How Breaking My Jaw Changed My Relationship With Food

I had to change my relationship with food.

CN: weight loss, binge eating disorder


For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an issue with binge eating.

Roughly once a week, I consumed huge quantities of food, usually sweets or chips. It felt like I had no control. I couldn’t buy a box of cookies without eating the whole thing in one sitting. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop until I felt sick. It was definitely a coping mechanism for my anxiety. But it actually made the anxiety worse. As soon as I finished the last bite, guilt and shame would set in. Most people are surprised to hear my story because I’ve always been thin. But at my worst point, I gained 15 pounds in just two months and then ate 800-1200 calories a day until I burned it off.

It seemed I tried everything to get rid of this mortifying habit. I went to therapy, read blogs by other sufferers, and tried mindfulness.

Nothing worked for very long. Whenever I was on vacation, I could control it. I could eat anything I wanted and stop when I was full.

But as soon as I came back to the real world, my day-to-day anxiety came back — and, as a result, so did the bingeing. 

This year, I found out that I needed two of my wisdom teeth removed. Without any form of dental insurance, I made the short journey down from San Diego to Tijuana, where the procedure was much cheaper. The process was much more painful than I remembered from my prior wisdom tooth experience. My jaw was killing me from being forced open for so long!

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized how bad it was. I couldn’t swallow anything (even water), without feeling excruciating pain. I finally decided to see a local dentist. He assured me that the pain was a normal part of the healing process. But when it hadn’t gone away after two weeks and I was steadily dropping weight, he suggested I see a specialist.

It was impossible to binge, both because I would get too full and because not being able to chew took away much of the enjoyment. I had to find other ways to deal with anxiety.

As soon as I saw the x-ray, I knew it was bad. I didn’t need an expert to tell me that my jaw was broken. I was referred to the ER, where I was admitted and spent two days awaiting jaw surgery. The surgeon casually mentioned that my jaw would be completely wired shut for 6 weeks.

In my morphine fog, I didn’t grasp how much this would affect my life. I quickly learned it meant no exercise, no social life, talking through clenched teeth, and all my food had to pass through the blender — including oatmeal!

Apart from my nightly ice cream, eating became a chore. I had to make sure that I got enough calories and protein in order to heal. It wasn’t about taste; it was about necessity. When my doctor complained that I was losing too much weight, I had to resort to putting potatoes and olive oil in my smoothies.  

It was impossible to binge, both because I would get too full and because not being able to chew took away much of the enjoyment. I had to find other ways to deal with anxiety. And, being stuck home all day, there was a lot of anxiety. I started throwing myself into projects, like fixing my computer and crafting. I also started cleaning when I felt too restless to sit still.

These are all activities I could have started doing at any time, but it was always easier and more tempting to binge instead.

It took a broken jaw and social isolation for me to rediscover normal self-care habits.

After a long six weeks, my doctor cut the wires off. He told me I could slowly start adding soft, solid foods back into my diet. I expected to go crazy and start binging on pasta and bread. I was thoroughly surprised to find that I didn’t need to. I was enjoying and savoring every bite so much. It was enough. I was satisfied.

 

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It’s been a few weeks now since I began eating solid foods again and I haven’t binged. I eat my “trigger foods” on a regular basis and a normal, healthy portion is enough. I’m enjoying food more than I ever thought possible. More importantly, I’m enjoying it for the taste instead of the comfort. I used to think that moderation wasn’t for me. I had to limit what foods I could eat so that I wouldn’t binge. Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin theorizes that there are two types of people: moderators and abstainers.

I thought that I was an abstainer. I couldn’t have good things in the house or I would lose control. I’m proud to say that I currently have a chocolate bar in the cabinet, one that I’m saving for a moment when I can truly enjoy it. When I get anxious, I turn to my new hobbies instead of food.

In a weird way, that chocolate bar serves as a reminder that I now have better coping mechanisms in my arsenal.

In all honesty, it hasn’t been that long. Binge eating will be a lifelong fight, but I’m grateful for this learning experience. Obviously, jaw surgery wasn’t fun, but I’m glad I got something useful out of it. I know I will likely resort to the temptation of the binge many more times in my life. Yet, I also know the resources I have to fight against it. There are other things I can do for “me time” than sit in front of the TV with two boxes of cookies. When I want a treat, I can have it, but I’m going to eat it slowly and with intent.


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