I grew up in a home where food was just food. It was nothing to be feared, because it was just food. We ate when we were hungry and we stopped when we were full. Food didn’t have morality attached to it. I ate a decent amount of veggies, and I also ate lots of Kraft macaroni and cheese. One of my favorite traditions during middle and high school was to get a huge chocolate chip cookie from Whole Foods with my Nana every Monday after Irish dance class. I still have a special attachment to those cookies to this day. In fact, I just finished eating one!
Nana was probably the main reason why I grew up with a healthy relationship with food. She cooked me tons of healthy meals, but she also incorporated less healthy options like her famous potato croquettes (my mouth is watering just remembering these!) Nana always encouraged me to go back for seconds if I was still hungry. She gave me money for lunch at school on days we had “Pasta Monday” or “Pizza Friday” or bread bowls filled with potato soup. Food was just food, and it was meant to be enjoyed. As I got older I realized food was also important when it came to my performance at my Irish dance competitions, but I was never told I needed to exercise in order to eat. We always ate pasta for dinner the night before, and I would eat two, maybe three bananas about 15 minutes before it was my turn on stage. If I ever thought about food during this time in my life, it was the thought that food was fuel. But that was it.
I’m so grateful that I made it through those vulnerable high school years with that kind of relationship with food. And I continued it through college. I stopped dancing during the summer after my freshman year because I had sprained my ankle three times in six months. I ended up gaining 35 pounds during the rest of college. I’m 5’5″ so that’s a lot of weight to add to a relatively small person. But even as I gained that weight, I never blamed food. I never restricted myself and I never forced myself to exercise if I didn’t want to.
I wasn’t comfortable with that extra weight, and Nana knew it. She saved money by recycling bottles and paid for a personal trainer for me the summer after my sophomore year so I could lose some of the weight. I will never forget the first time I met this woman. She was the very first trainer I worked with. She put me on a meal plan that outlined lunch as 3 ounces of chicken, 1 cup of veggies and 1/2 cup of brown rice. Dinner was another 3 ounces of chicken and 1 cup of veggies, hold the rice. I honestly can’t remember what she allowed me to have for breakfast, but for some reason I remember eating Greek yogurt at the time. This meal plan was low carb, low fat, low everything. There’s no way it even broke a thousand calories. If I told her I got hungry, she told me to just drink more water. My heart is pounding right now just thinking about it. This was the first “fitness professional” and the first “diet plan” I had ever experienced. I don’t remember how much weight I lost that summer, but I obviously lost a noticeable amount because I was eating a dangerously small amount of food. It was borderline starvation. I regained the weight I had lost as soon as summer ended and I went back to school and got off that “diet plan”. I still wasn’t happy at that weight, but I was also too busy enjoying college and working hard at my internship to really do anything about it.
Then came my last summer in college; the best I’ve ever had. I interned with NBC News in London for three months, and it was one of the most transformative times of my life. It was also some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life. I was so thrilled to be in my favorite city in the world, and I was ecstatic to be soaking up every little thing about it. I took a three day trip to Ireland and a weeklong trip to Israel, and I ate and drank to my heart’s content. I’m so happy to look back on that summer and know that I was so present through it all. Food was just food! But it was also during that summer that my dad started dating a new woman. I remember talking to my Nana on the phone one night when I was in London and she told me she couldn’t stand her.
The first time I met her was Thanksgiving of my senior year of college. She was making dinner, and since I was raised by an old-school Italian woman, I know the best way to compliment a cook is to eat what they make. So I ate a ton! I went into my room to change into Nike running shorts because my jeans just weren’t comfortable at that point, and when I went back into the kitchen I joked that I was ready to eat pie when I was obviously still stuffed from dinner. She quietly came over and said to me “oh, is that because you just…?” and she pointed her finger down her throat.
That moment, and the fallout that came later, are some of the most pivotal moments in my entire eating history.
I graduated from college with honors a few months later. I spent the next three months working an entry-level job at the newsroom I’ve dreamed of working in since I was a little girl. Then in August I got a job as a newscast producer in San Francisco, which is basically unheard of when you’re fresh out of college. The vast majority of my friends were a year younger than me, and I was really sad to leave them when I moved. I was devastated thinking about all the fun they would be having without me, and I feared they would forget about me. But leaving Nana was even harder.
