'Untamed' author Glennon Doyle reveals eating disorder relapse: 'I feel like I have been hiding this part of myself'
Untamed author Glennon Doyle says she had an eating disorder relapse over the holidays.
Doyle, who has been spoken candidly about struggling with bulimia from a young age, shared the news Tuesday on We Can Do Hard Things, the podcast she hosts alongside wife Abby Wambach and sister Amanda Doyle.
"I feel nervous to represent things accurately," Doyle said in Tuesday's episode, titled "My Hardest Thing." "I feel a big responsibility to speak about something that so many people suffer from. I feel scared because whenever anyone ... speaks about what the world would consider a failure, it feels like you're making yourself vulnerable to people discounting you, so I feel that that's a risk. But I also feel a little bit grounded ... because I know how to do this; I know how to tell the real truth of things, even in scary ways. That's how I've survived. I feel like I know what I'm doing, but I also know that it's risky."
After urging anyone triggered by body image or eating disorder content to skip the episode, the 45-year-old writer and activist shared her story, noting that she has long felt "frustrated" that even though she has famously "untamed" herself on many issues — sexuality, marriage, gender — she has still "not broken free from compulsive thinking about body and food."
Those compulsive thoughts appear to have ramped up over the past two years, around the time she released her 2020 memoir, Untamed, in which she writes about falling for soccer star Wambach and leaving her husband. Planning an extensive book tour for the memoir left Doyle feeling vulnerable — both in the personal details about her life she'd be sharing and in how she expected her appearance to be picked apart. She recalls trying to be like a "robot" who could assert control of her "physicality."
Looking back, she says she was "really f***ing skinny" during that time, which also coincided with the pandemic, canceling her tour in the process. She also turned to exercise as a way to "exhaust the anxiety out," and in doing so, probably worked out too much for her own good.
"At some point the overthinking about food and body just felt like it was getting more and more intense," Doyle told her wife and sister. "The next marker I remember is that the scale came back."
After digging out an old scale from the garage and putting it in her bathroom, Doyle found herself compulsively checking her weight for months, reaching the "kind of level of obsessive" at which she'd remove items like a headband to see the number drop.
"'Oh, I'll just weigh myself once a month,'" she told herself at the time. "Then it was once a week, then it was once a day. Most recently it was, like, eight times a day — like, every time I went into the bathroom."
Wambach hired a fitness trainer to help hammer in the message that Doyle's body was strong — something she now considers to be "gas on the fire." Around that time, Doyle estimates she threw up two or three times, which she described to her wife as "ice cream incidents."
By the last week of 2021, however, she was throwing up nightly — something she chalks up to having her family visit for the holidays. As family issues bubbled up, the familiar dynamics that had likely "contributed" to her original eating disorder struggles also came into play. Doyle found herself falling back into the patterns she'd first developed around age 10.
Her relapse wasn't just something she was keeping from loved ones; she was hiding it from herself, too. That became painfully clear when dear friends came to visit on New Year's Day and asked Doyle what intentions she had set for 2022.
"I had nothingness," the author recalled. "I had nothing to say. I could not think of one true thing to come out of my month."
The moment was a red flag for Doyle, who was alarmed less by her relapse than by the fact that she couldn't tell those closest to her. She remembers thinking, "Where am I?"
The next day, she listened in while doing dishes as Wambach took a phone call from a newly sober friend. Doyle, who has also written about her struggles with alcoholism and mental illness, found herself feeling "a little bit judgy and annoyed" by the friend's fresh, un-jaded perspective on recovery. At the same time, she felt compelled to come clean to her partner.
"I'm f***ed," she admitted to Wambach after the phone call ended. Doyle told listeners that the retired soccer star was "completely amazing" and was "undramatic and unshocked" in her response.
Despite her relapse reveal, Doyle decided that the California-based couple should carry on with their plans to go hiking with their three children. The outing turned out to be something of a turning point for her.
Describing her eating disorder, she shared, "there is this black hole — or like a canyon of murkiness — that exists inside of me, and I could jump in. But my job is to stay on the land side of this manhole, or canyon of swirly dark energy. But there is something seductive about the canyon; it's not all terror and weeping and gnashing of teeth. It's a little bit purple and swirly and sparkly too."
Being on the land side is a lot of effort, while her "eating-food-body stuff is my way of getting closer to the canyon." She stressed that, for her, it has "nothing f***ing to do with eating and food."
That canyon metaphor has tied somewhat neatly in with her hiking experience with her family. On the car ride over, Doyle felt short of breath as the trauma of her situation hit her; she also noticed she was gripping her own arm tightly. But once outdoors, she noticed a staircase as they hiked a cliff overlooking the ocean. From its landing, one could look up and see a steep climb upwards, bathed in light; one could also look down and see a dark, seductively secret path down to the beach. The landing, the writer shared, is where she sees herself in her eating disorder journey, and while the dark descent may appear easier, she's determined to make that arduous climb up, no matter how exposed she feels.
"I'm not going down," Doyle told listeners, noting that her "climb" toward recovery will likely involve therapy.
"I'm 45 years old and I know myself and I trust myself," she continued, adding that she has a "positive anticipation about the magic that will come as the climb begins again. I'm just being super-tender and gentle with myself as I wait on the landing."
Earlier in the episode, Doyle spoke of the sense of relief that has come with now being able to share her experience.
"I feel like I have been hiding this part of myself, and I don't feel ashamed of it," she explained. "I don't feel ashamed of this weird side of myself, but because of the hiding I've been acting like I do. So in talking about it, I feel like this part of myself is like a friend and I'm, like, standing up for her right now. ... This part of you that makes your life so hard sometimes, is also the part — in a swirly, different way – is also what people celebrate, this weirdness that shows up in different ways. We don't just get to love her when she's shiny and whatever; we love ourselves even when we're hurting. Maybe even more importantly then."
Doyle added, "I know how to do this. I'm someone who's been to rock bottom a few times, in terms of alcoholism, in terms of mental illness, in terms of all of the eating disorder stuff. And ... although I feel very scared because when you're in the middle of it, you kind of forget that you're going to get out, I can look back on my life and know that I will — because I have, because I trust myself. So I am speaking from an open wound but also one that I've seen scar over so many times that I trust the process to speak right now."
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, NEDA’s toll-free, confidential helpline is available to help by phone (800-931-2237) and click-to-chat message. Crisis support is also available via text message by texting ‘NEDA’ to 741741.
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