Trigger warning: this post discusses my experience with binge eating, eating disorders, low self esteem and topics of the like. It also uses some explicit language. It is a personal post and though it is not my intention to trigger someone, I want to warn those who are especially sensitive to these subjects. I am not a professional or a medical expert. My intention with this post is to share my story and help others who seek it.
I’ve struggled with nearly every eating disorder under the sun.
When I was 18, I went to an inpatient eating disorder recovery center for 5 months during my senior year of high school for anorexia. They took our phones, media, and TV rights away, and taught us all about nutrition, how to maintain a healthy weight, and we underwent hours and hours of cognitive behavioral and hypnosis therapy. It was one of the most transformative times in my life. I was so deeply in touch with myself and my health and I consider myself fortunate my parents supported me through it all and allowed me to get this treatment I so badly needed. I learned a lot during this time, and while I'd say I pretty much tackled my anorexic habits, my eating disorder had really only just begun.
Binge eating disorder is more common than anorexia, plaguing about 5.6 million women in the US alone. I get a lot of questions about binge eating, but have never really gone into it until now. First: I want to define the terms emotional eating and binge eating.
Emotional eating is when one uses foods to suppress an emotion - such as sadness, loneliness, anxiousness, or even happiness. Emotional eaters are not necessarily binge eaters.
Binge eating is defined by frequent and recurrent binge eating episodes with associated negative psychological problems. It usually involves a large amount of food in a short amount of time. It does not matter the person's weight, size, gender, race or general happiness: binge eating can happen to anyone. Many emotional eaters can be binge eaters, too.
There's a difference between the two, yet they both normally leave the person feeling worse off than before, and use food to cope with (usually uncomfortable) emotions or feelings.
When I struggled with anorexia, I had no sense of food freedom or how to properly fuel myself. I was so restrictive with my diet that I'd be deprived of basic nutrients. In order to find equilibrium, I'd binge on foods I had previously eliminated from my diet. I would overeat, like an animal about to hibernate, without control or a touch of mindfulness. It felt good to do something private, without inhibition, and to let myself eat these foods that I had deemed off limits. But I'd eat to the point of discomfort and lethargy.
Not soon after the binge was over, the guilt and self-loathing would set in. I felt shame for having no control, and I'd just pray and wish that my actions could undo themselves. It was a vicious cycle, and I was full of despair, low self esteem and complete and utter helplessness.
Though I was never obese (and even if I was- the sentiment is still the same) I was still in deep despair and extremely uncomfortable in my body. The most important thing here is that it doesn’t matter what you weigh, but how you feel. This is a huge part of understanding eating disorders, and what makes them so hard to tackle and diagnose- it literally does not matter your age, race, sex, weight, or appearance- anyone can struggle with an ED.
Yes, I had gone to treatment to tackle anorexia, but the eating disorder habits morphed into something else.I was not aware of my own binge eating habits that lay dormant inside me, so they were not addressed in therapy. My treatment for anorexia nervosa was helpful and life changing, but it did not solve everything. As I avoided anorexic behaviors I picked up other binge-eating ones, just as harmful.
My weight would go on to fluctuate 2-3 sizes for years. I was sending my body, hormones and heart on a rollercoaster ride. My body and soul were under intense distress. First I’d lose a bunch of weight and restrict myself to the point of concern, then swing the pendulum the other way by overeating. I never felt in control. I blamed this on myself, of course.
“How come you can't control yourself, Lee?”
“You are a pig," my thoughts would say.
My First Binge
I remember my first time binging. It is a vivid memory. I was 16 and had just gotten my driver’s license which granted me all sorts of freedom. I had just snapped out of my “anorexic” habits and my gut told me I had to gain weight back but I didn’t know how.
I wanted M&M’s for breakfast. I purchased a big, huge family-size bag of peanut m&m’s from a store at 7am on the way to school. This sort of food was always off limits to me while I was struggling with my ED. It was a trigger food. Sugar, chocolate, candy. All the things my ED despised.
I cannot remember if I planned to eat the whole bag or if I was fooling myself and thinking I'd only eat a handful, but my hunger was ravenous.
It was not just physical hunger.
It was emotional hunger.
