Why I’ve struggled with eating for so long & how I’m learning to let go

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

It’s odd being in a healthy relationship with a man you love and an abusive relationship with a disorder you loathe. You’re always trying to hide the abusive one from the healthy one, and you can’t help but be consumed by both.

Relationships of all kinds test our ability to be vulnerable. There’s the risk that if things don’t work out, we could find ourselves alone. Again. But there’s also the hope that we can become better if we’re brave enough to let love in.

After my mother died of breast cancer when I was 11, I was afraid of letting new people into my life because I didn’t want to deal with the possibility of losing them. But there was one relationship I could enter into without the fear of loss – my relationship with food.

Food has always been there for me, even when I wish it weren’t.

One of my favorite photos of me and my Mom, taken in Disney World in 1988. I was 3.

We’ve likely all found ourselves in a love-hate relationship with food at one point or another. But for some of us, the hate is stronger. My relationship with food has led me down a winding path that’s dotted with signs tempting me to go where I shouldn’t. It’s hard to avoid temptation when you feel like the only thing that can calm you is a box of chocolate chip cookies, a bag of tortilla chips, or all the foods that remind you of someone you’ve lost.

For 17 years, I’ve fed my hungry heart with food, not love. I’ve relied on food and rejected it, hid and hoarded it, loved and loathed it. I was in and out of Children’s Hospital Boston four times between the ages of 12 and 13, and then lived at a residential treatment facility called Germaine Lawrence for a year-and-a-half.

I remember my grandmother looking at me with tears in her eyes when I was first hospitalized. “You’re letting yourself waste away; you need food, Mallary. You’re so smart. Why can’t you just figure it out?” Being smart, though, doesn’t mean you’re always going to make smart choices.

For about two years after getting out of residential treatment, I did better. I listened to my body and ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full. It seems so simple – to just listen to your body – but over the years it became increasingly difficult and I started to slip back into old habits. By freshman year in college, I had changed my eating routine. I wasn’t restricting all the time like I did when I was younger; I was binging one day and restricting the next.

Several women struggle with this same type of distorted eating. Because it doesn’t fall under the category of “anorexia” or “bulimia,” it’s more often categorized as “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or EDNOS. (How’s that for a vague categorization?) Symptoms include night eating syndrome, chewing and spitting out food, purging, binging, repeated patterns of binging and restricting, and even picky eating.

The International Journal of Eating Disorders says EDNOS – which is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. – is “often a way station between an eating disorder and recovery or, less commonly, from recovery to a full-blown eating disorder.” A 2009 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that more people die from EDNOS than from bulimia or anorexia.

This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always believed that it’s easier to identify the symptoms of (and subsequently treat) bulimia and anorexia. When you’re bulimic, people start to notice when you repeatedly go to the bathroom after meals. When you’re anorexic, people see that you’re losing weight and get concerned. In my case, my weight has stayed the same, making it easier to mask my disordered eating habits.

I drew this picture when I was 12 and at one of my lowest points. I remember my therapist at the time saw it and said, "Have you ever heard the expression 'Fake it 'til you make it'? Seems like that's what you're doing here with all these smiley faces." I've always been good at pretending that everything's OK. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

I’ve mastered the art of hiding. Not wanting people to know about my struggles, I’ve kept so much inside. For years, I’ve wanted nothing more than to end my relationship with food, but that’s the hard part – you never really can. When you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, you can’t swear off food like an alcoholic can swear off the bottle.

We need food to survive. But we also need the kind of nourishment that comes from people who care for and love us. In an ideal world, we would derive nourishment from the love we give ourselves. Once we begin to love ourselves, we realize that we don’t deserve to keep letting our eating disorder hurt us. Why would we want to hurt something we love?

Food never loves us back. When we stop trying to fill ourselves with something tangible, like donuts or French fries, we discover that there are other ways to feel full, to feel whole. For the first time in years, I’ve started to feel whole again – without food. And lately I’ve felt more compelled to confront my eating disorder and make healthier choices, in large part because I haven’t been able to hide from it like I used to.

I’ve written about my struggles with eating, but I haven’t gone into detail about how hard it still is for me. With the exception of a few months here and there, I’ve lived alone since graduating from college five years ago. I was always able to eat what I wanted, when I wanted.

If I wanted to binge on a carton of Edy’s mint chocolate chip ice cream, there was no one there to tell me I shouldn’t. If I didn’t eat dinner because I was fasting to make up for the previous day’s binge, I never had to worry about explaining myself. And I didn’t have to worry about what I looked like and what I did after binges. My stomach would be bloated, my cheeks painted with tears and runny mascara. When I was really disgusted with myself, I’d remove most of the food from my refrigerator and kitchen cabinets and throw it away. Then I’d pour liquid dish detergent on it so I wouldn’t be tempted to eat out of the trash.

