Finding Control With Food – Eating Disorders

For a very long time I had an unhealthy relationship with food. Since I’m feeling much better about it now I’m going to be honest with myself and explain how and why it was messed up.

My relationship with disordered eating stems from a control issue that I didn’t realize I had. I’m not sure where it came from but I think it has something to do with me moving from Ireland when I was 9 and it was aggravated to problem status when a really close friend was killed by a drunk driver when I was 22.

The death of loved one is pretty hard and particularly so when they are only 21. The seemingly normal and predictable world came undone when I was 22, calling many of my world view rules into question. Natalie was a really nice girl. Liking everyone, she engaged everything with a passion for fun and happiness. I don’t think anyone deserves to die that young and least of all someone who just seemed to light up the world with their presence. It was really sad. Apart from all the grief that her death brought to her friends and family, the world continues to suffers because it goes without her joy forever. It’s really hard not to cry when I think this deeply about it because she had that old soul wisdom that seemed to cut through the unimportant stuff and leave you seeing only the silver lining. I’ve not met anyone who could do this before or since. She had a gift and I wish the world still had her in it.

But it doesn’t and the day she died was the beginning of the end to my control issue. Unfortunately, like most issues, I was years away from seeing it. I needed to hit a bottom before it became visible and I was able to make enough sense of things to move past it.

In the days immediately following her death, I spend a lot of time in my own head. In between bouts of intense pain, I ran through many of my understandings about the world trying to pull something together that allowed me to make sense of what I was feeling and what had happened. First off, I realized that no one was answering my prayers. Secondly, I realized that all the compulsive behavioural patterns that I had developed to safe guard my life from suffering were ineffective. Third, my belief that the world looked after the good and punished the bad was eliminated completely. I was alone and powerless to prevent my death. The understanding of the world that I had been nurturing was wrong. I had no control over anything.

Over the next few years, life recreated itself around me. I had been burned but I went on living because that’s what human beings do. However, things were different. Having lost the sense of control that I had about the world, the rules I created were based on the assumption that I could be killed at any instant. While that is true, it isn’t very likely. It’s so improbable as to be wrong from any practical perspective; logically I knew this but my life experience had shown me something very different. This single cognitive distortion manifest itself all over the new world view rules that I created. I started to do a lot of things that were hurting my chance of living a long time because I believed that there was a great chance that I would be dead well before the consequence came back to haunt me. I took up smoking, skipping a lot of classes, stopped working out and started going to raves. I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t think I was going to live that long regardless of what I did.

I became addicted to nicotine during this period of time. This was my first experience with addiction and my first conscious experiences with changing my physiological / emotional state with chemicals. Before the smoking, I got drunk when I drank alcohol, I got full when I ate food and I got tired when I worked out. I hadn’t noticed any emotional change in response to doing these things but with nicotine there was a big difference, the dose frequency. I was smoking about 15 cigarettes a day which loosely equates to about 450 dose per day (I’m basing this on the assumption that I took 30 pulls per cigarette). While I am not sure exactly how nicotine impacts the body, it, like most drugs, stimulates neural activity in the body and brain. Over time and repeated exposure to the drug, the body will adapt to the new internal environment that you are creating. As a consequence, normal function will come to depend upon the presence of the drug. When your body makes this adjustment, you learn very quickly just how chemicals can change your emotional state. The negative emotional state that nicotine withdrawal creates disappears INSTANTLY when you inhale the smoke. It happens so quickly that it’s almost impossible NOT to make the connection that smoking makes you feel better (of course it does, it make you feel normal).

This lesson stuck. I realized that I could bring stuff into my body that would not just make me feel good, but which would change the way I felt emotionally. Hmmmm, that was good because this was the first time since Natalie had died that I felt I had some control over something. What else did I have easy access to that I could use to change my emotional state? Well, food. I could buy a chocolate bar for 50 cents, eat it in 20 seconds and change my blood chemistry in such a way as to experience a physiological reward. That was fun so I did it, a lot.

If you’ve eaten a pound of chocolate, or even just a half pound (about 3 chocolate bars), you may have noticed that logical thinking about what you’re doing begins to disappear. The more you do it, the less you need to eat before your thinking is impaired. You find yourself in the zone and the chocolate stops being chocolate and starts being just something you are consuming because it makes you feel a particular way. I’ve spoken to some gamblers about the sensation of betting chips on poker and they describe it in very much the same way, over time, the chips stop being money and start being the fuel that drives the positive sensations of gambling. The more you do it, the better you get at finding the reward. Once you acquire that level of skill you can are free to use the food to evoke that emotional state for the reward or escape. I was about 25 now and this is about 3 years after Natalie died.

