted it to anyone.
When I told my best friend finally, the April before we graduated school, I cried. “I’m so embarrassed.” I told her.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. Lily, I had no idea.”
No one did.
One by one, I let the secret fall off my shoulders into into the warm, loving hands of my confidantes. My roommates. My mother. Then, in a drastic decision that shocks me even now, I wrote an article for our school newspaper: Coming to Terms with my Eating Disorder.
The acceptance I received was mind-blowing. All across campus, peers and even strangers would approach me and say they’d been moved by my words.
“That was so brave.”
“Thank you for sharing that.”
“I relate so much.”
By the end of Johns Hopkins, I felt myself overflowing with gratefulness and hope. Freedom would be mine, at last. But it’s not that easy. (It never is).
Two years have passed since graduation, and a lot has changed. I’ve roamed the world— first taking a six-month advertising job in Italy, then returning home, then starting work at a coffee shop.
Through all of this, there have been moments of impossible beauty and gratitude. But there has also, certainly, been struggle. In Italy, I was more alone than I had ever been, wandering through unfamiliar territory, working in a language I barely understood, and living with a host family who required me to stay hyper-disciplined 24/7. It was not all marvelous European wonder, (as my Instagram feed might falsely imply). No — it was cyclical excitement and exhaustion, bingeing and purging in more ways than one.
In February, I returned to Delaware, ready to refocus. I would work as a barista to save money, write in my off-hours, and eventually move to Los Angeles for my TV-writing dreams.
I told myself: I will finally beat this. I will do whatever it takes.
In the four months since, I have tried my best. Meditation. Yoga. Therapy. I can pridefully say that have made huge strides towards recovery. But — even with all the work, all the positive affirmations and social support— I am not, entirely, “recovered.”
By now, I’ve come to accept it: I will never completely exorcise the ghost that has haunted me since I was 8 years old. I will always be in recovery.
Yet, though I cannot beat this, I’ve learned that I can embrace it. I can feel its pull, but not give in. I can share my story. I can be open and authentic and wounded and brave.
If you are reading this, and you have felt these same ghosts pull at your heart and tear away your self-confidence: let me be one of the many (hopefully) who will tell you — my dear, you are so goddamn beautiful. And that fire blazing inside you, that strength that has kept you pushing through all the pain and insecurity and doubt — that’s the most beautiful thing of all.