These are some of the secrets I’ve kept.

I’ve kept them from my father and grandmother, who live 1,300 miles away. I’ve kept them from my friends. I’ve kept them from my boyfriend Troy … until recently. Troy had read my personal essays about eating and knew I underwent treatment for anorexia. He didn’t realize, though, that there are still days when I feel like I’ve lost all control.

Shortly before moving in with each other last October, Troy and I talked about how much we were looking forward to eating dinner with each other every night. We figured eating together on a more regular basis would motivate us to eat healthier.

But that hasn’t exactly been the case. For as much as I try to eat healthy at work, there have been many times when I’ve raided the vending machine or driven to the local Starbucks to buy food to binge on. By the end of an afternoon binge, I don’t feel like I can fit one more morsel of food in my body, let alone a full dinner.

This picture always makes me smile. Troy and I are standing in front of our new townhouse, which we moved into in January. Prior to that, we had been living in my little 113-year-old apartment.

Since moving in with Troy, I’ve realized there are only so many times you can use the excuse, “I’m not hungry,” “I had a really late lunch,” or “I’m not feeling well” before loved ones and friends start to worry. And after a while, there’s only so much you want to keep hiding.

You know that for a relationship to grow, you have to be open, honest and willing to expose your wounds. Fear inevitably kicks in. You worry that your partner will think you’re crazy, that he’ll start to focus on everything you eat, that he’ll leave you.

Troy could have left a long time ago, but instead he’s decided he wants to try to help me. We frequently talk about how, even though it’s difficult to change my eating habits, I can’t keep finding excuses. Instead of saying, “I’ll eat better – starting tomorrow,” I have to tell myself I can start now.

Troy has given me lots of suggestions on how to improve my eating habits, but I’ve had trouble following through. He’s suggested that I ask some of my colleagues if they’ll have lunch with me. I tell him that it’s hard to leave work in the middle of the day. “Well, just ask if they’ll have a sandwich with you at work, then,” he says.

I haven’t asked my colleagues because eating with others sometimes makes me nervous. I eat at my desk so I don’t have to worry about emails and work piling up. I’ve often cancelled lunch plans because I feel sickened by a binge from the day before, or because I’m trying to restrict and don’t want to “ruin it” on lunch. I’ve had to find excuses, (usually, “I’m on deadline”), hoping friends and colleagues won’t think I’m intentionally blowing them off.

Troy’s also suggested that I text him when I get the urge to binge. I haven’t, partly because of the disconnect I feel when I’m tempted to binge. I tend to get in “the zone” on binging days, and avoid all the resources I could be relying on for help. Once I start to get stressed, I bolt from my feelings and bury them deeper until I end up feeling nothing.

Food numbs the pain, but it never fills emotional voids, which is why I find myself eating. And eating. And eating. By the end of a binge, I’m left feeling physically full and emotionally empty. And I end up dreading the next day because I know I’ll wake up feeling bloated and won’t want to eat. I know I don’t have to restrict the entire next day, and that I shouldn’t, but the twisted food rules I’ve created for myself over the years are so ingrained in me that I feel as though I can’t break free from them.

Breaking free requires finding something that we can turn to instead of food – something that will make us realize we don’t need to rely on food whenever we feel frustrated, overwhelmed or lonely. It requires us to ask ourselves: What do we really want?

One of my favorite authors, Geenen Roth, once wrote: “We don’t want to eat hot fudge sundaes as much as we want our lives to be hot fudge sundaes. We want to come home to ourselves. We want to know wonder and mystery and possibility, and if instead we’ve given up on ourselves, if we’ve vacated our longings, if we’ve left possibility behind, we will feel an emptiness we can’t name. We will feel as if something is missing because something is missing – the connection to the source of all sweetness, all love, all power, all peace, all joy, all stillness. Since we had it once – we were born with and as it – it can’t help but haunt us.”

This is one of my favorite Mary Engelbreit drawings. It reminds me that just because I had one bad eating day doesn't mean I have to let it ruin the next day.

Troy has helped me find that peace and joy again. He respects me and tells me every day that I’m beautiful. He makes me realize that I’m worth more than my eating disorder. A lot of people have told me recently, “You look so happy!” And I am. I have great friends, a new home with Troy, and a job that I love. My issues with food are what sadden me. It’s funny how you can feel so happy about some aspects of your life and simultaneously sad about others.

