I was that child who ate her mother’s make-up. I was also the kid who in kindergarten snuck bits of play dough into her pockets to snack on when no one else is looking. My mind was plagued with irresistable urges to put things in my mouth: glue and vaseline and paper, as well as the salt of the sweat licked off my own arms. Speaking of salt, I once stole a friend’s salt rock from her collection and carried it in my pocket to suck on when the craving arose.
Given these facts, you can see how I might have developed a belief that my cravings were untrustworthy, that my appetite needed to be tamed and taken under the rule of willpower.
Fast forward thirty years.
My recovery from anorexia and bulimia has been bumpy, a path strewn with switch backs and fire closures, torturous hilly climbs and sheer cliff drops. I’ve proved myself capable of tremendous growth and progress, and equally impressive relapses.
All this time, I’ve battled a feeling of powerlessness. Not the good kind of powerlessness, the kind that leads 12 steppers to surrender and freedom from obsession. Rather, the kind of powerlessness that feels like a bodily invasion by an insatiable monster. This monster takes over at regular intervals and is not the least bit effected by any of the interventions I’ve tried.
Under the guidance of an excellent therapist and nutritionist, I’ve stabilized my weight, gotten rid of some terrible habits (like a case-a-day diet coke habit), found ways to eat adequate protein on a vegetarian diet. I now generally eat a whole foods, plant based diet with adequate calories and a high level of nutrition.
Except, of course, those days when the monster takes over and I stuff myself with all the processed junk food and fast food I can get my hands on.
I’ve always blamed my insatiable cravings for processed food on my eating disorder. Every out-of-control detour to the drive-thru was evidence that I was still sick, still out of control. Clearly, I was eating my feelings, stuffing my emotions, using food as a substitute for love, rebelling against authority, sabotaging my happiness, resisting my recovery, etc.
Even when I wasn’t really.
Here’s how the scene typically plays out.
The Monster Within: I am dying for a veggie burger from Burger King. Seriously dying over here.
Me: No, you’re not. You’re just having an urge, you sick bastard. Let’s use our skills.
Monster: No really, please, you gotta give me one. I think I’m dying.
Me: I’ve made you this perfectly nutritious, yummy, and filling dinner to eat. I can’t afford for you to keep eating fast food all the time, I’m on a budget. Also, it’s not healthy. Let’s meditate or pray or reach out for support or—
Monster: I’m not going to leave you alone until you give me a Burger King veggie burger with cheese and mayonnaise. How can you do this to me? I can feel death coming on as we speak.
Me: Let’s try breath counting. One…two—
Monster: VEGGIE BURGER CHEESE AND MAYONAISE VEGGIE BURGER CHEESE AND MAYONAISE VEGGIE BURGER CHEESE AND MAYONAISE VEGGIE BURGER CHEESE AND MAYONAISE VEGGIE BURGER CHEESE AND MAYONAISE
Me (in the Burger King drive-thru): I’ll take a veggie burger with only cheese and mayonnaise, please.
And that’s the point when the other voice takes over.
Eating Disorder: Well, you just blew it. You’re literally hopeless. You are such an out of control pig.
Me: Just tell me what to do. Tell me what will make you shut the hell up?
Eating Disorder: Okay, okay. You know what would really help? Hear me out, cause this is going to sound crazy, but I think I have the answer. You’ve already messed up, so obviously you have to start over. You’ll have to destroy yourself and start fresh tomorrow, it’s the only way. You might as well keep on eating and then purge. Just one more time. You’ll feel so much better. One more time and then you’ll finally be done. You’ll be ready to quit for good. You’ll be so strong, starting tomorrow.
Over and over and over, same script, same players, same outcomes.
My therapist has been working with me to quiet the self-critical and self-hating voices that are the constant background noise in my head. With a tiny bit less hateful shouting in my mind, there’s greater capacity to hear the quiet truths that rise up from time to time. A new truth I’ve noticed: I really feel like shit when I follow my whole food, healthy meal plan.
The truth is, when I follow my meal plan, I feel weak, headachy, and dizzy. I feel depressed. I get lightheaded when I stand. I have trouble writing because I can’t seem to get my brain to communicate with my hands. All of this has gotten worse over the last year, since I developed symptoms of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrom.
And I am tormented by obsessive food thoughts, by a constant demand in my head for Burger King veggie burgers and other processed foods.
Recently, in a fit of frustration, I decided to abandon any efforts to control myself. For about a week, I ate all the fast food I wanted, which ended up being two out of three daily meals. With some of the self-hatred noise turned down in my mind, I had enough awareness to notice something during this experiment. I actually felt much, much better. Although I still have my POTS symptoms throughout the day, I found that processed food seemed to offer a bit of temporary relief. For an hour or so, I felt more energized, less droopy, less headachy.
I took a closer look at some patterns in the nutritional data I’ve been logging into the Myfitnesspal account I’ve been advised not to have. I noticed there really wasn’t much difference between “good” days and “bad” days in terms of caloric intake and macronutrient distribution. Obviously the fast food days didn’t come close to hitting micronutrient levels—except, for sodium. On fast food days, my sodium intake tripled.
Sodium. Interesting. Sodium plays a vital role in fluid regulation, which is something my body struggles with. I can’t keep my blood volume up, resulting in chronic low blood pressure, low pulse pressure, dizziness, and lethargy. Despite drinking more than a gallon of water per day, I always feel thirsty and dehydrated. POTS patients are frequently instructed to increase their sodium, which I haven’t done intentionally yet because I haven’t been able to get a doctor to diagnose me.
Is it possible that my inability to stay out of the drive-thru is less a manifestation of my eating disorder, and more a message from my body that I should consider paying attention to? Is it possible then that my intolerable, desperate drive for processed food is merely my body’s attempt to medicate itself with increased sodium?
I brought my theory to my nutritionist at my next appointment with her, and she felt like it was worth investigating. She explained that there have been studies that show humans will experience a drive to continue eating, regardless of satiety or calorie intake, until their bodies hit their own unique need for macro or micro nutrients. The logs on Myfitnesspal show that on my “bad” days, I tend to eat until I get to 5,000-6,000 mgs. of sodium. Is it possible this is my body’s specific level, the level below which I will experience cravings and intense drive to eat and eat and eat?
The goal my nutritionist and I agreed to this month is to find a healthier (and less expensive) way to meet my body’s possible need for increased sodium. My instructions are to add some vegetable broth, V8 juice, and pickles throughout the day. I’ll track my sodium and water intake and observe the effect on my blood pressure, pulse, and symptoms. I am extremely hopeful that this experiment is going to give me the information I need both for my eating disorder recovery and for relief from my physical symptoms.