Written By: Darrah Belle
Edited By: Megan Granger
When I was eight or nine years old, my mother and older sister were cleaning out the refrigerator when Mom stumbled on a box of éclairs from a deli near our Tarzana house. She called out to me. I bounded into the kitchen and took note of her outstretched hands, the pink box resting atop her lily-white fingers. Those hands gave me everything I needed and many things I didn’t.
“These are old,” she said, in that critical but questioning tone she’d mastered. “Want any?”
The implication was that I should say no.
I said, “Sure!”
What happened next was something I’d never experienced before and certainly wouldn’t again in front of anybody. I started wolfing down the chocolate and cream and wet dough like a hungry savage beast. The more I ate, the less satisfied I felt and the more I sought to fill that insatiable void. My fingers were gooey, my mouth obscured by chocolate icing. I was in a zombielike trance, unaware of the peering eyes burning holes into my wild disembodied young self.
“Darrah!” my mother finally exclaimed. I froze. I looked up. The ultra-judgmental and shocked gazes of both my sister and my mother met my eyes. I snapped out of whatever ferocious haze I’d just been in and ran into my bedroom, mortified.
About a year later, I began acting. I begged my parents to let me act. In fact, I scribbled on a piece of paper, If I don’t act, I’ll die!!!!!!! and showed it to them. My mother hastily exclaimed, “Oh, god forbid! Bite your tongue. And stop being so dramatic! Go wash your hands for dinner.”
It always frustrated me when my parents told me I was too dramatic—both because being an actress seemed a fitting occupation for a drama queen and because it allowed them to take no responsibility when I had an emotional reaction to my father’s verbal abuse.
I began my short-lived acting career in regional musical theater at a dance studio in Encino. The studio offered a summer performing arts camp called “Paradise.” I snagged the role of Annie in Annie and Frenchie in Grease. (They changed her named to Bubbles to remove any allusion to French kissing. We were ten or eleven, after all. . . .)
I first felt the pressure to diet around that time. I was always about ten pounds overweight—not enough to be considered fat but enough to be seen as having “baby fat” or be called chubby. My mother and aunt were and are perpetually dieting. My mom is still complaining about her weight. She’s semiretired and has miraculously birthed four children from that body (which, at five foot five, has never weighed more than 140 pounds). There’s no use in arguing. She insists she’s fat.
My mother suggested I lose ten pounds before the play. I asked, “How?” She told me to eat mostly fruits and veggies and only what she gave me, nothing else, which meant no more of my favorite food pairing: potato salad and Cup O’ Noodles. I told her I didn’t want to do that.
“Well, you won’t lose weight then,” she said.
“I don’t want to lose weight,” I said.
It turned out that three hours of jazz, tap, and ballet, and voice lessons several times a week were enough to melt away those pesky pounds. But after the summer I regained them.
In grade school, I was sort of a latchkey kid. The youngest of four children, I was impossibly close to my mother. Unfortunately, she worked full-time out of the house to help pay the bills while my father worked at home, nonstop, and couldn’t stand us. He was irritable and angry most of the time and always seemed on the verge of a total breakdown.
I’ve always been forgetful. I repeatedly forgot my house key, and though my dad was often running work-related errands (he sold tropical fish and reptiles) he was more often home and didn’t want to deal with his kids. I can’t count how many times I played alone in the backyard for hours at the end of my fourth-grade school day. He wouldn’t answer the front door even if he was home. Sometimes he would stand at the screen door and chastise me for forgetting my key. “How many times have I told you to remember your key? Why is it so hard to take your key in the morning? Stay out there! You’ll learn!”
I’d jump on the swing that he’d put up between two trees. It slanted to the left when I kicked my legs out and sent me levitating over the barbeque, the crank on the grill hitting and bruising my bare legs. I figured he’d done that on purpose.
There was a hollow tree stump in our backyard that I used to pee in.
By seventh grade I was out of my awkward phase and dying to be popular. I woke up super early the first day of junior high school and foraged through Seventeen for tips on making new friends. I was destined to be popular. I had to be popular. I would be popular. By any means necessary.
Regardless, I was a total geek in seventh grade, and during the summer I did geeky things like ride my bike and play with the neighborhood kids.
When I hit thirteen, not unlike the girls in the movie Thirteen, I was suddenly confronted with boobs, attention, and opportunities—boys, sex, weed, backstabbing friends, and bat mitzvah season.
While it should have been fun and festive, bat mitzvah season ended up being a hypercompetitive stretch wherein girls trashed each other’s dresses and compared cleavage and period start dates.
I didn’t have good ways to process all the feelings I was having. My grandmother was dying of AIDS from a botched blood transfusion she’d received in 1982. My mother’s drinking problem had become obvious to even casual observers. My father threw outrageous public fits. My brothers, who served as occasional buffers to the madness, were soon graduating and moving out of the house. Sharing a room with my sister had become unbearable. Although claiming to be Christian, she was starting physical fights with me when no one was looking.
