*tw: talk of eating disorders & negative self-talk
and also this post is very much inspired by the blog Hyperbole and a Half (so shout out shout out shout out)
When I first came to Korea, I was almost positive that I was going to finally going to kick my obsession with food. Like everybody waking up on January 1st to a list of new resolutions, I counted down to my flight to Korea as “day 1” of my new and improved healthier lifestyle. I was about to write the book on self care – I knew this move would mean big things for my mental health.
And thus began the naive beginning to a wonderful tale about how moving to another country is not the way to solve your problems. Eat, Pray, Love didn’t prepare me for that.
Just kidding I never read that book.
At first, I was good. Walking excessively in Busan wearing my tourist shoes meant that I had little care about what I was eating nor the amount. But as the weeks came and went, that little person inside of me that whispered eat, eat, eat managed to take over. So I gave in. I ate bread – a huge trigger food for me. I laid in bed, defeated, my stomach, bloated, and I didn’t know what to do. I hated the feeling of being full. If my stomach bulged out just a little from food I would go into full panic mode. When I was younger, this resulted in a kind of panic exercise induced black out. However, on this day, I had no where to go to exercise, so I fell back on something that I swore to my college self I would not do anymore.
Feigning a hangover, I snuck into the bathroom and emptied out the alcohol from the night before, the bread, and whatever else I had crammed in my mouth for breakfast. I looked at my stomach in the mirror, sucked in, and thought, wow! It’s all gone! I was so proud. I took a shower to get rid of the inevitable smell off of my skin, and besides feeling a bit tired, I felt like I had managed to figure something out. Back in university, it would take so much effort to force the food up, but suddenly, it was very easy. With this new found skill I could potentially eat all I wanted and then in only fifteen minutes (or less), it was as if I had eaten nothing at all!
It was a weird feeling. It was like playing God. I felt strangely empowered.
By the time I had moved to Jeju and had my own room, I started to spiral. It became easier and easier to sneak off after my shift to the convenience store, or Paris Baguette, so I could buy everything I could imagine, and then carry it back to my room to inhale in an hour. Everything I wanted to eat, suddenly, I had access too. In the darkness of my room, alone, there was nobody to shame me back to reality.
I spent many nights in this in-between temperamental bliss. I would turn on Netflix, and surround myself with bags of snacks, bread, and ice-cream. I would switch between sweet and salty, until I couldn’t move. My brain began to crave anything that gave me a temporary sugar high. What started as a “just this one time” activity turned into an emotional coping mechanism for me. Every time I was faced with boredom or stress, I retreated to my room until morning.
At first I thought had it under control. Everything was fine in my eyes. But then a couple of nights a week turned into three, then four, then I suddenly lost control completely.
I don’t think I was fooling anyone. I would spent my nights binging and purging only to wake up the next day with bags under my eyes, dry skin, oily hair, and no doubt, smelled of vomit. But I didn’t care. I had reached a point where I could no longer feel the effects of what I was doing to my body. I would go to the gym in the morning, exhausted and dehydrated, only to run and work-out until I could see my ribs. Then, I would go back to my room to sleep until my shift. I had no conception of how wrong this all was.
I would try restricting, meditating, writing in a journal to make the thoughts disappear, but no matter what I did it felt as if I was not strong enough to resist the temptation. I felt like my body and my brain were no longer connected. The nourishment my body needed my brain told me was not okay. When my brain wanted to deal with stress, my body resisted, holding desperately onto anything that I ate in fear of continued starvation.
The embarrassment was not enough for me to stop my own self destructive behavior. I would show up day in and day out to various supermarkets until my card maxed out, then I would put everything on my credit card. There were days I would walk thirty minutes down to the end of the neighborhood just to diversify which convenient stores I was going to. I couldn’t bear to continue buying from the same stores more than twice in a week for fear that I would see someone I knew or the employee working there would look at me, disgusted, and wonder to themselves why I wasn’t getting any bigger – or worse, they would say something to someone. I began to feel like a shell of a being – just waiting and waiting for the sun to fall down over the sky so I could sneak off to find something sweet. I had the worst anxiety standing in front of the cashier to pay for bags and bags of snacks. Who eats this much? I could feel their judgement – or perhaps it was just myself.
Food began to dictate my entire life. I would cancel on friends because my face was so bloated and dry from dehydration that I couldn’t bear to even look at myself in the mirror. There were times I would feign exhaustion just to excuse myself from going out. Every meal turned into a battle against my own brain signaling me to stop. If I could feel even an ounce of fullness when eating a meal I would immediately begin binging, knowing that the second I went over my believed caloric intake for the day, it meant that I need to reverse everything and punish myself.
Another year went by and my disordered eating patterns worsened. I was going to the bathroom maybe three times a week at most, as my stomach was now unable to process anything, and I was in constant pain. If I wasn’t hungry and tired, I was full and in pain. I was binging and purging nearly every day to the point where my tooth finally chipped after a particularly difficult night. Burst capillaries from exhaustion, I remember staring at myself in the mirror so traumatized and disgusted that my mouth, so full of acid, finally gave in. I began checking daily for signs of tooth decay – I was terrified. I started to have dreams that my teeth were falling out, chipping away, one by one.
But, no matter how scared I was, I couldn’t break what I had started. I would try for maybe two days to go on a restrictive diet, then wake up one morning in a sugar hangover of sorts. I couldn’t stop.
