Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
I perused the sugarcoated pastries at the back of the supermarket after subsisting on very little food for several weeks. My nerves quivered with anticipation that an endorphin surge was just a mouthful away.
Sometimes, “self-discipline” would step in, and I’d continue shopping without being derailed by the urge to binge. Other times, I wasn’t so successful.
My eating disorder was a complicated dance between chaos, shame, and remorse. A merciless cycle of binge-eating was followed by compensatory behaviors like fasting, purging, compulsively exercising, and sometimes abusing laxatives.
The illness was perpetuated by lengthy periods of food restriction, which started in my early teens and spilled into my late 20s.
Surreptitious by its nature, bulimia can go undiagnosed for a long time.
People struggling with the illness often don’t “look sick,” but appearances can be misleading. Statistics tell us that approximately 1 in 10 people receive treatment, with suicide being a common cause of death.
Like many bulimics, I didn’t embody the stereotype of an eating disorder survivor. My weight fluctuated throughout my illness but generally hovered around a normative range, so my struggles weren’t necessarily visible, even when I was starving myself for weeks at a time.
My desire was never to be skinny, but I desperately craved the feeling of being contained and in control.
My own eating disorder often felt akin to addiction. I hid food in bags and pockets to sneak back to my room. I tiptoed to the kitchen at night and emptied out the contents of my cupboard and fridge in a possessed, trance-like state. I ate until it hurt to breathe. I purged inconspicuously in bathrooms, turning on the faucet to camouflage the sounds.
Some days, all it took was a small deviation to justify a binge — an extra slice of toast, too many squares of chocolate. Sometimes, I’d plan them in advance as I edged into withdrawal, unable to tolerate the thought of getting through another day without a sugar high.
I binged, restricted, and purged for the same reasons I might’ve turned to alcohol or drugs — they blunted my senses and served as immediate yet fleeting remedies for my pain.
Over time, however, the compulsion to overeat felt unstoppable. After each binge, I fought against the impulse to make myself sick, while the triumph I got from restricting was equally as addictive. Relief and remorse became almost synonymous.
I discovered Overeaters Anonymous (OA) — a 12-step program open to people with food-related mental illness — a few months before I reached my lowest point, often to referred to as “rock bottom” in addiction recovery.
For me, that debilitating moment was looking up “painless ways to kill myself” as I shoveled food into my mouth after several days of almost-mechanical bingeing.
I’d become so deeply entangled in a web of obsession and compulsion that I feared I may never escape.
After that, I went from attending meetings sporadically to four or five times a week, sometimes traveling several hours a day to different corners of London. I lived and breathed OA for almost two years.
Meetings brought me out of isolation. As a bulimic, I existed in two worlds: a world of pretense where I was well put together and high achieving, and one that encompassed my disordered behaviors, where I felt like I was constantly drowning.
Secrecy felt like my closest companion, but in OA, I was suddenly sharing my long-hidden experiences with other survivors and listening to stories like my own.
For the first time in a long time, I felt the sense of connection that my illness had deprived me of for years. At my second meeting, I met my sponsor — a gentle woman with a saint-like patience — who became my mentor and primary source of support and guidance throughout recovery.
I embraced parts of the program that initially caused resistance, the most challenging being the submission to a “higher power.” I wasn’t sure what I believed or how to define it, but it didn’t matter. I got on my knees each day and asked for help. I prayed that I could finally shed myself of the burden I’d carried around for so long.
For me, it became a symbol of acceptance that I couldn’t overcome the illness alone, and was willing to do whatever it took to get better.
Abstinence — a fundamental principle of OA — gave me the space to remember what it was like to respond to hunger cues and eat without feeling guilty again. I followed a consistent plan of three meals a day. I refrained from addiction-like behaviors, and cut out binge-triggering foods. Every day without restricting, bingeing, or purging suddenly felt like a miracle.
But as I inhabited a normal life again, certain tenets within the program became harder to accept.
In particular, the vilification of specific foods, and the idea that complete abstinence was the only way to be free of disordered eating.
I heard people who’d been in recovery for decades still refer themselves as addicts. I understood their unwillingness to challenge the wisdom that’d saved their lives, but I questioned whether it was helpful and honest for me to continue basing my decisions on what felt like fear — fear of relapse, fear of the unknown.
I realized that control was at the heart of my recovery, just as it’d once governed my eating disorder.
The same rigidity that helped me establish a healthy relationship with food had become restrictive, and most disconcertingly, it felt incompatible with the balanced lifestyle I envisioned for myself.
My sponsor warned me about the illness creeping back in without strict adherence to the program, but I trusted that moderation was a viable option for me and that full recovery was possible.
So, I decided to leave OA. I gradually stopped going to meetings. I started eating “forbidden” foods in small quantities. I no longer followed a structured guide to eating. My world didn’t collapse around me nor did I tumble back into dysfunctional patterns, but I began to adopt new tools and strategies to support my new path in recovery.
I’ll always be grateful to OA and my sponsor for pulling me out of a dark hole when it felt like there was no way out.
A black and white approach undoubtedly has its strengths. It can be highly conducive to curbing addictive behaviors, and helped me to undo some dangerous and deeply entrenched patterns, such as bingeing and purging.
Abstinence and contingency planning may be an instrumental part of long-term recovery for some, enabling them to keep their head above the water. But my journey has taught me that recovery is a personal process that looks and works differently for everyone, and can evolve at different stages in our lives.
Today, I continue to eat mindfully. I try to remain conscious of my intentions and motivations, and challenge the all-or-nothing thinking that kept me trapped in a stultifying cycle of disappointment for so long.
Certain aspects of the 12-steps still feature in my life, including meditation, prayer, and living “one day at a time.” I now choose to address my pain directly through therapy and self-care, recognizing that an impulse to restrict or binge is a sign that something’s not OK emotionally.
I’ve heard as many “success stories” about OA as I’ve heard negative ones, though, the program receives a fair amount of criticism due to questions around its efficacy.
OA, for me, worked because it helped me to accept support from others when I needed it the most, playing a pivotal role in overcoming a life-threatening illness.
Still, walking away and embracing ambiguity has been a powerful step in my journey toward healing. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s important to trust yourself in starting a new chapter, rather than being forced to cling to a narrative that doesn’t quite work anymore.
Ziba is a writer and researcher from London with a background in philosophy, psychology, and mental health. She is passionate about dismantling stigma surrounding mental illness and making psychological research more accessible to the public. Sometimes, she moonlights as a singer. Find out more via her website and follow her on Twitter.