At school there were girls who looked like gazelles. Impossibly tall and gaunt, those girls were my idols. I stopped eating anything but carrots and water in an effort to look like them—especially one gazelle named Mariana.
Carrots and water. Carrots and water. Carrots and water.
Worse yet, my parents knew about it. They mocked me. My father told me I was starting to look like a boy. I declined food. I skipped dinners. I packed paltry lunches. I was happy when my mother got drunk at restaurants, because she wouldn’t notice that I didn’t eat a thing.
When I was thirteen and a half, I got mono and then shingles. The doctor said my immune system was worn from stress (that is, if I was “telling the truth” about not kissing any boys). Algebra was the culprit. It’s true! Math gave me mono. But so did not eating enough for my immune system to battle the stress symptoms. I got skinnier than Mariana and the other gazelles.
My clavicles cut through my skin. My pajamas hung like drapery. That summer, I got my period. I felt older and more mature. I was ready to make my own decisions.
I studied Slim-Fast commercials and soon after began a modified Slim-Fast diet. I ate cereal for breakfast, a Slim-Fast shake for lunch, and an apple for a snack, and most nights I skipped dinner or else picked at the sides (rice, veggies).
Every dinner was a boxing match between my father and whomever he chose to spar with that evening. Most nights it was my brother, sometimes my mom. And while it was rarely me or my sister pinned to the ropes, I developed a raging stomach ache from eating anything with my father at a dinner table. Even the thought of it troubled me. Nobody wanted to sit next to him. He criticized everything—the way you ate, the way you breathed, the way you answered questions, the way you didn’t.
Watching the people you love cruelly ridiculed every day by the person who’s supposed to love them most does some really weird shit to your brain.
Despite my father’s overwhelming disciplinarian role, both my parents elevated my status in the home. Probably because I was the youngest and most free-spirited and vivacious, I was often in the spotlight. The paradox of being both silenced and put on a pedestal has haunted me since youth.
For example, after my father slapped me across the face in front of the neighbors one afternoon as punishment for ditching school, I told my mother that he was no longer in charge of disciplining me. If he hit me again I would leave the house. That was the last time he hit me. Unfortunately, he continued to attack my brothers so viciously that he once broke a guitar over my oldest brother’s head. We laugh about it now, our voices shaking with audacious disbelief.
By high school, I had become quite shy. I was tiny and wore thrift-store clothes circa 1969. My mom ironed butterfly patches on my butterfly-collared brown long-sleeved shirts and tattered Levis. I was a total loner.
Oddly, my sister, who was a senior, reported one day that the quarterback of the football team wanted to meet me. I was ditching an elective and visiting her in her psych class. Unfortunately, this private conversation occurred within earshot of her classmates waiting for the bell to ring.
“No,” I said.
The idea of dating a football player was foreign and frightened me.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t want to,” I said.
The entire class scoffed.
Why on earth would a girl not want to date the QB of the football team at Chatsworth High School?
I flipped my waist-length dark red hair, put on my yellow-tinted sunglasses, and trotted out. My face was flushed; my hands were shaking. Despite feeling invisible, I was seen and heard by those around me, and that was scary as hell. I fantasized about disappearing.
The success I’d had with dieting through tenth and eleventh grade landed me in a doctor’s office more than once and finally earned me a diagnosis of anorexia.
The evening of the diagnosis, my father broke down my unlocked bedroom door and said that if I didn’t eat he would send me to a hospital and I wouldn’t graduate high school.
“Put a fork in your mouth and eat!” He screamed. “It’s easy!”
He told my mother he’d fixed me.
I felt cornered. I had no outlet for my anxiety, and my family was totally unequipped to deal with my special needs.
I began overeating and popping Vicodin with vodka and whisky chasers. My friends and boyfriends were using weed, speed, acid, mushrooms, and anything else that landed in front of them. I took a distinct liking to methamphetamine.
By twelfth grade, I was a full-fledged drug addict and the idea of skipping a meal was out of the question. I was doing dirty, shitty drugs of such a low quality that they made me eternally hungry. Plus, my anxiety was such that even when I wasn’t hungry, if I had any kind of interaction with my father, I’d binge afterward.
Binge-eating disorder is a lesser-known eating disorder that also happens to be the most common. BED is often accompanied by such deep feelings of shame and failure that even after seeking treatment, many people—especially those who feel they’ve failed at being anorexic—refuse to share that they’ve struggled with it.
I had BED for much longer than I had anorexia. I dabbled with self-induced vomiting (a symptom of bulimia), but it was always paired with bingeing and sometimes with excessive exercise.
