My fucked-up relationship with food
Disclaimer + Content Warnings
First of all, a lot of what I write below will not reflect well on a lot of people in my life. This is absolutely not my intention! While reflecting on some causes of certain conditions and situations I try to take into account historical context, remembering that it was a very different socio-cultural experience growing up in the late 70s and early 80s to the vastly more socially and psychological aware situation today.
My family didn’t set out to fuck me up! Most, if not ALL of my issues were entirely of my own creation based on my interpretation of what was happening at the time. There is literally no one to blame here but me.
This is a perfect example of separating personal truth from actual fact.
However, whatever the source of the damage caused, understanding the reality in those moments long after the fact isn’t enough to erase the scars, which is why I continue to have a seriously fucked up relationship with food and weight, among other things.
This brings me to content/trigger warnings. I’ll just leave a list.
- Suicide ideation
- Anorexia nervosa
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this post is as much self-therapy as a means to organise my thoughts on this on-going issue. It will be long and meandering and likely full of tangents. If you make it to the end, remember to hydrate.
Of all things to inspire some self-reflection, it’s a couple of shows I’ve been streaming while I crochet: My 600lb Life and Supersize Vs Superskinny. I usually watch crime documentaries while I crochet. Nothing like a good series of serial killers or Forensic Files. But I’ve been especially conscious of my weight over the last month or so and started adding some of these programs to my watch list. I don’t know why, it’s not like they’re exercise programs.
I don’t really ‘watch’ anything while I crochet. I’m not that savvy a crocheter that I can take my eye off the hook for too long and expect to not botch up the whole project. Which is why I’m behind in all the shows I’d otherwise want to watch!
What I learned about myself from watching these two shows in particular is that I can relate to both sides of the situation. I’ve never been morbidly obese, but my BMI has hit the obese range a few times. Likewise, I’ve never been skeletally thin, but I have lapsed into anorexia several times. I expand and contract with alarming frequency. Watching people from both ends of the scale (as is a catch line from Supersize Vs Superskinny) I can’t help but relate to their stories and their situations.
Hence this effort to unpack and self-assess, because I’m currently in the middle of what I can only describe as a dietary crisis and I’m doing my best to get a handle on it before it spirals out of all control. Because when control is lost, that’s when things get bad and dark.
So, starting from what I think is the beginning…
I think most kids become aware they’re overweight when other kids start bullying them. That’s certainly how it came to my attention, though I’m not 100% sure how I reached a state of chunky to warrant that kind of bullying. I suspect it’s because I was shuffled about a bit between my mother, biological father (and his new family), my step-dad’s parents, and my biological father’s parents.
Even that young I do have a memory of feeling like a hot potato being passed on, though I doubt very much that was actually the case. A lot of kids would revel in all the attention across so many people, but I think I spent a lot of time feeling anxious and constantly having to reassure everyone that I wasn’t feeling anxious.
I remember each household also had their own menu and that I was always nervous about food because it never tasted the same as other places. I’m sure I was also spoiled at times when it came to giving me food I’d like. Nothing like a divided family to turn a child into a dumpling with sweet foods.
There was also a time, I’m now ashamed to say, that I equated sweet or starchy foods with feeling loved. Again, I’m not 100% clear where that connection started, but I know it left me feeling utterly unloved at home with my mum and step-dad. Why? Because my mum made healthy meals and packed a healthy lunchbox. There was rarely anything on my plate that came out of a packet, and the same could be said for my lunchbox.
One particularly distinct bout of bullying at one of the many schools I went to as a child occurred during the regular lunchbox comparison at recess. Everyone showed off their little chocolate bars and bags of crisps and fairy bread sandwiches (common treat in Australia in the early 80s). Meanwhile, mum had used environmentally conscious brown paper to wrap my vegemite and lettuce sandwich on brown bread, a piece of fruit, a popper (juice box), and some prunes.
I can tell you that I definitely did NOT feel loved by my mother when, for the rest of my time at that school I was accused of eating poos.
(Side note: I still love prunes. Bullying couldn’t take that away from me!)