Needless to say, it was a really difficult adjustment. To make matters worse, I was producing the 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. newscasts, and that meant coming into work at midnight. Yes, I started my work day at midnight. That schedule made it incredibly difficult to meet people. I was really lucky to connect with one of the other girls at my new job, but she was basically my only friend. She is still one of my closest friends. Almost all of the time we spent together outside of the newsroom was spent eating. I absolutely adore this girl, but she’ll very honestly tell you that she doesn’t eat fruit or vegetables. I was so desperate for a friend that I went with her every day after work to either Jack in the Box or Chipotle. Sometimes we would go to an actual restaurant where I would always order mac and cheese. But most days, we would get off work around 8 a.m. and then wait in our cars outside Chipotle until it opened. I’m pretty sure the only vegetables I ate during the five and a half months I lived in San Francisco were the green bell peppers and corn I got in my burrito bowl.
I was so miserable in San Francisco that I reached out to HR at my old company within three months. And before I even hit six months in the Bay Area, I was back home in L.A. I had to continue paying rent in San Francisco because I broke my lease, so I moved back into my dad’s house. He decided to stay with the girlfriend despite what happened, despite her denial of it, and despite her refusal to apologize for what she did, so I asked that he just respect my feelings and not bring her over when I was there. But then he did one night, and we got into a huge blowout fight that ended with him telling me that it was his house and he could bring over whoever he wanted. A couple days later, I moved out and into Nana’s.
That’s when I binged for the very first time.
I’ll never forget it. The drive from work to Nana’s was 45 miles, and I spontaneously decided one night to get off the freeway about halfway through my commute to go to Sprinkles. I bought four cupcakes, went back to my car and ate every last crumb of them before driving home. I felt completely numb and didn’t really understand what I had just done. But when I got home, I didn’t breathe a word of it to Nana. I made that same stop on the way home from work a couple more times, but still didn’t take the time to reflect on why I was now doing this to myself. I stopped after a couple weeks when I eventually decided it was time to move out and closer to my job. I loved spending so much time with Nana, but the commute was really draining me.
I was so thrilled to be living on my own again and spending significantly less time in my car. I was sharing a great apartment with one of my sorority sisters, and we were having so much fun together. Now that I wasn’t binging anymore, I decided I wanted to try to lose the weight I gained in college. The only thing I knew to do was that meal plan my very first trainer gave me, so I did that on work days and then I’d go out to eat with friends on my days off. That obviously failed; my body just held onto everything I ended up eating because I was unknowingly restricting so much.
And then I met a boy. I fell hard and I fell fast. He was fit and into lifting, and it made me feel like I wasn’t small enough, pretty enough or good enough to be with him. He hurt me, but I let him back in. And when he eventually left the second time, I didn’t know how to comfort myself other than to start binge eating again. This time, it was so much worse.
My roommate started dating someone new and was only home one or two nights a week, so I felt like I had free reign to binge. The binges became worse and worse as time went on. They started with me binging on whatever I had in my apartment. I would eat an entire 24oz tub of Siggi’s yogurt with an entire bag of granola, an entire jar of almond butter and an entire container of honey. I would eat entire boxes of Kind Bars. But very quickly, those binges were not enough to satisfy me. So I started driving to the grocery store with the sole purpose of stocking up on food for a binge. I would buy boxes of cookies and donuts, and I wouldn’t stop eating until every last bite was gone. Then there was the time I added an entire pie and two pints of ice cream to the mix. Then there was another time I stopped at my favorite bakery on my way to work to buy a dozen donuts and I ate them all in the car as I kept driving. Then there was another time I was filling in on a later shift at work so I drove to the store on my dinner break and ate two boxes of cookies in my car before going back to work. And then there was another time when I was sitting on my bedroom floor in the middle of a binge and caught a look at myself in the mirror… and I didn’t know who I was anymore.
