A recent SELF survey polled 4,000 women ages 25-45 and discovered that more than 6 in 10 women are “disordered eaters”. Out of curiosity, I took the survey online. (You can take the quiz here). Anything over a score of 22 was a red flag; I scored a 38.
The survey identified six types of disordered eaters: calorie prisoners, secret eaters, career dieters, food addicts, purgers and over-exercisers. Some women fit into one category and others, like me, could easily be grouped into more than one.
Turns out I was an over-exerciser, a food addict and a calorie prisoner. But while I never purged or used laxatives to lose weight—and I’m ashamed to admit this—I did become somewhat of a purger.
I maintained my goal weight a year, until December 2005, when stress in my personal life seemed to dominate my thoughts. I’d gotten engaged in the fall, and between a brand new job, wedding planning, and dealing with challenging immigration issues to bring my now-husband here to the U.S. (he lived overseas at the time), I was a ball of stress.
It was around that time that the “midnight incidents,” as I now call them, began. I started waking in the middle of the night and making a beeline for the kitchen, not fully aware of what I was doing.
The first time it happened, I assumed I was just hungry. I was exercising a lot more to combat stress at the time, but it only made me hungrier. So I poured myself a serving size of Kashi and skim milk, journaled the points and went back to bed. I woke for the gym and went about my day.
But then it happened again….and again. A few days would pass incident-less, and then I’d find myself back in the kitchen at 2 a.m. hunting for food. Soon, the incidents became habitual. My body—which had been accustomed to waking at 5 for the gym, now woke at 2 for food.
Sometimes it was genuine hunger, but more often than not, I was just on autopilot.
So instead of being hungry and just having cereal to quell a rumbling tummy, I’d find myself bingeing but not hungry… eating pretzels, graham crackers, ice cream, peanut butter…all things I’d pretty much cut out of my diet.
From time to time, I could stop myself… but other times I was honestly so unaware, I felt like I was outside of my own body and nothing could stop me. Yet because I’d always journal the points of what I ate, I wondered if I was more in control than I thought?
Often my roommates would awake to use the bathroom and find me in the kitchen. I’d shrug and just tell them “I was just hungry.”
I started locking my bedroom door, but even that wasn’t a big enough barrier…Clearly, I had a very keen sense at 2:00 a.m. of where the kitchen was, even in the pitch dark.
Finally, I resorted to sleeping pills, hoping they’d keep me asleep for a full night. But they didn’t always work, and I’d feel anxious every night before bed wondering, “Will I sleep through the night, or wake guilt-ridden, feeling like a failure?”
The sneaky secret I’d been keeping reared its ugly head; between December 2005 and April 2006, I put on 7-10 lbs (depending on the scale and that time of the month), all of which I attribute to these midnight incidents.
When I got married and moved to Michigan to live with my husband later that fall, the incidents slowed a great deal—likely because my personal life was so much calmer and happier. My stress levels had decreased enormously, despite moving and starting another new job.
I wish I could tell you I’ve nipped these incidents in the bud, but the truth is, they still happen from time to time, but now I see a definitive correlation between my period and when they occur. I now know to expect that I tend to have an incident the two or three nights prior to my period, most likely caused by changing hormones and increased hunger as the body prepares to menstruate.
I’ve learned to arm myself with fresh fruit and yogurt or fat-free pudding in the fridge. This way, if I do wake and can’t talk myself out of it, I have healthy options on hand. I also try to repeat this mantra “If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.” Sometimes it can stop me from myself, but sometimes, my hormones win.
While my midnight incidents, coupled with other behaviors I exhibited should have set off warning bells for me, it was painful and shameful purging of sorts that took my disordered eating to a whole new level.
One day in August 2007, I had a hankering at a convenience store for a package of white chocolate Reese’s. I had never tried them, and the urge overtook me. I knew I had the points for them, why not? I’d always had a healthy relationship with York peppermint patties (my favorite candy) and never abused them… so why not something different?
But that day in my car, a strange sense of fear and anxiety gripped me, as though I was about to jump off a cliff. I bit into one, swirled it around my mouth, but I couldn’t bring myself to swallow the sugary, peanut-buttery goodness. It was just…so wrong! I chastised myself, “The new Melissa doesn’t eat this stuff anymore; she shuns it!”
So, disgusting as this sounds (and I cringe as I confess this all on paper), I spit it out in the plastic bag it had come in, and dabbed the corners of my mouth with a napkin, to capture the drool that possibly contained calories.
And so began a downward spiral into the hell that is semi-purging…where I’d buy “off-limits” foods like chocolate or Chex mix, but spit them out before all the calories were ingested.
I’d have a taste of my husband’s French fry, only to spit it discretely into a napkin.
Soon I was buying multiple candy bars and “eating” them in the car, savoring the flavor but not allowing myself to “go all the way.”
Of course I’d still dock myself points for these humiliating indiscretions (how silly, food I didn’t even get to enjoy!), but the problem wasn’t the points I was eating or not eating or even my poor choices—it was me.
Everything came to a head this past winter, when my husband was searching in the trash for a bracket he thought he’d tossed, and came upon a whole piece of cake we’d just bought that I’d chewed up …. and spit out.
With full awareness of my food issues (and having tried to help me in the past) he gently confronted me about it… but even our long talk, subsequent talks, and his vivid concern for my health and well-being … it wasn’t enough to get me to stop this destructive, disgusting, secretive behavior.
I only got sneakier.
Whether at home or at work, I’d flush candy down the toilet…Out of sight, out of mind.
One night during the holidays, a friend and I had baked tons of cookies to give to friends as gifts. When she left, I shoved two of the extras in my mouth, but spit them down the garbage disposal. Sayanara! No evidence! And the kicker? I did it again. And again, until there were no cookies left.
Why couldn’t I just EAT the damn candy or cookie, you wonder? If I only knew… It was like a monster took over me each time. Whereas with the midnight eating I was often on autopilot and unaware, I was fully conscious during these incidents, knowing exactly what I was doing.
My life is wonderful: a fabulous and loving husband, an amazing and supportive family, true-blue friends, a fantastic career, a new home. There is no tangible reason that I’ve gone down this track.
About two months ago, I confessed to a Weight Watchers buddy I chat with regularly about my purging problem. Since clearing the air and coming clean with her, I’ve had far fewer incidents … perhaps confessing it was the first step?
I’d like to say I’ve overcome both the midnight eating and the purging, but the truth is, I am still struggling with both these demons. While the midnight eating has been far less frequent and usually tied to my menstrual cycle, I still sometimes buy things I know are triggers. But now, I try to tell myself, if I’m going to buy it and put it in my mouth, it needs to be “point-worthy.”
I’m certainly not cured, but who ever is truly cured?