If you’ve read my blog before, you may know that for several years, I was secretly a binge-eater. By now, I don’t actually remember the last time I had a full-on binge. I’ve enjoyed some hearty meals and made some sub-optimal choices (like those times I had ice cream for breakfast, because yes, I am an adult, and no, that will not get you through the day), but I never felt out of control or brought myself to the point of illness, the way I did a few years ago. Eventually, it just quit happening. And it hasn’t since.
Over the course of keeping this blog, whenever the topic has come up, I’ve been surprised at how many people have reached out to me and told me that they had experienced similar problems. As time goes on, the more people I meet who have struggled with eating, the more I realize some very important things. If you struggle to eat in a way that feels healthy for you, you’re not stupid. You’re not weak. You’re not hopeless. You’re not gross. You can be accomplished, kind, professional, driven, and have a lot, if not most, of your shit together, and STILL have issues with food. If you have issues with food, that probably means you’re human. And it’s likely you’re under some kind of stress.
Of course, at the time I was horridly ashamed of binge eating, and I wanted to keep it a secret. Part of what made it so bad is that I perceived it to be a total moral and intellectual failure. But you know better. You’re too smart for this. You’re too educated, too well-off, and too socially well-adjusted to have weight problems so don’t you dare go down this road. You are supposed to be a thin person and this is not supposed to happen to you. Being out of control is for children and criminals. So this just added to the stress I was already feeling…prompting me to binge more…making me even more stressed…and on and on it went.
I should mention that I was never formally diagnosed with an eating disorder, and I was never formally assessed for one. Whether I met the criteria, I don’t actually know. What I do know is that for several years I felt that thoughts of food blotted out my ability to focus on nearly anything else. I did well in school, but beyond my classwork, I really felt like I had no energy (mental or physical) for much else besides planning what to eat, eating it, regretting eating it, and then swearing never to do it again. I had years’ worth of meticulous food journals, spread out across Google documents, Excel spreadsheets, private blogs, notebooks, and the backs of my normal journals. (The digital files I’ve long since deleted, since I couldn’t stand to look at them anymore. The paper ones just serve as a reminder of that harrowing time.) I would embark on a stringent dietary program, record it in detail, inevitably not be able to stick to it, and then go on some kind of binge. Or several. Or give up for a few weeks and then start up again with all kinds of repentant zeal. Lather, rinse, repeat. (In fairness, I am good at bookkeeping when I want to be.)
For instance, while I worked as a camp counselor, I remembered eating as much as I could get away with at meals without looking suspicious. Between activities, I would duck into the kitchen and grab granola bars, extra bread, leftover desserts, anything that was vegan, and sometimes things that weren’t. If parents had sent their kids “contraband,” like pre-packaged candy, I’d swipe it from the office. I kept boxes of trail mix in the staff room. When I was alone, I would dump it into my mouth. I felt that if I could get my hands on it while no one was looking, I could not keep my hands off of it. And we were all so busy that no one noticed. I woke up a few hours early one morning to use the staff computers. I did a search for symptoms of addiction. Halfway back to the cabin to wake up the girls, I ran back to the computer room to clear the search history. (The point of sharing this is not to prove anything, but just to give an episode from that time when I felt consumed by this fixation on food, whether or not it was a fully diagnosible disorder.)
I should mention that at the time, I wanted so badly for it all to stop, but I honestly did not know if it would. It didn’t seem possible. I thought I was trying everything. Eventually, though, it did stop, and I have that energy back to work on other things. At the time, I really wanted to find a silver bullet; I wanted to hit a switch and make my behavior STOP, because it was so painful. I went through a slew of self-help books and programs trying to find some trick, some magic principle that would cause everything to snap back into place. I wish I could have asked myself, “If you knew that the change would be permanent, and you would never have to worry about bingeing again, how long would you give yourself, if you knew that the method you were using would be absolutely effective?” Because in truth, I probably would have said, “at least a couple of years.” I wanted things to end immediately, but I also wanted the whole issue to be laid to rest forever. As it dawned on me that this issue was rooted in everything in my life, I gradually came to accept that it would take a while, and that would be OK.
I believe there may be a lot of common threads between different people’s situations, but it’s also true that no two people are completely alike. I would not expect these things to be useful for everyone, although I do hope that by sharing them, they may be helpful to at least a few people.
Part of what made bingeing so awful was that I thought I knew so much about how to eat properly, and yet, I could not bring myself to do it. I had taken nutrition classes, gone to seminars, and read so many books and articles on food, and yet I still found myself pounding down $50-60 worth of (mostly) vegan junk food in one sitting. So that added to the horror. But I was glad that I continued searching through nutrition books, since one of them ended up helping me more than I anticipated.
- Green drinks.