That’s when I finally told Nana. She was the most understanding person I have ever known, but I was still petrified to tell her because I didn’t want her to be disappointed in me. We were meeting at my dad’s house to take care of his dog while he was out of town, and when we sat down on the couch I broke down sobbing. She asked what was wrong and I told her everything. At first she just didn’t understand. She asked why I was doing it and I told her I didn’t like myself anymore. I will never forget the sadness that spread across her face in that moment. She couldn’t understand why I, her beloved granddaughter, didn’t feel the same way about myself as she did. But what she could understand was that I needed help, and she was determined to help me however she could. That night I came home to this email from her:
It was nice to have breakfast with you. I went online briefly to look up binge eating and there is a lot of positive information about it. I just want to PUT YOUR MIND AT EASE. There are many things you can do to correct it. It can be fixed and that’s precisely what I will help you to do. Please don’t be anxious or concerned. Nana is here to help you and it’s all going to be alright. I promise. Remember I’m always here for you because I love you with all my heart.”
Then a couple days later, this was the end of another email:
“All I DO know is that we are going to take care of this…..NOW. Not a month from now. The sooner you go for help, the sooner you will recover. Hope your day is going well today. I love you Danica and I’m here to help you. All my love……Nana”
She was pretty dang amazing. Nana discovered a highly recommended eating disorder specialist for me to see, but the tricky part was she didn’t accept any insurance. So Nana did a ton of research online and found other therapists who I could talk to, but sometime in the meantime… I stopped. Maybe the thought of going to therapy scared me into it, but I truly can’t think of a logical reason for why I stopped binge eating at that time. But I just did, and I never ended up going to therapy.
That was the end of July 2015. The next month, I discovered my soon-to-be coach, Lynette, on Youtube. I had heard so much on social media about “IIFYM” and after finding Lynette, I decided to start tracking my macros under her guidance. I felt like I had tried everything to lose the weight I gained in college, so I figured why not try this. And it worked. I lost every single one of the pounds I had gained in college and got down to 13% body fat. I was in the best shape of my life, deadlifting way more than my body weight and running double digit miles like it was nothing. I was eating so much of so many amazing foods that I never imagined I could eat while maintaining that level of conditioning. And I didn’t have a single urge to binge, because why would I? I didn’t need to anymore. Food was not rare to me and I was finally learning to be joyful from the inside out again.
Then things started to change with Nana last March. She kept saying how she felt very tired, and anyone who knew her knows that was not normal for her. She practically dragged herself to see me at the finish line of my half marathon, and she didn’t want to go out to eat for her birthday. Then everything changed in April when I got a call at work that I needed to bring Nana to the doctor immediately, and we heard those three words you never want to hear: “you have cancer”. The doctors told us we had time, maybe even a couple years… but my gut told me that wasn’t the case. I used all my sick days and all my vacation time at work, and I dropped my life to be with her.
Mother’s Day was one of the hardest days. My dad came over and we were going to take her to lunch, but all she wanted to do was lie on the couch. It was incredibly painful to watch the most important person in my life decline so rapidly, and something about it being Mother’s Day just tortured me. Nana decided to take a nap once my dad left, so I went into my room and saw all the food that various companies had sent me recently… and I binged. Hard. I lost complete control and didn’t stop eating until there was literally nothing left except some GoMacro bars. I didn’t even want to eat half the things I was eating, but I was so tired of feeling everything I had been feeling. I was sitting on the floor shaking, completely in shock at what I had just done to myself. I had to get out of my room so I went back into the living room and saw Nana was awake. When I sat down next to her, she took one look at me and said “you did it, didn’t you?” She knew. I started sobbing, and she put both her arms around me and started crying too. We sat there crying silently in each other’s arms for a few minutes until she pulled away a little and said “I don’t want you doing this to yourself because of me.” She wiped my cheek and told me she loved me.
The next Tuesday, Nana was in so much pain that my mom and I had no choice but to take her to the emergency room. After a long night of tests and scans, Nana and I got admitted to the hospital around 2:30 the next morning. I promised her I would stay by her side as long as we were in the hospital. She even bullied the nurses into bringing a bed into her room for me to sleep on. Every day when my mom came to visit, she made me leave the hospital and drive to Nana’s to feed her cats and take a shower. But every time I left the hospital, I stopped at the store and bought a box of Lenny and Larry’s cookies and ate the entire thing. I made sure to throw away the wrappers before I went back into the hospital so no one would know. We left the hospital on hospice that Saturday. I remember baking dozens of cookies with the excuse of having them ready for friends who came to visit Nana, but I actually made them so I could eat all of them by myself when she dozed off.
