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Going Hungry Episode 6: My Deep, Dark, Not-Totally-Irrational Fear

Hey, friends! I haven’t updated the Going Hungry series for a while, partly because I’ve been feeling good and not so up for dwelling on the less-than-pleasant past. That said, I’ve committed to telling this story because I think it’s probably the most important story I have to tell, and I think we’ve reached the critical point.

In the first installment, I talked about how my body changed when I was 18 years old, and how this promoted a change in my attitude toward my body. I began to believe that being slender was not only desirable, but actually attainable, and began to associate my new shape with my new, adult identity.

Then, I discussed how my relationship with exercise went from positive and joyful to more and more obsessive and unforgiving.

I wrote about how much misinformation we are all exposed to about how much nutrition our bodies need, and how this misinformation encouraged me to eat far too little.

I explained how my IBS symptoms often made me very uncomfortable after eating, which I mistakenly interpreted to mean I was eating too much.

And finally, I confessed that the less I ate, the more I obsessed over food, to the point that it overshadowed my ability to enjoy life.

Still, through my undergraduate yeras (2010 – 2014), I was doing okay. I was getting slimmer, but I was still a “healthy” BMI. I didn’t skip meals, I didn’t purge meals, and I still allowed myself some special treats like french fries or ice cream, although fewer and fewer of them as time went on.

But now we come to the part of the story where all these things that were going on, manipulating my relationship with food and exercise and body, collided in a big, ugly, anorexic bomb.

I graduated from college and went to work at a camp for the summer.IMG_0345There are so many stories I could tell about my summer there, and I’ve written many of these stories as essays for workshop in my graduate creative writing program. I learned a lot, I met some awesome people, I had a cool job, and it was a beautiful place, heaven on earth.IMG_0050 (2)At least, it would have been heaven on earth I hadn’t been living in my own personal hell.

You see, shortly before I arrived for the new job, I had had an awful attack of IBS. Probably the worst I’ve ever had. Like out, on my back, I-can-hardly-think-straight-I’m-in-so-much-pain, awful IBS. And I was traveling with my mom to a friend’s wedding, no less!10756_325664464247882_1478783276303792564_nThe worst of the actual pain receded within about 48 hours, so that by the time this picture was taken, I was feeling well enough to enjoy the wedding, eat a light meal, and dance.

But in the days after the wedding, when mom drove me to drop me off at camp, I was dealing with a sensation that was almost as intense, but no less uncomfortable: bloating. At the time, I didn’t know what bloating was, so I called it by a different name: “stuffed.”10527437_10152786389983149_9056325903098384993_nYou see, bloating and abdominal pain are both symptoms of IBS, and in retrospect, it’s clear to me that the two symptoms were just two sides of the same digestive coin. But at the time, there was only one explanation for the “stuffed” feeling. I must be overeating, I thought constantly. I must be overeating.

And here’s where all those disordered thoughts I talked about in earlier episodes started going crazy.

  1. My figure was, in my mind, one of my proudest accomplishments. If I’m overeating, I thought, I’ll lose that figure, and that would be a waste of all of my “achievements.”
  2. I was away from my gym and the step aerobics and weight lifting classes I held so dear, so that although I ran or did body-weight exercises most mornings at 6am, as well as walked literally constantly, everywhere I went, miles and miles each day, I was convinced I must not be exercising enough.
  3. I had come to believe that 1200-1500 calories a day was healthy, and eating even less couldn’t hurt. The meals served at the camp dining hall were much bigger and richer than what was served at home, but I took only very small portions and lots of salad, instead of whatever was being served as the entree.
  4. Ironically, despite being so convinced that food was so terrible for me, I also wanted, desperately, constantly, every minute of every day, to eat. That’s that obsession part I was talking about in episode 5: the less you eat, the more you think about eating.

And so, I developed an enormous, overwhelming fear that plagued me every minute of every day: I was absolutely terrified of not being hungry.

And the reverse of that: What I thought I wanted, more than anything else, was to be intensely, uncomfortably hungry. Because then, and only then, would I give myself permission to eat. And what I wanted more than anything else was to eat.DSCN1537Absurd? Of course. Totally.

