When an Eating Disorder Is Triggered by Trauma

The news came to me in September 2008. I was 10 years old and a fifth grader in elementary school. Old enough to understand what was happening, but too young to fully comprehend it.

At any age, having your parents file for a divorce is tough to swallow, but I think my age supported the development of the perfect storm.

I wasn’t young enough to never remember my parents together and reminisce about the times where my family was “perfect,” yet I wasn’t old enough to properly know how to deal with the situation. The coping mechanism I subconsciously decided on was manipulating my food intake. The year my parents separated, my grades dropped and I started binge eating.

Food, the only thing I could seemingly control, was my life-preserver and I held onto it for “survival.” Not realizing what I was doing, everyone around me ignored how much I ate for a long time.

In my family, sharing feelings and personal struggles wasn’t the norm. I never talked about how I felt so I turned to food to cope. My dad started to get concerned around seventh or eighth grade, urging me to start “exercising and eating right,” not realizing the full extent of what was going on. Can you blame him though? With shows on television like “The Biggest Loser,” society believes people who are “overweight” are somehow weak and unable to control themselves. Society’s solution then, is going on a diet.

My “diet” began. I ate “healthier” and walked/ran every single day. I was supported by both of my parents and everyone else in my life. I vowed I would show everyone who called me names and laughed at me in P.E. class. I would get my revenge by losing weight and looking “beautiful.” I would diet before I entered high school and look “amazing” and everyone would be jealous. That was exactly what I did.

Sure enough, my freshman year I received compliments about the way I looked from the same peers that made fun of me. My dad was proud and my grandfather no longer pressured my dad telling him that his young daughter needed to lose weight.

Sure, I looked good to everyone around me, but my problems were not solved. I was still unhappy.

During my first year of high school, I became extremely stressed and my anxiety skyrocketed. I started over-eating again. I gained all of the weight I had lost plus more. I was eating away my feelings again because that was just how I “solved” my problems.

One night before a party sophomore year, I could not fit in a dress I had worn just months earlier and no matter what we did it would not zip. My dad pushed me onto the scale. I read the number and began to cry. In that moment, I vowed to lose all of the weight and never ever look like that again.

This was the diet that became an eating disorder.

The summer of my Junior year, I was diagnosed with anorexia and began what I needed more than a diet — therapy.

In my first round of treatment, I had several epiphanies.

1.  I couldn’t talk about my feelings so I subconsciously used food to control them and push them away.

2. I developed my eating disorder long before I thought I had because over-eating accomplished the same thing for me as restricting.

3. I subconsciously used my eating disorder to force my parents “together” again.

4. I used my eating disorder to somehow “get back” at my parents for putting me through their divorce.

Everything began to make sense.

No, my eating disorder was not solely caused by the separation of my parents, but it was the triggered it to begin.

Many with eating disorders have experienced some type of trauma in their lives. Some more serious than others, but everyone’s trauma is significant to them no matter what the outside world believes. Mine happened to be a divorce.

If you have an eating disorder and haven’t already, I encourage you to look back in your life. What may not seem like a traumatic event just might have been what began your eating disorder. It may be something you have to work through with your therapist to recover from your eating disorder.

Although you will never be able to fix or change what happened, you can communicate how you felt about it and cope with it in a healthier way.

“Your past does not define your future!” Don’t let something that happened to you keep you stuck. You deserve recovery and that sometimes means talking about something that causes discomfort. That’s OK. You can cope with being uncomfortable. And recovery is all about being uncomfortable. I hate to break it to you, but it’s true. You can do this.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

What’s a misconception about your eating disorder you want to see busted? Tell us in the comments below. 


To the People Who Watch Me Eat

Call me fat, call me morbidly obese, but please keep your comments to yourself while I’m trying to eat. It’s absolutely terrifying eating in public alone, worried that you are judging me.

I know I don’t owe anyone an explanation, but I want to, for my own sake, and for others like me. Please know it wasn’t my choice to look this way. I didn’t wake up every day for years and say “today I am going to work toward weighing 400 pounds.” In fact, most mornings since I was 10 years old I would wake up and immediately wonder, am I going to starve myself or am I going to binge today? I still fight those thoughts most mornings, but something is different now.

