“How many sets of cutlery do you need with your order, sir? About four?” asked the nice lady on the phone. “Yes, that’s perfect, thanks,” I answered.
When the delivery guy knocked 45 minutes later, I cracked the door just wide enough to grab the bulging bag of food. My apartment was so loud that I could barely hear him say how much I owed: $74. I reached into my wallet to grab a handful of twenties, turned my head and shouted back to my pal Riley, “Food’s here!”
Transaction done, I quickly shut the door and looked into the bag at boxes and boxes of Chinese food: hot and sour soup, vegetable dumplings, crab rangoon, chicken curry, crispy beef and, of course, piles of steamed rice. Plenty of food for four friends.
But here’s the truth: The noise and the request for four sets of chopsticks were just a ruse. Riley, the friend I was talking to, is my dog. I was home alone and planned to eat all that food myself, but I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone — even the woman at the local Chinese restaurant who I’ve never met in my life or the stranger who delivered it — knowing that.
I have binge-eating disorder (BED), a condition that causes sufferers to regularly eat large amounts of food — sometimes quickly and to the point of discomfort — while feeling out of control as they do it. I first heard about it in 2015 when a friend who knew about some of my food struggles saw a binge-eating disorder awareness PSA on TV and told me about it. I looked up the symptoms online and immediately felt relief: There was a name for what I was dealing with, and I wasn’t the only one.
“The request for four sets of chopsticks was just a ruse ... I was home alone and planned to eat all that food myself, but I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone – even the woman at the local Chinese restaurant who I’ve never met in my life – knowing that.”
I took the BED info to my therapist and said, “I think I have this.” He had no idea what it was — most doctors and even psychotherapists aren’t very well informed about eating disorders — but he did his research and diagnosed me. I now see an eating disorder specialist.
The diagnosis of BED explained so much. I had always loved food; I had been a big kid with a big appetite. But in my early 20s, after trying all kinds of diets and even starving myself my freshman year in college to lose weight, I started thinking about food all the time. I woke up thinking about food. I’d obsessively plan out what I would eat that day and the next and especially on the coming weekend, when I knew I’d have time to cook and eat whatever I wanted. Once, I planned for a weekend binge with a recipe that required a deep fryer for copycat cheese fries from one of my favorite restaurants. I ordered the fryer online and even paid for expedited shipping so I could have it by the coming Friday. After I made and binged on multiple plates of the gooey fries, I felt so guilty that I went to my garbage chute and chucked the fryer into the trash after just one use. I never wanted to see that thing again.
After a while, I needed more and more food to satisfy my urges. I started going for fast food between meals, sometimes hitting different drive-throughs to get exactly what I was craving.
Finally being diagnosed with BED was a relief: This thing I was suffering with was real, and I wasn’t the only one. Even though I was embarrassed — at the time, I thought eating disorders were a girl thing — knowing I had BED gave me a sense of hope that I wanted to spread around. So I went public with my disorder, starting a blog and an Instagram account to share my story and hopefully help other men with eating disorders feel less alone.
The response I got from the people who read my blog or followed my social media accounts was incredibly positive. Complete strangers were sympathizing with me, empathizing with me, sharing their own stories. On the flip side, the people closest to me seemed to think it was a joke. When I first told my family and friends, a couple of them literally laughed at me. They thought I was trying to make excuses for not having willpower or for simply eating too much. Because binge-eating and obsessing happen in secret, they couldn’t see how much this disorder was controlling my life.
“It’s tough being a man with an eating disorder. I wish I could be a guy who doesn’t care what size his jeans are. A guy who can go out for a burger with friends without worrying that he’ll want three more.”
I still remember the moment my mom finally took my eating disorder seriously. She had come out for a visit, and we were talking about money — specifically, where all of mine was disappearing to. She knew I was struggling financially despite my good job and assumed I had been spending too much on nights out, trips or electronics. She persuaded me to start using the budgeting app Mint and helped me set it up. I still remember the look on her face when she realized that 83 percent of my money was going toward food. Not fancy LA restaurants, either. A lot of it was fast food.
By the night of the Chinese food incident, I had been working hard in therapy and reading all the info about men and eating disorders that I could get my hands on for about a year, even though there wasn’t much out there. I had learned some of my triggers for urges to binge, like being lonely, feeling self-conscious about my body, working too much at my tech job or even being happy. I remember that I felt disgusted with myself that night and that when the urge to binge came, I did nothing to stop myself. I remember how it felt to stew in a pot of shame on the couch, waiting for the delivery guy’s knock on the door.
And then I reminded myself: Recovery from an eating disorder is never a straight line. You don’t just shake it off and suddenly never binge again. But as you move down the path, sometimes you’re able to pause and make a choice. Instead of diving into that bag of Chinese food, I slowed down and told myself, “Ryan, just choose what you really want to eat.” I kept the crispy beef, soup and dumplings and tossed the rest into the outdoor dumpster — as much as I hate the idea of wasting food and money, I also knew that it was best for me in that moment, because it would have been extremely hard for me to resist if I had kept it in the fridge.
Today, I understand that binge-eating disorder may always be a part of my life. Instead of bingeing five days a week, as I once did, now it happens only once every couple of months. When it does, the binges are much smaller (and less expensive), and I no longer beat myself up and obsess about it for days afterward. Having self-compassion is incredibly important; it interrupts the cycle of guilt and self-loathing that feeds the eating disorder and increases urges to binge. Therapy has helped immensely, and so has sharing my story. Feeling ashamed is a huge binge trigger for me, and being open about the disorder helps relieve some of the shame around food.
I confess it’s tough being a man with an eating disorder. I wish I could be a guy who doesn’t care what size his jeans are. A guy who can go out for a burger with friends without worrying that he’ll want three more. A guy who’s just normal about food — whatever that means. But I am committed to continue working on myself and this disorder, and I’m proud to be a voice that can hopefully inspire other men who are hiding in the shadows to come out and face their eating issues too.
Ryan Sheldon is a speaker and an advocate for men with eating disorders and body image issues in Los Angeles. Find him on Instagram @bingeeaterconfessions, on Twitter @bingeconfession or at his blog Mr. Confessions.