TODAY I met my relatives for lunch at a fancy Japanese restaurant, where I ate more than my usual serving size. Afterward we went to a famous shaved-ice cafe and had dessert. The fullness from the meal was sign I should skip dinner — or at least that’s what I had planned to do.
Past eight, I was hungry after hours of coding and tutoring. But I couldn’t bring myself to eat a meal; I kept thinking about the calories in sashimi and miso soup and sushi. So I opted for a small bowl of yogurt.
That wasn’t too bad, I could have a little more. I grabbed a granola bar. Then another. And another. I heard the ziplock of my chocolate-covered sunflower seed bag opening, the waste basket plastic crinkling. I watched my feet move towards the kitchen, hands frantically twist the lid of a glass jar, fingers dig through cheese beef jerky. By the time I returned to my senses, I had hidden all the empty wrappers beneath the surface of the trash can, my stomach felt like it had an oily stone in it, and it was past midnight.
I haven’t told anyone about my frequent binge eating episodes. Today was not even close to the worst of it — back when I was at Stanford, I spent hours squatting alone in my dorm room, chewing food then spitting it out, throwing chips onto the floor then stepping on it so that I physically wouldn’t be able to put it in my mouth. Back then, my life was a series of meals. I spent every hour of my day eating, or waiting until I allowed myself to eat. My whole freshman year was a blur of food.
Why I am publishing this online I have no idea. I’ve refused to call it a disorder for months; isn’t self-diagnosing the worst offense to those with real problems? But if I don’t recognize this — whatever the hell I’ve been doing — as a mental health issue, I don’t know how to get better.
I see why this whole problem began, but I don’t understand exactly when. Back when I attended my hyper-competitive Korean boarding school, I never cared much about weight or appearance (I certainly weighed a lot and was ugly) and ate whatever I wanted. But looking back, I see patterns of stress-eating: I’d consume two to three large brownies during exam time, drink several cups of mocha, cook midnight ramen. My meals ended only when I felt sick from food. My eating habits weren’t ever a sign of mindfulness — but I wasn’t bothered by it.
I started dieting after graduation, as all Korean students do. Here, real life begins after high school: we can drink alcohol legally, have time to go eat out in nice Seoul restaurants, get hit on in subways if we’re pretty enough. And skinny is a golden royal emblem in your early twenties, in Korea. Every single one of my friends went on some form of diet and succeeded; so did I.
After six years of measuring my progress through exam scores and class rankings, I had no where to anchor my self-worth post-graduation. Weight was such an easy report card — the numbers ticking down, the compliments I began receiving, the clothes I fit into was proof I was doing something right. Fun fact: “passing an exam” is one of the most pleasurable experiences for humans; the dopamine rush you get from it exceeds getting a pay rise or playing video games. So weight-loss was absolutely addicting — just as competing for good grades had been in high school.
I hit my lowest weight before my move to Stanford. I’m 6'4"; then I was 97 lb. I had trouble walking to my tutoring jobs, I lost my period, and my average body temperature was 93 degrees. I was so proud of these developments. I liked seeing my ribcage and the outline of my cheekbones. Not once did I believe I was sick — I thought I looked better.
I also refused to eat my mom’s dinner. My mom is an incredible cook — anyone who knows her can attest to this. She made the best food for me back then, telling me to eat up before I leave for college. I turned down all of it. Told her I liked cooking my own food, didn’t like red meat, already brushed my teeth. At one point she stopped cooking for me because she thought I no longer found her food delicious.
When I began winter quarter at Stanford, I somehow juggled my new life while sticking to my diet. I cannot remember everything I did to keep the weight off. Trips to the dining hall were exhausting cycles of control and hunger, stopping myself from hoarding junk food back to my dorm.
I certainly looked fit, though. Online shopping was easy because I’d just buy the smallest size; I wore crop tops and got lots of compliments. I really did like how I looked. I think this gross giddiness you get from being affirmed you look good— or skinny or fit or lean or whatever — is what kept me in my diet. Certainly, I had believed my world was improved because I lost a few pounds. But along with my weight I had lost my excitement for social events, interest in sports, ability to laugh without feeling exhausted.
There was no way my body could maintain such a low weight— by the end of winter quarter, something in my physiology clicked and I began binging. I would refuse to eat all morning and afternoon, then at night, I’d binge. I do not want to speak about it in detail because it is disgusting and monstrous. During these episodes, I literally could not control my hands; they simply moved from the bag of cookies to my mouth, endlessly. I filled up entire takeout paper bags with plastic wrappers. I watched myself — it was like my body didn’t belong to me — pace back and forth between all my drawers and cabinets, looking for more food, any food, even things that didn’t make sense to eat, like uncooked ramen packs. I ate until there was nothing edible in my room. Even after that, I scavenged for something to eat and had even looked through my trash.
I don’t know how to explain this, but I felt as if I would never feel happiness again if I don’t eat something right then — as if my entire sane being depended on me eating another bite of something, anything.
I used to be one of those people unconvinced by mental disorders because isn’t it all in your very-much-controllable mind? When I binged, I had no control over my actions. It was as if I was watching a movie. I simply binged, then came out of it a couple hours later, squatting on the floor, fingers sticky, feeling guilty, confused as to why I did all that.
I did gain weight as a result of this (and probably still am gaining weight), but not noticeably. My binging was paired with periods of over-exercising and under-eating. I was and am still skinny. But mentally and physically, I had never felt sicker.
There’s not really a conclusion to this story. I just needed to write this down because otherwise I don’t think I’d ever believe these things happened.
I do hope that, if anyone in a similar situation happened to read this, that this makes them feel a bit normal. When I binged I felt so disgusted that I never spoke about it. Because what would I tell my friends and family? That I remember seeing myself in the mirror after a binge with food stains all over my face and shirt? In those moments I felt so utterly alone and terrified. It helped reading about similar experiences online; I suppose this is my contribution to that growing body of literature.