Things get foggy here and I’m a little disappointed about that because I don’t have a lot of memories from this period of my life but I didn’t do anything worth remembering. I was basically spinning my wheels until I learned some computer skills and got a job working for an IT company. I was living with my folks at the time to save money to pay off some student loans, so my eating habits had returned to normal. There were still times when I would over eat but they were on special occasions or when I would stay at my girl friends, so it didn’t impact my life at all. My body was changing though and my once iron stomach was starting to have difficulty digesting some of the meals I was eating. In hindsight, I think it was the quantity of food that I was eating in these meals because I am still able to eat smaller amounts of these food now without any difficulty. The IT boom was in full swing and when I got a promotion to manager I moved out. This was a few months after I got my first mountain bike and started riding.

I moved in with Tony and Beth again (2nd time) and we shared a 3 bedroom townhouse in Burlington. This was a fun time because I was making a lot of money and I was very good at my job. I felt like I was on my way again, that life had returned to normal after the death curve ball from 6 years ago.

But things weren’t back to normal. My relationship with food was deteriorating as I was starting to over eat more frequently and suffering indigestion more often. There were a couple of meals a week that didn’t get processed. To me it was normal to get sick when you are feeling sick. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t normal to feel sick so often. I figured it would pass on its own and I didn’t alter my eating habits.

It wasn’t the stereotypical binging and purging that you see on “The Intervention”. The purging wasn’t a conscious “hey, I need to get rid of this meal” thought, it was a “I will feel better if I throw this up” thought. And it was true, I always did feel better. I viewed the over eating as me just having a big appetite. Since I wasn’t gaining any weight, I was healthy. No one said anything to me for a long time, they didn’t have any reason to. It wasn’t as if I was sick or had a problem. 8 chocolate bars here, an extra large pizza there, 65 doughnut bites on the couch while playing Madden on the PS2, whatever. It was just food and I was hungry, and sometimes I ate too much.

Tony was the first to ask me about it. I remember him saying “do you think it’s normal to get sick as much as you do?” I said “yeah, I guess. It must be because causes it’s happening.” Then it was my girl friend’s roommate. Her comment about “getting that checked out because it ISN’T normal for someone who is healthy to get sick very often” didn’t immediately change anything and of course, I didn’t bother getting it checked out.

It began to change though, I started being more aware of what and how I was eating. I started to notice that once I began eating sugary high fat foods, a sensation gripped me that wasn’t there before. It was a drive or compulsion to keep eating. The only things I can compare it to are the drive to have sex or the drive to have a cigarette. Eating was the only thing I could do to make the thoughts go away so I kept eating. Maybe Tony was right, maybe there was something wrong with what I was doing.

Tony and Beth bought there first house and I moved out. I lived between my folks and my girl friends place. This meant that I wasn’t feeding myself anymore, so my diet improved. I was back to the gorging occasionally and didn’t get sick nearly as often. I also worked a lot and didn’t have the chance to lose myself in food.

A few months later I moved in with my friend Deb to be closer to work. My eating habits remained fairly good, but I was starting to gain some weight because I had been spending more time working and less time riding my bike. I decided to try the Atkins low carb diet because I had friends who had lost a lot of weight with it. It was fairly successful with a drop of about 12 pounds in 3 weeks. But the biggest thing I noticed was that my desire to eat sugar disappeared after about a week – I knew I was going without something, the diet wasn’t completely effortless but I wasn’t hungry. Again, the feeling was something like day 7 of quitting smoking – you physically don’t need anything but you are going without something that you find rewarding. The switch had been thrown and the light had gone on, I had drawn a connection between eating sugar and my drive to keep eating sugar. I did what most people do in a situation like this, I went over board. I developed a fear of carbohydrates and took deliberate steps to eat less of them.

Another stint living with Tony and Beth and then back to my folks place to regroup and figure out what I was going to do next. My IT management job had come to an end so I got a job with GoodLife Fitness Clubs and my issues with eating just seemed to disappear. Well, that isn’t exactly true. I still like to over eat occasionally but I work out a lot so I have a lot of opportunity to burn off the excess. I consider the whole thing history because I don’t get sick very often anymore.
Looking back, my disordered relationship with food was a behaviour learned in the time following Natalie’s death. It seems almost too simple to say it, but I was trying to find something to control. The predictable satisfaction of binging and my ability to prevent weight gain gave me these things. Over time, experience provided me with more information and I’ve modified my understanding. As I’ve grown past it I now try to control my eating habits and my fitness, not my mood and my weight.

And I’m really happy that it is behind me now.