In retrospect, of course my lunchbox was vastly superior to all the others and my mother absolutely definitely and irrefutably loved me better than their parents did. But that’s the sort of thing you come to understand with the 20-20 hindsight of an adult.
And, of course, I felt an awful lot of peer pressure to eat the junk. All the popular kids were doing it, after all.
My next weight-related memory was my mother taking me to Jenny Craig and Jenny Craig refusing to treat me. At the time I thought it was because I was too fat and totally untreatable, and nothing anyone could say would convince me otherwise. So, again, my ‘truth’ was later confronted by fact when it turned out it was actually because I was too young. I know I was told this as a child but some information just can’t penetrate the mental ambience of self-deprecation or the fog of an eight-year-old’s low self-esteem.
To hear people describe me as a child you’d mostly get words like cheerful and chatty, also a daydreamer. I don’t really remember being cheerful, but I remember being anxious to the verge of terrified a lot and hiding it behind smiles and excessive chattiness. I learned from a young age how to make a sterling first impression – forever starting at new schools meant I’d have to start over with friends all the time.
Unfortunately, as a result of that, I still don’t really know how to keep friends long term – I never learned how.
So, I was the epitome of a cheery, chatty fat kid, feeling unloved at home because I didn’t recognise the love I was given when it didn’t look like the love other kids were getting. Love was eating sugary or stodgy carbs. Love was chocolate. Love was spaghetti Bolognese. Love was cake. Love was cheese.
Love most definitely wasn’t brown bread, dried fruit, or steamed vegetables.
Then I was sent away.
Yet again my personal truth in no way reflects actual fact.
My parents almost – almost! – convinced me that I was being sent off to boarding school because there wasn’t a proper school for my age group within a couple of hundred kilometres. That situation made all the more complicated by the fact we lived on an island, so commuting to school involved at least one boat and two buses – one way.
They almost convinced me it was a case of convenience and improved education, but on the first day in a strange new school all the older girls passed their time telling new girls exactly why they were there; our parents don’t really love us and they’ve fobbed us off for a few months so they can get on with their lives without us. My mum wanted to focus on her family with new husband and their new child and I was just in the way.
Kids can be such arseholes. And yeah, given I was already suspicious of my parents’ motives at the time, it didn’t take much to convince me I’d been deserted.
The worst part actually wasn’t being left there by parents I’d already convinced myself didn’t really love me anyway. The absolute worst was being removed from the islands and the water. Boarding school was in a part of the country that might best be described as wasteland. But that’s not relevant right now.
I was at boarding school for two years and sometime between the ages 10 and 12 I experienced my first bout of anorexia. And this is the first time I’ve admitted it anywhere. Having your life controlled by strangers who tell you when to get up, what to wear, how to tidy your space, when and where and what to eat, how long you spend doing any given task, and finally when to go to bed and turn the lights go out… it was tough for a kid like me, then undiagnosed with ADHD along with a whopping-great dose of anxiety.
You could say I rebelled and that anorexia was my way to take at least a small amount of control back for myself. I would eat one bite of each serving on my plate. A small bite, but still a bite. A little bit of potato, and little bit of whatever it was they were calling meat that day, and a small bite of vegetables. Often just the one pea I could catch on my fork.
I made a lot of friends at that time as there was always extra from my plate to go around. I had a whole lot of ‘best friends’ around dessert because I wouldn’t touch it and just passed it on down the table.
Every Tuesday there were cream buns for morning tea. I stopped getting those and nibbled on fruit for a while, then started getting the buns again so I could give them to friends.
You might recognise the trend here, giving food away = getting friends. Giving food away = good. Going without = good.
I didn’t get the sort of slim that people notice. Indeed, at that age most girls are plumping up for a growth spurt. So, despite eating very little – I think the only thing I ate with any regularity was Frosty Fruits – no one noticed.
So, my boobs arrived and somehow subsumed the rest of me, so it wasn’t very noticeable that I was losing a lot of weight beneath my new shelf.
And then my family pulled me out of school and away from yet another batch of new friends to drag me to Tasmania.
