WhiteFlag Outreach Coordinator
In honor of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I had the humbling opportunity to talk with WhiteFlag’s very own COO, Patricia McCoy, to learn about her struggles with an eating disorder. Through sharing our conversation, we hope to spread awareness of the struggles Patricia, and so many others, go through on a daily basis.
What type of eating disorder do you have?
Binge eating disorder.
When were you first diagnosed with an eating disorder?
To understand how and when I first developed my eating disorder diagnosis, I want others to understand a few events that happened prior to my diagnosis.
I met my husband in Brazil in January of 2017, and after going through the immigration process, I moved to the US in April of 2018 to get married.
The marriage took place in May of 2018 and by July of 2018, my husband had checked himself into a trauma facility for 30 days.
With all of this happening in such a short amount of time, and not having my family members with me, my mental health took a very dark turn. I have always experienced suicidal thoughts, but during this time things got more “real.” I had a plan to end my life.
My mom advised me to find a therapist urgently. But because my English was broken, I had to find someone in Brazil that did online appointments. Thankfully, I finally found someone!
From August until December of 2018, my husband was going through a withdrawal from benzodiazepines. Neither of us were doing well mentally.
That December, my husband decided to go to a 7-day outpatient treatment for PTSD and anxiety in a different city, so we both went.
During those 7 days I had the worst episodes of binge eating in my entire life. However, I didn’t know that it was binge eating at the time.
One night, I thought that the only way to stop the pain was to induce vomiting.
Luckily, I didn’t do that, because I knew if I did, this would be my new reality every time.
Instead, I cried nonstop and once the pain in my belly was a little better, I started eating again. That same day, I asked my husband to help me find a therapist who specialized in eating disorders; I knew I needed help.
The process to find the right therapist for me took a few months, but I finally found one that made me feel safe and comfortable. So, in March of 2019, I received an official diagnosis: Binge Eating Disorder.
How would you describe your relationship with food?
Absolutely exhausting! I think about food 24-hours a day. I also have to describe it as frustrating. I’m constantly blaming myself for not being able to control myself when I’m around food.
When did you originally realize you had a struggle with eating?
Throughout my life, I have received numerous comments that enforced my focus on food. “You eat too much,” “How are you so skinny with all of the food you eat?” When I was around 18 years old, I felt ashamed for the first time about my eating habits, but it wasn’t until 2018 that I realized I had a real issue.
What were your eating habits like growing up?
The eating habits in Brazil are very different from the US. In our daily lives, Brazilians typically eat rice, beans, meat, vegetables, and salad. Only on special occasions do we eat hamburgers, French fries, or pizza.
Because of cultural and financial aspects growing up, my access to certain types of food was quite limited. Because I had limited access, I would overeat when I had the opportunity to try different things.
I remember when I was around 7 years old, we went to the mall to celebrate my mom’s birthday, and my parents decided to get a pizza. I remember savoring the first piece and all I could think about was wanting to experience that taste over and over again.
In my little head, I thought, “I’m not going to have this food again, so I need to taste it as much as I can.” I ate 8 slices of pizza. I was a 7-year-old little girl.
When we got home, I was in so much pain. My stomach hurt badly enough that my mom had to give me medication to alleviate the discomfort.
This is the first binge eating episode I can remember, but I've had many more since.
What are your eating habits like now?
Since I met my husband and my financial reality changed, my access to diverse and exciting food also changed. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a therapist at the time when all that happened to help me process everything in the healthiest way possible.
So, when I moved to the US, my eating disorder got out of control. Besides everything that was happening that I mentioned before, for the first time, I had access to all types of food all the time.
I remember that during my first month here I ate French fries and fried shrimp every single day. And maybe you think, “What’s wrong with that?” Well, the problem is the portions in the US are way bigger than in Brazil, and I was raised to eat everything that is on my plate.
Also, I never had appetizers, salad, entrée, and dessert. In Brazil you only have one meal. And again, I was raised to eat everything that is on my plate.
So, you can imagine how this went.
After 3 years of therapy, my episodes don't happen as frequently anymore. Of course, I’m not 100% yet. I still have an episode every once in a while, I still think about food nonstop, and I still constantly worry about my weight.
But I’m definitely better than 3 years ago and that’s what matters!
Are there certain foods that trigger your disorder?
Yes, French fries. To this day, I can't help but order them if I see it on the menu. My brain instantly starts telling me I need to taste them at least one more time.
Do you have difficulty eating in front of others?
If it’s an episode, yes. Once the compulsive eating starts, I try to hide from everyone, whether it's eating inside the pantry, the closet, or wherever no one is looking.
Is the number on the scale a big deal to you?
Yes, I weigh myself every day. If the number goes high, I feel terrible, and immediately start planning crazy diets.
For me personally, eating is the one thing that I can control. Do you also feel that way? Why or why not?
Yes! I grew up in a house where I didn’t have stability. My dad was an alcoholic that physically abused my mom, so we never knew what the day/night would look like. Moving to a new country that I had never even visited before definitely made me feel I had no control over anything.
Can you describe what you eat in a day?
That depends on which “phase” I am in.
Sometimes I fast, skipping breakfast and lunch. Sometimes I eat 4 meals a day in the healthiest way possible and weigh everything. Sometimes I eat only fast food or fried foods all day.
It really depends on how my head is and it normally changes every month or so.
Describe the daily thoughts you have with an eating disorder? (Does counting calories, amount of food, etc. consume your thoughts?)
I start my day thinking when and what I’m going to eat.
I check my calendar and start planning my meals around it, and this continues throughout the day.
I always think about the calories, carbs, protein, etc., of everything I eat. And sometimes that stops me from eating something.
My eating habits change a lot from month to month, but my concerns remain the same. I can say with certainty that I think about food 24 hours a day.
Is there anything else you want to share?
I think for me, the hardest part of having an eating disorder is that we need food to survive. I literally need “my drug of choice” every single day. I can’t just detox and try to stay away from it.
Also, the fact that I’m “skinny” makes people tend to not believe I struggle with overeating. There is always a comment like “Really? Binge eating? But you’re so skinny.” Comments like this invalidate all of the struggles I have with food.
Just a reminder: You never know what is happening inside other people's heads, so please have some empathy.
The harsh reality of having an eating disorder is that you often never realize someone is struggling just by looking at or talking to them. You never know the shame, the internal struggles, the thought processes, the lack of control, or the helplessness someone with an eating disorder can face.
Eating disorders are much more than the stigma of just starving yourself. It can be food consuming your thoughts 24/7, counting calories, finding a place where you can binge or purge alone, or planning your entire day around the meals you consume.
If you are someone who can relate to any of this, reach out to your peers on the WhiteFlag App. You are not alone in your struggle with food. There are people out there who understand exactly what it is you are going through and talking with them can be so healing.
Remember, you are more than the number on the scale and you are more than the food you consume.
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