In the summer of 2010 I came across the book Green for Life by Viktoria Boutenko, a raw foods educator who had helped her family overcome a number of health conditions, such as diabetes and asthma. I had made smoothies before, but it had never occurred to me to add greens to them in order to get a concentrated dose of raw nutrients. During that summer, I started experimenting with green smoothies, and I’m sure my family was delighted to see what kind of bucket of swamp-colored liquid I was whipping up in the kitchen each morning (be aware, it is really easy to make delicious green shakes, and even easier to make disgusting ones).
Over a few months of drinking these shakes on most mornings, my body didn’t seem to change much. But I did develop a taste for greens that I hadn’t had before. I also found that I was naturally less hungry during the day, and I didn’t get the same intense cravings for salt or sugar that I normally did. Relief from cravings alone was well worth the effort to make the shakes. I have a feeling that adding greens back into my diet helped fill in some nutritional gaps that had developed, and that helped reduce some physical stress. (If you’re full to the point of nearly vomiting, chances are you don’t want to wash that down with a salad. And whatever you’re full of was probably not that great for you.)
It was also very important, at the time, to be doing something objectively kind for myself most days. Given that I tend toward pretty stringent self-criticism (and I know I’m not the only one), this actually meant a lot. Even if the rest of the day descended into culinary chaos, I had at least done one good thing. But most of those days were OK. I had ticked the one box for the day (rather than the impossible twenty), I was getting more nutrition, I felt less hungry, I didn’t have so many of those “I need a bag of potato chips STAT and I will punch you in the back of the head if you get in my way” kinds of moments. And that felt better.
Another hard thing about binge eating was that I had really lost faith in myself to make good decisions. Eating became scary, I was afraid of what I might do. I didn’t trust myself. So having one simple, healthy, feasible thing to do most days was a good way of restoring that trust in myself. I still like to have a green shake or a vegetable juice on days when I can get them.
- Stress relief
For someone who was operating under such a high level of stress, it took me a while to figure out that stress was what was prompting me binge most of the time. I suspect it is what provokes most people to do this. Over time it occurred to me that I was using food to numb out painful feelings, much in the same way people use drugs, alcohol, television, sex, or whatever—and the idea of being a “junk food junkie” was profoundly unappealing to me. Earlier this year, an interesting piece ran in the New York Times about how food is quite literally engineered to be as addictive as possible. More research is coming out now about how sugar, salt, and fat affect the brain, and how they can have the same short-term physiological effects as human contact. So it’s not surprising that food becomes an agent for numbing and distraction.
I feel very strongly that for most people, and especially most women, issues with food come down to stress. In some cases, other factors are at work: lack of information, lack of attention, lack of access. But most of the time, it has to do with the complex world of emotions (such a massive part of life, and yet so belittled and misunderstood). The food is secondary. The primary issue lies beneath.
Until I had an effective way to relieve my own stress, I felt like a prisoner of it. In my own case, I felt like I had a kind of auto-immune condition of the mind, where my thoughts would just continue to attack me: nothing is as it should be, everything should be better, everything should be different, you’re doing it all wrong. Certainly not everyone who eats from stress experiences the same kind of stress. Grief, trauma, abuse, loss, depression, may all require different forms of help. Some stressors can be removed relatively simply: leave the bad job, ditch the bad partner, move out. Others can be so deeply embedded in your personal history and psyche or in the culture at large that dealing with them is a whole different animal.
I have judgmental tendencies, but I direct them inward more so than outward; I judge myself harshly, or at least, I used to. And at the peak of my binge eating, judgment had a vice-grip on me. Two things that helped me loosen that grip were mindfulness meditation and self-inquiry.
The whole point of mindfulness is that you focus on something (breathing, walking, sounds, maybe thoughts), and you don’t judge it. This, alone, was mind blowing. It had not occurred to me that you could experience reality without thinking about it. You could just see it for what it was, as it was, and not layer story after story on top of it. This didn’t change my life over night. But just attempting to meditate began to make a difference. (Sometimes meditation feels wonderful and it comes easily and it’s a blissed out state. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass and I can’t get myself to do it.) Over time it became easier to separate out the experience of things from the judgment of things (although I definitely had moments of judging myself for judging things – why can’t you be more mindful?!). This was useful, because any time I felt something, I felt it on two levels: the feeling itself, and then a kind of meta-anger over feeling that way in the first place (Why are you so sensitive? Don’t be so emotional! What’s wrong with you?). So feeling things without judging them so much was a step in the right direction. It’s enough to just have feelings without fighting and repressing them all the time.
Not resisting feelings so much did two things for me: it tended to decrease their intensity as they ran their course, and it also allowed me to start listening to where they came from, which was a process I was not familiar with. Up to this point, I had believed that any kind of strong, uncontrollable emotion was actually pathological; to be ‘subject to one’s emotions’ was the antithesis of sound, clear, logical reasoning. It was distinctly feminine and distinctly bad. It did not occur to me until much later that emotions are actually an entire other sense that goes undeveloped in many people. (One could write volumes about this; in fact, many have.) Just like seeing and hearing, they provide a wealth of information. Set your expectations, needs, judgments, and beliefs off against your environment, and the result is emotions. If you can tune into them, they will give you loads of information about what you believe. Now, tuning in is not so easy if you’ve spent a great deal of your life tuning out! But it’s an important process.