High School Sucks – period
I wound up going to two different schools in Tasmania between grades 8 and 10. Having done grade 7 in Queensland where it was the last year of primary school, then moving to a state where grade 7 is the first year of high school, I was already behind socially by a year when I was enrolled in grade 8. My first year of high school was after all my peers had already been there for a year, so, even if I hadn’t put on weight again, I was already at a disadvantage.
Tasmania is a small state and everyone somehow knows everyone else, so I’m not saying which schools or naming anyone (not that I can remember names anyway), but I had as shit a time at high school as a chunky kid can have. Which isn’t to say everyone was a bag of cunts – I do have, like, two people I remember fondly and one of them I really need to catch up with before one of us dies.
But even though I was physically at school I missed so many classes by hiding in the bathroom, door closed, feet up on the toilet seat, hugging my knees and crying myself sick. I was so anxious I probably had up to four or five panic attacks a day.
Of course no one understood anxiety or panic attacks back then. And girls didn’t get ADHD apparently, because it was unrecognisable compared with how boys tend to demonstrate their symptoms. I felt physically ill getting up in the morning to face it, and sometimes I could actually convince my parents to let me stay home. Back then kids like me were always accused of being melodramatic or attention seeking. Back then seeking attention was a bad thing, ‘cause no one really wanted to have to give it to a moody teenager who couldn’t put into words how she felt or what she was going through.
(Oh, how different things would be if I were at school with these symptoms and behaviours today!)
On those days when I felt sick enough to stay home, miraculously I felt better as soon as dad left to take my brother to school and I knew I didn’t have to face torment for at least that day. It then became a chore having to continue being ill when mum was around because I didn’t have the understanding I have now to explain how my anxiety made me physically ill. But I’d end up crashing on the sofa and watching daytime telly – I was a bit of a Days of Our Lives fan (Bo and Hope forever!), but it was on those days I first met my beloved Golden Girls. I took comfort in characters on TV and when mum wasn’t home, I ate my way through blocks of cheese and biscuit jars full of biscuits.
But there was no really escaping the situation in high school, where the set of friends I fell into were the sort to adopt a fattie to make them look thinner. Yup, that was me! And no opportunity was ever wasted in comparing themselves to me, from my thick arms to my thick thighs to my soft and pudgy belly. The only thing they liked about me and said was ‘pretty’ was my very long blonde hair.
I cut it all off in a fit of pique and I became even less desirable to hang around. My last and most vivid memory of that group was the thigh gap measurement day. Hems were hiked up and all the girls stood like ducks to maximise clearance and show off their gaps. It was like bragging about having a widescreen telly – look how much of the world you can see through my thighs!
Obviously, I didn’t have a gap; I had sweat pimples.
That night I went home and burst out with ‘why does everyone call me fat?’ in front of my mother. In that moment I was pretty fucking desperate for some kind of communication with her, but I don’t think she knew how to handle it. I was ‘too emotional’ for her to manage a lot of the time, and for all that I had a good grasp of the English language, I could never seem to articulate what I needed to say when emotions were running high or low.
In the end, that outburst became a family joke that still pops out on occasion to this day.
Unfortunately, I never hear that comment without going back to being mocked and bullied because I had fat thighs with sweat pimples.
I’m pretty sure it was around that time I returned to anorexia with a vengeance.
Anorexia, round two
I tend to talk about this time as being my first anorexia effort because I was a lot younger the first time and I didn’t really get the results I was hoping for – other than a meagre measure of autonomy within the regimented environment of boarding school.
This time was less about testing the waters of controlling food and more about rejecting everything everyone gave me because I was so hurt and so full of resentment and bitterness. I refused to spend time with anyone, refused food, denied myself everything but books and TV for comfort and nourishment for my imagination, where everything was better. I liked how when shit hit the fan in a show, it was somehow always resolved within 30-45 minutes.
Some might call this just another teen going through their prescribed emo phase, but at my worst, I was eating one apple a week. I would use my thumbnail to dig out a tiny portion and eat that. It looked like a brown golf ball as it got older, and I eventually threw it out long before I reached the core. In addition to eating almost nothing, I was exercising for two hours a night in my bedroom. Crunches, push-ups, leg lifts, all the stuff I could do without access to weights. I’d walk/run for an hour, just to get away.
