*Disclaimer: I understand and respect the fact that each experience with eating disorders is unique and serious. I am not a specialist and I am not currently being consulted by one for this disorder. This is a personal essay.
I was in aisle 12—the chips one, obviously—of Métro, on Mont-Royal Avenue and Fullum Street last Friday. My mind went blank; there was nothing. I stood there, staring in silence at the remaining Doritos. If I allowed myself to think, for just one second, I would be consumed with guilt and shame.
On March 12, Premier François Legault announced the first strict measures resembling the start of a lockdown against COVID-19. A week later, public places such as gyms, libraries, bars and schools closed indefinitely.
Inevitably, people rushed to stock up on food. And frankly, so did I. The difference is that I calmly walked to get there; I didn’t rush. But also, I don’t normally stock up on food because I have a binge-eating disorder.
Pausing and staring at food for ages while I do my grocery shopping is not an unusual thing for me. The inner dialogue makes it harder for me than it is for normal people to choose what to eat. I have to battle my binge-eating disorder while I decide what amount of food I really need.
Talking about these behaviours can be really hard. The only time I brought it up in therapy was in my early 20s. I had been living in Montreal for two years and I was so nervous about feeding myself that I wouldn’t eat for hours and then would binge on everything, most often alone.
But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to cope with my inner demons by keeping minimal amounts of food in my apartment, while also trying not to buy anything that triggers my disorder, such as sugary or fast foods. Going out to exercise when I feel overwhelmed has also played a huge part in dealing with my eating compulsion. And it has worked—until now.
In a time of self-isolation and social distancing, it can be petrifying for me to think that $130 worth of groceries that are supposed to last me two weeks, could very well only last me two or three days.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, binge eating, which is regularly eating a lot of food in a short amount of time (bingeing), could be a response to low mood or depression, anxiety, stress or feeling “numb.”
Truthfully, recently my days have been like this: I don’t eat from morning until dusk. But then I’ll go into bingeing episodes at night, finding myself alone with family-sized pizzas, fries, deep-fried pickles, and finishing it all off with a bucket of ice cream, topped with a cherry made of guilt. When that happens, I shut my phone off, too embarrassed to answer my friends simply asking me what I’m up to.
While binge-eating disorder might affect only about two per cent of all Canadians, stress-eating for comfort is something most people can relate to. And, in times of crisis like this one, the uncertainty of food availability or accessibility taps into our deepest primitive fears and makes us act irrationally.
I don’t need official data to know that most people are feeling increasingly stressed right now. People are afraid of being bored or not knowing what to do with their own children. We are so used to having tight schedules and constant stimuli around that when we pause, we find ourselves lost. Our exterior lives are filled, yet our inner selves are an unexplored void.
Surely, what the isolation from COVID-19 is forcing us to do is an introspection of our daily lives. How do you interact with and treat yourself? Are you uncomfortable spending time with your family? Do you know how to respect your partner’s space and boundaries?
In all honesty, the mechanisms I’ve designed for myself to deal with my eating disorder over the past years were only a bandage on a wound that hasn’t healed properly. But the bigger picture here is that this process is not abnormal, yet we are never confronted with our unhealthy coping mechanisms—until a pandemic comes along and changes the entire game. Unfortunately, the result of being unable to find our bearings in all this confusion can be quite distressing.
In truth, worldwide, psychologists are warning of the effects of isolation on mental health. “One of the biggest risks, particularly at a time like this, there’s a tendency to get lost in negative thinking,” says Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, in an interview with Health. Markman adds that there’s no way to stop the cycle when you can’t verbalize your fears or be checked on by others.
The goal is to avoid feeling distressed by the loneliness that comes with social distancing. I might be protecting myself and others from a virus, but this shouldn’t leave me battling my own mind. It then becomes even more important to reach out to friends or support groups such as ANEB Quebec, who offer services by phone for people struggling with eating disorders.
Undeniably, we are social creatures. Self-isolation is not an easy experience. But the pandemic is offering a challenging opportunity to learn to be comfortable with ourselves and face our own darkness, whatever that might be, instead of repressing it.
COVID-19 will eventually be a thing of the past. Isolating ourselves with our demons should be too.
Graphic by @sundaeghost