The worst relationship I ever had...was with food.
This is a very personal story about a very real struggle I faced for over 10 years. Many people that are close to me may not even know the details of this battle - and aren't the most difficult ones often fought in silence? I've wanted to share my story for a while now, in hopes that it might be a light at the end of the tunnel for someone else.
I can't lie and say that I don't feel nervous to share this - I do. I'm being very vulnerable by allowing any person who ever Googles me to find very personal details of my life. But I can't help but wonder if a story like this would have saved me a lot of heartache 5 years ago and for that reason, I feel responsible to share.
One final thing - the battle I faced does not define me. The victory does. I hope you won't look at me and see the girl that struggled, rather the girl that fought and won.
I still remember the first time that I became aware of my arms.
I was reading a fashion magazine and an actress was quoted saying that of all her body parts, she was most concerned about her arms and keeping them in shape. It was the first time I realized that arms COULDN’T be in shape, and I wondered how mine fell on the spectrum. I felt disappointed and concerned, wondering if there were other parts of my body that I’d essentially neglected to stress about. I hoped that I’d never find out.
I must have been around 13-years-old then.
The beginning of my story probably isn’t that different from yours. I’ve yet to meet one woman who didn’t compare herself to others at some point in her life. It’s easy in junior high and high school, to wonder if you’re one of the pretty girls. I remember being embarrassed that the coaches always gave me XL jerseys (not realizing then that it’s because I was tall and our school was on a budget, so they re-used them year-to-year). There were times in theater class that I’d feel hungry, then reach around to grab a handful of backfat to remind myself why I wasn’t eating cafeteria food.
What’s crazy is that I’m pretty sure I was one of the “confident” ones. There were girls that actually did starve themselves, or acted cruel toward others to elevate their own reputation. I was kind and had friends from just about every crowd. I did well in school. I didn’t think about my body constantly or overanalyze what I ate. But the seed was there.
Freshman year of college came around and I didn’t shy away from the cafeteria food, this time. I stayed up until 3 AM regularly and ate at all hours of the day, completely unaware of proper nutrition, besides knowing I should add a few fruits and vegetables to my plate. By the time I came home for the summer, I’d grown two pant sizes and weighed more than I ever had in my life. I became obsessed, reading fitness magazines, Googling about nutrition, and educating myself. It was a healthy obsession, actually. I found that I really enjoying learning about how certain foods affected me, what to eat pre and post workout, and all about counting calories. Before college, I’d never been a runner, though I enjoyed sports and dancing. I decided to try, and my mom was up to join me. We ran at 7 AM every day before I went off to work at a daycare. Eventually I worked my way up to two miles, which felt like a huge victory. Sometimes we ran at night and treated ourselves to homemade creamsicles. I was counting my calories (way too low at 1200 a day regardless of exercise) and wasn’t paying too much attention to the type of calories I was eating. I bought every 100-calorie pack of food I could find, ordered skinny Frappucinos, and drank Diet Dr. Pepper like water. It was all carbs and fake sugars.
I spent the entire summer depriving myself, but it was working, so I was happy. By the time I got back to school I’d lost over 15 pounds and people were noticing. I was high on the compliments and knew that I needed to maintain this feeling.
But the stress of counting calories on a college campus was almost too much. I found that if I “messed up” for the day, then I’d call it all a wash and go crazy. One bite of ice cream? Might was well keep going. It was the beginning of a very bad downward spiral - and it was all mental. I was berating myself for doing something wrong, telling myself that I screwed up. I couldn’t handle telling myself “no” all day long and so I’d eat whatever I wanted as both a punishment and reward.
It was somewhere around this time that I found a love of baking. Every day I wanted to make something new - it was the miracle of making something from nothing, being creative in the kitchen, baking up things that I thought you could only find in the store, and then offering treats to my friends who were wild about my creations. I dreamed about opening a bakery and what it would look like. I saved recipes every day and I had files of ideas. There was always something sweet just 30 minutes away.
The interest was innocent, and I think most of me really did like it for the creativity involved, but I inevitably ended up eating what I baked. And that became my downfall.
I’m not sure if you know this, but sugar is a drug. It is an addiction. And when I introduced sugar to my feeble state of mind, things became very bad.
I thought I could control it. I moved to New York and a lot more people became impressed with my baking. I thought of recipes all day during work and was elated to come home and cook something - then make dessert. It was always the highlight of my day and eventually my entire life centered around food. There were a million different things running through my head - my obsession with nutrition, my desire to bake something amazing, my fear of being alone, that wild and amazing feeling I got when I allowed myself to eat anything I wanted that day because I deserved it - it was a mental storm.
I was afraid to be alone because I couldn’t control myself. I ate until I felt sick. I would bake brownies - and eat the entire pan then hide the evidence. I worked out like crazy and ran to make up for it. I wanted to be fit, but I also wanted an entire pint of ice cream and a pizza. I could not stop and I became used to the fact that I felt sick to my stomach every single morning. If I had a day that I did not overeat, it felt like an anomaly. I became used to giving in to my fight and I didn’t know how to get out.
There were a few lies that I was telling myself during this time:
You can handle this by yourself.
You aren’t really sick because others are way worse by comparison.
Life is short and it’s okay to eat what you want sometimes.
There is no one you can talk to about this.
I was embarrassed by my struggle because I’d convinced myself that it wasn’t serious. I thought if I told someone about it, they’d just tell me to stop. They wouldn’t understand that I couldn’t stop.
I looked up counselors, but they were expensive. I borrowed books from the library, but nothing stuck. I mentioned to friends that I loved sugar way too much, mostly in jest, just to see if anyone took the bait and could relate to me. Some of them had body issues, too, but we were unable to be honest enough to really help each other.
