I readily admit now that I am a food addict. My brain simply does not function like a normal brain. If I put processed foods or sugar into my body, even a piece of chocolate or an English muffin in the morning, I am set up for failure for an entire day. There is legitimate science behind what sugar and flour does to block your brain from feeling full and satisfied. At my worst I would be on binge trains for weeks before I could poke my head out of that wreckage and decide to maybe go for a walk or have an apple. The cravings that follow when I eat things like that now are still just as deafening and distracting. “How can I get more?” truly becomes all I can think about the rest of the day.
I believe now that the addictive pathways for food in my brain came about for a few reasons and it all started when I was just a child. My goal in sharing this is to show how important it is to acknowledge your whole journey if you want to stop reliving the same mistakes and make real changes for yourself.
I come from a family of addicts and mental health issues. I have members of both sides of my family with mental health issues. My biological father was an extreme alcoholic and drug addict to various substances off and on. The man almost gambled our house away not once, but twice. He made sure to snidely call me my mother’s “clone” whenever I defended her against the horrible things he would say to and about her. It took me into my teens to realize that had not been a term of endearment. He also struggled with eating disorders and having a healthy relationship with food. He was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder with narcissistic tendencies, and a slew of other things. I say “was” in all of this – but he is still alive somewhere down in the Louisiana swamps. He left town my first year of high school ‘to go on vacation’ and never came back, but that is a tale for another day.
As you can imagine this created what I am going to call “chaos” in my life growing up, and I chose to hide from that chaos with food. My earliest memory of binge eating was when I was around 6 years old. I knew exactly where the sugary delicious school snacks were kept on the highest shelf of the cupboards. It was late in the day; late enough that if you tried to look out a window you only saw your reflection. In my naïve child’s mind, that meant that my parents and the other adults sitting on our back patio at the time were totally unable to see me. This thought fueled me as I climbed the counter, stood up tall, and grabbed a whole half dozen of some of those school snacks. I ran to the bathroom with them as I heard my mom come in the house. By the time she got to where I was, I had desperately inhaled everything I had grabbed and dug through the bathroom garbage to hide the wrappers at the very bottom.
Yes – Dug. Through. The. Garbage.
I wish I could tell you that getting caught stopped me from ever doing that again, or that I did not do that almost daily after the fact and continually found new places to hide the evidence. I wish I could tell you that did not start an off-again on-again cycle of bulimia that I battled in high school. I wish I could tell you that I did not use the serotonin boost from sugar as a lifeline whenever I was even remotely sad for the next 22 years of my life. I wish I could tell you that as I got older and had the ability to buy my own food that this cycle did not intensify tenfold. That would all be lies.
Thoughts about food for me for most of my life consumed me. My sneaking and sniping skills only got more intense as I got older. I remember being 10 or so and coming up to needing my second open heart surgery of my life. I had to stay indoors at recess because it was wintertime, and we could not risk my getting sick before the surgery. Hard to believe today, but at that point I was basically just allowed to roam the halls with zero supervision. I normally read or coloured. I was a relatively well-behaved child so I am sure no one thought they really needed to watch me closely. If I were having an extra anxious day worried about the surgery, I would go through my classmates unsupervised lunches and take snacks from them. Like, a lot of them. At the time I knew it would make me feel good to get something sweet or savor and for a fleeting moment I would not be worried about all the “what if’s” that floated around in my head. Today it is a mortifying memory, but it is very telling of how deep I was becoming addicted to sugar and flour and snacking to numb my pain.
To heal my own roots, I really had to learn how deeply and unhealthily I had ingrained the connection between food and my happiness. The habits a formed as a child just got worse as a young adult. Any time I felt stressed or sad, I would be in a drive through line (sometimes multiple times a day) or grabbing one or two or five different chocolate bars at a gas station. It was a compulsion I could not control. At times I would be screaming at myself inside not to eat that next helping of sugar and I just watched my body go along without me in auto pilot.
When I began trying to change these habits a year ago it took a lot of tears and a lot of unpacking these memories to learn how to separate food from my emotions. It was painful and exhausting some days, but it allowed space for me to connect being happy with the meaningful things in life. That is how I made room for exercise, relationships, and self-love.
For much of my life, I also lived in a sort of rose gold coloured bubble of ignorance that I had won the genetic lottery and I had no issues with my mental health whatsoever! My overwhelming urges to eat anything and everything in sight all the time? That’s fine. My concept of “self-care” being that spending hours scrolling Facebook and Instagram in a mind-numbing haze was healthy? Totally cool. My complete lack of desire to spend any time playing with my dogs, drawing, painting, or engaging with my friends and family? Normal for sure. The cruel, painful, degrading way I spoke to and about myself in my head in a constant stream of self-hatred day in and day out? That’s nothing.
I hope you sense all the sarcasm dripping from that paragraph but if not please understand that none of that was ok and I was not ok. I believe now looking back I was living with undiagnosed depression specifically for the past few years and simply ignoring it. I would go through the motions day to day and do the bare minimum I had to so I could get back to laying on a couch or in bed with my phone in my hand and my mind numb to anything meaningful. It built up so gradually that I did not realize how bad it was until it was crippling; just as gradually as the physical weight was piling up so was the weight of the mental fog I was drowning in.
When I did finally start my journey of self-reflection and healing myself, I was able to recognize just how far down I had suppressed my mental health and it was a life altering revelation for me. Even though logically I understood mental health issues ran in my family, I was too proud and too scared to admit that I did not make it out as unscathed as I had hoped. Now I try to keep that realization active in my life so that I can use the memory of that unhealthy person I was to appreciate how far I have come.
Weight loss is not as simple for some people as buying into a workout challenge or signing up for that new diet their friends are all losing weight from. For some people like me, there is so much more going on inside that makes us feel like it is impossible to eat in a healthy way. For some people, they have never known what a healthy relationship with food looks like in their entire lives. I cannot count the number of diets I have tried for a few days then failed at, or how many pounds I lost over the years only to regain them plus the next 10. There are statistics that 99% of people who try a diet fail, and out of those who succeed only 1% of that 1% keep their weight off long term. You can quit smoking, gambling, or drinking, but you cannot quit eating. I believe that stories like mine are the exact reason why it can be so impossible for people to quit eating to such unhealthy degrees.
I want to sign off with a bit of hope for anyone who feels they resonate with my story and are in that hopeless pit that I used to live in. As daunting as it might seem, I am living proof that it is not impossible to overcome even the most severe of unhealthy eating habits. It took a lot of support from a lot of good people, but the best thing I ever did for myself was start seeking professional help. A mountain of failed dieting attempts was conquered when I dove deep into myself and built new pathways in my brain that did not involve using food as a band aid for all my problems.
Weight loss in its more extreme forms and building a healthy relationship with food in general is not just about the physical weight on your body. It is about getting rid of the weight on your heart and your soul telling you that you are not capable of succeeding.
You are stronger than your past. You are worthy of self-love. You can do anything you want to, just take it one step at a time.
We are all butterflies. It is up to us to decide to form a cocoon, transform, and learn to fly.