Listening to my hunger and other quarantine revelations: A personal essay

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Erin Haar/Staff

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April was a time of transition this year. On a larger scale, the world transitioned into lockdown with the first wave of the pandemic. My personal transitions echoed this; I flew home to Southern California to visit my family in March, thinking I would stay there for two weeks. I ended up staying for two months.

Being home with my parents for an extended period of time, I worried about my eating habits. I was living in the house where my disordered eating started, years ago in high school. I had access to a kitchen fully stocked with more dessert than I normally ever kept in my East Bay apartment. I felt physically closer to food, and I assumed I would begin to feel closer to relapsing.

April surprised me, though: I ended up making more progress in my recovery than I had in about a year.

Officially, I was never diagnosed with binge eating disorder. But when I started at UC Berkeley in 2017, I felt this distance between what my body was craving and what my brain was craving. I repeatedly found myself in a binge restrict cycle, facilitated by unhealthy dining hall food and feelings of loneliness. On numerous occasions, I ate so many Crossroads brownies or cookies from my roommate’s pantry that I felt my stomach would burst. 

This would happen about once a week. But I would think about food almost every minute.

I think something that many don’t understand about disordered eating is that in many cases, it’s not about the food. It’s more about control.

Yes, desserts and other junk food brought me comfort in a chaotic transition via taste. But cognitively, planning and replanning my meals distracted me from the academic pressure that came with UC Berkeley. I assumed at the time that these repeating thoughts stemmed from the desire to control my new environment. Until I sought help, I didn’t realize that I had been binge eating for years.

Looking back on high school, I can see now how closely intertwined my eating was with my self-esteem. I had bad acne all throughout my childhood and adolescence, and I fell victim to the comparison of physical appearances that seems almost guaranteed for young women in puberty. I didn’t know it then, but the overly sweet snacks I ate after coming home from school were a way of seeking that same comfort and control. I consumed full boxes of cookies to distract myself from my own face and body. In college, that morphed into consuming full boxes of cookies to distract myself from impending adulthood.

It was either eat healthy or eat unhealthy, with no options in between. The voices never told me that I could just simply eat. 

Since I started binge eating as a teenager, I have never felt in touch with my hunger cues. By the time I started therapy, how I ate was not controlled by my stomach, but instead by two warring voices in my head. It was either eat healthy or eat unhealthy, with no options in between. The voices never told me that I could just simply eat. 

In quarantine, I heard them say that for the first time.

My initial recovery period spanned from the beginning of 2018 to the end of that summer. With the techniques I learned in short-term therapy at the Tang Center, I found a meal plan that encouraged me not to binge. But the angel and the devil on my shoulders were always the hardest part to contend with. For long periods of time after recovering I could make decisions about food without much thought, but every once in a while, I would see a donut in a storefront and hear them arguing all over again.

Usually, this happened during times of intense stress or sadness. My first breakup, for example, or a rough midterm season. So when the pandemic’s first wave hit the United States last spring, I prepared for these thoughts — and for a binge — to occur.

But it didn’t.

I ate some of my mom’s homemade cobbler and the dairy-free ice cream my dad likes to buy for me, and some of my acne came back. No binge.

I met up with my ex right before my hometown went into lockdown. I regretted it, but not enough to binge.

I adjusted to fully online classes for the first time and had a couple of existential crises about how I would find a job upon graduating this December. Still no binge.

I wish the answer to how I avoided my old disordered eating habits — and how I learned to truly appreciate my hunger cues — was an easy one. Truthfully, though, I think there were a lot of factors that played into this, the first one being supportive parents. My folks have been understanding and helpful with my eating since my freshman year therapy sessions, and for that, I am grateful and extremely privileged.

I also think that in my case, enough time had passed from my initial recovery that my thoughts were not holding me back nearly as much. Another layer to that is that I’ve continued to watch dietary science videos and follow intuitive eating content creators, even during times when I felt comfortable in my relationship with food. And in February, I actually took a break from the gym. My body felt overworked, and I wanted to focus on truly fueling myself rather than funneling calories toward specific muscle groups.

The point being, I could finally hear what my body was trying to tell me in April. I could hear when it needed food. When it needed rest. And I hadn’t been able to do that since I was a child.

The one takeaway I’ve always come back to with my disordered eating is that recovery is not a straight path. As life evolves, the way recovery looks and feels must evolve too. 

As April turned into May and May into June, I decided to take on the summer journalism minor. At first, the workload and Zoom fatigue weren’t too bad. In Session A, I only had two classes totaling 16 hours of lecture per week. In Session D, that jumped to 24 hours a week — I was in Zoom classes for six hours straight Monday through Thursday. That workload, coupled with an amazing yet still daunting opportunity to work with Fujifilm for the last half of the summer, caused me the worst anxiety I had ever felt. 

I was still able to hear my hunger cues. Except, I was often so anxious that I wasn’t hungry.

Upon waking up at around six or six-thirty — without an alarm — my brain and body would immediately shift into overdrive, and I almost always jumped straight into working just to calm my anxious thoughts and racing heartbeat. If I could get something off my plate, I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. But at that point, I would become too distracted to eat a proper breakfast, and sometimes a proper lunch, too. Or, I would feel so anxious that I would feel nauseous, and not wanting to force-feed myself, I would skip meals.

I had thought for years that listening to my body was the ultimate goal of my disordered eating recovery. When I reached that goal, the finish line moved.

Maybe that’s the point though. It’s not about a finish line. The one takeaway I’ve always come back to with my disordered eating is that recovery is not a straight path. As life evolves, the way recovery looks and feels must evolve too. 

I’m still working on restoring my hunger cues — and my responses to them — in the wake of the summer I had. But this time around, I have far more hope that I can get there again because I’ve done it once before. 

I’m sure I’ll go through more tough periods of life in the future, where I’ll have to focus on my recovery and coping mechanisms a lot more than I’d like to. But I have a roadmap now, or at least, a North Star to guide me. 

She lives underneath my abdomen, she lives inside the hormones in my brain. She’s a part of me, despite the years when I ignored her or the times I didn’t hear her. My hunger, she whispers — but I’m listening now.

Contact Erin Haar at [email protected].