My Binge Eating Disorder Recovery Story
Note: Please note that my binge eating disorder story has been written according to media guidelines set by Beat Eating Disorders Foundation in the UK. It means that you will not read in details about the foods I ate during my dieting stages or any other method of losing weight that could trigger you or contribute to your own struggle with your body. I would also like to say that I am not a doctor, a health specialist nor a trained therapist. If you need help, please look into the resources section. You aren’t alone.
Trigger warnings: this article mentions suicide, psychological and verbal abuse.
If you are reading this, chances are that you suffer from binge eating disorder (BED) or know someone, who does. While BED is one of the most prevalent eating disorders - it affects three times the number of people diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia combined (Source) - it’s not researched, treated or approached the same way. It doesn’t carry immediate serious or life-threatening consequences just like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa do, but it still destroys lives. It almost destroyed mine.
Binge eating disorder is a relatively new addition to the list of eating disorders. It’s defined as an eating disorder characterized by frequent and recurrent binge eating episodes with associated negative psychological and social problems, but without subsequent purging episodes or compensatory behaviors.
Despite the name, binge eating disorder is not about food.
It sounds so simple but it’s one of the universal truths that liberated me after years of research and self-administered treatments.
Often paired with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or tendencies for addictive behaviors (Source), binge eating disorder is really a symptom of something that sits deeper, a void that needs to be filled. It’s developed as a coping strategy. To eat food in obscene amount, to eat food that’s easily available and makes us feel good, to give in to the blissful but temporary feeling of fullness, is to self-administer love and acceptance without disturbing anyone, asking for anything.
But emotional hunger can never be satisfied.
In my case, the way to an eating disorder was opened up by emotional neglect. Looking at my childhood photos, I see a girl of normal build. However, as I flip through the stack of images, the small girl is gradually growing bigger and bigger, she turns into a teenager and shrinks; then she becomes an adult, her body constantly decreasing or increasing in size, the result of a conscious interference in the way of eating. At the age of 13, I knew all the latest diets and tricks to lose weight. At the age of 16, I was adept at starving myself. At the age of 17, I attempted suicide for the first time.
The reason for the dramatic struggle with my body is not particularly unique - my parents were not loving. Or rather, they loved me the best way they could but their way was toxic. Both came from difficult families: my dad was psychologically abused by his tyrannical mother, possibly beaten too, and abandoned by his siblings. My mum’s father drank too much and inflicted physical and psychological pain on his ever submissive wife and his kids. My mum is still scared of him. My dad doesn’t talk about his childhood.
Their dramatic circumstances brought them together and united them in their stand against their own family and the world. But they both had been harboring their hurt, nursing it, nurturing it like a seed until it blossomed into an ugly type of narcissism, one that would never give up its reign, not even for the sake of their small children.
My parents wanted us to have a better life, be better than their own image. They wanted us to excel, to be eloquent, hard-working, help with the chores, to be a perfect child. But I wasn’t that child. First of all, I was quiet. In fact, I remember my mum telling me that I was so quiet that she thought I was autistic. Whatever they wanted me to be, the expectations were so high, I could never see the bar.
The more vocal their contempt got, the quieter I became. I retreated into myself because there was very little acceptance form them or my big family. The quieter I became, the more displeased they got. Every attempt at self-care - a word that did not exist back then - was sabotaged by open ridicule, my personal diary being read out loud at family gatherings or words that cut so deep that the memory of them brings tears to my eyes even now.
You cannot grow into a healthy person without any affection. You cannot develop emotional intelligence when you haven’t been taught how it looks like. I looked around and I found my cure - my parents came from poor families and one thing they did surround us with was food, their expression of parental love. So I started to eat.
I ate in silence, reveling in the quiet moments I felt the warmth spreading from my stomach throughout my body. I ate without enjoyment, in secrecy, in shame.
The pain that tore at my soul like sharp knives was dulled after the first bite and slowly dissipated as I forced myself to eat.
I ate and ate until there was nothing left but a shell of a person.
Soon, I started putting on weight and my peers began bullying me. I coped with it the same trusted way I had done before - by eating, even when physically I couldn’t eat anymore.
I feel that this story should become simpler and conclusive but it only gets complicated. Because one cannot eat endlessly without becoming bigger than socially acceptable. And one cannot be big comfortably when everything and everyone expects bodies to be aesthetically pleasing and symmetrical.
I was in a pickle. I was bullied about my looks at home, at family parties, in the street, and at school. I needed the feeling of safety that food gave me. I hated the way it made me look. This conflict, the love-hate relationship between me and food, this dependency on food providing an emotional release and being my coping mechanism, while making me hate myself more and more, plagued my life for over 15 years.
‘Are you pregnant?’ asked my cousin at one of the big family gatherings. I was 13 years old.
Very quickly I realized that I became too big. I heard the words spoken by my dad. I saw the judgment in people’s eyes. And worst of all, I experienced being treated differently only because I was bigger than average. Fear not, a solution was right in front of my eyes - dieting.
I walked into the sickly embrace of diet culture at a very young age. I had no filter and no concept of self-love to protect me. I was at an age I shouldn’t be allowed to think about controlling my food intake. Dieting is considered one of the key factors responsible for developing an unhealthy relationship with food and contributing to body dysmorphia through perpetuating weight stigma. In fact, females who diet at a severe level are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who do not diet, and those who diet at a moderate level are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder (Source). Diet culture is a bitch.
