Do you remember your first diet? I remember mine. I was 11 years old. I lost about 20 pounds, after which I gained about 25. This pattern of gaining, then losing, then gaining even more, continued into my early adulthood, when I hit a top weight of about 260 pounds. I was alternating dieting for a week or two with periods of binge eating for a week or two, being very strict, then very out of control.
What Is Often Misunderstood as Gluttony
Can Be a Serious Eating Disorder
It was not until I read, all in one tear-filled day, Geneen Roth’s seminal book, “Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating,” that I realized there was something else at work here. I was not someone without willpower, I learned. I was not an “out of control glutton”, as a school counselor I once saw told me. There was something else at play here: I had an eating disorder.
At that time, in the early eighties, there was really no label for “Binge Eating Disorder” (BED). In fact, one therapist I saw referred to me as a “failed bulimic”, meaning I did binge, but I “failed” to purge. Boy, that felt great – I couldn’t even get an eating disorder right! I knew though, that no matter what name I gave it, when the drive to binge came along, which it did almost daily, I simply could not stop it, no matter what I tried. It just overtook me. No amount of willpower, no amount of body shaming or drive to lose weight was going to stop me. I would do anything to get food and to get to my binge space, usually in front of the television.
A binge was, for me, all about checking out. My clients talk about this all the time: The “zoning out” that happens during a binge. The whole world with all its stresses, demands, feelings and fears go away. It was just me and the food. I now know that this was exactly what I needed: A break from everyone else and especially from the critic in my own head. My eating disorder, no matter how much it ruined my life in other ways, was “working”. It was giving me a sacred time away from everything and everyone. In short, I needed it, and for good reason. It was not weakness. It was survival.
When I finally got into counseling, I learned all the roles food played in my life, and that proper treatment, not another diet, was essential to finally let my eating disorder go. In fact, dieting itself was making things worse. I needed to have a lot more tools than food in the toolbox to deal with my life.
I used food for so many reasons: Distraction from difficult feelings, to mask anxiety and depression, to avoid social situations, to rebel, to reward myself. I had to learn a new way of being in the world. I never took food off the “ways to cope” list, but it moved a lot further
down. I had to deal with losing a lot of weight too, which was more complicated than I ever imagined. And while the road was not easy to travel, it has been the most important journey I have ever taken. It has been how I have found myself.
BED has a variety of causes. It seems that genetics, neurobiology, psychology, dieting and cultural pressures to be thin all can play a role. So can a history of loss or trauma. The behaviors of BED vary. For some folks, binges happen every day; for others, grazing or episodes of binge eating followed by periods of dieting and restriction, are more common. The causes and patterns of symptoms are different for everyone. The bottom line is that to really make changes, treatment is vital.
If you struggle with BED, ask yourself if any of the following descriptions sound familiar to you (some, or all, may apply)?
• A history of significant weight gains and losses (person may or may not be “overweight”)
• Frequently feeling out of control of your eating; inability to stop eating when full (3 or more times/week)
• Frequent eating with distraction (TV, computer, reading)
• Feelings of guilt or shame about overeating
• Others needs often or always come before your own
• Powerful inner critic voice
• History of trauma or loss
• Family history of depression, OCD, anxiety, alcoholism or other addictions
• Significant over-focus on weight and body image
• Difficulty saying “no” and setting limits
• Weight/food issues cause significant concern and stress
If these patterns are familiar to you, you may be dealing with BED. Thankfully, treatment is available in more and more outpatient clinics and residential and inpatient centers than ever before. For most people, outpatient treatment will include individual therapy and may also include nutrition counseling, movement classes and some types of art or expressive therapies.
The very good news is that recovery is absolutely possible for most people. And while the journey takes courage, time and work, help is there for you when you’re ready. I have found, in working with folks with BED for more than 20 years, that we are a very insightful, resilient, tough group of people. You have all the strengths you need for recovery, right now. After all, BED typically is rooted in ways to cope with the world around you when other tools were not available. Only a pretty resourceful, capable person can do that.
I am happy to report that now, most of the time, I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full – and I remain within a consistent weight range. I eat whatever my body and tastes desire. Any “rules” for eating are suggested by my body’s specific needs. Movement, not “exercise” but moving for joy and pleasure, is part of my life on most days, but not if I don’t want to. My journey is not “perfect”, and I don’t want it to be. It’s just my path. I hope with all my heart that you find and follow yours too.
Amy Pershing LMSW, ACSW is the Founding Director of Bodywise Binge Eating Recovery Program in Annapolis, MD and Ann Arbor, MI. She is a nationally recognized speaker and writer on BED and related disorders. Please visit www.thebodywiseprogram.com to learn more about BED treatment resources and recovery, or contact Amy directly at email@example.com.
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