I now know I deserve to eat because I deserve to live. 

For years, my life has been consumed by the power I allowed food to have over me. These behaviors would range from bingeing, over-eating, sneaking food, obsessing from the second I woke up about what I would be eating that day and when. As I got older, that fight turned into if I should eat anything at all or eat everything in sight. It could go either way depending on the day, the moment, the second. 

I now know I have choices. The choice I make is recovery — to stop using food as an unhealthy coping mechanism.

Recovery right now, for me, looks like eating a balanced meal every four to five hours whether my eating disorder wants to or not. Sometimes that means I have to eat in public. I’m allowed, just as much as you, to eat my lunch in the park. I can eat fast food from time to time. Just because I’m obese doesn’t mean I should be starving myself. 

So if you see me, or any obese person eating, remember how hard of a struggle it may be for them to be eating in public or eating at all, and your stares aren’t helping. I know you think your intentions are pure with side comments to friends about diets or even confronting me about what diet I should try, but it really does more harm than good. I already know what I need to do to have a healthy relationship with food and hopefully to lose weight in the future.

I want you to know I’m trying my hardest despite what assumptions you want to make about me. Think before you speak. Counter the judgments your mind makes about obese people. You don’t know what battles they are facing.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Where to Look for Hope When You've Relapsed in Eating Disorder Recovery

According to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, even with treatment, only 60 percent of people diagnosed with an eating disorder recover.

Without treatment, up to 20 percent of people with serious eating disorders will die.

These are pretty dismal realities to come up against as an individual in the midst of a battle with a raging eating disorder. Where, then, does a 28-year-old that has found a rewarding job, is fighting through a seizure disorder, recently married her prince charming and is pursuing another master’s degree (to build her own nonprofit), go to find hope and recovery?

I wonder how many people realize the extraordinary challenge of recovery is for someone who cannot simply eradicate the substance being abused. Imagine telling an alcoholic they need to drink a glass of wine each night to survive. For me, my eating disorder is an addiction, and we have to find a way to safely coexist with the very thing that sent us spiraling into our demise.

The messaging surrounding eating disorders is detrimental to those suffering from them, and the media’s normalization of eating disorder behavior is even worse. The glamorization of extreme dieting, coupled with the controlling idea that eating disorders are exclusively the rebellious behavior of teenage girls, makes it difficult to find support, or to ask for help. But what I find the most difficult to swallow is how much shame is thrust upon a group of individuals who are suffering from an extraordinarily dangerous disease. Our minds are already inundated with the negative thoughts created and perpetuated by the disease, and now, we’re surrounded by a society that tosses them back at us, if we dare to reach out for help.

There is hope, of this I have to be sure. Without hope, it’s so easy to fall into despair and to look at recovery with bafflement, distrust or sadness. But, with the 40 percent that do not recover from the eating disorder, there are 60 percent that do. 60 percent that live full and healthy lives, and more often than not, are able to use their experience to help others in their journey towards recovery. Those brave individuals are the hope we can find in the chaos of an eating disorder; they not only were able to enter into recovery, they were able to find the courage and altruism required to face those afflicted with the same gnarly disease, and help them find their way out.

As someone who cycles in and out of recovery, I can say in a world that shames us into silence, speaking up and talking about the feelings that result in a relapse can be nearly impossible. But activating our voice is the hope that is always present in our fight. Bravery is not the absence of fear, it is the recognition and understanding of it. Eating disorders offer to us a process that mystifies our feelings, converting them into bizarre rituals that will destroy us. Working to recognize and own those feelings through compassion allows us to search out that horrible thing that our eating disorder feeds on.

Of course, there is no easy fix to the eating disorder, and unearthing that unspeakable thing can take a very long time. This is because you are the eating disorder — it lives inside you, and it will probably fight to do so for the rest of your life. Don’t let it. Don’t let your fear, sadness, hurt, anger or pain hide behind the eating disorder anymore. Call out the monster, make it face you. Know you are strong enough, because you have fought such a hideous illness, to beat it. Know you are strong enough.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

An Unfinished Book Saved My Life

The February-gray lanes of I-95 South unfurl before me, the dashed white dividing lines like hyphens separating Hannah-then and Hannah-now. 

