Here’s my story: I never knew I was an emotional eater. I always blamed willpower. I’d start a diet on Monday and be 110% committed. The feeling of strict compliance was exhilarating. I truly believed every time I started a diet that this was going to be the diet that would change everything for me. I believed it would be the diet that finally rewarded me with the perfect body. I’d pick the plan and do everything the diet instructions called for with extreme accuracy. I’d rearrange my entire life for this diet. After all, as soon as I lost the weight, I assumed my life would be perfect. I’d start out strong on Monday morning, usually with a severe headache from the binge I participated in Sunday night. I’d get out the measuring spoons, the measuring cups, perfectly portioning all food, making the drinks exactly as the diet instructed. I’d be on such a high thinking this was going to the diet that finally worked. And like all diets do, they work. I was able to lose weight on these diets. The problem was, once I fell off, I gained all the weight back plus some. That’s because my diet days were perfect, my non diet days were awful. I’d take one bite of food that wasn’t on the diet and I became a bicycle going downhill with no breaks. I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t stop myself unless I vowed to start another diet. Next Monday.
Although I found success in all other areas of my life, successful career, close knit family, an amazing husband; I was well liked and had a vibrant social life, I felt like a failure because I couldn’t succeed at dieting. No college degree or promotion felt as good as the number on the scale dropping did. I wondered for 20 years why I’d be able to diet strict for a certain period of time but then completely fall of the wagon. I wondered why I was only created with two settings: severe restricting and excessive consuming. I’d either eat Greek yogurt, a kale salad and grilled chicken or 9 muffins, 6 slices of pizza, 13 cookies and a small child.
The problem with my extreme eating and extreme starvation is that to the outside world I looked fine. I wasn’t severely thin or extremely obese. I was curvy. I was Italian. I was overweight according the actual medical guidelines. My weight fluctuated but I dressed well to hide it. Since the outside world didn’t know I had a problem, neither did I. To me, the only problem I had was a problem with me. I just needed to find the diet that I was able to stick to and then this problem would be solved. I just needed to learn how to not eat without an all or nothing mentality and I’d live happily ever after at my goal weight.
The scale was another story. I defined myself by what I weighed. The number on the scale would make or break my day. I always envisioned myself walking around with the number I weighed plastered above my head. I assumed everyone knew what I weighed that day and judged me. I had scale rituals. I had to be completely naked for the weight to count. I’d wish for stomach bugs as a quick fix. I’d envy anyone who came down with Mononucleosis and lost a ton of weight quickly in college. I absolutely loved pooping. I loved the feeling of losing all that weight quickly. I overate fiber, loved laxatives and anything that advertised itself as a colon cleanse. I dreaded the gynecologist or any doctor that had to weigh me before the appointment. I struggled with diets like Weight Watchers because if I didn’t think the scale dropped, I’d skip the meeting completely.
I was always attracted to extreme forms of exercise as well. I couldn’t go to the gym unless I had a whole hour to dedicate. I picked the cardio machine that burned the most calories. Instead of taking a jog, I signed up for marathons. My drive was there, my execution always failed.
I think we can all pinpoint one moment in our lives, maybe more than one, where our eating issues began. For me, if my memory serves me correctly, it was on the bus when I was 9. I remember the school bus being very crowded that day and all the kids needed to sit three to a seat. To make matters worse, I was sitting in the seat with the goddamn wheel so my knees were up in my chest. Still to this day in the rare chance I find myself on a school bus, I avoid that seat. I remember it was a boy who called me fat. I don’t remember what he looked like, his name and I couldn’t even tell you if we were in the same grade; but what I do remember is that he said, very loudly, “I would have more room if you weren’t so fat.” Ouch. I still shutter thinking of the sheer embarrassment I felt in that moment.
I was a chubby overweight child. I come from a big Italian family and our livelihood is food. I actually cannot recall the exact the reason I was a chubby child, but I was and I assume it was because of things like Sunday dinner.
That bus ride was the longest ride of my life. I came home that day, cried in my mother’s arms and put myself on a diet. I don’t hate that boy. Kids can be cruel, he didn’t know any better.
