Terrible confession: I've always been secret big believer that romantic partners can “save” me from my eating disorder. Of course, this is completely untrue and, since we’re being honest, kind of unfair. Truthfully, what passes as "cured" (for the moment) is actually just the all-consuming power of a new love to occupy time that had previously been dominated by an eating disorder. Like many of the exciting parts of the first flush of love, though, it doesn't last.
As you can imagine, this has made me a pretty crappy girlfriend / wife, especially at the point when the exciting new relationship settles into something less exciting and more…comfortable. The eating disorder, waiting in the wings all the while, begins to assert its space again.
Do you have a dog? I have two pugs: Porkchop and Olive. Every night, they start out lounging on the bed taking up a modest amount of space. Yet somehow in the night, at some point they stretch themselves into five-pointed star like formations, sprawling themselves to take up more of the bed than you'd think possible. An eating disorder in a relationship is like this. At some point, it just spreads out and takes over.
Here are just some of the ways my eating disorder has made itself known in romantic relationships:
- I compare what I eat to my romantic partner, getting an obscene pleasure when they eat more then me. I love feeding them. Basically, all you have to do to make me love you is eat me under the table.
- I try to control what my partner eats. I bake and cook the fattiest things and watch them eat, but I do not take a bite.
- I hate it when my partner loses weight. Even if he is a foot taller than me and we will never be the same size, I get threatened by the idea of being with someone thinner than me.
- After lunch and dinner, I will get very quiet. My partner will ask what’s wrong and I will say “nothing”, but with that slight lilt in my voice that indicates “everything”. I might even start a minor fight to divert attention from something being wrong with me. If they finally do get it out of me, it comes out in a little girl voice: “did I eat too much?”
- I become very difficult about food related things. There is no “hey, let’s go out for sushi tonight” for me. Because I have planned out the details of my eating two days in advance, thankyouverymuch. I don’t do spontaneous.
- I don’t like to eat with my partner because I think I look gross when I eat. I will find any excuse not to, actually. I will even eat while they are in the shower so they don’t see me eat.
- I become secretive, furtive, in more ways than with food. I am chintzy with giving out details. Like, “Oh, did I forget to tell you I got a book deal today? Oh gosh. Just slipped my mind!”
- And here’s a biggie: I have a tough time with intimacy--sex, yes, but even just touching sometimes. To really learn something about someone’s body, about pleasuring someone else--to get that close--this is scary. I don’t want to be vulnerable, I’m absolutely certain that the moment I lose myself in this vulnerable space, I will look stupider than I ever have in my life. I hear Carrie's mom crowing "they're all gonna laugh at you!" as I type this.
Yet even while my eating disorder manifests as a series of acts which are meant to push the other person away, is hard to overstate my need to be adored.
I want intimacy. I want connection. I want constant attention. I want to be coddled, cuddled, loved beyond belief. Imagine what a confusing mixed message this sends to partners.
Contributing to the mixed messages? Maddeningly, an eating disorder isn't always OVERT in being a relationship-wrecker. Some of the nastiest ways it manifests have nothing to do with food. Or everything to do with food, depending on how you look at it. Like, when you’re spending two hours berating yourself for eating two extra bites of cinnamon roll when you told yourself you would STOP and now you can’t stop calling yourself a BIG FAT PIG in your mind and then your sweet boyfriend, who has no idea that you’re being FLUNG AGAINST THE CORNERS OF YOUR MIND AND TURNING BLACK AND BLUE INSIDE, asks if you want to go see a pretty waterfall, and you say in a very snotty way, “No, what have I ever done that has given you the indication I have an interest in nature” (unsaid: I AM WAY TOO FAT TO PUT ON A BATHING SUIT AND BE BY WATER HOW DARE YOU!” ) Not being privy to the crazy caps parts, to the other person, you just come across as being some uneven, crazy bitch.
An eating disorder will make you do crazy things in a relationship. Once, long ago, a (now ex, obviously) boyfriend had come down to visit me for Christmas day. We were to spend the day and evening together. We got Chinese food. An hour after eating my entire container of shrimp with broccoli, I told him I needed to take a walk, just a short one, for a little alone time. What I actually did was walk to CVS, buy ipecac, and vomit everything up into a trash can on the corner of my block. Meanwhile, sweet guy who came to see me for Christmas, unknowing, is like "what? She needed alone time?!?". And probably not feeling so hot about the decision to come and see me. And I had the nerve to be angry at him for not knowing what I was doing, for not stopping me, for not saving me from myself.
Suffice it to say: my eating disorder has not directly broken up my relationships, but it certainly has not helped.
I have been lucky enough to have some great partners. But even the most patient ones have their breaking points.
And of course, a breakup provides a great excuse for the eating disorder to maintain its evil reign in your life. For me, breakups equal isolation and depression, times when traditionally, the only place I have been able to derive pleasure is from food.
You might not believe it, but even given the track record I've detailed, at one point I even met someone who loved me enough to marry me. Someone I loved back just as fiercely. We had problems, yes. But part of me can't help but believe that the wedge between us had started with my eating disorder and the big ball of issues that came with it.
When I got divorced, it was unlike any breakup I'd ever gone through. To say I was depressed would be a vast understatement. I wasn't suicidal, but I was close. I couldn't even take pleasure in food, though I tried. I couldn't take pleasure in anything. Seattle, where I lived at the time, became an unsafe place, full of emotional land-mines. I cried all the time: when I walked by the grocery store we'd gone to; when I saw a wedding boutique in the periphery of my vision; when I saw a man wearing glasses that looked like my ex's; when I saw the Space Needle; when I heard any number of songs playing. It didn't take much, and for a time, it just seemed safer to not go out at all. My only outings were to the grocery store, to get more food, which was also a traitor because it wasn't giving me pleasure or relief anymore.
But I survived, and I had a powerful realization about my eating disorder.
I realized that it was time to get real. No partner, even the best partner ever, was going to heal me from my eating disorder. I was the one who needed to recover, and I needed to do the work myself. There were no shortcuts in another person.
I mean, that's obvious, right? But it's hard.
The one relationship I've been in since my divorce (which I am still in now) has been the most challenging one of my life, because without the fuzz of an eating disorder diffusing all of my actions and emotions, being intimate can be scary. You are on full view--the good and the bad parts of you.
The solution, of course, is simple: abandon your eating disorder, open your heart, let yourself be loved, and love back. That's not to say it's easy.
Opening your heart to someone makes you extremely vulnerable. When I open my heart, I feel that it is so tender that a stiff breeze could pierce it. I am forced to feel the full spectrum of emotion, and sometimes it is messy. I still feel crazy sometimes, actually, I think that I might even be crazier than when I had a full fledged eating disorder because now I'm not hiding behind the secrecy of food behaviors; my crazy is out in the open.
I don't know if I can offer a clean little summary at the end of this post like I do with some others, because this is an issue I am still very much working on myself. But I can say this: your eating disorder isn't an island; it affects every aspect of your life. Advanced recovery means pulling back the curtain that the eating disorder has pulled over everything, including your relationships.
A romantic partner cannot and will not cure you of disordered eating, but they can help, if you let them in to your life in a true and unguarded way. Though life and love have the potential to hurt more in the post-eating disorder world, they also have the potential to be bigger and more beautiful than I ever could have imagined.