Hannah-then: the girl who, five days earlier, drove this same road north to begin her spring semester at her small New England college.

Hannah-now: the girl who flees that college campus to return home to Boston, knowing nothing but that she craves the arms of her parents around her, telling her they will fix her. 

And I need fixing. For the past five months, I have been spinning wildly off my axis. Alone in my dorm room, I eat baby food spooned from tiny jars — pears diced to the size of an adult fingernail, chicken and gravy pureed to the consistency of wet dog food, peas soft as geriatric skin — though I am 20, a college student who analyzes Derrida, Foucault and Butler, who gets into heated debates about Joyce, Austen and Fitzgerald; a woman 252 months too old to be eating food mashed into unidentifiable pastes for “supported sitters.”

Still, I use the toddler-sized spoon to scoop the mush out of the glass, the entire utensil coated in brightly colored rubber made to protect delicate baby gums. I chew gum. I swallow caffeine pills. I run every day on the treadmill in the dorm’s common room, wrapping my torso in saran wrap because some trashy women’s magazine suggested it as a method to boost weight loss. 

Instead of counting sheep, I count bones. Lying flat on my back in bed at night, I trace the valleys in my ribs, the sharp jutting of my hips, the knob in my wrist, the concavity of my sternum. Each night I note with satisfaction the shrinking of my flesh, that tautness of skin at my pelvis, the way my skeleton hovers close beneath the membrane that holds me together. The palm of my hand fits neatly into the hollow bowl of my stomach, and when I push down on my belly, my empty intestine gurgles. I work hard to compose this lullaby that lulls me to sleep every night, the mesmerizing rhythmic counting that marks each step I take toward nothingness. I wrap the comfort of this thought around me like a blanket, fall asleep with one hand at the crook of my pelvis, the other resting in the canyons of my ribcage, as though the warmth from my fingertips will coax the bones closer toward the opaque webbing of skin. 

Those three hours driving south on I-95 are three of the most terrifying hours of my life. Starved and suicidal, I drive myself home because the college’s Health Center suggested I take a medical leave, had thought it was a good idea to put me in control of a 3,000-pound vehicle even though earlier that morning I had been murmuring “I just want to die, I just want to die” over and over in a counselor’s office as a psychologist spoke to my parents in hushed tones over the phone. 

Just one turn of the wheel, and I could end it, I think. I could smash myself into the concrete divider that separates me from the northbound cars. I could escape the pervasive hopelessness, worthlessness and self-hate that talk to me nonstop, that make me feel as though my brain is no longer mine, that convince me my body is the enemy. 

But I’m in the middle of reading a book. I’ve wracked my memory for years now, trying to recall its title, but my body was so starved then that I couldn’t focus on or retain information, and the name of that novel truly escapes me. 

No matter. The point is that I was reading a book, and I never leave a book unfinished. Never. Not even when I want to end my life. 

Thinking about reading the end of that book ensures my safe passage from Maine into New Hampshire, from New Hampshire into Massachusetts, over the Zakim bridge and into my parents’ living room, where my mother watches me slowly eat an apple and looks at her daughter’s face as though seeing it for the first time. It gets me through the emptiness of the month that follows, my parents unsure how to help me, the music of the Vancouver Olympics the soundtrack to my slow march toward organ failure. It gets me through the months of residential treatment that follow, the anti-depressants that make me so nauseous I vomit whatever food I’m being forced to consume at militaristically-enforced three-hour intervals. 

I am a believer of stories. Of reading them, sharing them, talking about them. Now a (healthy) English teacher, I spend my days enthusing about the beauty of literature, how a text awakens us to our shared humanity, our pain and our pride, our love, lust and loneliness. A story saved my life, a life whose ending is not yet written.

“We read to know we are not alone,” C. S. Lewis says.

