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Surviving A Pandemic With An Eating Disorder

TW: If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please call the National Eating Disorder Helpline at (800) 931–2237.

As the New York Times helped me remember last week, “There Is Plenty of Food in the Country.” Experts believe that it is not a quantity problem we’re experiencing currently, but a distribution problem. With a near-total national lockdown and a looming economic recession on the horizon, the impulse to “stock up,” is a strong one. Scarcity mindset seems to be a secondary pandemic sweeping the globe — with no one believing that there will be enough money, enough food, or enough resources to see everyone through this pandemic.

“Getting help,” becomes even more difficult than it usually is during these widespread “stay at home” orders; when isolation, depression, and a lack of structure urge me to seek control through familiar food behaviors. Lacking the constant distractions that work brought, I am more in danger of falling back into old patterns to fill my days.

Virtual interactions make a difference, but they are far easier to avoid than an in-person therapy session or weekly support group where everyone is expecting my continued presence. Seeing someone’s face through a screen is never going to be the same as sharing space with them. It’s an easy time for anyone who struggles with mental health to disappear or fly under the radar, not able or willing to get the help that they need.

Although I do not identify as anorexic or bulimic, I still experience disordered eating behaviors. For me, this can manifest as restricting my food intake to claim control over the unknown; or bingeing to stop myself from feeling. Both are avoidant strategies, and both become infinitely more tricky when we’re in the middle of a global health crisis, with a national food shortage on the horizon and a citywide order to self-quarantine for the foreseeable future.

In a worst-case scenario, this only goes two ways for me: I hoard food and risk bingeing, or avoid food and intentionally starve myself. There’s very little middle ground where my brain’s concerned.

Restricting my food intake may not sound like it would be a comforting practice nowadays, but it is an old story borne out of needing a solution to my anxiety. Focusing purely on the work I can do from home becomes an easy excuse to avoid eating; and without scheduled meal times, it’s much easier to skip meals, or just forget to eat altogether; especially when living alone. At its core, restriction is always about control. If my world feels out of control, an easy way to get that illusion of control back is to restrict, weigh, measure, or count. If a behavioral pattern is familiar but harmful, it can often feel more comfortable than trying something new, especially during a global pandemic.

Conversely, overeating can also be a solution to my anxiety. It’s literally numbing. It takes me out of the fear and the paranoia of the vast ocean of unknowns in front of me that I have no control over. It makes me forget that I have a choice in how I address my worries, but it also takes me to a place where I don’t care anymore. Filling my house with non-perishable items and easy, fast food options that are supposed to last me through the next month just sets me up to binge. I cannot keep sugar or snack foods in my house or I risk burying myself in them once the next piece of bad news comes into my Twitter feed.

Overeating creates a high, and all highs must come down. The low that comes after a binge almost feels worse than the realization that I’ve forgotten to eat. Because it makes me feel physically ill, and so out of touch with my body and emotions that I can’t show up for anything or anything else in my life. It shows me just how self-centered and selfish I’ve been, and it’s usually followed by deep shame and self-loathing.

This is when it’s important to remember that I cannot physically gain or lose weight in a couple of days. The tiny fluctuations on my scale in a 24 hour period can only be due to these things: water, shit, and clothes. The National Institute of Health defines healthy weight loss as 1–2 pounds per week, not per day. I understand the heightened impulse to weigh myself every day, especially when there’s little else under my control right now. It’s a literal hit of dopamine, seeing that number on the scale go down. But once that number goes back up (and it inevitably does, because, biology), I’m again stuck in front of my mirror, shrewdly evaluating each curve and dip; wondering if I’m going crazy or if my stomach does look “softer” today.

Then there are the multitude of free and available online workout videos and weight-loss “programs,” currently being advertised as the perfect way to put all that free time you now have to good use. Can’t get to the gym, no problem! You have a 24/7 gym right here on your computer or phone, no monthly membership required. Similarly, a cornucopia of detoxes, cleanses and alternative pseudoscience solutions are popping up in response to this pandemic, telling us that changing our diets or taking this special supplement will make us invulnerable to COVID-19.

For those of us with disordered eating behaviors, this just adds fuel to the fire. I already want to be perfect and don’t believe I’m enough. Hearing that if my food or my supplement regimen is just a little more perfect, I’ll be safe, is a rabbit hole I really don’t need to go down right now. This mindset just tells me that if I get sick, I must’ve done something wrong, and I again should be ashamed of myself.

What I’m learning during this lengthy self-quarantine is that this obsession of mine was never really about my health, or my body, or even the food. It was always about my anxiety and my need to find a solution to it.

The key to recovering from any compulsive, obsessive, or addictive behavioral pattern is in being able to sit through discomfort without trying to fix it or run away from it. For me, this is about noticing when my brain won’t get quiet, or when I desperately want to distract myself with food or television or social media. Once I’m able to notice that I’m in an anxious “swirl,” as I like to call it, then I can make a conscious choice about how to move forward. Be that through meditation, prayer, asking for help from a qualified mental health professional or trusted friend, or just making myself a well-balanced meal.

I understand that it may not be this simple for everyone. In that case, there are great resources available to you via the following links. In the meantime, I wish you health, peace of mind, and resilience during this challenging time.

Life Coach & Author. Twitter: @LeighHuggins

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