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Heather Choate is a self-described “baby crazy” mom of six whose innocent goal to lose the weight from her first pregnancy turned into a battle against an eating disorder that she struggled with for nine years. She opened up to FirstforWomen.com about how her bingeing became a problem and the devastating news that helped her finally turn everything around.
I developed binge eating disorder after I had my first baby at 21. It started off as just wanting to lose the baby weight, an innocent desire. So, as most people do, I turned to a diet and said, “OK, I’m not going to eat this, I’m not going to eat that.” But restricting myself turned into a vicious cycle of dieting and then bingeing on all of those things I said I wouldn’t eat. Psychologically, it created this mess inside of me.
I’m a sugar girl. Ice cream’s the one that if everyone else is eating it, I have to have it, or I’ll head to the freezer when everyone’s gone and eat it. So the first restrictions were no sugar, just vegetables and protein. I tried to cut out processed foods because I know they’re not good for you; but then when I would say that I can’t have any ever, I would obsess about it. The fact that everyone can seem to eat this, but I couldn’t would make me feel deprived. I would turn to those things when I was down or my energy was low.
Being a mom, I felt so low on energy with a new baby that kept me up at night. I wanted that burst of energy to keep me going, so in the afternoon I would turn to simple carbs and sugar. It would work for the moment, and then I would feel guilty about it and go back to strict dieting.
In those lows it was like feeling trapped. I couldn’t nap if I had low energy because I had my children to take care of. It would cause such great frustration that then I would give into those cravings and overeat.
I tried to exercise to get an energy boost--but sometimes that would make me even hungrier. I used distraction, but it didn’t always work. It didn’t seem to matter that I knew to read a book or call a friend--things I had heard people say to do--because those things didn’t fix what was going on inside me, which was a lot of shame and guilt. Calling a friend didn’t address the real problem--because I didn’t want to face it.
It continued like that for a couple years. I would stop binge eating and dieting altogether when I would get pregnant. I'd find more balance in healthy nutrition, and then after the baby I would say, “OK, now I have to lose the weight” and fall back into the cycle. It was incredibly frustrating.
I had times when I did well. I would say, “This is my ideal way to be.” Especially after my third son, I wasn't cycling as much--but then it would come back and surprise me because I'd think, “Oh, that’s all in the past.” When I didn’t meet that exact ideal I would start spiraling again.
I knew what I was doing wasn’t working, and wasn’t healthy, and I was embarrassed about it, but I couldn’t seem to stop. It became so habitual that it took on a life of its own.
Eventually I confided in my husband, but that was scary because I kept most of it a secret and wanted to be strong for him. I wanted to be the perfect wife with everything together; I didn’t want to admit there was a problem. He was a good listener and refrained from trying to immediately fix the problem. Even though he has a tendency to do that, he knew this was something he couldn’t fix because this was all on me. He just asked questions to get me thinking to find the answers to my own problems.
This continued, and when I was pregnant with baby number six, I noticed a lump in my left breast. I was a little concerned, but all the doctors said, “Oh, you’re so young, you’re so healthy, you’re 29 years old, and you have no history of cancer.” But I’ll never forget the moment when, at 10 weeks along, I got the diagnosis.
I was on the back deck with my kids playing while my husband was at work. My midwife called and said, “Heather, we got the results back from the biopsy--and it’s cancer.” A really aggressive form. The shock was instant. It was like the movies: noticing the world around me and thinking about my unborn baby and what that meant for her, concern for not only my life but hers too.
I knew it was up to me. At first I struggled because I tried to eat clean before the pregnancy, so then to find out that I had cancer made me mad. I noticed that I was eating--again--the foods that were not going to support us and were running me out of energy even more, and I thought, “I’m fighting for not just my life, but my baby’s life. I’ve got bigger issues to deal with than this cycle that I’m in. It’s not helping me, and it could be dangerous for both me and the baby, so I need to do everything I can.” So I just threw myself into a greater cause. I saw that there was a bigger picture than this problem.
The sheer shock of knowing that I might not make it, the baby might not make it, flipped everything inside of me. It made me analyze everything I had been doing up until this point and helped reprioritize things. I found more balance and peace about food. I looked at it more as something to nurture myself and my baby to give us the best chance possible.
Heather is still undergoing cancer treatment, but she had a healthy pregnancy and delivered baby number six.
I feel like because I went through what I did, my mental faculties were strengthened and I had more internal fortitude--I wasn’t the same person I was before. However, there are still temptations that come up even when I think I'm strong, and I just have to be really aware.
One thing that’s helped is to not bury emotions in food. I call it, “Don’t drown it in doughnuts!” Embrace what you’re feeling and say, “It’s OK that I’m terrified out of my mind right now” or “It’s OK that the kids are frustrating me.” Instead of ignoring it and pretending that everything is perfect, allow yourself space for those unideal emotions and say, “It’s not how I want to feel, but I’m going to allow it to be there and move past it.”
I wasn't getting a lot of quiet time for myself, so now I wake up a little earlier than the kids to have mindfulness instead of busyness. That helps. The other thing is journaling, getting it out there. It feels like it’s not just a dark cloud inside me--it’s out there in physical form. I'll write “I’m feeling scared. I’m feeling angry,” and then either rip it up or burn the paper and tell myself, “We’re letting this go.” It brings emotional freedom so that I can get to where I want to be.
Now, I view food as a gift to myself, and rather than punishing my body into looking a certain way, food helps me be a better person, a better mother. I embrace clean eating, but I don’t ever restrict myself. With the kids, I definitely allow them their treats--ice cream is in the freezer! I know I can have it if I want to, but mostly I want foods that support life and help me feel vibrant, energetic, healthy, and strong.
Going through cancer and treatment, my body has completely changed. I actually lost a breast, and so that made me dig deep about who I am and learn to accept the things I can change and let go of the things that I can’t. I’m never going to look whole; I still have scars. But I’ve learned to be at peace with that, and know that my body is beautiful the way it is.