I’d also taken up Jiu-Jitsu at this point and it became a real passion of mine – which will become relevant shortly.
One day I was feeling pretty woozy while standing by the kitchen woodstove trying to get warm. I was cold an awful lot in those days. I decided I should lie down and I remember making a move to go to my bedroom. The next thing I knew I was waking up on the other side of the kitchen and mum was pissed off.
I’m sad that most of my memories of mum growing up are her being mad at me. And she was proper mad when I woke up from that faint.
Again, I know now that she was that mad because I’d given her a real fright. Given how I sometimes lash out with anger when I get a fright, I can totally understand where she was coming from – now.
Mum’s idea of talking about it, from memory, was to try to scare me out of it with threats of organ failure, possible death, and the like. Unfortunately, I don’t think the root of the problem was really discussed. It didn’t matter why, she just wanted me to stop doing it.
And, sadly, telling me I might die wasn’t as discouraging as she hoped. My mindset at the time was that I’d rather be dead than go on being fat. My plan, if you could call it that, was suicide if I couldn’t lose the weight. There wasn’t a specific target or goal, just ‘lose the weight’. Be as slim as possible while still being alive to enjoy being beautiful. Because heroin chic was the fashion and standard of beauty, and there was just no way to be that thin without also being anorexic.
I’m pretty sure mum also resented that I’d stopped eating the food she prepared. I do remember her accusing me of treating her like a restaurant and not appreciating her effort to make good food. And I remember wishing I could explain that it was actually about me and not about her cooking. If she really loved me she’d leave me alone and let me get thinner, or die trying.
Not too long after that incident, I moved out to live with my aunt and her two kids. I think I was 16.
I may have been an emo brat who refused to eat anything put in front of her at home, but I was still too polite to not eat what was put in front of me elsewhere.
That worked out fine when I was living at home, but things got complicated when I moved out. Now, my aunt prepared different meals to my mother. For one thing, there was more pasta – mum rarely, if ever, served pasta – and for another, there were two young children.
I suspect mum was extra pissed off when she learned I was eating the food put in front of me at my aunt’s house. But it was a while, I think, before anyone realised I’d started purging.
It was the perfect solution! And I thought I was pretty clever at the time, finding a loophole, as it were. I could be the polite guest eating what was put in front of me, but it barely saw the inside of my stomach before it was brought back up again.
Binging wasn’t really on my agenda, that I recall, but I did become more discerning about what went down depending how bad it tasted the second time around. There was nothing worse than something milky getting caught up behind the nose.
I don’t recall how long I lived with my aunt, though I do remember I continued my walking and my exercise routine and whenever I could get someone to drive me to the dojo, jiu-jitsu. Eventually mum decided I should come back home, but only on the proviso that I gave up jiu-jitsu. I suspected even then that she was trying to reduce the amount of exercise I was doing while I wasn’t eating enough, but I think she meant to convince me that I needed to focus more on my studies.
Giving up jiu-jitsu was hard, and returning home wasn’t much easier. I couldn’t return to barely eating and I had to be a lot more secretive about my purges.
College (grades 11 and 12) was a new experience. I hoped it would be a fresh start because no one I knew from my old school went to the same college as me. I started a lot lighter so there wasn’t anyone bullying me for being fat. But I spent a lot of my time – including during class time – holed up in the gym instead of where I was supposed to be. I fainted in the locker room one time and it was really disconcerting waking up by myself with a new bruise and no one to give me hot and sugary tea.
I wish I could recall what eventually prompted me out of that downward spiral, but soon enough I started eating again.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved living in Sweden, but I think it would have been a much better experience for everyone – especially me! – if I’d been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and ADHD beforehand.
I thought I was pretty brave and cool and awesome when I decided to move over there to live with my internet boyfriend when I was all of 19. I’d been living on my own half the country away from my family anyway, what was the other side of the world?
