I have spent most of my life battling food in one manner or another. As a teen, the battle consisted of avoiding foods for the purpose of punishing myself. They say withholding food is an eating disorder — that it’s about control. If that’s true, then I was trying to control my perception of myself. Filled with self hatred because … trauma.
I drew the conclusion that I was not worthy of, well, anything. And since my insides were broken and bleeding amidst the turmoil, I placed value on my outsides.
Flat stomachs, thin waistlines, sunken cheekbones, visible collar bones; all were worthy of happiness.
SPOILER ALERT: None of those things are synonymous with happiness.
My meals would consist of four Triscuits and half a cup of orange juice. Until I could not take it anymore; the overwhelming nausea resulting from intense hunger pangs took control. Like a raccoon scavenging through the trash, I would cave and indulge in any and all foods I could find. Until my stomach felt swollen and my spirit defeated.
I was as worthless as I always knew I was.
Truthfully, I don’t know what flipped the switch in my mind. One day I thought that four crackers and juice did not a meal make. I decided that I was going to cure myself, and I began to eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.
My body had other plans.
My anxieties became greater and my stomach became weaker. It came to a point where I could not tolerate any foods other than pre-packaged Rice Krispie treats, saltine crackers, and water. The more kids I had, the more I would be complimented: “You don’t look like you’ve had kids.”
All I could think was, “You would look like this too if you couldn’t eat.”
But I’d smile and say, “Thanks, I don’t get much time to sit and eat these days.”
Although I was hurting, I would feel a slight sense of pride for being able to function without food and for the shape of my body to reflect that fact.
They would smile and nod in what appeared to be a silent understanding among strangers and reply, “You have your hands full.”
True, but my mind was fuller.
After multiple emergency room visits for excruciating abdominal pain, likely labeled a drug seeker, ruined and cancelled vacations with family, and an inpatient stay, I underwent all the testings determined appropriate by a gastroenterologist.
I was eventually diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). This is also known as a diagnosis of exclusion; meaning there is no other explanation for my symptoms. As a healthcare provider, I knew what IBS meant.
I was nuts. Insert your friendly sarcastic tone here.
I remember the physician assistant telling me, “We don’t know why, but for some reason those with IBS have a sensitive GI tract. They can feel everything moving through their intestines.” I don’t know if she was trying to reassure me that my diagnosis was legitimate, but I nodded and once again felt conquered.
They tried a medication to interrupt the signal between my stomach and brain, but all it did was make me sleep away my days, and with young children to care for, I needed to be awake.
I began to realize that there probably was nothing actually wrong with me, except my head. But, when food makes you sick — whether that is real or imagined — it becomes hard to eat.
I developed a fear of food. Since I never knew what food would lead to pain that would knock me to my knees, I never wanted to eat. I would consume enough to dull the hunger pangs and subdue the nausea. I was always wary of pain, and somehow this transitioned into a fear of making food that would poison my family.
Meal preparation became very difficult, as did eating out. I didn’t trust food. I marked certain foods as safe; no rhyme or reason other than the fact that I could tolerate them. We ate lots of fruits and vegetables, until all of those became contaminated with E.coli and at some point, recalled.
SIDE NOTE: Recalls render me incapacitated and desperately searching for another safe food to take its place.
Cooking raw meat from scratch was impossible. If something didn’t feel like it had been frozen correctly or defrosted properly, it would end up in the trash. I am not sure what right feels like; nevertheless, the monetary value of food that I threw away in the trash due to overwhelming fear was, I’m sure, astronomical.
My husband was always there to reassure me that feeding my family was the right thing to do. That nutritious food was not the enemy. Yes, the man is an actual saint.
So I started having him smell all the foods before I cooked them, examine them with me to ensure he did not see some invisible plague that would ravage through our intestines and take our children from us.
I never admitted this fear in counseling. I didn’t know how to say it. In fact, this is the first time I am saying it out loud.
I just say prayers before preparing foods and beg God to keep my family healthy and safe. I ask Him to help me distinguish between reality and when my mind is being an evil liar. To help me believe what my husband has been telling me: that I am not poisoning my family.
Things have been better since I found a working antidepressant and an anti-anxiety medication that calm my brain and subsequently my actions. It makes it easier to cook food. To form new opinions and expand my options on what I deem safe. To tell my mind that food is nourishment and not poison.
Nourishment that I need to function.
As I have started eating more, I have started feeling better. I have also started gaining weight. A lot of it. I stopped weighing myself when the scales tipped over 30 pounds of weight gain. For someone who has always placed value on thinness, this has been hard to accept.
I have had to decide that numbers are liars and are not an accurate representation of my health.
If they were, then my non-eating, internally decomposing self was a “healthy” weight and all the therapy I have had since to redefine my worth has been wrong.
TO CLARIFY: That is also sarcasm.
Yes, the pounds pile on. My clothing sizes have gone up, my face has become fuller. Despite exercise and listening to hunger cues, my size increases. Truthfully, I don’t like that part.
However, I am thankful for counseling to remind me that I am worthy of being me, and that my hunger is not a weakness. I don’t need to punish myself for emotionally crippling wounds I experienced as a child. My worth is not reduced by stretch marks and cellulite.
I am not going to lie — I still have foods I refuse to eat. They led to such excruciating pain that I have no desire to experiment. I don’t know if they are an actual intolerance or were the result of a mind steeped in invisible pain.
But the victory is that now I eat. And I feed my family with less guilt and fear than I had before. And I realize that my larger size does not equate to smaller worth.
Yes, I give myself pep talks on the daily and implement the coping skills I have learned in therapy. They work. I’m healing.
But it’s hard.
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