But also not totally irrational. Between the IBS, my slowed metabolism and digestion due to years of undereating, and my body’s numbness in the face of the fact that I was literally starving, I rarely, if ever, felt the physical symptoms of hunger anymore.

As you can imagine, I responded to this bewildering absence of hunger by eating less…and less…and less…until by the end of the summer, I was down well under 1000 calories a day. And still convinced that I was “never hungry.”

At that point, I was 100% anorexic. And I was absolutely, 100% panicked.

I think I’ll take a break from the story there for now. In the next episode, I’ll share how I came to realize something was wrong, and why it took me so long to do anything about it, despite that realization.IMG_0059 (2)The (not so) funny thing is, although I eat much more now, and although I recognize that I must eat enough in order to experience regular hunger, I admit that I’m still, not-totally-irrationally, afraid of not being hungry when I’m “supposed” to be.

Gaining weight scares me a little, but not that much. Being judged by friends and family for overeating, developing terrible diseases due to improper nutrition, not fitting into clothes I like…all these things scare me less and less as time goes on.

But on days when I don’t get hungry when I expect to, I still get pretty upset. It scares me more than heights, more than snakes or spiders, more than the dark, more than tight spaces or cemeteries. In fact, the only things that scare me more are my completely rational fears like losing friends and family or being unable to find employment after I graduate. And yes, yes, that is absolutely absurd.

All I can say is, I’m still working on it.

Do unexpected hunger and fullness signals make you anxious? If so, which upsets you more: hunger when you don’t expect it, or the absence of hunger when you expect to be hungry?

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  1. Ellie says:

    When I’m hungry, if I’m at work and busy, I get “hangry” and drink something until I can get a chance for lunch. I used to think being hungry made me “stronger” somehow, but typing that out, it is silly. Great post Joyce 🙂

    1. Joyce says:

      You’re not alone. A lot of people that I’ve met believe going hungry makes them stronger; for instance, I had a friend in undergrad who liked to exercise while she was hungry. I think that’s wrong, and I’m glad that you’ve come to a healthier place, but I certainly don’t think it’s “silly.”

  2. Cora says:

    Joyce – your honest in all of these segments is captivating and beautiful. Though hard to speak out, I’m sure, I am so appreciative of every word. Because….. well, it makes me feel less absurd myself (we can’t be THAT absurd if we share the same thoughts and fears… right?). I really hate… and that’s really the best word I have for it… not being hungry. I have a legitimate fear of being full, which is something I actually just voiced out loud the other night. It’s like I have this inner belief that we are never supposed to actually feel “full” and rather just constantly feel “satisfied” or a “little bit hungry.” So when I don’t feel hungry when it is coming time to eat, I just… oh gosh I hate it. There is this crazy notion of feeling hungry = feeling strong, and I most definitely was like your friend you liked to workout first thing in the morning before eating because for some reason I did feel stronger on an empty stomach. I’m still working through that. How bizarre it all is, isn’t it? And its a really really tough belief to push through. Thank you for shedding light on this part of the disorder – its not one that I see often – but if we start to talk about it more maybe together we can bust through it. You are just so great my dear <3

    1. Joyce says:

      Thanks so much for your encouraging words, Cora. It’s so reassuring to know I’m not the only one who thinks such bizarre things. It’s true–people in the recovery community don’t talk about how the physical sensations of hunger and fullness can be a huge trigger, but they definitely are for me.

  3. Sandy says:

    Just came across your blog and am so moved. 40 yrs of ED. Last 15-20, problems with GERD and IBS. I love the way you face right into the essence of this. I too am scared of being hungry, scared of not being hungry. I too try to steer somewhere in the middle of restricting foods that irritate vs. eating everything/anything without compassionate consideration for how my digestion works.

    1. Joyce says:

      I’m so sorry to hear about your digestive issues in combination with ED. In recovery, digestive issues can be an extra hurdle that is so difficult to deal with. I wish you all the best in finding a way of nourishing your body that works for you.
      I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to recover from 40 years with an eating disorder–but recovery is so worth it! For me, it’s been like having my life and my self back, even if I still deal with the anxious thoughts sometimes. I’m glad to hear from you and wish you well on that bumpy recovery journey.

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