I relate to just about every comment I read here on HealthyGirl.org—and to every email I get from readers. But once in a while, someone writes in with a story that just kinda stabs you in the heart extra hard.
That’s the case with Devon, 18, who wrote me last week asking for advice—and as I read her story, I just closed my eyes and pictured the hundreds, no, thousands, of girls out there who are right where she is, bingeing, starving, hating every minute of it. Here it is in her own words:
Q: I had been skinny my whole life and I never had to watch what I ate, I never knew what a calorie even was! Then my home life became unbearable and I started to eat out of boredom, then out of stress and then used it as comfort from feeling lonely and emotionally exhausted. Once I noticed that I had gained some weight, I became obsessed with taking it off. I only ate 1,000 calories a day and exercised like crazy.
I was down to 102 pounds when my boyfriend broke up with me and then my eating became out of control again, but I was so scared of gaining weight that I started to make myself throw up after bingeing…needless to say it didn’t work and I ended up gaining the weight back and then some. After I figured out that throwing up didn’t keep me from gaining weight and that it could later affect my chances of having a baby I never threw up again, thank god. But I still had a bingeing problem. I would eat super healthy and then I would either get a huge craving and binge or I would feel lonely or sad and binge.
A few months ago, I promised to myself that by my 18th birthday I would be back to my old healthy self and would never used food as my comfort but as a tool to heal my body and my mind. But I realize now that maybe that promise was just a reason change my obsession from bingeing to restricting. …Feeling starved is a feeling of success.
Now, whenever I eat a carb (cereal, even healthy cereal, my biggest vice) I just figure I might as well binge on whatever else I can get my hands on and my brain shuts off all reasoning and logic. Then I start over the next day. Its so exhausting! FOOD, something so simple and so controllable is controlling me! Every minute of every day I’m calculating my day’s worth of calories and how many I have left in the day and the two hours I need to [run on the treadmill to] burn it all off.
I’m tired of food being the center of my life, it’s become my comfort and my biggest fear all at once. So my question to you is how in the world can this be changed? I want to go to a counselor or therapist but I don’t have the money since I’m putting myself through college.
I’m desperate and so thankful for any advice you might have for me. —Devon, 18
A: Wow, OK Devon. First, I wish I was a professional therapist, or a doctor. Because, like you said, I think that is exactly who you need to talk to. I know it seems like this is “just” a food problem, but it really is dangerous. Starving and bingeing—even if you’re no longer purging—are messing with your digestive system (believe me, I can vouch for that!), with your metabolism and with your brain chemistry. And the longer you go without getting help, the more ingrained it becomes in your mind and in your habits.
I’m not saying those things to scare you, I just remember when I was dealing with this stuff in high school, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. Like I told reader Sami, who wrote to me about her own bingeing and starving: What a lot of women don’t understand is that you don’t have to be at a dangerously low weight to need help. There’s a disorder called Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) which pretty much means that a woman displays behaviors from some or all of the other disorders, at varying severities.
OK, so what do you do now?
1. I was interviewing a psychiatrist the other day for my book, and he said that he believes one of the most important thing for girls who are suffering with any kind of eating problem to do is admit it to someone they trust. He said that relinquishing the secret to another person takes some of the pressure off almost immediately—and allows you to take the next step. Who do you tell? A parent preferably, he said—but if you don’t have a trusting relationship with your mom or dad, then a sibling, a coach, a professor, a school therapist, a doctor at your campus medical services center, a mentor. Do you have anyone you can tell about it?
2. Ask that person to help you find a counselor—or, if you don’t have someone you can rely on for help, seek one out yourself. Believe it or not, there are places to get discounted or even free counseling for these issues:
• A lot of college campuses have psychological services centers that offer counseling and group support for free or at verrrry discounted prices. Have you checked at your school? Also, my research assistant, Morgan, googled up a couple more options near where you live:
• North County Women’s Resource Center in Atascadero/San Luis Obispo County, which provides ongoing treatment/support group for those suffering from restricting, bingeing, purging and/or compulsive exercise. The non-profit agency accepts donations—which usually means just a dollar to a few dollars, or nothing if that’s what you can afford—for group attendance. The contact info there is: social worker Cyndy Smith, 805-462-1503.
• This website includes eating disorder support groups in San Luis Obispo, and here’s a list of other free support groups.
If you’re not ready to do any of that yet, why not call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline (Monday-Friday, 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, Pacific Standard Time: 1-800-931-2237) to talk to someone?
You’ve already taken that first step in getting help by reaching out to talk to me—that shows you’re totally brave enough to do what comes next. I know it! Please check back in and let us know what you decide to do. It’s true: If you get help, you really can live a life that isn’t controlled by food.