Escape from the Hamburger

A True Story About an Eating Disorder

Do not be greedy for every delicacy, and do not eat without restraint; for overeating brings sickness, and gluttony leads to nausea. Many have died from gluttony, but the one who guards against it prolongs his life. - Ecclesiasticus 37:29-31

Sitting at the table, eating my third heaping plateful of spaghetti, I watched absently as my house mates shuffled in and out of the dining room. The dinner conversation turned from the Italian professor teaching Differential Equations to the stinking compost heap in the back yard, but not a word was said about my excessive eating, now a daily habit. Maybe my friends didn't suspect I was a compulsive overeater because I was an athlete and supposedly needed all that food. Or maybe they hadn't noticed because they didn't know what to look for. Inwardly I marveled at my ability to fool everyone until a new, unpleasant thought entered my brain -- maybe they just didn't care.

By now I was sitting at the table of latecomers and was the only student who had been there from the beginning of dinner hour. I forced a last bite of pasta down into my taut and aching stomach then looked around. No, no one would notice. I got up for dessert. Later that evening I went to my room and pulled a large container of Tums from my desk drawer. I chewed four fruit-flavored tablets, and the burning in my stomach slowly subsided.

Because of the gluttonous abuse I had been heaping on my body over the years, I was taking about twenty Tums a day to alleviate the inevitable indigestion. Strange, I thought, that I should display such a lack of will power, when I had been lauded during my high school years for my incredible discipline, both in my diet and in my athletic training for track and cross country. I was known to overstep the bounds of normalcy to pursue "greater heights": eighteen miles of running in the hilly Pennsylvania country around my hometown just for fun, top-notch grades, and meticulous calorie counting and weighing everything I ate.

But some of my behavior was not healthy at all. Looking back, I see a lot of it started at home. When I was only ten, at dinner I would have eating contests with my brother, who was seventeen. Sometimes I would win. My parents unwittingly made matters worse. Having grown up in the depression, my mother was constantly preoccupied with having enough to eat. She would continually offer food to whoever would take it, even right after meals. Being the type to want to please everyone, I would eat whatever was given to me, no matter how much.

I became obsessed with food in every way imaginable: showing off how many McDonald's hamburgers I could eat at one sitting (seven), demonstrating my iron stomach by downing a whole bottle of lemon juice, trying to get attention by eating unshelled hard-boiled eggs in front of a crowd of people, baking several loaves of whole wheat bread then eating it all -- even when the recipe failed. I had no semblance of moderate behavior in the realm of food. Eating was not simply a way for me to re-energize my body after a hard-day's work. I loved it and hated it. It was an escape and a bondage.

In ninth grade I noticed my weight was steadily climbing. For breakfast I was eating about eight bowls of cereal. On my way to the bus stop, I would open the lunch my mom had just packed and begin to eat. Later I would buy another lunch at the cafeteria. I decided to join the track team in hopes of stabilizing my weight. Track did that and more; I lost thirty pounds the first season without even dieting.

I began to look down on people who were overweight, and by my senior year in high school I was obsessed with being thin. That summer I completely avoided sugar, fat, and salt, gorging myself on soupy oatmeal and plain yogurt instead of my usual foods. I would look at myself in the mirror and get angry if I could pinch even a millimeter of flesh off my stomach. My coach started to call me "Anorexic Bob" because I would weigh myself so often even though I was rail-thin. As I grew weaker and more sallow I had to abandon my "diet." I missed all my favorite foods. Besides, I knew I could lose weight anytime I wanted to. I figured I was in control because I could control my weight.

Though my compulsion worsened, I hid behind my weight. If a high school friend told me I was a glutton, I would say that gluttons are fat, therefore it couldn't be true. The mother of one of my track buddies noticed how much I was eating when our team went out to pizza one night before a race. I shrugged her off as a nuisance and laughed about my ability to glut, but inside I was miserable.

By attending a prestigious university far from home I hoped life would improve, but my problems grew even worse. I lived at place called pika, a fraternity-like living group where there was always an over-abundance of food. Huge mounds of lasagne, trays of brownies, just mammoth amounts of everything -- the compulsive overeater's worst nightmare. As I was very irresponsible I wasn't willing to honestly face the consequences of my behavior. I had decided that my problems weren't my fault at all; they were entirely environmental. Having grown up in a family which was constantly eating and now living in a fraternity setting, it was easy to blame these situations for my demise.

The summer after my freshman year I decided to live off campus. In an apartment all to myself, I was determined to escape from the temptation caused by my previous environments and live in peace from food. I found, however, that my problems followed me. My binges got so bad that on several occasions I was convinced that I would explode and my intestines would spill out. One summer day I decided to visit pika. While sitting in the living room, drinking hot cocoa, I heard laughter from several of my friends.

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!" laughed a freshman. "Who makes up these stories?" She passed the tabloid to a fellow beside her.

"Man Bursts Open in Parking Lot Outside Grocery Store," he read. "What next?" Shaking his head, he handed the tabloid to me.

Terrified, my eyes quickly scanned the article. The story was about a man in Italy who had bought several bags of groceries and proceeded to sit down in the parking lot to eat what he had just bought. He kept eating and eating until his stomach burst open and then died of internal bleeding. As the others chucked I could only wonder, Is this my fate?

As I started back home I began to realize that I was in serious trouble. I had decided to walk instead of taking the subway to burn off all the calories from my binges, but only two blocks into my journey I lost control. I stopped at a bakery and bought a croissant, shoving it into my mouth without tasting it. Before I had even swallowed it, I found myself stepping inside a nearby Dunkin Donuts, buying a Boston cream pie.

Oh no, I thought. My compulsion is killing me, but I'm doing it anyway.

As I headed into Harvard Square, I could hear the noise of traffic, conversation, and street musicians. It was already twilight, but Harvard Square was always alive. Spying a pastry shop, I headed inside.

When I got home I laid on the couch and vowed never to overeat again. I was so sick from eating that I couldn't even get up. Yet I couldn't bear to be on the couch, either. No matter how I twisted and turned, the food was still there, making me miserable. And it was all my doing. I longed to get rid of everything I'd eaten, but I was too proud to vomit. Only sick teen age girls did something so disgusting. Instead, I would exercise -- the "manly" way of doing things. As I staggered to my feet and slipped on my running shorts I couldn't see that I was just a bulimic who purged in a different way.

The next morning I called in sick to work, not because I was sick with a cold but because I had eaten too much breakfast. I hung up the phone then laid on the bed and buried my face in a pillow. This was the third time I'd missed work because I was "sick."

"I can control it," I said aloud. I resolved to eat only apples for the rest the of day in an effort to cleanse myself and regain control. It didn't work; my resolutions never did. I only sank further into guilt and humiliation.

I went to the campus medical department to get help and was referred to a psychiatrist. I spoke to him at length about my eating problem, but he only sat and listened and asked questions about my family. Frustrated by the psychiatrist's failure to offer me a cure, I stopped seeing him after only three visits. I went to a medical doctor and told him about my bingeing. He took one look at my lean physique and insisted I didn't have an eating problem. I went away feeling rejected and misunderstood. My eating habits did not change.

Toward the end of the summer, after one particularly terrible binge, I finally decided that I had to do something. I had a problem, and I was to blame. I would have to initiate change and depend on God for the rest. The Bible says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us...and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9 NASB) This was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had no other solution. I swallowed my pride and told a friend in my living group about my eating problems. I had never done anything like that before. As far as anyone knew, I had no problems. My friend didn't believe me at first, but as I gave him more examples of my behavior he stopped doubting. I also told some friends in my Bible study, and they prayed for me.

I then told my brother and his wife who were also living in Boston. I was afraid at first -- afraid of what they would think of me and afraid of letting them down. But they were very supportive, and, as it turned out, my sister-in-law once had the same problem! Seeing that she had overcome it gave me confidence. She agreed to keep careful track of my diet. I would tell her at the end of every day what I had eaten. We prayed every day for the strength to be moderate. Until I knew I was forgiven by God for my terrible behavior, I couldn't even begin to recover. Although I had considered myself a Christian for years, until then I never believed that God would bother to help me. Sure He was all-powerful, but I believed that miracles were few and far between. But the Bible says, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed." (James 5:16 NASB) To His credit, within two weeks I was completely healed! I have not had the problem to this day.

Although I was healed from my obsession with food, I was not healed immediately of the cause of my compulsion or the physical aftereffects. One factor was my inability to maintain a normal human relationship, particularly with my parents. I was constantly trying to please them, even going into a nervous frenzy at the slightest hint of their displeasure. They would worry about my ability to do well in school, and I would worry about it too. One Rush Week, running on lots of worry and no sleep, I ended up in the hospital with a pulse rate of two hundred. Because of this strange relationship with my parents, I came to realize that I was filling myself with food as attempt to bring about fulfillment and satisfaction. My life -- school, relationships, everything -- was unfulfilling and unsatisfying. It was during the next few years that I began to work out those problems, and the work continues to this day.

The aftermath of my compulsion included damage to my digestive tract for which I had needed all the antacids. I put was on an expensive stomach medication usually prescribed for ulcers. The doctor later discovered I didn't have an ulcer, but rather "reflux esophagitis," a condition caused by stomach acid splashing upwards into the esophagus. Because of the reflux I couldn't eat a lot of my favorite foods, like garlic, onions, and coffee. After several years of seeing no improvement in my condition, I had resolved that I would just have to live with it to remind me of how awfully I had treated my body. But in November of my senior year, my stomach was miraculously better. Apart from a miracle of God, I had no explanation. I needed no more medication, no more Tums, and I could eat whatever I wanted without feeling any of the usual burning sensations. I was healed.

Sometime later I attended a campus Over-Eaters Anonymous (OA) meeting. As people entered the room, I couldn't help but notice that I was the only man. Most of the participants were overweight. I recognized one of the students, but she was much thinner than I had remembered. "Hi," she said, standing up. "My name's Laura* and I'm a compulsive overeater." She mentioned she was recently engaged and flashed a new diamond ring. I was impressed.

Wow, I thought. Over-Eaters Anonymous really works!

The discussion centered around the members' daily struggles with food. But as the meeting continued, I sensed something was not right. Many still binged regularly despite almost daily OA meetings. Each person would introduce themselves to the group by saying their name, followed by "and I am a compulsive overeater" -- even the ones who had been attending the meetings for years. I was dismayed by the belief that once one had an eating disorder, that person could never completely recover; he or she could only exist in a perpetual state of recovery, replacing the food addiction with the support group. Maybe OA was an important first step, but for many it had become more of a crutch than a path to true recovery.

Several months later I saw Laura crossing the street. She had regained all her weight, and her engagement ring was gone. Since then I have developed a new sense of gratitude. Without God's healing a lifetime of struggle is all I could have hoped for.

I found I still had compulsive tendencies, which are another story altogether. Compulsive behavior can take many destructive forms, only one of which includes food. In my own life, I have been compulsive with both overtly destructive behaviors as well behaviors that seemed "good" -- like exercising, serving others, and working persistently on a project. Compulsive behavior can worsen in times of stress or emotional turmoil. It was later discovered that I had a condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, for which I have been successfully treated. The National Institute of Mental Heath has recognized that a very high percentage of people with eating disorders also have OCD.

Although I'm far from perfect, I'm thankful that I no longer struggle with food addiction. I eat three nutritious meals a day, and I am in good health. Being a Christian means that my body is bought by Christ with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), not my own to do with what I please. Among other virtues, God requires moderation and self-control (Galatians 5:23). Through it all I had begun to respect my body.

* not real name

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