Relationships were difficult. When someone didn’t like me as much as they wanted to, I assumed it was because of the shape of my body. I actually believed that if I were skinnier, I’d be irresistible to them. I would go to the gym and for motivation I imagined being noticed by a guy I liked. I had no idea the mental sickness that I was allowing into my life and the self-worth that I was negating.
It was an up and down battle for the majority of my college years and 20’s. Then one night in October after a solid binge, I tried to make myself throw up. It wasn’t the first time. I’d tried a few times and couldn’t go through with it. But for some reason, this time it was different. I felt real shame, disgust, and sadness. I couldn’t carry the burden anymore and I decided to try to tell my family the severity of what I was going through, not holding back the details this time. I was 27-years-old.
Telling someone was the first step of a 6 month process to get better. I prayed a lot, asking for strength and a way out. I felt like I could talk to my family finally, in a way I had suppressed before. I knew that I’d had gotten worse because of a break-up, and the mental strain had caused me to seek out comfort elsewhere. I felt old, fat, unwanted, used up. I couldn’t imagine being with another person who didn’t see me like that, as well.
When Christmas came around I was still in a delicate state. My sister announced over Skype in Ethiopia that she was dating someone. I was shocked and had very little room in my heart to feel happy for her - which made me feel even worse. Later on that week, my dad tried to put his arm around me and my reflex was to pull away, which hurt and angered him. Even though I was trying to get better, the lies I’d let myself believe were hurting the people around me. I couldn’t stand it, and I unloaded everything to my dad in the lobby of a movie theater. I told him that I wasn’t used to people touching me and I felt unwanted. He held me right there, tight so I couldn’t pull away, and we sobbed in each other’s arms. Him, because he couldn’t believe I’d ever feel that way, me, because I was finally giving in to the idea that I could be loved again for exactly who I was.
Then we went to see Les Miserables which was simply delightful given my emotional situation. (Sarcasm, if you can’t tell.)
I continued to look for help in the coming months. I was feeling stronger, but still wasn’t in the clear. I’d heard about paleo and thought it was absolutely INSANE - no, I will not give up all those foods and also it sounds like a fad diet that is, again, INSANE.
And then one day, I dug a little deeper. I started reading testimonials and found that these people weren’t all talking about how much weight they lost, they were talking about the freedom they’d found. Freedom from sickness, disease, and most importantly, the mental and emotional relationship they had with food. I read about sugar, and how my body responds to it. I found out that there was a reason I couldn’t stop once I’d started - it was an addiction.
So I decided to give it a go. I bought the book It Starts With Food and after the first chapter I called up my parents.
I told them that I felt like someone had written my story, and I wanted them to understand it with me. I asked them to read the book with me and join me in the eating plan for the month of April. I said that if they did it with me, I’d feel like I had some support and someone to talk to. They agreed.
The beginning of the book was all about how our mind and our emotions are directly tied to the foods we ate. I became enlightened to things I never knew before and discovered that over the next 30 days, there was a good chance I’d be able to break a cycle that I never thought possible.
It is now over two years later and paleo is a lot more common than it was then. I kept it on the hush, because I didn’t want to be “that girl on a diet,” and besides, it was way too personal. I felt like I couldn’t explain what was happening - unless it worked.
I began my first Whole 30 and went to battle with my “Sugar Dragon” - even the fact that the authors had labeled my despised enemy helped me understand that this was a good path to be on.
I realized that I could live without oatmeal in the morning or yogurt in the afternoon. I had no dessert after dinner. I ate my food, and then I stopped. I opened a separate Instagram and posted every single meal I ate to keep myself accountable and to engage with others who were doing the Whole 30, too. I found a community of people who understood me.
I also realized that eating this way was in no way depriving. I was full, I loved the new recipes I was trying, and I wasn’t counting calories. I simply ate what was good for me - and the combination of protein, vegetables, and healthy fats was the perfect potion. Simply put, I began to feel free.
After 30 days I was surprised to step on the scale and find myself 13 pounds lighter. But beyond that, I’d realized my sugar cravings were gone. Completely. I’d spent 30 days doing something I was proud of, so my mental state was healthy and strong. My parents also completed their 30 days, and were shocked at their results: weight loss, sustained energy, and lower cholesterol. Safe to say, we were hooked.
It was my answer. Now, 2.5 years later, I’m finishing up my second Whole 30 with my husband. My parents and I haven’t really turned back since that April. We know what feels good - and we know when that piece of cake is worth it.
I’ve been able to talk to people about my struggle a lot more openly, now. I realize how desperate I really was. I feel liberated now; I can eat an ice cream cone and I not feel guilty about it then go on a binge late into the night. It’s a wild thing to eat a treat and let it actually be that - a treat.
This isn’t a commercial for paleo. It’s just my story. It’s a story that I would have found a lot of hope in 3 or even 5 years ago, and so I think it’s worth telling. If your struggle is the same, I promise that it doesn’t have to be this way. First, tell someone you trust. You need accountability and they WILL understand. Second, kill the sugar. However you decide to do it (though I will recommend It Starts With Food for the rest of my life), you have to get rid of it for good in order to get stronger.
Do you want to know something crazy? It was near the end of that April that Matty noticed me for the first time. Exactly the time that I was beginning to feel confident and beautiful again. Two months later I moved to Austin and began a new chapter of my life with a strength and an excitement that had been dim for so long. I don’t think it was a coincidence and I do believe that God answered my prayers when I was seeking a way out.
Today, I’m still aware of my arms - it’s a process. But they are my arms and this is my body. It’s beautiful, it’s cared for, and it’s perfectly me. And I love it.