I drove to school and started eating the M&M’s on my drive. One by one, at first. I then started eating them quicker. I stopped tasting them and started practically swallowing them whole. I would shove tens of them into my mouth at once, in a robotic, out-of-control motion. It felt like I was in a trance state. I went into some sort of blind black hole. My body was asking me to stop eating, I was full now. But I ignored the signals. I don’t remember what happened, but pretty soon, the entire bag was gone. A 1 lb. bag of M&Ms was gone.
I arrived at my school’s parking lot. The loathing set in. My belly was so full, I felt so sick like I might puke. I could barely move.
Throughout the rest of that day, I felt so low and so dark, and so embarrassed of my secret binge.
But the cycle continued.
I flip flopped between bulimia and binge eating for 7 long years.
Over the next few years: I swung like a pendulum between too restrictive and too relaxed with my eating habits. Either way, I was using food to control and sedate my emotions. Whether through strict diets or eating a whole plate of cookies, it was all just a way for me to feel calm and in control.
During these months of binge eating, I relied on food as my safety net. I had a “f#ck it” attitude. “Whatever, you already ate the cookie at lunch, might as well finish off the ice cream tonight.”
I would eat mindlessly, standing up in the kitchen, over the sink.
Once the ice cream was done, I’d reach for the peanut butter and begin eating that by the spoonful.
Looking back, a pivotal moment in my life that helped me in my quest to stop bingeing is a promise to an ex-boyfriend I made one night when we were out to dinner. It was November of 2013 in New York City. I had just had a binge/purge episode, and I had told him everything. He looked me in the eyes and asked me to please stop my bulimic habits. I saw genuine concern in his eyes, and reality snapped in.
It suddenly dawned on me that if I wanted to be in a healthy relationship with someone, I'd have to be in a healthy relationship with myself.
I'm happy to say that I've kept this promise and have been binge/purge free for over 4 years. It was hard for me to open up to someone about my bulimia, but if I hadn't shared this experience with someone I trusted, I don't think I would be where I am now. Opening up made it less scary, and almost immediately lifted some of the shame I had been carrying with me. Though we are no longer together, his genuine care and concern helped me see that I was hurting not just myself, but those around me as well.
After that promise was made, around age 23, I set out to make this recovery work for me this time. I had to learn how to stop bingeing, since purging was no longer an option. It was like learning how to eat and honor my body all over again.
After 8+ years of struggling with anorexia, binge eating and bulimia, my hunger cues and signals were all sorts of messed up. I never knew what or how much to eat. My eyes always seemed way too big for my plate. Meal time was still stressful, and I never felt totally at peace. I was at my limit. I knew I could not live like this forever. I knew there was more to life then this horribly depressive cycle, and I set out on a personal quest to find out what that was. I stopped the drinking, the late nights and the partying. I got out of a relationship that wasn't so healthy. I had always been genuinely interested in eating healthy but had never really stuck with it. I decided to start exercising consistently and signed up for a half marathon. I put my health and my body first. I spent less time on the weekends at parties and more time working on building cooking skills and saving money for my future. All these small changes led me here, to where I am now.
How Did I Overcome Binging?
Though there is not one thing that helped me overcome my binge eating, there are many tactics I used and still use to this day in my recovery. After some time, I realized that all the time I spent ruminating on what I should not have eaten was taking up precious time and energy I could be spending on dear relationships, myself, my career, and other goals and things I wanted to accomplish. Food, though important, is only one small part of my life. I didn't want it to rule over me anymore, so I made it a point to do my best work on other aspects of my life so there was not such emphasis on diet and aesthetics.
The below tips are other ways I recovered from bingeing. I am not a doctor or health care professional and if you are struggling with an ED I definitely suggest seeking professional help! This is just what worked for me. These tips are not meant to substitute professional therapy or treatment.
- Dedicating time and energy into recovery: The biggest thing that worked for me was, and I believe this had to do with age and maturity, dedicating energy and time to self improvement and self help. I did some therapy in my 20’s which helped immensely and, if it's within budget or your health care network, I highly suggest it. Therapy is an an amazing opportunity for personal ground, not something to be ashamed of. We can help remove the stigma of mental health by talking more about it and supporting those who do it.
- Identify triggers: a trigger is something that brings up a flashback or an old memory. A trigger can be a person, a word, even a smell. They are different for everyone, but all evoke the same unpleasant feeling of anxiety. A trigger can even evoke a physical response like rapid heart rate and sweaty palms. The holidays are a good example of a common trigger for people with eating disorders. Identifying triggers helps you become more prepared and better equipped to handle difficult situations.