When I moved to Seoul, I decided enough was enough. If I couldn’t control my binging, I was going back to restricting – which surprise, surprise, was just swapping one demon for another. I limited myself to one meal a day – a roll of gimbap from the convenient store, and a small package of nuts to hold me over until the next day. It ended up working for a bit. I have anxiety eating in front of others, and luckily, at my guest house, there was no privacy for eating – therefore, no eating. I would allow myself either dinner, or a snack when I got home. I lived off coffee for the summer and one meal around 6pm. I was fading.
I started seeing someone, and for every night we drank and he walked me home, I would hurry back out to find something to chew on before emptying myself over the toilet in fear I would gain weight from late night eating. I looked like a ghost, and felt even less than one. At this point, I was so tired that I thought during the time I went home, I could try to break out of my bad habits. I tried really hard to change during this time, but being surrounded once again by the foods I didn’t have access to in Korea, I kept binging and binging. Every time my parents would leave me home alone, the feelings would take over, and once again I would find myself hung over porcelain, regretful, ashamed. I realized that this was now an addiction.
When I got back to Seoul, I eventually moved into an apartment, where I could finally be alone! Terrifying, yes. Stressed from my new job and from having to balance studying, I was constantly looking for an emotional outlet. I got a gym membership which helped, but there were still nights that I would spend pacing around, thinking about food, and staring at my delivery app. Some days I gave in, most days though, I didn’t. I found that the more I did, the less I thought about food, and by default, the less I ate. It was a diet I didn’t mean to be on, but with late night gym work-outs becoming my stress reliever instead of binging, I thought things were beginning to change.
I dieted for a while, and restricted more so. I would find myself falling asleep watching Muk-bangs, or eating shows, my stomach growling, my ability to restrict, my disciplined lifestyle, I could feel was slowly slipping away. I eventually dropped to 46kg, which is about 100 pounds – my lowest weight since high school. I was very hyper aware of what I ate and did body checks about 6 times a day.
Due to my low weight, I was always hungry. I used to have cheat days on either Saturday or Sunday and order delivery food which I tried to let myself enjoy and eat without stress.
Of course my body was now conditioned to get rid of anything covered in oil. So, even when I tried to hold it down, acid reflux got the better of me. I was now at the point where my stomach could expand to fit, at my most awfully impressive per night:
-Monday: two large pizzas and a tray of breadsticks
-Tuesday: four hamburgers and three large fries, large onion rings
-Wednesday: five loaves of bread and a pint of ice-cream
-Thursday: two servings of fried chicken and cheese balls
and so on…
I was impressed and horrified with what I was doing to myself. I would try to enjoy my trigger foods, but I couldn’t. So, after purging, I would be sitting in the dark, exhausted, my throat burning, wondering, what I was even doing? Why was I so insistent on keeping myself miserable?
I started to have panic attacks about eating. I couldn’t stop counting calories, I couldn’t stop restricting then binging, I couldn’t stop thinking about food. One night, crying, I realized that I couldn’t remember that last time I ate a meal without thinking about calories, without thinking about consequences, or what I was going to do to offset that. For three years (and I’m sure more before that) I was anxious at every. single. meal. My brain was my biggest bully. For every moment I tried to enjoy food, I couldn’t get rid of my critic.
When it became unavoidable, I eventually told my family about what was going on. I admitted that I had practically drained my savings due to my addiction. They couldn’t understand how I was able to spend nearly $50 on food in one day, eat all of it in one sitting, and then get rid of it an hour later. Having that honest conversation with them was the most embarrassed I have ever been in my entire life. My addiction was one of privilege and selfishness. I couldn’t justify it. I couldn’t understand it. I could barely say it out loud.
My parents, didn’t get it. My boyfriend didn’t get it. My friends didn’t get it. And that made me feel even worse.
I couldn’t properly express to the people around me what I needed from them. I needed to stop going out to eat my trigger foods. I needed people to stop suggesting eating all together – can we just go to a cafe? I found the only food that didn’t trigger binging was the food that I cooked for myself. And, yes, my food was not delicious, but it wasn’t allowed to be. It was there to nourish me, but I couldn’t enjoy it too much. When quarantine hit, I was secretly really happy that I didn’t have to go out to drink, to eat dinner at a restaurant, to sit across from someone and check over and over how to downsize my portion without it looking like I was doing so. I was free to eat at home for every meal.
Then, one day, in the midst of eating a simple meal, my favorite, tofu and some vegetable side dishes, my brain started to tell me to keep eating, order pizza, throw it up. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t live like this. I couldn’t be weak for the rest of my life and afraid to be uncomfortable anymore, I couldn’t keep succumbing to this voice in my head.
My eating was a form of control. I was too weak to acknowledge that this addition was coming from my inability to deal with my life, my hardships, my responsibilities. It was a distraction, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I set a goal for myself. Don’t purge for one week. Then two. And each day, each struggle, I tried to allow myself the things I wanted without repercussions.
Then one day, I Skyped my parents while eating pizza. And I didn’t throw up after. It was such a small feat, but I hadn’t done that in I don’t know how long.
I continued cooking at home, continued to ignore that part of my brain that told me to eat until I couldn’t move, and tried for the first time to really put effort into significant change. As anyone with disordered eating knows, it’s really difficult to not have set backs. There are always good days and then there are bad days. If I was to say that I didn’t spend some nights pacing and crying trying not to binge, then I would be lying to you and myself. It does get easier though, and so, I will continue trying to love this body that I have put through more than it deserves. Because, despite everything, I do want to enjoy food again.