The Ugly Secret I Hid For Nearly A Decade

The truth is, for the better part of eight or nine years, I've managed to hide a rather ugly secret. Not totally -- I'm not the slickest person on the planet, and I've been known to leave behind chocolate-coated fingerprints and cookie crumbs in my wake -- but well enough.
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I don't like to admit I'm not perfect.

I know, I know, it's a stupid thing to say aloud, let alone think -- nobody's perfect, and certainly nobody looks at me and thinks I'm perfect. My nose is too big and I once got a C+ in math class and sometimes I make jokes and laugh and nobody else does.

So I couldn't tell you, really, why I so desperately try to pretend that my life is anything less than charmed. Maybe it's because I feel guilty -- after all, what right have I, a privileged white girl who was handed everything on a silver platter, to be a screw-up?

But the truth is, for the better part of eight or nine years, I've managed to hide a rather ugly secret. Not totally -- I'm not the slickest person on the planet, and I've been known to leave behind chocolate-coated fingerprints and cookie crumbs in my wake -- but well enough.

Some people who share my particular brand of crazy can remember their first binge with the same vividness a drug addict recalls their first high. They can remember every last rich morsel and decadent bite, the order in which they ate it, and the wonderful, impossible feeling of finally feeling full. A first binge is a beautiful thing because you don't understand guilt and self-loathing yet, not the way you will.

I don't remember my first binge. It must've happened sometime between 15 years old and 17 years old; I know that much. Or maybe it happened earlier than that. I've always been weird about food. There was the bread-and-butter phase, where I refused to eat anything but two slices of whole wheat bread and butter; the tuna fish phase, which went much like the bread-and-butter phase except I switched out butter for canned tuna; my 5-year stint as a vegetarian who didn't eat vegetables; and my green apple obsession where I'd consume anywhere between 5-10 apples a day. And then complain of stomach problems.

But I must have had a first binge, at some point. I remember eating all of the icing off a cake that was intended to feed 20. That was 17, I think. My age really isn't important. What is important is that the cake wasn't mine. I was too far gone to care.

In all the movies you watch about eating disorders, the girl has a horrible mother. She's not always obviously horrible -- sometimes she just says little nasty microaggressions, like, "Those jeans look a bit tight" or, "should you really be eating that?" But more often than not, our poor, eating disordered girl is a gymnast or a ballerina and her mother just wants her to be perfect, god damn it! Of course Lucy developed an eating disorder -- so would anyone, under all that pressure to be thin.

But what does that mean for someone like me, who doesn't have an evil mother, nor the pressures of athletics or beauty, to excuse her actions? My life is rich with healthy relationships. Why can't I have a healthy relationship with food?

I don't have the answer, by the way. I'm asking.

It's hard to explain a binge to someone who has never experienced one before. I call them "episodes" -- like an epileptic refers to a seizure. It's not precisely an out-of-body experience -- because a binge is all about the visceral taste and texture of food on your fingers and on your tongue and sliding down your throat -- but it's certainly not a normal state of mind. I've always felt possessed, like some other person or thing has taken over my brain and is piloting my body.

It's scary as fuck.

Once I'm in that weird, autopilot mindset, I eat everything. All the things. Even the things that shouldn't be eaten. I've gone to the drugstore and bought 5,000 calories worth of candy and chips and downed it in 45 minutes. I've mixed raw eggs with Splenda because it was the only food I had left in the house. I've stolen food that wasn't mine to steal. I've pulled rancid food out of the garbage can. I've eaten until my stomach was stretched until I looked five months pregnant. I've eaten until I've been in total agony, my pillow in between my legs to take some of the pressure off my overextended belly.

Binge eating disorder is the most shameful of eating disorders, I've always felt. Bulimics, at least, can purge their guilt from their systems. Mine sits there, a painful lump festering in the pit of my belly, a reminder of my complete lack of self-control and revoltingness. I imagine the calories flooding through my veins and plumping up my fat cells and the pounds pouring on. I start calculating the amount of days and the hours of exercise it will take me to undo the damage. Sometimes I cry, but not always. Sometimes I don't think I'm worth the tears.

The worst part is I don't know why I do it. Sometimes I do it because I'm sad, yes, but sometimes I do it for no reason at all. It's not a deliberate choice. The binge eating monster -- I think of it as a monster -- possesses my brain and I find myself surrounded by an empty jar of peanut butter and a polished-off box of Oreos and an assortment of crinkled wrappers. I can't tell you how many times I've told myself this binge will be the last. I'm good at lying to myself.

You wouldn't look at me and think I'm a binge eater. I'm not fat -- not today, anyway. Today I am fit and healthy in appearance. I look like I work out. I do -- I've been weight lifting for five years. I love it. I love moving my body not to burn calories but to feel strong and powerful. Exercise has been my salvation when I've fallen off the deep end. When I stop exercising... that's when you need to worry about me. That's when I've truly come off my hinges.

But looking fit for me is fleeting. I'm afraid when I look this way -- afraid when I like my body -- because I know at some point I'll fuck up again. I don't gain weight like normal people do, not with my disorder. I gain it in one fell swoop, when I completely give in to the binge. I've put on 20 pounds in a month. I can't help but wonder what people think, seeing me transform from this paragon of fitness to an out-of-shape blob in four weeks time. How can they not wonder?

And so I hide. I avoid phone calls from my parents. I wear unflattering, baggy clothes at work. I start making excuses to my friends. I miss girls' nights out, movies, parties, birthdays. Even casual hangs are too much. It's selfish, because my friends don't care what size I am. The only one who cares is me.

When I'm not binging -- which is most of the time -- I eat healthy. Over the years I've started to figure out what causes me to spiral into months-long binges. As Fat Bastard famously said: "I eat because I'm unhappy. But I'm unhappy because I eat." Truer words were never spoken. Seriously.

Last December, at the end of a particularly long binge cycle, I went to see my first ever shrink. Long overdue, but I've always been in denial about my disorder. I guess I've never felt I had a right to it.

Surrounded by more boxes of Rocher chocolates than I care to admit, I was the most hopeless I've ever felt. And I was tired of hating myself for this one thing, when there are so many other things I like about myself.

The doctor prescribed me a drug called Topamax. On-label, it's used to treat migraines and epilepsy; off-label, it's used for everything from bipolar disorder to OCD to alcoholism to bulimia and BED. It has another nickname -- Dope-a-max -- because it supposedly turns your brain into mush.

It was the weirdest thing. As soon as I started taking Topamax, the "binge" switch in my head turned off. I went from binging three, four times a week to immediately not binging at all. I didn't realize how much I lived in fear of falling prey to my next binge until that urge wasn't there anymore. For the first time in years, I was out from under the binge monster's shadow.

I became happier, sillier, the fun girl I'd always believed myself to be underneath all that fear and self-loathing. The 20 pounds I'd binged onto my body fell off in a scant two months. Relationships fell into place. I rediscovered my joy for weightlifting.

But I became duller, too. I was maybe nicer, yes, but I wasn't as sharp. The world, which had always been 100 percent in focus for me, was now fuzzy. I couldn't concentrate enough to write. It was like Topamax had zapped the creativity out of me.

It's now been seven months since I took my first dose of Topamax. It's not, as I had hoped, a miracle drug. The binging has come back -- albeit not with the same force -- but then again, so has my writing. I forgot how much I hated the one, and how much I missed the other.

It's been said there is a link between writers and depression. I just wish that my happiness didn't mean sacrificing what I love. I keep hoping it doesn't have to be.

Need help? Call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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