0114: Comfort Food

Content warning: The following story makes reference to a survivor's experience with binge eating disorder, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Comfort Food," Kayla Lemay

People talk a lot about comfort food. Go on Buzzfeed and you’ll find lists upon lists about comfort food. I bet you some form of mac and cheese is on every single one.

And sure, comfort food is great. There’s nothing like a bowl of mac and cheese, fresh and warm, when you’re feeling a little weird or just in the mood for some cheesy goodness.

But that’s the thing about comfort food – you probably don’t eat it all the time.

That’s the difference, between you and me.

I do. Comfort food is just food, for me. I always need comfort.

Binge Eating Disorder is so weird. It manifests a bit differently for everyone, but when I think back, I’ve had it for as long as I could remember.

A lot of times, people say eating disorders are about control. And maybe that’s how it started, for me. Like most kids, I had a pretty structured time that I could eat. My nightly snack was at 7:30 p.m. – no earlier. 

When my parents got divorced when I was 8, they tried to maintain my general schedule, but obviously it got hard. As I got older, I got more involved in things and timing got weird. I was moving between houses on weekends, I had to stay in after-school programs, etc. etc. etc. 

And being a growing kid, I got hungry. I also don’t know if it was really hunger, or something else. It’s too long ago now to be able to examine it. But I do remember, as early as age 9 and 10, wanting to sneak food after I was supposed to be in bed. And I did, pretty frequently. At my mom’s, it always seemed to be grapes. I have no idea why. At my dad’s was a different story.

For some reason, I was always afraid at my dad’s house. I couldn’t sleep – I’d have these terrible existential crises. I was constantly afraid I would die in my sleep, and I had no idea why. So I’d put on Harry Potter and I’d sneak out to the kitchen and get some food. I’d hide the dishes under my bed or in a drawer until I could sneak back out to the kitchen to wash them and put them away. I thought I was being sneaky, but I have no idea if it was ever noticed. Chips, bagel bites, soda… I drank a lot of soda at my dad’s. For a while, my stepmom worked for Coca Cola so that meant we had a lot of coke products in the house. Sure, during the day I was all about that vitamin water, but the cold can of coke at night… to this day, my binges always taste better with a bottle of coke.

I was always bordering on overweight. I wasn’t in the best shape, but I wasn’t fat, not really. Being a growing girl in this society, I obviously thought I was. 

I remember at 14, when I stopped growing in height, being around 130 pounds. I thought I was fat. At 5’1, if you go by body mass index, I was still in the normal range, just nudging the line to “overweight.” But I was active – I played ice hockey almost year-round at that point, and when the season really got going I was on the ice seven days a week. I walked to and from school and spent time outside with my friends walking around town. I was active. The amount I ate wasn’t out of the ordinary, because it didn’t really show. And when I was out with friends, I ate just like they did. Nobody knew I was eating more at home, and I figured they probably were too. 

My junior year of high school, I quit playing hockey. I had never been a good player, so during games I passed the time on the bench, watching my teammates play. I decided I didn’t want to play the sport, because I wasn’t really playing it. 

The amount that I ate started to show. 

By the end of my senior year of high school, I had gained 40 pounds – almost without even realizing it. Now my claims of fat were actually sort of valid. My eating habits didn’t catch up with my lack of activity.

When college came, the stress, the anxiety, the depression that I was also dealing with, really hit me hard. I gained more weight. By the time I graduated undergrad, I was 205 pounds. Over a period of six years, I had gained 75 pounds. Seventy-five. I didn’t grow a centimeter in height in that time, either. I was done growing in every way but width.

That comfort food I talked about earlier? That was what I ate, daily. Every time I was stressed, every time I was sad, I turned to food. I made more trips to the off-campus CVS than I can even remember. I snuck more food into my dorm room, hid more food from my roommates, than I care to admit. When I moved into an off-campus apartment with my now-fiancé my senior year, I even hid food from him. Often.

Now? It’s so hard to get this monster under control. Any time I feel a powerful emotion – sadness, stress, anger, joy, celebration – I crave food. My binges are small – it’s not like I’m eating the entire McDonald’s menu – but when they happen multiple times a week, it’s a problem.

It’s all I can do to not gain weight.

Since this is a “newer” eating disorder, and since I’m fat, I don’t exactly have much support, either. 

Recently, I experienced some knee pain. It was so bad that one morning, I woke up being unable to even walk. After going to the doctor, I found out it was something called bursitis, and I was just having a flare-up that, with some care and stretching, would go down. It was manageable. I looked it up afterwards, and what the doctor didn’t tell me was that the kind of knee bursitis I had was most commonly found in those who are obese. That was hard.

This part was harder. I enjoy the idea of transparency, especially on social media. Where others like to tailor their posts so it looks like they lead perfect lives, I will occasionally post some funny things that happen that show that I’m NOT perfect. I enjoy it – I am a human and I think that we need to normalize the negative experiences of our lives, too. Not to mention the stigma that mental illness carries. I’m comfortable talking about my mental illness because I know so many other people are not. I’m vocal about my struggles, because I want others to know they aren’t alone.

When I posted about my knee bursitis, I found out through the grapevine that one family member of mine said to another “Why doesn’t she stop bitching about her knee pain and learn how to eat instead?”

Well. If you’ve made it this far into my story, you can imagine what I did after that comment.
And what’s most painful is that I can’t even get it under control. I look at myself and I think “What is going to be the so-called straw that breaks the camel’s back? When will I get my act together? How much weight do I have to gain, how many comments do I have to hear, to finally get my ass in gear and be healthy?”

I truly can’t figure it out. Every time I think “This is it, this is enough” it turns out it isn’t because I slide back into those same habits.

Regular counseling helps, but it doesn’t appear to be enough.
I just don’t know what will be.

I’d like to end this story on a happy note, but the best I can give you right now is that I’m in the process of finding a dietitian specializing in eating disorders (because apparently regular dietitians can’t help someone with an ED) and I’m changing my outlook on my body.
It isn’t about weight anymore. It isn’t about clothing fit. It isn’t about inches. It’s about general health. If my doctor says that I’m healthy, and I’m at the point where I’m not bingeing anymore (or heck, even as often) – that’s my goal. I’ve accepted that I’m probably always going to be overweight. I probably will never be what society deems “thin.” I’m going to be fat, probably for the rest of my life.

But does fat define health? I’m starting to learn that, no, it doesn’t always. If I can find activities I enjoy, and food I enjoy, and also be getting the vitamins and whatever else I need to be healthy – that’s what is most important.

You can’t live your life on someone else’s terms. Just because other people say “you’re too fat, you should lose weight” doesn’t mean they’re right. Unless they are your doctor, and your doctor is providing you with help and support, you should do your best to ignore them.

As for me… I guess that’s the goal for 2017. Focus on me, and what I want out of my life. Learn how to eat again, without sacrificing what I enjoy. Find new activities, new ways to get my body moving and my blood flowing. And overall, look at the world in a new way so I can enjoy the life I’m living.

About the art:

I've been lucky to work with Kayla when she did an internship in my office at Lesley University. During this time she worked with our student-led diversity retreat, which caused a ripple of very deep conversations between us, including her body image struggles. I learned a lot about Kayla, which gave me a good perspective of where to begin with this piece.

She loves Disney, so I wanted to create a representation of her of what I believed she would look like as a Disney princess with a message that summarized a message from her story: learn to love your body. I hope it can be a reminder for her that as long as she is taking care of herself mentally and physically - her body is beautiful the way it is.