- Awareness of media consumption: This goes along with triggers, but being a conscious consumer and recognizing what you are letting yourself see and take in is huge. I don't support magazines that have a emphasis on weight loss as the key to health and I don't subscribe or look at magazines with idealized or unrealistic models because this is what works for me. Many magazines geared towards women have such an emphasis on our looks. It makes me upset, so I don't read them.
- Cultivating healthier coping mechanisms: I knew I had a problem with stress and anxiety and I no longer wanted to depend on food to heal those things. I wanted to work on them myself. So I began doing more yoga, taking walks, shunning alcohol for a while, focusing on my career not my social life, being in nature, journaling, talking to friends and opening up to my parents about my issues.
- Support system: as Drake would say, “I can't do this on my own, no” having a solid support system like family, a partner, a close knit group of friends or a medical professional to heal you on your journey is extremely helpful in a long lasting recovery. People who love you unconditionally and want you to be happy are the people worth fighting for.
- Balanced diet: of course, re-learning how to eat when struggling with an eating disorder is a different journey for everyone, and working with dietitians or nutritionists can be extremely helpful in your recovery plan. I find that eating a balanced diet with plenty of healthy fats, quality proteins and carbohydrates can help me from binging or eating something I don't necessarily want to eat. Snacking on quality fats and protein (carrots/hummus, fat balls, toast with avocado) and eating at regular hours helps to ensure my blood sugar levels never dip too low. Have you ever found that if you don't eat all day, and then get home around 4pm, it may be more tempting to reach for foods that won't make you feel so good or overeating in a frenzy? Womancode has a lot of good tips for eating in a way that supports healthy blood sugar levels.
- Mindfulness: also known as the practice of staying present, mindfulness can come in handy when it comes to bingeing. A friend of mine told me that in her recovery, her therapist said it was OK to binge ONLY if she was 100% present in her binges. She was told to sit down, turn relaxing music on, make herself comfortable. She announced aloud that she was about to binge. She smelled the food. Tasted the food. Chewed it well. This helped her bring it back down to earth and out of the binge trance.
- Journaling: I've been journaling since I was 12! There is something so therapeutic about writing down all of your thoughts and feelings on paper. It's also incredible to go back and look at how far you have come in your journey. I also love referencing patterns and behaviors.
- Affirming, "I don't need to be perfect": NOBODY is perfect and that is a fact. We are all deeply complex beings. It's absurd to expect perfection from ourselves. We are not robots. Affirming to myself that I don't need to be perfect helps me break down some unrealistic expectations I may have set for myself.
- Self forgiveness: a key part of recovery. If you mess up, it's okay. Understand it's part of the human experience. Pack your bags, and move onto the next thing. Stay in the present.
All these things may sound small, but I truly believe making these lifestyle changes helped me get to know myself better. I cultivated a stronger sense of self and therefore was kinder and more able to listen to my own wants and needs.
I sometimes feel that emotional eating is nearly impossible to avoid. We all have emotions, and we have to eat everyday, so of course there are going to be times where we eat because we are stressed, sad, angry, bored, lonely. Experts say you have to be eating high caloric, processed, or high sugar foods to be an emotional eater, and I totally have to disagree with that statement. It is possible to binge, emotional eat, or soothe yourself with healthy foods too. I myself used to binge on nut butter, almond butter, pineapple, even omelets. It doesn't have to be crappy food to be a binge, and this is super important to recognize. The key thing for me is just being cognizant of my behavior. Mindfulness goes a long way. If I overeat sometimes, that is okay. The key component is forgiving yourself, packing your bags, and moving on with life.
If you feel like you need more help, please check out the resources listed below.
- Watch this free "Befriending your Binge" online class: https://growinghumankindness.com/befriend-binge-class-replay/
- Text NEDA 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line: text "NEDA" to 741741
- Speak with a trained volunteer on NEDA phone line, M-F, 9A-9P EST: (800) 931-2237
- Explore the National Eating Disorder Association Website
I'd love to hear from you guys below on how you've overcome binge eating and what has helped you. Let's keep this a safe space, so please do not give unsolicited advice, and keep all comments loving and supportive. As always, please keep all numbers and weight/kilos out of your comments so we don't trigger anyone. Love to all!