Monday, May 23, 2016… I held my sweet Nana in my arms and looked into her beautiful brown eyes as she took her last breath and said her last words: “I love you”.
I was given until the end of the month to move both Nana and my things out of the home she lived in for two decades. I told myself I would get my eating back on track after I moved. Then I told myself I would get my eating back on track after the funeral. Then I told myself I would get my eating back on track once I went back to work. But that’s when the binging really started again.
A week of bereavement just isn’t enough time to grieve. I honestly didn’t even start grieving until I started going back to work. Sometimes I feel like I went back way too soon because after the initial round of hugs and “welcome back”s, I felt like I was immediately expected to be okay again. And the last thing I was… was okay.
I would make it through my day just fine, but then as I saw the clock ticking down to the end of work I’d start dreaming about what I would binge on that night. Would it be cookies tonight? Or donuts? Or maybe both? I was binging every single night. I felt like I lost so much of myself and my purpose on this planet when I lost Nana, so I desperately tried to fill that void with food. I was confiding in a friend about this, but there was nothing they could do or say to stop me once I had made up my mind that I was going to binge. I did it to both numb myself and to make myself feel pain at the same time. I wanted to numb myself from the loss and the feelings of loneliness and worthlessness. I didn’t want to feel the pain of my loss, so I ate until I felt pain from the food instead. I ate so violently that it spiked my heart rate because otherwise I just didn’t feel anything anymore. I kept going even though I could hear Nana’s voice telling me “I don’t want you doing this to yourself because of me” nagging me in the back of my head. I finally dug up the courage to tell my mom what was happening, and I’m so glad I did because I wasn’t alone in this anymore.
This went on for months. I quickly gained 27 pounds from the daily binges. I finally hit what I thought was rock bottom and started going to a therapist, but I decided the way to stop binging was to focus on losing the weight… because that’s how it happened the last time. But my body and mind were both exhausted and drained. I wasn’t anywhere near the proper head space to start a fat loss phase, but I was determined to try anyway. I started working out again with the personal trainer I had been working with last year, and I made great progress up until the week before Thanksgiving. Then all hell broke loose over the holiday. I spiraled downward again and couldn’t stop it. I woke up one morning and jumped out of bed at the sound of my 4:30 a.m. alarm, but I couldn’t stand up straight. I was keeling over from a sharp pain in my chest. My doctor said I had a cyst likely caused by an estrogen disruption… caused by the excess sugar in my system that my body was struggling to break down as quickly as I was eating it. She gave me a DIM supplement to take and said the cyst would likely dissolve on its own once I got my period (and it did a few days later). I called my mom sobbing as I left the doctor, but even this was not enough to stop the binging.
Fast forward to December and nothing had changed. Honestly, the binges were so frequent that I don’t even remember specifics to write about. They all melt one into the other, just like the days did during this time. But I do remember my anxiety was through the roof at this point. It was so bad that I cried to my therapist because I was so anxious about going to my sister-in-law’s family’s annual Christmas Eve party. I was so entangled in my binging and my anxiety that I couldn’t even be around my own family who loves me unconditionally.
My mom, brother, sister-in-law and I were going to celebrate the day after Christmas at my mom’s boyfriend’s house which is about a 30 minute drive from where I live. I happened to be starting my period that morning, and when I got out of bed I had the worst cramps I had ever had. I was trembling uncontrollably as I took a shower. The only thing motivating me to get out the door was to get to CVS to buy Midol because all mine was expired by a couple years. That’s how long it had been since I had cramps! I made it to the store and was about halfway to my mom’s boyfriend’s house when the pain became so severe I thought I was going to pass out while driving. I called my mom practically shrieking in pain. She told me to pull over and she came to get me on the side of the road. I slept for about an hour when we got to her boyfriend’s house, and when I woke up all I wanted was more sugar. Once I got back home, I pulled out my Nana’s journal she kept after she lost her husband in 1970. I read it from time to time because it makes me feel close to her. I turned to a page I didn’t remember reading before, and the words that filled it changed my life:
“I am aware that at every moment I can choose between wellness and illness. This fact will be firmly remembered and remain a part of my consciousness at all times. I choose to be well. My choice will be from this moment on and have its positive effect on my being. I am from this moment beginning to feel the beneficial effects of this choice to be well. I see clearly that my health depends largely on my attitudes, and that I can, and do, choose my attitude. I choose to be well.”
Reading that felt like a freight train hit me. How simple she made it seem… you just have to choose to be well.
I hate to say that wasn’t the end of the rollercoaster.
After the holidays, my trainer and I decided to test my body composition. I was terrified to see what the InBody would say. It obviously reflected what I had been doing to myself the last several weeks. I was so ashamed of myself and couldn’t bring myself to tell him what I was doing to myself in secret. I felt so guilty and like such a disappointment to him, and those negative feelings just fueled the binges to continue. One of these post-Christmas binges was so bad that I finally decided it was time to ask for more help, this time from an eating disorder specialist. I asked my functional medicine doctor (who was also Nana’s doctor) for a recommendation, and she gave me the same name that Nana first found in 2015. I smiled as I made that first phone call knowing how happy and proud of me she would be.
That first appointment was incredibly difficult. I had to sit there and listen to a doctor tell me I have both depression and binge eating disorder. Neither of those came as a surprise, but it’s still not easy to hear an official diagnosis. We dug really deep into my past and the present, and I left there feeling incredible. I felt uplifted and like I actually had a chance at beating this. I strung together a few good days, then a few good weeks. I got to a point about a month and a half later where I honestly thought I was past it. My body was feeling much better, and the fog in my head when it came to food felt like it was clearing up. I decided to talk to my doctor about turning my focus to those 25 pounds I had gained. We came to the conclusion that now was just not the time because my body needed a break from the back and forth between binging and dieting. Then my eating disorder specialist encouraged me to stop tracking macros. The thought of that honestly terrified me, so I decided to start a Whole30 to help me transition in what I thought was a safer, more focused way. I honestly felt incredible those two and a half weeks I made it through Whole30. But then I decided to stop my Whole30 for Expo West, and I spiraled downhill rapidly from there.
I told myself I could eat whatever I wanted and however much of it I wanted that weekend at Expo. But I took that to the extreme and the wheels came right off. I completely relapsed into my disorder. Expo was the start of two weeks of vacation from work, and I binged almost every single day of those two weeks. I felt disgusted with myself, but I just kept telling myself that I’d get back on track once I got back into my routine at work.
Two days before I went back to work, I had an incredibly difficult conversation with my mom. I broke down sobbing on the phone and told her “I keep thinking I’ll just hit rock bottom soon and that’ll be it.” She responded with “you are at rock bottom”. As difficult as it was to hear her say that, I knew she was right. I called my eating disorder specialist and made an appointment with her the next day because I was so desperate to stop the cycle. We dug incredibly deep into my past with eating. She said with complete confidence that the deep-seeded root cause of my binging is neither food itself nor the loss of my Nana. Her theory is that while the stress of losing Nana brought it back to the surface, it dates all the way back to my dad’s decision to stay with his girlfriend despite her accusing me of being bulimic and despite her refusal to apologize to me. And she was right. That situation was what caused my very first binge. I know now that I binged for the first time because I felt like I wasn’t enough for my dad. And since I felt like I wasn’t enough for him, I felt the need to make myself feel really not enough by binging and making myself feel miserable. In that therapy session, I realized that when I feel not enough, I turn to food to overfill my body instead of turning to things that would fill my soul.
WHAT A BREAKTHROUGH.
I went back to work the next day, and halfway through the day I got an intense migraine. I chalked it up to the fact I was staring at computer monitors for ten hours again, but deep down I knew it was probably because of the sugar. The migraine shifted toward the back of my head and turned into a painful tension headache that didn’t go away for two weeks. It was agonizing. It was so painful that I ended up going home sick from work one day because it was making me dizzy. My co-workers are incredibly loving and caring, and several of them would talk to me about the headaches and try to help me find relief. My mentor asked me if I had changed my eating habits, and I became so defensive that I almost snapped at him. My response was “NO, of course not. You know how healthy I eat”. I would have been horrified if he knew how I was actually eating. He encouraged me to try cutting out gluten, but I pushed back every single time he mentioned it. Because I knew it wasn’t gluten. It was sugar.