We read to know we are alive, I say.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

How We Can Address Eating Disorders in the Black Community

This piece was originally written by Iesha Pompey, a Black Doctor contributor.

When we dismiss an issue that is affecting the Black community as a “white problem,” we lose the opportunity to dissect and gain power over our problems. Many racial and ethnic minorities suffer from eating disorders and other mental illnesses because they aren’t discussed (seriously) within the community. The lack of attention and conversation surrounding eating disorders is causing more harm than good by allowing those who suffer to suffer in silence and suffer alone. It also enables the person who is suffering to hide (or deny) their unhealthy relationship with food.

Ironically, Black women who are constantly underrepresented and picked apart in mainstream media and society (having their natural features praised when they are represented by non-black women, e.g., full lips), aren’t expected to experience body dissatisfaction. According to NationalEatingDisorders.org, due to researchers historically biased presumption that eating disorders only affect white women, many studies lack participation from racial and ethnic minority groups.

While statistics show the number of Black people with eating disorders is on the rise, that could just mean more Black people are reporting that they suffer from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating. Having the support of a loved one can prevent these illnesses from turning fatal.

If you suspect someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder, here’s how you can help:

1. Educate yourself.

In order to help someone, you have to be willing to educate yourself about what they are experiencing. Many people, who don’t take eating disorders seriously, think the solution to battling an eating disorder is to eat. But in severe cases of bulimia, the body has learned to reject the food, making it difficult to keep food down long after the person has chosen to practice healthier eating habits. Taking the time to understand your loved one’s experience will show them that you are genuine in your effort to aid them in recovery.

Read the rest on BlackDoctor.org.

When Eating Disorder Recovery Means Surrendering Control

You used to not eat because there were just too many options and too many calories. You could never make up your mind, so you always chose what was “safe” and “good.” Even now, it’s easier for you to pick the “healthier” option rather than what might actually taste best.

When it comes to making decisions, you often deflect the question of “what do you want?” You tell them you don’t care, whatever is fine. And most of the time it is true, isn’t it? Any food is going to taste pretty good, and you know you have to eat anyway, so you might as well keep it open and simple, let them make what they want.

Except when you’re at the coffee shop, and you used to work at a coffee shop, this coffee shop in fact… but you can’t make up your mind on what drink to try because you’ve only ever had brewed coffee or iced coffee. So your sister chooses for you, and she must have the same taste buds as you because the caramel macchiato is delicious and so creamy and good.

Except when your husband asks you what sounds good for dinner and you have no idea what really sounds good and he throws out options and you think your mind is made up but then you remember you had a big breakfast (like you always do) and you don’t know if you can handle having a sandwich with meat and mayonnaise and you tell him that wait, actually you might not know what you want and might not be able to handle that and maybe you should just stay home and not eat. And then he reassures you that he’ll take care of it, and not to worry, and surprisingly, you feel calmed and just fine, even though you know dinner is now out of your hands, out of your control.

You see a woman eating a cupcake and she leaves some behind on the plate, which you can’t even comprehend. It’s a cupcake. One does not simply leave half a cupcake on a plate to be tossed out. And yet obviously, this woman does. Lots of people do. Because they have had enough, because they are full, because the food is rich and filling. This is when you start to think… How hard it is to know when to start, and how hard it is to know when to stop. You worry you might become bulimic, because the food is so good, and you’re supposed to eat now, and there are no limits except for the ones your eating disorder has put up and what if he changes the rules?

You are getting better. I can see it, in everything. In how you talk, how you eat, how you interact. You still have a long way to go, but you have come so far. You have never eaten this much. You have never weighed this much. But it’s OK, you’ll be OK. Because you have to do this for yourself, to live. And you don’t want to live in hell and despair anymore. No one should have to live like you were, and yet they do. Even if they don’t realize it. They say they’re doing it to be healthy, they say they just want to lose a few pounds. And yes, for some people, this is necessary, possibly a good thing. But you know that it is often so much more than that. But you can fight it for yourself, and maybe if you can do that, others will see how sad their diets and restrictive eating patterns are. Or maybe they won’t. But at least you will have made the right choices you need to make for you. And everything is going to be OK. 

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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