How the Pandemic Finally Made Me Confront My Eating Disorder

For me, binging is what happens when the fantasy of control comes undone.

In mid-April, standing at the edge of my kitchen countertop, I looked up from the chicken bones. Newly bare and littered along the bottom of the takeout box, the meat was picked clean from each wing. The hot and ready kind. Prepared at the supermarket, meant to feed an entire nuclear family—not a single 30-year-old woman living alone, during the most devastating pandemic the world had seen in more than 100 years.

My hands were coated in chicken grease. My stomach was full and bloated. I was being seized by the familiar sensation of claustrophobia, where my discomfort was no longer contained to the corporeal, but spilled out into pools of failure, shame and disgust. I wanted out of my body and my mind. But I knew there would be no quick relief from the frantic, self-deprecating spirals blooming in my mind.

I looked up and into the kitchen window above the sink, to the reflection staring back: a woman, eating and eating and eating. Beyond sustenance, beyond pleasure. While it wasn’t the first time I had encountered her, this time, I couldn’t turn away.

It had been several months since I had returned to this familiar scene. But I couldn’t say I had fallen off the wagon. Not when I had never actually acknowledged my binge eating for what it was. Where there’s denial, I knew, there can never be hope for recovery. And until that moment in my kitchen, I had never even called it by its name.

(Related: What Therapists Need You to Know About Eating Disorders)

I was four or five years old when I first became aware of myself in the act of eating, in front of a plate of sliced-up hot dogs my grandmother had boiled for me. I remember her gaze felt pointed, as if she were measuring and weighing me. My mother, a notorious yo-yo dieter, passed on a moral code early on, in which food is easily organized into two categories: good and bad. From there, new concerns took hold: over what I ate, how much I ate, how I ate. It was as if the radio had been turned on for the first time, and the airways flooded with anxious conversations between the women in my life. I was suddenly attuned to their diet talk, which seemed to revolve around how much or how little food they consumed, how they longed for what was perceived to be the forbidden and their feelings of triumph during periods of restraint and control. Somewhere out there existed a neon score board, tabulating my value calorie by calorie. Illuminating my strength, or my weakness, which rested on my ability to control my body and my hunger.

Here, in the midst of a global pandemic, I now struggled to feel a sense of control over anything, least of all over what I ate and how much. I hadn’t been touched in about a month and found myself dwelling on the memory of it: my mother’s hands through my hair as a child, awkward first-encounter handshakes with strangers, the embrace of a friend. At the CBC, on Prince Edward Island, where I worked as a journalist covering the pandemic, I had been relocated to a lonely basement office to ensure physical distancing. The number of deaths globally was still rising. Control had never been more of a fantasy.

Coping mechanisms, which I had subconsciously Frankensteined over the years—habits like maintaining a relatively sparse refrigerator — no longer seemed possible. Like everyone else, I had stocked up on supplies. At the beginning of the pandemic, my fridge was full and it terrified me. I was also home more often and in close proximity to it.

The low hum of the refrigerator seemed to sync with my anxious thoughts. In those early days, like most everyone else in lockdown, all I could think of was food: the pleasure and comfort of making it, of eating it, of being full. On Instagram and Twitter, people described their adventures in cookies, banana bread, sourdough starters. I imagined the sensation of sticky dough between their fingers, the curve of the rolling pin back and forth, a wine glass covered in a light dusting of flour, the texture of freshly baked bread. I wanted to be one of them. More than ever, I wanted to enjoy food and find comfort in it.

(Related: What Are the Signs of an Eating Disorder?)

Binge eating disorder is a mental illness that can seriously affect psychological and physical health. It’s characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food followed by feelings of shame, distress or guilt afterwards. About one million Canadians are diagnosed with an eating disorder. For many people, binging often follows a period of restrictive eating or dieting. I’ve been doing both of these things consciously and subconsciously for what feels like my entire life.

When I was about 11 or 12, restrictive eating took the form of thinly sliced turkey weighed on a scale and baby dill pickles wrapped in tinfoil for school lunches. In my first year of university, I limited my meals to sparse, leafy salads and bran cereal. During that particular period, I even convinced a doctor to prescribe me a powerful powdered laxative intended for people preparing for colonoscopies. It came in a gallon-sized jug, which I’d pour water into and drink in my dorm room, waiting to feel empty and light-weight.

The dream is to occupy the least amount of space, to transform myself into a walking clavicle, to be admired, protruding from thin air. When I deprive myself, I am sparkling and worthy. When I hear the garbled groans of hunger escaping my shrinking stomach, I am accomplished. There is less of me to pinch between fingers. The world and my desires seem to be within my reach.

During this time, I live by the code passed down from my mother. I can keep my distance from the bad. I can choose only the good foods: thinly sliced lean turkey. Boiled chicken breasts and cauliflower. I can swim in the fantasy of control. Control over how I am perceived and how much currency I have to move in the world: how loveable or beautiful or desirable or worthy I am.

In April, during the first weeks of the pandemic, I was coming off a months-long period of restriction. I kept track of everything I ate on an app and worked out four or five times a week. I was obsessive and preoccupied with food, or the lack of it. Each counted calorie was like a tiny wave lapping up and up, steadily eroding my relationship to food.

My workouts led to an injury, and I was forced to take a break from the gym. Not long after, the pandemic took hold. And soon I found myself standing at my kitchen counter claustrophobic and covered in chicken grease. For me, binging is what happens when the fantasy of control comes undone. It can unravel within minutes, over a period of days, sometimes even weeks.

It happens when the body and the mind become too tired for the calorie counting and scales and laxatives. It can start with one bite. And another and another. And then you’ve eaten most of what’s in your fridge. The good foods, and the bad. The bananas, the loaf of bread, the cheese, the neglected condiments in the side door of the refrigerator. It’s all of the food, all at once and it’s sand in your mouth.

That night, at my kitchen counter, the pandemic, and its imposed isolation, forced to the surface something I had been too afraid to see. In lockdown I was left with only myself. The woman reflected in the window was wilting. Even as she ate and ate, there somehow seemed to only be less of her. If I continued, I knew one day I would leave her excavated. All that would be left would be the good and the bad foods and a body in shock – moving back and forth, expanding and contracting. But she would be gone.

Next: Another woman shares her experience with having an eating disorder during the pandemic.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada