Disordered Eating and Pain We Cannot See

By the time the doctor weighed me the fourth time, I was crying. “Your weight is normal”, she repeated. If her words were meant to console me, they didn’t – not the first time, not the fourth time she said them, either. I hadn’t made an appointment to talk to my doctor about my weight; I’d made an appointment to talk to her about the way I ate. It felt dangerous to be around food because I wanted to be able to eat, but I also wanted not to eat. I frequently felt like the moment I put food in my mouth I couldn’t stop eating.

It didn’t matter how many ways I tried to explain what I was seeking help for was psychological, not physiological, it was obvious she couldn’t hear what I was saying.

My doctor asked me if I starved myself or if I threw up my food and I said, “No” – because I hadn’t done either in years. My reply, combined with my weight being ‘normal’, meant I was refused a referral for therapy because I didn’t have a Recognised Eating Disorder.

I’m frequently asked why it took me so long to address my disordered eating and my honest answer is that it took me years to accept my own neurosis; to be willing to recognise how obsessive my relationship with food really was. Almost every woman I knew throughout those three plus decades was on a diet of some description or another and/or had specific foods she would or wouldn’t eat for a multitude of reasons – although mostly because she was trying disappear. Or at least minimise herself to a size society deemed ‘acceptable’.

Being obsessed with food; avoiding it, attempting to control what I ate, discussing what I ate and whether it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – as if food has morality – thinking about food constantly and then of course, eating it compulsively; I didn’t initially associate any of these behaviours with disordered eating. These behaviours were a normal part of dieting and dieting was simply a normal part of life as a woman in western society. Everyone was doing it.

It was only with time that I began to question my relationship with food and the role I played in that relationship. I was a chronic under eater and because of this, I was a chronic binge eater. Which is why I was a chronic under eater. It’s an insidious, vicious cycle and I was permanently in it: Yo-yo dieting and swinging wildly between feeling totally empty or completely full. I felt like I was constantly at war with my body and food. It took time for me to wake up and reach the point when I could admit to myself that my relationship with food was a more complex and deeper problem than I could address by repeatedly behaving the same way, yet expecting a different outcome each time.

I can’t tell you the exact date I went to the doctor about my eating, but I do know it was 2011. Some details are blurry and some are clear, like how my appointment was on a Friday in spring and how the sky was an unusually deep blue for so early in the morning. I know I went to work after the appointment, I can see myself stepping out of the surgery and onto the footpath, turning right and joining the flow of pedestrian traffic as we made our way towards the nearest Tube. I recall casually telling David over dinner what had happened at the doctor’s, making light of it, as if it didn’t really matter.

I know that for a very long time I felt such a deep sense of shame for having sought help in the first place, and despite being a prolific journaler, I didn’t write any of this down when it happened. That’s the thing about shame, it’s painful; you don’t want to be in, so sometimes you pretend you aren’t.

So, why write about it now?

Because I no longer feel a deep sense of shame and whilst anyone who’s never experienced disordered eating won’t relate to my story, it’s worth telling it for those who will. I refuse to feel ashamed or embarrassed that ‘food issues’ form part of my life’s story or for letting them affect me the way they did. I won’t apologise for any of this.

And whilst some will read this and greet me with an apology, “I’m so sorry you had to go through this”, there’s nothing to apologise for. I didn’t realise it at the time, but my experience with my doctor was a gift.

It taught me not to dismiss another person’s feelings just because I can’t comprehend or feel or see or their pain. I’ve learnt that just because something is true for me, doesn’t make it true for you – and vice versa – but there are times when two competing truths can exist at once.

It would take another two years until I finally woke up properly: To the fact that there would be no quick fix and no simple solution. Another diet wouldn’t heal my relationship with food and no single therapist would have all the answers to my questions. Neither of those were what I really wanted anyway, even if that’s what I believed at the time. I wanted a beautiful, empowering, self-directed recovery that would reflect who I am as an individual. A recovery that would focus on abundance, rather than deprivation: I’d been looking at my life through that lens for too long. I finally understood it was up to me to take ownership and responsibility for creating my own path to healing and recovery.

So, I did just that. Next month it will be six years since I started shuffling down that path. And it worked. I’m writing because I want to remember what I did to get here today – because I fought so hard for this – and to remember what I did from today to keep moving forward.

I’m also writing about this now because it’s not just my story. The way I ate is the way ever more of us eat, women most of all, including women aged 40 and beyond. Yet when I look around I rarely find my own experience reflected back at me by women of my generation – only by those much younger. I believe that’s because when it comes to how we eat, we’re frequently ashamed and embarrassed and even more so as we grow older, as if we should have somehow magically figured out our relationship with food, just because we’re reached a certain age.

So, I’m going to share my story by talking about it and writing about it. I’m going to share what I’ve learnt so far and what I’m continuing to learn and to offer my own path to others who find themselves in a similar situation – take what resonates with you, and leave the rest. I’m aware the subject of body image and disordered eating and weight are grey and immense and the solutions are complex. What I have to offer is personal and subjective and based on my experience. You’ll never find me feigning expert status, but I do believe my words have merit.

Thank you for reading my words. If you enjoyed this post please do leave a comment, it means more than you may realise when a reader takes the time to leave a few words of their own, and I always reply.

Previously: Tell Me Your Love Stories…

Next: What are You Willing to Give Up?


  • This resonates with me. I still do this, not as much as I did but it also goes in phases and I’m not sure I’ll ever give it up completely. That’s all, no excuses, promises or anything really, just an acknowledgement that I see your story in myself. Thanks for sharing x

  • I was munching into two biscuits with a cuppa as I sat down to read this. They go with tea don’t you think? Or is that what has been advertised to me! A three o’clock twix used to be my thing. Still is sometimes, although not necessarily three o’clock.
    I relate to the dichotomy of food and why it causes some complexity. I have no answers only that I see it in myself and the other women I share my world with. Interestingly though I don’t see it in men as much.
    Thank you for sharing this Esther, I am looking forward to hearing and feeling more as you share with us.

  • Lisa, Thank you for taking the time to acknowledge that you see my story in yourself, your willingness to share that means a lot to me. Although I’m sorry you – or anyone – has had to experience disordered eating. When I refer to my self-directed recovery – and I’m going to write about this in future – a big part of the recovery process was accepting that I’m always going to have to be mindful of my relationship with food. So by saying my recovery ‘worked’ I’m not saying I have a perfect relationship with food now, but rather, a relationship that works for me. Sending you love, Esther xx

  • Susan…How lovely to ‘see’ you here! Thank you for your words of encouragement and…biscuits definitely go with tea! Oh, it causes so much complexity and that’s probably why I’ve been hesitant to write about it here in the past. Thanks for being here and for being so supportive as I take my first step into what I hope will become a body of work that does answer some of the questions we have when it comes to our relationship with food, which is all I can hope for. Sending you much love, Esther xx

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