I’m trying to be strong and encourage myself to strive for progress, not perfection. Slowly, I’m making small improvements. The other day after a binge, I told myself I wasn’t going to let it throw me off course. The next day I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner. I want to prove to myself that if I continue to let my disordered eating control me, I’ll continue to feel out of control. If I tell myself each morning that I’m going to begin the day anew, then maybe I can start to regain the control I’ve lost.

We all need to be gentle with ourselves and understand that recovery takes time and patience. More and more, I’ve found that thinking ahead to our future can be a good motivator.

I want to be healthy enough to have kids someday. But if I’m not giving my body the nourishment it needs, I won’t be able to. I never want to be in a position where I’m negatively influencing my children. I don’t want them to see me restricting or binging. I would feel horrible if they caught me studying my arms or stomach in the mirror and started to scrutinize their own bodies. (I’ll never forget the day my mom looked in the mirror and said, “I’m so fat.” I was only 8 or 9 at the time, but I tried to convince her she wasn’t. She was beautiful.) I want my own kids to be happy and healthy, and to genuinely enjoy eating — just like I used to.

The idea of someday becoming a parent reminds me not just of my mom, but of my dad. He’s always been so supportive and has never failed to tell me how much he loves me. While living with Troy has forced me to let go of the secrecy surrounding my eating habits, it’s caused my dad to let go in a different way. I noticed that after I moved in with Troy, my dad started calling less — not because he didn’t want to talk to me but because he was afraid he was interfering. I told him not to be silly.

At Christmastime, he took a day off from work to go sightseeing in Boston. We do this every year and call it our “Father Daughter Day.” This year on Father Daughter Day, Dad handed me a note that made me cry. He said he was already thinking ahead to December 2012 and the possibility that I’ll be with Troy — and not home in Massachusetts — on Christmas Day. Here’s part of his note, which he titled “Letting Go”:

Every time I “let go” I think of it as “let grow”; it makes it easier for me. Being the sentimentalist that I am, I reminisced about the times that I have let go of you in your life.

I remember so well, the 1st time that I let go of your hands when you were learning to walk, knowing that you would fall, but you didn’t. I remember bringing you on your bike to [the neighbor’s] driveway for the 1st time without training wheels. Mom and I were so excited, and scared. I gave you a little push, knowing that within 10 feet you would fall, and Mom would come rushing to your aid to wipe away your tears. You never fell. Instead, you made it all the way down the street. It was Mom and I who had tears in our eyes.

I hated letting you go to Germane Lawrence, but I knew that I had to.

I remember the 1st time you drove out of the driveway in the Tempo, alone for your 1st time. I was concerned, but I knew that I had to let you go.

I remember letting go of you on your 1st day at Providence College, as you walked toward the dining hall, while Gramz and I stood there teary-eyed watching you walk away.

When you graduated from Providence College, I wanted so much to keep you close by, but I knew letting go of you so that you could go to Florida was what I needed to do.

Now, you are entering the next stage of your life. You have a wonderful man who loves you. You belong with him, so that you two can start a new chapter in your lives. If I had a choice, every day would be Father-Daughter Day, but that would be selfish of me. I love you too much to ever be selfish toward you. …

Mallary, every time that I have let you go, I have watched you grow. You may look up to me for inspiration, but I look up to you for my inspiration.

Me and Dad, Christmas 2011.

I do look up to my dad for inspiration, and even though we only see each other once or twice a year, I still look to him for support. He has always been there for me, always had faith that I would make it. At times, Dad’s given me tough love. When I was first hospitalized, he told me: “Mom fought so hard to survive. Now, you’re just letting me die.”

Being in the hospital like Mom was throughout the last few years of her life made me feel closer to her. I know that sounds twisted, but it’s true. Now, I can’t think of anything that would make feel closer to her than becoming a mom myself. I don’t see this happening for another couple of years, but I nevertheless need to start making changes now.

When she was sick, Mom used to compare herself to the Little Engine That Could. She and Dad would try to convince me that she’d make it and that everything would be OK.

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” she’d say.

Mom didn’t have a choice as to whether or not she’d survive; cancer was in control. I’m fortunate enough to have the freedom of choice and the chance to change. I’m sick of my abusive relationship with food, and I want to make healthier decisions. Mom would want me to, too.

I know I can, I know I can, I know I can.

Note to readers: I’d love to hear your thoughts on this essay. What part did you like best? What do you want to know more about? What parts do you think need work? I’ve always found feedback on essays like this to be invaluable, especially since I don’t have anyone look at them ahead of time.