I had my last binge on April 11, 2017. It was just like old times. As I was driving home from a stressful day at work, I stopped at the grocery store and bought a box of sprinkle cookies and a bag of chocolate chip cookies… and I went to town. I ate until I literally could not put another crumb of cookie into my body. I know just how far I can push my body while keeping down all the food, because despite all the binging I have refused to ever purge. So all that food, all that sugar, just sits in my system and makes me feel sick for days until my body can process it and get rid of it. I went to bed that night feeling sick, but not feeling fed up. Nothing about that binge made me feel like it would be the last one. But it was, and it will continue to be, because of something that happened two days later.
The day before that binge, my trainer told me he got a promotion that involves transferring to another gym about half an hour from where we currently train. The thought of him leaving made me really sad because he’s become a great friend and has been there for me through the ups and the downs of the last year and a half. Fast forward to our next training session, and he told me there was another trainer at the gym he highly recommended for me, but the thought of switching to a new trainer while I still had these eating problems running rampant was too much for me to handle. I told him I wanted to take a break from training once he transferred, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him why. I knew I would start crying in the middle of the gym the second I started explaining it to him, so I decided to text him once I got home. I told him everything, and I ended by saying I worry sometimes that I’ve disappointed him this time around because I haven’t been able to reach my goals because of my volatile relationship with food.
My phone rang very quickly after I hit send, and it was my trainer. He told me that not only have I never disappointed him, but that he’s very proud of me and that I’m incredibly strong. He told me the only reason he was ever upset by my body composition test results was because he saw they made me upset. He told me that he understands, that I’m not alone and that I don’t need to be so hard on myself. Those are all things that my mom and my therapists have all told me, but it felt so different and so powerful to hear those things from someone who I felt didn’t have to say them. That phone call really changed things for me because it was when I finally told the last person I was hiding this from. I could write about my eating disorder for tens of thousands of people to read on Instagram, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell the last person I needed to tell. So when I hung up that phone call, I felt the weight and the shame from my binge eating finally lift. I felt lighter. I felt like I’m capable and strong enough to get past this. I felt happy for the first time in a long time. And I felt like I don’t need to eat like this ever again.
My eating disorder is now a thing of the past. It hasn’t been that long since I last binged, but I declare it to be behind me. I will do whatever it takes to get past this monster that has been chasing and tormenting me for years. Because I simply do not want to live like this anymore. I do not want to waste another precious moment of my life abusing my amazing body with food. Period.
When I look back on the stretch of my life since losing Nana in May, all I see is darkness. It’s just a massive hole. I felt like once a certain amount of time passed after I lost her, my life was “supposed to start again”. But the truth is that I just wasn’t able to function like myself again. If I’m being honest, I haven’t been able to even try until now. I felt so empty, so alone, so unloved, so miserable and so desperate. Anything that’s good about me is because of Nana, so when I lost her I felt like I lost all the goodness in myself. And as I started writing this post, I realized something incredibly powerful – I feel like when I lost Nana, I lost the one person who has loved me consistently through my entire life. Yes, my other family members love me, but Nana’s love was next level. She loved me when I hated myself. She loved me when I quite frankly did not deserve it. And I have spent this entire last year struggling to live without that love present on this earth. But I know now that while her physical body is no longer here, her love has never left me and it never will. Her lasting love will continue to guide me as I re-learn to love myself enough to not abuse myself with food in order to fill myself.
I’m not ashamed of my journey with food. In fact, I feel the opposite. It’s been one hell of a ride, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud of every version of myself I have been during this season of my life. But I’m most proud of the current me who finally asked for help and who is putting in hard work to recover. Because recovery is really only just beginning. I have so much more work to do and so many more lessons to learn. But I know I am going to be so much stronger once I’m on the other side of this, and I’m more determined than ever to get there.
Choosing to be well,