It wasn’t difficult to eat less or not at all. After all, I had been thoroughly educated about it. As I deprived myself of food and continuously binged when I could not cope anymore, I contemplated how much I wanted to live like this. And for the first time, at the age of 17, I decided I didn’t. The night my life almost ended, I promised myself that I will try to find a way out of this mess.
The Way to Recovery
Back then I used to catch myself staring at eating people, wondering how did they do it. How did they eat and then stopped eating, like they did not care about food? Food was like a drug to me. It was intoxicating, it was warm, it was forbidden, it was bad, it was good, it was the only thing that made me happy.
I read about bulimia and anorexia trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I became interested in the psychology of addiction. I went to a local center for mental health treatment on my own and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. I was sent to a psychiatrist, who immediately put me on antidepressants.
Despite small progress in managing my mental health, I still obsessed about food.
Food obsession reared on the back of binge eating disorders is one of the most difficult addictions to overcome. I couldn't go into rehab. I wasn’t addicted to sugary food or fatty foods - any food eaten in excess was my nemesis. Unfortunately, many therapists treating BED back then (and some still do it today) included portion size or calorie counting as part of the therapy plan.
Yes, you have read it right. People, who were supposed to help me overcome my obsession with food, encouraged me to pay more attention to food, its size, and calorific worth, as a way to control my binge eating disorder.
Even back then, when I hadn’t known as much as I do today, the idea seemed counterproductive at best.
The successful treatment of binge eating disorder, the type of treatment I went through myself and has read countless accounts of, had nothing to do with weight and food control. When food is not part of the issue, it only stands to reason that it’s not addressed as such. The very reason the therapists I had spoken to included it, it’s because they themselves believed that weight gain has to be prevented at any cost. They were part of diet culture. They were part of the problem.
I will repeat it because it's important: binge eating disorder is not about food. It’s never about food.
I did not know it then, but I was so manipulated as a child, that I buried the memories of childhood trauma so deep inside of me, that I almost believed they didn’t happen. While my mood lifted and I was making progress with group therapy, I continued to swallow my emotions in between bites of food because from a very young age I was taught that I needed to fulfill external expectations first.
And then I came across a book that changed it all for me. It was ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ by Susie Orbach.
The Turning Point
I swallowed Orbach’s book in one hour learning about everything I know today: why the diet industry needs women to doubt themselves, why body image is used as a tool of controlling the market, how food and size can help women establish their place or deal with emotions. It all started coming together.
Since that day I have read so many books about binge eating disorder, mental health, food politics, diet culture, fat activism, body positivity… The list goes on. In the process, I understood that what I needed to free myself from the strong grip of dependency on food for emotional support was to re-learn how to experience emotions.
Another helpful tool was mindful eating. In the past it went as ‘intuitive eating’ but the method evolved and merged with mindfulness since the area of eating disorders developed, the Health at Every Size gained momentum in mainstream culture, and the likes of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media enabled access to people, who propagate inclusive approach to eating disorder treatments.
When I took my first step into mindful eating, the idea of honoring my hunger was novel. To entrust my natural body cues after years of interfering with how and what I eat was up there with dendrophilia and heresy. But this method, peppered with spectacular ‘bad days’ and exhilarating ‘good days’, was crucial in helping me break the circle of binge eating disorder. Through demystifying ‘normal eating’ and taking away the constant worry of what I will eat, mindful eating helped me shift my focus to something that mattered the most - my inner child healing process.
Today I don’t consider myself as suffering from BED anymore. I suffer from the consequences but I have learned to see them as part of the journey of becoming who I am.
Binge eating disorder is not about food, but once you learn to cope with difficult moments through food, bingeing becomes a safe pattern. I am not free from the constant voice of the inner critic telling me to lose weight or eat food when I get stressed. It’s a lot of hard work to rid yourself from the diet culture narrative when it surrounds us all the time. But it’s definitely possible.
https://isabelfoxenduke.com/ - Isabel is pretty direct but she is one of the few therapists that truly take into consideration all aspects of food obsession. Plus, she swears a lot.
http://fattitudethemovie.squarespace.com/resources-1/ - Fattitude resources that support a healthy relationship with your body through self-acceptance
https://haescommunity.com/ - Health at Every Size® official website
‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach (book) http://amzn.eu/d/eb7RDGR
‘Fat Is A Feminist Issue’ by Susie Orbach (book) http://amzn.eu/d/9sUQqOd
‘Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight’ by Linda Bacon (book) http://amzn.eu/d/7KhC8Q5
‘Overcoming Binge Eating, Second Edition: The Proven Program to Learn Why You Binge and How You Can Stop’ by Christopher G. Fairburn (book) http://amzn.eu/d/3FeXSYi
‘Brain over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn't Work, and How I Recovered for Good’ by Kathryn Hansen (book) http://amzn.eu/d/6wMTyry
Binge Eating Disorders Charity Beat in the UK https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/
Binge Eating Disorder Association BEDA in USA https://bedaonline.com/
About the Author
This post is written by a guest contributor who wishes to remain anonymous.