My earlier life of constantly moving from place to place meant I wasn’t very good at staying in one spot, and I kept looking for something new to do or somewhere else to be, mistaking that anxious energy for anything but what it was – awful, awful anxiety! If I sat still for too long panic would set in. I was a shark who had to keep swimming or drown.
But once I was in Sweden I definitely started drowning. I must have baffled my boyfriend to no end with my mood swings and general incapacity to function as a human at times. I’d had awful trouble with what I now understand to be executive (mal)functions and couldn’t take care of myself or him the way I felt I needed to.
I turned to food for comfort and love again. Especially this delicious bread they have over there, it was the sort I’d eat straight out of the bag it was so yum. My portion sizes expanded and there were frequent pizza nights – and days – as well as kebab nights – and days – and very little by way of exercise. At least until I adopted my first malamute, but even then I was very much a sedentary homebody.
I was an internet junkie and spent almost all my waking time writing in chat rooms. This was all in the last century, so low tech AF. I ate, I sat, I ate some more, I sat some more, I ate again, then I slept, then I woke up and did the same thing the next day. I don’t know how heavy I got, but I know that despite some half-hearted efforts to lose the weight again, by the time I returned to Australia I was at the heaviest I’d ever been. Almost certainly approaching 80kg (~175lbs).
Keeping in mind that I’m pretty short, that put my BMI back in the obese range.
This entry is obviously the ‘highlights’ reel. There were ups and downs between most of these events. From the time I returned from Sweden, I think I spent the next decade battling anxiety and depression. I was too anxious to leave the house and too depressed to take care of myself. I ate for comfort sometimes, and I starved myself for control in other times. I expanded and contracted almost constantly.
My diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder was a bit of a turning point for me. Though it wasn’t until I was later diagnosed with ADHD that everything suddenly fell into place and made sense, that first diagnosis definitely helped steer me in a different direction – including with food.
It wasn’t a great start, though. I packed on even more weight after an initial loss when I first started with Prozac. I had a strange combination of madly exercising but also binging. The medication seemed to cross some wires in my brain so instead of mad exercise and starving myself, or binging and then purging, I went to mad exercise plus binging and continuing to gain and gain and gain. I again almost made it up to 80kg and hit a BMI of about 32. My whole body hurt from all the exercise I was doing whilst carrying around all the weight on a frame not meant to carry so much.
A few years later came my ADHD diagnosis and a few new medications for managing both ADHD and anxiety. My appetite evaporated and my energy levels increased exponentially. I was getting shit done like I’d never got shit done before! My executive function issues disappeared with my appetite and life was finally all sunshine and daisies. My house was clean and I dropped to a size 6 in pants (32EU/4UK/2US).
Which, essentially, brings this entry up to now, and why I’m currently so anxious about food.
So what’s the big deal?
2020 was the year I didn’t really work because of that whole pandemic thing. I was fortunate enough to get JobKeeper to tide me over, but I had nothing else to do but spend that money. ADHD + money + too much spare time = disaster! As I said before, the house was cleared out and cleaned up, as were my front and back yards. I started collecting hobbies and being generally busy all the time.
But then work came back. Great news for making money again but it meant sitting in a chair and working for 8-9 hours a day again, and, you guessed it, my weight is going up. (Also my house and yards are messy again.)
I’ve had enough of going up and down! I want to get back to 50kg (~110lbs) and stay there. It’s at the light end of a healthy BMI, my clothes finally look awesome on me, and my joints don’t hurt as much when I run. (After I run is another matter for another entry!)
Which is why I started watching shows like My 600lb Life and Supersize Vs Superskinny. I think I was hoping to terrify myself back into an anorexic phase, though watching the shows made me realise I’d already been in that phase again. Just the fact that I’m obsessively thinking about food all the time – again. Skipping meals so I can keep doing other things. Avoiding the mirror because I know it’ll turn into hours of self-loathing.
I don’t often look in a mirror unless I’m already too positive-minded to let the dysmorphia overtake me. I didn’t talk about that much in this entry, but it’s a given that I have body dysmorphia and that it fuels my eating disorder/s.