I would look forward to binges, which entailed shoving mounds of food into my mouth so fast that sometimes I forgot to chew. A binge would involve a lot of different foods, even ones not normally eaten together, but mostly carbs. During a binge session—food crowded on countertops, empty wrappers littering the kitchen floor, the refrigerator door open in case I wanted to grab something else—I wouldn’t even know what exactly I was eating.
By my early twenties, binge-eating disorder was affecting my work, friendships, dating life, and self-esteem. I was silently suffering. Nobody knew what was going on. They just knew I wasn’t fat and I wasn’t skinny. I was sort of round again and seemed happy enough. My bones weren’t sticking out. I had a job I managed to get to relatively often, and although struggling with my sexuality and my family’s homophobia, I was putting that fork in my mouth, so my father could still take credit for curing my anorexia.
I was living on my own and had the privacy I needed to binge without having to hide it from family or roommates or a boyfriend or girlfriend.
The thought of going on a date totally freaked me out. What would I eat? How long would the date be? When could I go home and binge?
After work, I would rush home to binge. Frenziedly scarfing down cookies, I’d replay all the embarrassing or annoying or angering interactions of my workday. I didn’t have the tools to address them in real time.
Slowly, the sugar and adrenaline rush would fade. My fingers would stop shaking. My post-binge companions were gut-wrenching shame and a bunch of empty wrappers to count.
Even though I lived alone, I still hid food and the remnants of my binges as I had when I lived with my parents. I learned how to eat half a cake in such a way that you’d never know by looking at it. At least in my mind you wouldn’t know. I have no idea what it really looked like. My eyes morphed everything into something better or worse than it was. I had life dysmorphia.
I couldn’t be around a cake without itching to eat the whole thing. I couldn’t enter a grocery store without having an all-out panic attack. At parties, I’d proudly eat nothing and then race to 7-Eleven or CVS—my fav sources for throwaway food.
A typical binge might look like this:
One large bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos
Small bag of Cheetos from the display by the register
Twenty-ounce cup of hot cocoa from the machine
One pint of ice cream (flavor chosen spontaneously)
Two-liter bottle of Diet Coke
Snack bag of York Peppermint Patties
Two-pack of Hostess Cupcakes
Slice of cheese pizza
To maximize efficiency (get the stuff quicker to start the binge sooner), I’d mentally map out my shopping list before I hit the store. That also served to shorten the duration of the dirty shame I felt when the cashier inevitably eyed me with eerie knowingness.
The binge started the minute the car door slammed shut—one hand on the steering wheel in an honest attempt at safe driving, the other hand frantically ripping open the Doritos. Nacho cheese powder stained everything I touched.
I once bought a half gallon of ice cream and forgot to get a spoon. I ate it straight out of the container with my teeth.
I considered Overeaters Anonymous but thought they’d laugh at me. I wasn’t hundreds of pounds overweight; I was about twenty. But I was no less a food addict.
Desperate for a new beginning, I reached out for change. What finally helped me end the downward spiral? A book called It’s Not About Food nearly saved my life. So did finding therapists who specialized in disordered eating, and getting the fuck away from my family. I moved to Boston when I was twenty-one and stayed there for two years. When I moved back to California, I began attending twelve-step meetings. I also take a medication that helps with my depression and anxiety and with the part of my brain that makes me feel voraciously hungry when I’m not.
One night, when I was twenty-five, not long after I moved back from Boston, a spirit visited me. During my twenties, I often felt the presence of spirits or angels. This one lingered in the archway of my bedroom door. I somehow knew it was the spirit of my eating disorder. That may sound weird, but it was the information I was given right then by my higher power. I said thank you and good-bye. It became clear in that moment that my eating disorder had been a tool to get me through difficult periods when I’d had no other tools to employ. It had been the only constant in my life up to that point. She had also been a teacher.
I cried and felt the spirit linger a bit before saying good-bye back.
It hasn’t been easy for me, but I’ve been blessed in more ways than I can count. One of those blessings is my ability to maintain a positive attitude despite adversity.
This is what my eating disorder has taught me: if you can find a way not to judge your choices and to accept that you did the best you could with what you had at any given time, you’ll probably find a way to forgive yourself and, ultimately, be a lot happier! You will find the peace and clarity you need to smooth the rough spots and make your way into the light you deserve to bask in—radical self-love, I think it’s called.
…Follow Your Bliss xoxo
Know someone who is struggling with food addiction? Contact NEDA.
Be sure to join Darrah’s Insider Club, my weekly e-newsletter! Sign up below.
Darrah Le Montre is a writer and journalist and devoted mom. Her work has been published by Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and nudie blog SuicideGirls. Next week, her essay, “This Is What Dating An Alcoholic Is Like” will debut in the recovery blog The Fix.