While on this diet, I remember sitting at the lunch table and hoping none of the other girls would notice that my lunch was smaller than theirs. That’s the moment, dieting became my dirty little secret. And at an early age I envied the girls who would eat as many snacks as they’d want. I envied the girls whose lunch boxes felt fuller than mine. The lunch boxes that had cookies and candy. Mine had none of that.
I lost all my baby weight during that first diet. I felt good, great actually. I loved the compliments I received from family who hadn’t seen me in a while, I loved the way my clothes fit and I was so proud of my discipline. But I was naive in thinking that I had solved the problem of being “the fat girl on the bus.” The reality is, I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten off that first diet; because, many of the things I still do today mimic my childhood diet, emotionally and physically.
By high school I had progressed in my dieting. I progressed in my willpower as well. I’d try to eat as little as possible everyday. I remember one day all I ate was a piece of bread with a smear of butter and cinnamon. I remember sneaking into my parents bathroom and weighing myself on their scale since I didn’t have one in my own room. Every time I stepped on that scale I hoped I weighed as little as possible. I was the thinnest I ever was in high school and still felt fat. One of my favorite sayings in life is, “I wish I was a thin as I was back when I thought I was fat.”
By college my dieting was at its all time worst. In college was where I felt the freest and most out of control. I had a blast in college. I met my best friends and I met my husband. I also can’t believe the amount my weight fluctuated from semester to semester. I knew how to lose 9 pounds in 1 week and I also knew how to gain 20 in 1 week. College was where I experimented the most. Those were the days of Hydroxicut pills. Those were the days where laxative pills seemed like a perfect eraser. Those were the days of self-deprecating humor. I’d call myself fat before someone else could. I’d make one big joke of the food I ate. I’d commiserate with my best friend about how many Oreos we could pack away. Or that our thumbs had blisters because we’d eat so many pistachios in one sitting. I loved to make my extreme dieting and eating one big joke. Again, that was the way I convinced myself that I didn’t have a problem with anything except willpower.
I met my husband, Sean, in college. He was my RA. So scandalous, I know. I continued my eating antics even with him. He always supported my latest and greatest diet but never questioned if I wanted to eat fattening foods. That was the beginning of him always loving me for exactly who I was.
We dated on and off after college. After all, it was hard for me to love anyone when I didn’t even love myself. Looking back, all of my eating issues caused all of our relationship issues. I’d have major swings in moods. My highs would be high and my lows would be low.
One weekend after a particularly bad weekend, taking up to 10 laxatives in one sitting, I called him and said, I need help with this. I’m tired. I’m sad. I don’t want to bring this nonsense into our relationship anymore. I started therapy the next day. I never ever felt like he loved me any less either when I confided in him. If anything, he loved me more. That was an amazing lesson for me on letting go of the façade of perfection.
I walked into therapy skeptical. I didn’t think I was someone who needed therapy. After all, I had a normal life. I had wonderful things, like an amazing childhood. I have amazing and successful parents that loved me. I am extremely close with all 3 of the siblings. I had typical things in my life. Typical relationships, they seemed dramatic at the time but looking back they weren’t. Standard fights with my sister and best friends. I had events happen that really rocked me. I was fired from my first job in television. And I had devastating loses. I lost one of my favorite aunt and uncles to a drunk driver. But still I never assumed that any of these things made me someone who needed therapy. I do completely understand that some people have severe trauma that leads to emotional eating. I have immense empathy for anyone whose struggle with emotional eating has to do with anyone who has been through anything horrible. I am thankful to say I didn’t experience anything like that. Yet, I still had an extremely unhealthy relationship with food.
When I first sat down in the therapist chair. I told her I had a problem with food. I said, I have no willpower. I think about food all the time. I am obsessed with dieting. I can’t lose weight. Can you help me? Was she going to be the quick fix I wondered? She told me I was an emotional eater. Whenever I had something going on in my life that sparked emotion, it showed itself as food. Either eating a lot of food or restricting a lot of food. Either being on a diet or being completely off the wagon. I quickly learned to connect everything I ate with an event that triggered emotion. It wasn’t always easy to find the trigger or realize that something so small could trigger me but when I really looked or swallowed my pride and admitted that something upset me, I was able to make the connection. That was the beginning of me learning that when you let emotions out, you don’t eat them in.