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March 28, 2012

The Imperfect Anorexic

Tortured by bouts of binge eating and fasting, one woman felt she'd failed at everything — even her eating disorder.


Photo Credit: Zachary Zavislak

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It was 2 A.M. and I'd had "dinner" four hours earlier: a Greek salad, two slices of lemon meringue pie, a piece of carrot cake, and a brownie sundae. But an overwhelming sense of anxiety — over my career, my relationship, and even my dirty apartment — prevented me from just going to sleep, and I was hungry. I'd already thrown away all my "danger foods," like Ritz crackers and chocolate chips, and returning to the nearby 24-hour grocery store was out of the question: I couldn't face the clerks as I paid for cookies and fudge sauce for the second time that day. The only way out was a tactic I'd tried before: I reached for the brown sugar, olive oil, flour, and cocoa powder. After pouring them into a bowl and mixing with a fork, I started eating. As the grainy mixture slid down my throat, a familiar numbness set in. I went back for more.

My relationship with food had taken a wrong turn when I was 9, the summer my family moved to a new state. I knew no one. Faced with long, friendless days, I'd sneak into our pantry for a box of Golden Grahams, tiptoe away, and shovel down handful after handful alone in my bedroom. Over the years, to keep my weight under control from the frequent binges, I learned to fast for days at a time. I even experimented with ipecac syrup, a medicine used to induce vomiting, to make myself throw up in high school — a trick I learned after researching eating disorders for junior high book reports. But by the end of college, when I hadn't purged for a few years, I assumed I'd grown out of it.

So when my aberrant eating habits returned — I was 29, living and working in New York City — I just thought I was being healthy. I'd ended a bad relationship and started a macrobiotic diet to jump-start my new life. I became a gym rat, and within a few months I'd lost 30 pounds — but at 5'7" and 132 pounds, I was still in the "normal" BMI range. And I was happy, meeting men who treated me better than my ex ever did. Slowly, as I shopped for ever-smaller clothes and friends complimented my new look, I adopted other odd eating habits, doing endless calorie calculations, superstitiously refusing carbs three days before a date, and inhaling coffee and cigarettes to quell my chronic low-level hunger. To manage my cravings for baked goods, I resorted to an old high school strategy: chewing food and spitting it out instead of swallowing. It wasn't an eating disorder, I thought, just a reward — a way to get the sugar I craved for "free." I knew this wasn't normal, but in a city where people talk nonchalantly about getting colon cleanses, my behavior didn't feel that strange. Everyone around me commented on how "good" I was, with my salads and carrots. Only once did anyone question my habits — a friend who'd been hospitalized for bulimia and recognized my eating as troublesome. "What's up with your weird eating?" she asked bluntly. I blew off the question. And my main physical symptoms — dizzy spells, anemia — I blamed on stress.

When the company I was working for went belly-up, this precarious balance crumbled. During the day, I limited myself to small meals: a half-cup of nonfat yogurt with five almonds and four prunes for breakfast, a plain green salad with fat-free tuna salad for lunch. But after dark, about four times a week, I'd change into elastic-waist pajama pants and indulge in hours-long bouts of eating, inhaling candy bars and cookies dipped in Nutella, washing them down with maple syrup straight from the bottle. I fell into a trancelike state as I ate, and the sluggishness brought on from ingesting thousands of calories in one sitting kept my nerves off their usual high-wire. I tried purging a few times, but it destroyed the tranquility I felt after a binge, and eventually I stopped trying.

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