After working with mindfulness for several months, I learned a self-inquiry technique called “the work” from a book by the self-help guru Byron Katie. Some people love Byron Katie and regard her as a kind of grandmotherly saint. Others find her completely deranged. I find her rather eccentric, but her meditation tools helped me dramatically. Essentially, what I took away from her books was a kind of simplified, self-administered cognitive-behavioral therapy (which I discovered recently is considered a best-practice in treating people with binge eating disorder). It basically says, take some judgment, take some really painful thought, and find out if it’s actually true. Is it actually true? If it is true, is it actually bad? If it’s not true, what evidence is there to the contrary? How might the opposite thing be true? If you have some intense feeling, then what would it say if you could give it a voice? What does it mean?
And I had plenty of thoughts and feelings to inquire into. In fact, as I’m cleaning out my apartment to get ready to move, I’ve found those journals, and they are full of statements like (or implications like):
I feel like a bad feminist for ever being dissatisfied with anything about my body, ever, but I am. (Or does this experience help me empathize with other women because I know what so many of us are up against? And how could I feel differently given the environment I grew up in?)
I should not have this problem, I’m embarrassed by it and I hate it. (Or is this a pretty normal reaction to my particular set of stressors, given who I am and where I live? Does it actually make perfect sense to have this problem?)
If anyone finds out about this, they will think I’m disgusting and a hypocrite. (Or will they think I’m human? And maybe share stories of dealing with the same thing?)
You will never be able to talk to anyone about food, they will think you are crazy or stupid or you have an eating disorder, and they will give you bullshit mainstream conflicting dietary advice, and they will just judge you. (This…has not really happened! Especially given how much I talk about food on this blog! And when it has happened, it really was not that big of a deal. Or it led to a deeper conversation.)
You are vain and shallow and too superficial and not serious enough. (Actually, I care about a lot of important things. It’s OK if I want to look nice, in addition to everything else.)
If I eat this, it will be the end of the world. (I don’t see the sky falling. Or the ground opening up. You’re probably just going to be constipated. But it probably won’t be…apocalyptic.)
Unless I look perfect, no one will take me seriously. (Most people take you seriously all the time. You don’t take yourself seriously.)
I should not need counseling, I should be able to sort this out on my own. If I were smart enough, I could just figure this out on my own. (Or is the smartest thing to do to go and get help when I feel stretched past the point of my own abilities?)
And so on. Many, many months of this. Many journal entries of this. And now several years of this. And I don’t live in a perfect happy bubble all the time. But things are easier. And when things aren’t easy, it’s vastly easier to talk to friends, family, and counselors about them.
So, in my own case, mindfulness and inquiry helped me resolve the stress that was prompting me to binge. It took some time, but it worked, and now it’s been at least two years, maybe longer, since I’ve binged.
- I gave up on dieting.
And then, I decided to do an experiment. At the end of 2011, after seeing it recommended on the Renegade Health blog, I read the book The Gabriel Method by Jon Gabriel, a man who had recovered from morbid obesity. He spends a good deal of the book talking about healing nutritional stress, and also about healing emotional stress, so that was very exciting to see in a mainstream diet book. Namely, he talks about the correlation between dieting and stress: the pressure to restrict food and lose weight is frequently what sends people overboard. Physiological and emotional stress make the impulse to eat more powerful than ever.
So even though it had been quite a few months since I’d binged, I decided to make 2012 a diet-free year and not worry about sticking to any kind of program. I would eat whatever the hell I wanted and see what happened. And something amazing happened.
The thing I had been the most afraid of, that I would lose control of my eating and that my weight would spiral out of control, just didn’t happen. I just ate. And then, I did other things. I worked, I wrote, I did art classes, I spent time with people…and then when I got hungry, I ate. And then, I went back to the rest of my life. I thought about food, and then I thought about other stuff. It was all so…normal. Unremarkable. Wonderful.
My body stayed the same. My natural appetite came back. I had not felt this way since I was a kid.
It wasn’t that I never felt stressed or wanted junk food. I certainly did at times. I just saw what was happening, and sometimes I had something to eat and sometimes I didn’t. I just knew it was a sign I felt off about something.
So these were the things that helped me quit binge eating, and they continue to help me feel normal and healthy. I forget sometimes how horrible it felt to be obsessed with food. I would not wish it on anyone. It is a very good way to have plenty of things going just fine in your life, and still feel completely dead and cut off from the world. Unfortunately, we live in a world that places all kinds of stress on people, and infinite options of things to consume as a substitute for real solutions. But there are solutions. People do recover, people heal, they change, they transform, and they move on. It does happen. And if it hasn’t happened yet, it will. Keep looking. It is out there, and it is in you, and no matter how horribly you may feel, you deserve to find it, and you will.