Eating Disorders and Anxiety, Part One
Like so many other Anxiety Sisters, I not only have anxiety disorder and depression (managed fairly well through medication and the strategies we write about on our blog), but also an eating disorder. While these may be diagnosed as three different brain illnesses, they are all connected and intertwined with each other. In particular, my eating disorder is triggered and results from my anxiety disorder. This is confusing, I know. So I’m going to try to unpack it a bit…
At around age 16 (not coincidentally, when I started to develop physically and left home), I developed terrible stomach aches. I went to many doctors, but nobody could find a reason for the pain. (Of course, now that I have learned about the connection between the gut and the brain, I recognize that these were anxiety symptoms.) It seemed to come out of nowhere and had no connection with any particular food or meal. The one time that I did not get stomach pains, however, was when I was bingeing. The overeating behavior soothed my anxiety in the short term; however, long term, it generated even more anxiety. For many Anxiety Sisters, being “out of control” both defines and promotes anxiety. My emotional overeating reflected my inner chaos and made me feel completely out-of-control.
But the bingeing phase is only part of my eating disorder. The other part consists of restrictive and regimented efforts to get back in control—to stop the overeating and lose the weight I had gained in the process. This phase would involve periods of intense exercise and caloric restriction. (Once, I went an entire summer eating only apples, soy chips, and coffee.) This damage control phase also soothed my anxiety in the short term, as I would feel I had gotten control over my body and its behaviors. But, as was true of the bingeing phase, the anxiety relief was fleeting. When my body could not longer handle starving, it would sabotage my diet with insurmountable cravings no amount of willpower could overcome. Of course, I would go back to bingeing. And my anxiety would go through the roof along with my feelings of failure and self-loathing.
Vicious seems too kind a word for this cycle.
Like most overweight women in America, I sought help. I tried everything—fad diets, therapists, weight loss centers, health spas, nutritionists, acupuncturists, pills, shots, hypnotists, Geneen Roth retreats, Oprah, the Biggest Loser, no carbs, punishing gym routines, eating nothing but cabbage soup, eating everything but cabbage soup…you get the picture.
I was so trapped in the cycle of anxiety-fueled eating and/or eating-fueled anxiety that I would have done anything to get some relief. In addition to my acute anxiety, I also felt shame for what I perceived my overweight body revealed about me: that I was weak and lacked the discipline to change. I felt judged by everyone, including my family. I hated myself for what I looked like, for what I felt like— for what I could not seem to manage like a “normal” person. Everyday was a struggle to keep myself afloat and I didn’t know how much longer I could tread water in my lonely ocean.
It was in that state that I googled “weight loss programs that work,” and found a place called Green Mountain at Fox Run in Vermont. Believing it would probably be yet another place where I would be told what and how much to eat or, at least, a new type of “boot camp” to get me in shape, I decided to call.
That call would change everything in my life…