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Disordered eating in disordered times

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Editor’s Note: this column contains descriptions of thoughts and behaviors associated with eating disorders.

I developed my eating disorder the summer after high school. For months prior, my days were filled with classes, sports and countless hours spent with my friends. I graduated, and suddenly, my days were empty. I spent most of my time home alone, grieving the end of my high school career, my recent breakup and the sense of purposelessness that had begun to overcome me. Not only was I experiencing overwhelming panic, I was doing so in isolation.

Sound familiar?

During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s our civic duty (and, in some cases, our legal obligation) to stay home and maintain physical isolation from others as much as possible. But for many people with eating disorders, this situation is their own personal hell. I’ve been in recovery for well over a year, but I’ve begun to notice some of my old triggers reappearing. The disruption of normal routines? The loss of consistent contact with my support systems? An intrusive sense of fear in circumstances I can’t control? Check, check, and check.

Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders aren’t about vanity—they’re coping mechanisms. This crisis has stripped us of much of the control we’re used to having. Our basic physical needs may no longer be guaranteed, let alone our psychological needs. This problem is exacerbated for people in low-income families with poor access to food and resources, those without a home, people in abusive households, and Asian communities facing the many recent abhorrent manifestations of American xenophobia. One thing’s for sure, over the past few weeks, we’ve all sacrificed some degree of autonomy.

What did I do, that summer after high school, when I experienced such a loss of autonomy? I turned all my attention to the one thing I felt I could control: my body.

We live in a society that constantly promotes sugary, delicious foods as coping mechanisms, while simultaneously shaming us for indulging in those foods. But food is supposed to make us feel good—eating releases reward chemicals in our brains that improve our mood. We also have hormones to let us know when our body doesn’t want a particular food anymore. So if we ate only when we truly wanted to, we’d be just fine. 

The problem, however, is that the second that guilt about our diets comes into play, we lose the ability to eat intuitively. Messages about what we should be eating and how our bodies should look overpower our bodies’ natural cues. So in a time of crisis, when we might reach for these sugary foods more frequently to alleviate our anxieties, we only make ourselves even more anxious by trying to control those innate urges. And—you guessed it—this increased anxiety makes us even hungrier than before.

That summer, as I fell into a depression, I found myself staring at myself in the mirror multiple times a day, noticing the fat on my stomach and thighs and chastising myself for having the utter audacity to respond to my hunger by eating. I decided, similar to a “quarantine glow-up,” to lose that weight and enter my first semester at Duke hotter than ever. 

This remains one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made. I’m not one to dwell on regrets—even when I’ve made poor choices in the past, I recognize that I needed to make those choices in order to grow. And I choose not to blame myself for the choices I made to fixate on my body and restrict my diet. But if I could go back and change those decisions, I would do it in a heartbeat.

My recovery began when I finally chose to fight for my own happiness. Was my desire to shed a few pounds worth the 18 months of starvation, binging, self-loathing, obsession, and crippling anxiety? Not even a little bit. My eating disorder was the most horrible, painful thing I’ve ever experienced, and while my recovery came considerably sooner than it does for many people, that eating disorder voice will always be in the back of my head, ready to threaten my wellbeing. All because I developed a coping mechanism that weighed short-term benefits over long-term consequences. (Not that it matters, but I never got any short-term benefits, either.)

I can’t speak for every person who has ever suffered from an eating disorder, but I can safely say that this disease doesn’t mess around. You might think, as I did, that there’s no harm in trying to lose a few pounds, especially with all this time on your hands. You might be right. But you might be very wrong. And especially if you have a history of mental illness, it’s simply not worth the risk.

Now, more than ever, we must prioritize our mental and physical health. In the past couple of weeks, Dr. Nancy Zucker, Director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, has observed that this pandemic has served as a wake-up call for many people with eating disorders. “Many of my patients aren’t eating enough, so their immune systems are already compromised. But our immune systems have to be top-notch right now. It’s a sobering reality check about how all of us are taking care of ourselves.” This care that we need doesn’t come by beating our bodies into submission, but by eating when we’re hungry, exercising mindfully and seeking fulfillment rather than furthering our stress through ultimately unfulfilling goals. 

How can you take advantage of these circumstances rather than surrendering your mental health to them? Franca Alphin, M.P.H., a nutritionist at Duke Student Health, recommends several steps that were instrumental in my own recovery. 

First and foremost, it’s important to maintain normalcy by establishing routines for ourselves. Try to wake up at the same time every day, follow your previous work or school schedule, take regular breaks, eat balanced meals, exercise now and then and get consistent sleep. Give yourself some grace with this—you don’t need a rigid structure—but a routine should help you feel a bit more in control of your daily life.

Next, connect with your support systems. Your closest friends may not be physically with you, but you still need those interactions and can easily ensure them through a text conversation, a phone call, or a Zoom chat. I still credit this as the single most important step to my recovery, so if you’re feeling alone, I’m always happy to listen if you want to reach out.

Finally, consciously make your mental wellbeing a priority. This is a great time to try a habit you’ve always wanted to pick up, like meditating or journaling. With self-reflection, you can become more aware of your emotional patterns, which may decrease your desire to emotionally eat and allow you to forgive yourself when you do.  If you’d like to watch some videos about food fixation, body image or weight fluctuation—I watched a ton of YouTube during my recovery to help make sense of my struggles—I’d recommend these people

And if all else fails? In Alphin’s words, “Show self-compassion.  Beating yourself up won’t make you feel better. We’re all doing the best we can.”

Our bodies can and will change throughout our lives. You will gain weight at some point, perhaps even during quarantine. Maybe you’ll lose it. Maybe you won’t. And maybe, just maybe, you can learn to be happy regardless. 

Rebecca Torrence is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. If you want to connect with her, send her an email at rt140@duke.edu.

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