In this blog post I am sharing a story from a person in recovery. These stories and admissions are so important. Many of use find ourselves compelled to act in certain ways when we have a restrictive eating disorder and it is crucial that we share stories so that we can understand that these sorts of behaviours are a product of a restrictive eating disorder and say nothing about us as a person.
Behaviours such as stealing support the biological approach to eating disorders as you are behaving as if resources are scarce. Many of us who steal when we are in energy deficit have a compulsion to do so despite having the financial means to buy things. It is to do with your brain stem area reacting to your energy deficit that makes you act as if resources are scarce even when your higher brain (thinking brain) knows that they are not. We can’t reason with the brain stem as it is pre-literate. It reacts to data. And when that data is energy deficit and insufficient food coming in, your brain stem will begin to make you act as if food and other resources are scarce. I have written about scarcity mindset extensively in Rehabilitate, Rewire, Recover, in other blog posts on this site, and spoken about it in podcasts should you want more information.
Whilst the letter below is anonymous, I want to say thank you to the person who wrote it and agreed to allow me to share it on this blog. Sharing these stories is so important. When we don’t talk about these things because we are afraid of repercussions or embarrassed, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to be understood, and to understand ourselves. Admitting to stealing when I was sick with anorexia was one of the very last things I came around to being able to talk about. I was so deeply ashamed. I feared the reactions and judgements I would get from others should I be open about it. I am so glad I found the courage to share, because I know from some of the emails I get on this topic that in doing so I enabled others to better understand that their own stealing behaviour was/is a consequence of malnutrition, and a brain that perceives resource scarcity. And not, I repeat, not, a character flaw. You will do things when you are in malnutrition that are far out of character. Not eating enough food strips us down to the core of what it is to be a mammal. It turns on survival-instinct behaviours and reactions that for many people are never experienced.
Experiencing these differences in my own self, and the person I became after years of malnutrition was a very humbling experience. Sometimes I think that humans are so used to living and operating only in our higher brains that we forget that under all the clothes and the books and the education, we are simply mammals. Watching my own brain change like that — watching my own hands steal — taught me a lot about how strong that mammal within me is. It also taught me compassion and understanding for the actions people take when their brain believes that their situation is desperate. In short; I am a lot less judgmental than I used to be. I have done things that appall me. I understand why I did those things. I have compassion for the version of me that did those things. I am thrilled that recovery brought back the version of me that doesn’t need to do those things.
No matter how strong you regard your morals, no matter how well you think you know yourself. You are only ever a bad harvest away from stealing food to survive.
I was just listening to your podcast about stealing – I feel so relieved to know this is actually an eating disorder symptom! I just wanted to share my experience with this as kind of like a “confession” because I’ve never told anyone the following things.
I started out stealing from my roommates in college. I couldn’t manage to eat during the day or buy any food for myself, so once everyone was asleep I would sneak into the kitchen and carefully take small amounts of a variety of things so no one would notice. However, I started feeling guilty about this – sadly not about the stealing, but about what I was eating. So, I started staying on campus literally all day to avoid eating. But then to my horror, I started eating out of the garbage. This was terrifying because besides the obvious embarrassment and disgust I felt, I discovered that there were huge amounts of food in the garbages on campus – food was everywhere, I couldn’t escape!! I found myself making nightly rounds from building to building literally bingeing out of the garbages, then continuing to walk from building to building, up and down stairs, etc. trying to burn off what I had eaten.
Around this time my stealing began to progress to the grocery store. Oftentimes there would be spilled nuts/candy/etc in the tray underneath the bulk bins, so I started taking these, justifying it because they would be thrown away otherwise. However, sometimes there hadn’t been anything spilled, so I started “accidentally” spilling things so I could “clean up” after myself. I would then browse the aisles eating whatever I had found/spilled, buy something stupid like a diet coke, leave, and return the next day (sometimes later that same day though).
Once I developed bulimia however, things got even worse. Now that I had figured out how to eat a ton of food and then “erase it,” the small amounts I was obtaining from my roommates, public garbages, and spilled bulk bin items wasn’t enough. I started slipping things into my purse at the grocery store, telling myself that it was ok because I wasn’t going to actually eat the food but instead was going to throw it back up (totally logical, yeah). I actually bought a bigger purse specifically for this purpose. I couldn’t binge/purge at my apartment because my roommate would find out, so I would hang out in empty corners, classrooms, etc. on campus eating my stolen binge food, then purge in the bathrooms. I figured out which departments left their teachers’ lounges unlocked, so I starting hiding in the bathroom until the janitors left and locked the building at midnight (otherwise they would tell me to leave because the building was closing). Then I would raid the teachers’ lounge in addition to bingeing on the food I had brought with me. I actually continued this routine for an entire year after graduating – I just wandered around campus pretending I was a student.
The grocery store stealing came to an end when I got caught…for the third time. The first time I was just given a warning; then I was fined and banned from the store; the third time I was charged for shoplifting and trespassing (yes, I was at the store I was banned from because the other grocery stores did not have bulk bins that I could “spill”). Thankfully I qualified for the diversion program and was able to sit through some classes in order to avoid having a criminal record. This experience scared me enough to stop shoplifting…well, at least putting things in my purse. A few months later I started eating while browsing the aisles again (at a different grocery store this time though). I’ve been doing this for so long now that I’m starting to think the store must know but just doesn’t care. I hope I can stop this behavior once I am recovered.
Well, thanks for listening to my insanity. Reminding myself of all the crap my ED has made me do helps motivate me to continue recovery. I don’t know if I’ll ever be brave enough to share these things more openly, but I’m sure glad you’ve shared your experience. I wish more people would talk about the “odd” and “shameful” symptoms of eating disorders because it is so important for people to not feel ashamed and alone!