What It’s Like Being an Introvert with an Eating Disorder

Just as I feel more comfortable being alone, I also felt more comfortable keeping my problems to myself, which made my addiction worse.

As an introvert, I do most things alone: workout, drive, shop, travel, go to restaurants. I prefer it that way. There’s also another thing I used to do alone: binge and purge. My eating disorder started alone, and it ended alone. 

It began during the loneliest part of my life. Although I’m naturally a loner, I had some friends in high school. But I didn’t make any friends in college, and at that time, anyone I’d known in high school had moved on or moved away. It was during those isolated years that the trouble began.

When I was in my third year, I decided to eat really healthy. I cut out red meat, anything processed, and ate nine servings of vegetables a day. After all, a healthy diet is key to a long and healthy life, right?

In retrospect, the desire to be healthy was a pretext. What I wanted was control. I had no direction, no sense of purpose, no goals, and no social network. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know anything. 

When ‘Healthy’ Didn’t Feel Healthy

The first time I knew something was awry with my desire to eat healthy was when I ate a massive amount of fruit at the end of my shift at Whole Foods. Instead of chucking that fruit into the compost bin where it belonged, I chose to turn my own body into a fruit processor. Fruit is great and has a lot of benefits, but I knew eating 10 pieces of fruit in a row wasn’t natural. This sort of thing went on for over a year.

Eventually, I progressed to a full-blown eating disorder. I remember where I was — the exact time of day — when I stopped swallowing the food I ate. I chewed a bunch of chocolate protein bars, then spit them out. It was exhilarating, disgusting, and surreal at the same time. I felt like I was in a different world. It felt like an alien or a virus had hijacked my brain and had taken control. The rush was irresistible, but I knew I needed to stop.

Chewing and spitting progressed to binging and purging, and then binging and fasting and restriction. Once I overcame one eating disorder, I moved onto another one. It became a way of life: The struggle and the hope for a new beginning, followed by relapse and shattered dreams. The cycle felt endless. I’d have a few days of good behavior before some thought or event would precipitate more bad behavior. The weight went up and down, the pant sizes went up and down. I’d lost control.

Facing Addiction Alone as an Introvert

I dealt with this back-and-forth on my own throughout my 20s and early 30s. It was my dirty little secret, and I didn’t want anyone else to know about it, because just as I feel more comfortable being alone as an introvert, I also feel more comfortable keeping my problems to myself.

In fact, my natural inclination is not just to keep those problems to myself, but to deal with them alone, too. I can figure things out. Nobody else needs to know. I don’t like to emote, and I don’t like to air out my dirty laundry.

Introvert or not, it’s hard to tell other people about an addiction or an eating disorder. It’s shameful, embarrassing, and you don’t know how they’re going to react. You also don’t believe there is anything they can do about it. What are they going to say? They can offer comfort and support, but if they haven’t dealt with the problem, what else can they do? Recommend therapy?

That’s what happened when I was orthorexic (an unhealthy fixation and obsession with food and weight, which often leads to restrictive dieting). My mother referred me to a therapist. We met a few times and I discussed some of the thoughts that fed into my behavior: How I didn’t want to be like everyone else (seemingly unfit and overweight), how I wanted to be healthy, how I valued my fitness, how I thought society had become too indulgent. I discontinued our sessions because it felt as though I’d recovered.

Soon, I discovered that wasn’t true.

Suffering alone felt preferable because it gave me a sense of comfort. If no one else knew, they couldn’t judge me — they wouldn’t think anything was wrong, and I could deal with the problem myself.

I also believed that recovery was around the corner. Why tell anyone when my problems were going to be history in a few weeks, a few days, or even tomorrow? I kept telling myself that I could recover on my own.

I don’t need help, I thought. I’m going to stop doing this tomorrow, I’ll forget about it, and then this will all be history. Who cares?

Social Isolation Comes with a Cost

Over those years, I ended up telling only two friends about my eating disorder — friends who I had little contact with and didn’t live anywhere near me. I told them but they never followed up. In fact, I don’t think I wanted follow-up or support, but something told me it was worth a shot. I thought all I had to do was tell them and everything would be okay. But it wasn’t.

There is a potential danger with social isolation — even for introverts who socialize less because it depletes their energy levels. The danger is that we may engage in behaviors we don’t want others to know about. We spend all of that time alone, and we can do whatever we want. It’s no coincidence that my disordered eating developed at the most isolated moment of my life.

Addiction and eating disorders only perpetuate the isolation. It’s easy to believe that no one else is dealing with this problem, when in fact there is probably one other person in your periphery who may be.

You begin to believe that you are broken and there is no hope. Instead of spending time with others, you spend time feeding the addiction. It’s a degenerative cycle.

Recovery for Introverts

How should introverts begin the road to recovery? As much as I like being an introvert, I recognize that there are limitations in the face of a significant issue like addiction. When introverts have problems, many prefer to deal with them on their own.

The answer isn’t to become an extrovert who likes to share all their personal problems, but it does involve finding a way out of isolation. 

Today, I’m still an introvert who prefers doing many things alone, but I have a much stronger social network. If developing an in-person friend group doesn’t sound appealing, there are many online communities where you can talk to someone going through a similar situation. Plus finding like-minded spaces — such as Introvert, Dear or video advice on YouTube — can help you find community and counsel. Here are some of my favorites:

I dealt with my eating disorder on my own for 10 years. What if I had found someone who had gone through the same problem? 

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Work With a Therapist

Beyond building a reliable social network that will support you, look into whether working with a professional might help. Whether it’s a therapist or coach, talking with someone about any underlying issues you have with your addiction may be the step you need to process bigger emotions that are keeping you from a healthier life. 

For Introverts Battling Addiction, There Is Hope

If you’re an introvert who is battling addiction, there is hope. Embrace your introversion — I do. But also recognize how introversion can at times make addiction worse because it feels easier to be — or handle things — alone and keep them hidden. No one can fix addiction on their own.

Addiction is easier to fix when you’re part of a community. Learning new behaviors and replacing old beliefs with new ones isn’t something that happens overnight. It may take multiple attempts, and it’s easy to give up. That’s why you need someone to guide you, to inspire you, and to help you overcome those challenges.

Being an introvert is great, and introverts should celebrate their unique abilities. But also know that it’s okay to ask for help. As the classic Kenny Rogers song goes, “Know when to hold ‘em, but know when to fold ‘em.”

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Kevin Burciaga is a physical therapist based in Dallas, TX. He developed an ED when he was 21, and finally recovered in his early 30s. Now he’s on a mission to help other professionals, students, and entrepreneurs recover and develop healthy eating patterns for life. He is a contributor at Recovery Warriors, and shares informative videos about ED on YouTube. Learn more at KevinBurciaga.com, follow him on Facebook, or speak directly with Kevin here.