Eating Disorders: Choice Vs. Illness


I’ve received a lot of comments regarding the issue of choice vs. addiction/illness since my last article regarding disordered eating, “3 Popular Myths About Having an Eating Disorder.” Now, I know that regardless of what I say, there will always be people who believe that eating disorders, substance abuse, etc. are a choice…and I agree in part, I think it begins with a choice — the choice to try a drug, the choice to lose weight or restrict your eating, but once you reach a certain point, I believe it is something that spirals beyond your control and that is when it becomes a matter of mental health and addiction. While everyone has a different story, a different reason how they got there and why, I’m hoping that by sharing my story, as someone who has struggled and recovered, you can get a glimpse at how it begins, how it spirals out of control, and the struggle to overcome it.

For me, as I know with a lot of others who have struggled with disordered eating, it was a way to cope with difficult life events and emotional trauma. At the age of 12, I spent a year dealing with back to back emotionally devastating events and turned to disordered eating as a way to gain some sense of control to my life when I felt like everything else was out of my grasp. Within the course of a year and a half, things just seemed to have turned upside down for me. I am a generally happy, optimistic, and outgoing individual and ended up in a pretty dark place, which furthers my belief that all people cope in different ways and can easily turn down the wrong path.

It started with my father contacting me; up until that point, ALL I knew about the man was his name and then suddenly he became a factor in my life, asking for pictures and trying to form a relationship with me after having left my mother and I right after I was born. He was somewhat of a forbidden subject in my house growing up — I didn’t ask questions, I didn’t know anything about him, I never saw a picture of him, and he was never mentioned. His sudden apparition in my life confused and angered me and caused a great deal of anxiety. Shortly after, I found out that at the end of the year, right before starting high school, I was going to not only have to move to a new town, but move in with my moms boyfriend. While the move was only to a town 20 minutes away, for a 13 year old without her license, I might as well have been moving across the country. The anxiety caused by the thought of leaving behind my amazing group of friends, my boyfriend, and the comfort of my hometown to start high school in a foreign place and live with a man (that at the time) I resented and disliked was overwhelming.

I had started dieting a bit before this in an attempt to lose some excess baby fat and the expected weight gain associated with going through puberty. The dieting was healthy when it began — cutting out soda, non-obsessive calorie counting, and exercise. But after those two life changes is when things slowly began spiraling in a downward direction; I started finding more and more pleasure in the control I felt over restricting food and subsequently seeing the numbers on the scale drop. I became obsessed with the feeling of hunger, counting calories, chewing every bite of food a certain amount of times, restricting eating after a certain hour, and exercising as much and as hard as possible.

I was already in a raw emotional and physical state, slowly heading down the path of disordered eating, and then I was sexually assaulted by someone I had considered a best friend. He was not only my friend but also my first kiss, someone I trusted implicitly. We were alone at my house, nothing unusual, until things took a turn for the worse. Without going into much detail, the whole event was scary, violent, emotional, and traumatizing. That day has affected each and every day of the my life afterwards. My anxiety reached a whole new level, and thus was the beginning of the sleep issues I struggle with to this day.

I chose to deal with that situation by not dealing with it at all — I figured that if I didn’t talk about it, then maybe I could pretend it never happened. I turned to the only thing I knew for certain at the time, if I restricted my eating, my weight would drop. It consumed me fully; it consumed my thoughts day and night and took my mind off of everything else. I started finding absolute satisfaction in the feeling of intense hunger. I prided myself on how long I could go without eating food (4 full days was my record). It became something I didn’t have control over; my mind wasn’t my own, it was controlled by the disease. I could watch the numbers drip off the scale, but I stopped being able to see what I looked like. My mind convinced me that the figure in the mirror was overweight, that each and every one of her ribs wasn’t visible. I would starve myself while simultaneously exercising excessively and then I would reach my breaking point. I would end up binge eating, followed by immediate guilt and humiliation. Those feelings overtook me and would lead to me to purge, and then the cycle would begin all over again. Starve. Binge. Purge. Repeat. That became my life.

There are so many things I wish I could go back and tell my younger self, so many things that I can see now that I couldn’t see at the time. I truly believed that no one knew what was going on with me — I couldn’t see the physical changes in my body, and therefore I assumed they weren’t visible to anyone else. I didn’t think I was harming anyone with my disease, but not only was I hurting myself, but all of the people that I loved most. I can now see why and how I ended up in the condition I was in. My brain chose to block out the extreme amount of pain, confusion, and fear I was undergoing by being fully consumed by the disorder, to the point where it didn’t have the capacity to focus or digest the emotions caused by what was going on in my life. It was also purely about control. I felt like I had lost it all — the ability to trust anyone and the control over my future, my body, and my family. I grasped at feeling control over anything, and that ended up being my weight. I reveled in hunger pains because I knew I was controlling them and that no one could take them away from me, other than me.

My road to recovery began when I felt like I was regaining control over my life. I moved and I didn’t hate it — actually, I loved it. I no longer had to be in the room of the assault everyday. I was no longer constantly surrounded by my trauma and the people who knew about it. I was able to forge my own path, a new path in a new town. Slowly, I stopped the cycle of starving and binging. I began focusing on making new friends and living life, and I stopped focusing on each and every morsel of food entering my system. This was not an instant process, it was slow and gradual, and it wasn’t without relapses. After the initial recovery, I never went back to starvation, I never felt that all encompassing need for control, but I still had guilt when I overindulged. I still periodically succumbed to that guilt and found myself purging.

I’ll never know if my life would have taken this path if I didn’t go through those certain situations. Maybe my mind was hardwired this way or maybe it was a coping mechanism — I don’t think that there is ever a way to truly know. But what I do know, is that I would never choose to go through what I went though. It became an addiction and a mental health issue. I took the first step, as an alcoholic takes the first drink, but the control became an addiction.