Watching sufferers and survivors of eating disorders on Supersize Vs Superskinny really hammered home for me just how tenuous my control is when it comes to food, and reminded me that anorexia nervosa starts in the mind with destructive patterns of thinking. Patterns of thinking that have been a constant for me for most of my life, even though I’ve never looked the part of a stick-figure anorexic.
The frightening thing is that I wish I did.
Even at my lightest I’ve always – always – wanted to be lighter. I know 50kg is a good weight for me and that I should endeavour to stay there, but it’s so close to 48… and then 45…
So, what am I doing about it?
My downfall is always portion size. It’s either too little or too much, never an appropriate amount for weight maintenance.
The cause of this issue is invariably being too busy to eat at some points in the day and then overeating later when I’m in a gain phase, or just forgetting to eat more than a bite here and there when I’m in a losing phase.
It doesn’t help that I absolutely hate cooking and having to prepare meals in any way, shape, or form. It wastes so much time. And there’s the problem of being doggedly single and having to adapt everything for just the one person.
My solution is something reinforced from watching these programs. Firstly, someone in one episode said something that truly stuck with me, and I ask myself every time I go to the fridge or the pantry:
Am I hungry for food or hungry for purpose?
With my ADHD I definitely notice I eat more when I’m between obsessions. There’s a lot of anxiety swirling about inside me when I don’t have an outlet for my obsessive tendencies – which can be frustratingly short-lived – and I turn to food to ease that anxiety and purposelessness.
I now spend more time than I’d like in pre-preparing meals, but it means spending a few hours of an afternoon over the weekend to free up time through the week, and it’s easier to keep track of portion sizes when they’re already prepared.
More importantly, when I do feel too hungry to waste time in the kitchen thinking about what to eat, I’ve already set something aside. I’m less likely to call for a pizza, the size of which is always going to be too big because I’m thinking with my stomach at the time of the call. Likewise, when I’m not hungry but still need to eat, it’s minimal effort to heat up something I prepared earlier.
I’m not sure that food prep can solve world peace, but it’s definitely the answer to a lot of my problems, including this oh-so-shitty relationship I have with food. I pre-prepare food for my animals to make sure they get everything they need without turning to shitty commercial food from cans or bags. It also saves me so much time when all their meals are pre-packaged and just need to be glopped in their bowls at mealtimes.
It’s taken me a long time to come around to the idea that the same would be true of carefully pre-packaging everything I eat through the week, in proper portions.
I intend to write more about food prep in the near future.
My relationship with food will probably always be fucked up. It fills me with guilt and self-loathing when I eat (and enjoy) something like cake or pie or ice cream or pizza – the foods I would probably love most if didn’t have the echoes of bullies past reminding me to be terrified of being fat.
Anorexia is never far away and it doesn’t take much for it to overtake my mind and my life, but it’s not something I like to bring up with anyone in charge of my health. For one thing, the medication I’m on now may have actually saved my life already and I’m terrified someone will decide to take it away from me because my weight loss has triggered those dangerous thinking patterns all over again.
The fact that I’ve gained a bit of weight over winter has also brought the return of thoughts of suicide on occasion, reminding me that it’s always a way out if I get ‘too fat’.
I also don’t bring it up with doctors and psychiatrists because I don’t actually want their help with this problem. I know they’ll try to take yet more control away from me to make sure I eat, which will only make me more rebellious and self-destructive. I don’t react well to losing autonomy and independence.
The only solution then is to make sure I am in control. I mean, my life now seems to revolve around Tupperware containers, but having food ready to eat is a bit like choosing your clothes the day before, it takes all the annoying decision making out of that decision making process. And sure, I eat the same meals for a long, long time, but that’s also like having a closet full of jeans and shirts of roughly the same colour so it’s never a challenge to reach in and know you’ll pull out something that fits and matches.
To reassure anyone who made it to the end of this long, meandering, generally pointless self-reflection (remember to hydrate!), I am okay. I promise. I’m eating. I’m not purging. My life is pretty good given the pandemic situation the world is facing right now.
I just needed to get these thoughts down.
I should probably also go back to watching real crime documentaries.