Recognizing and recovering from binge-eating disorder
Reprinted from "Recovery: Stigma and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 13 (1), p. 12
In Mexico, food is the core of social life. Growing up in Mexico often meant eating—whether at a school celebration or a family gathering. I was a joyful, energetic kid who ate whatever was offered and indulged in the occasional extra piece of cake. I didn’t have negative experiences with food until early adulthood.
When I moved out on my own, I developed binge-eating disorder, or BED. BED is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food in short periods of time. It is like anorexia and bulimia in that it produces a great amount of anxiety in the individual and has an impact on physical health. But it is different in that it doesn’t involve compensatory measures such as restricting and purging.
Some disorders have visible signs that people recognize as evidence of a health problem. With eating disorders, things aren’t always what they seem. People with eating disorders may look nothing alike: they come from different cultural backgrounds and have different body types, despite having some of the same patterns and routines.
Many people occasionally overindulge and then feel bad about it, but that doesn’t constitute a disorder. With BED, binges occur at least once per week over several months. People with BED often feel like they don’t have the power to stop eating even what they know is an excessive amount of food.
After I completed my graduate studies abroad in theatre and moved back to Mexico, I became deeply unhappy. I had left behind like-minded colleagues and returned to a society that didn’t appreciate my art or my research. I didn’t like my job. I was living on my own in Mexico City and knew very few people. I was lonely and disappointed in myself and my country. My life didn’t reflect my natural creativity. Food provided a refuge from my sadness.
At night, I would go to the supermarket and buy food as if I was buying for a party—a chocolate cake, a tub of ice cream, bags and bags of chips. Then I’d go home and eat everything myself, in front of the television. I’d start with the chips and eat my way through the desserts, by which time I felt sad, full and incapable of stopping. Bite after bite, I assured myself that this would be the last time—only to wake up and repeat the whole pattern. I knew I had a problem because not only did I gain 20 kilos in a few months but I wanted to be alone to binge, whether my day had been good or not.
I was seeing a therapist for my low mood, but I kept my bingeing hidden even from her. When I started to do some online research, I was shocked to realize that I was living with an eating disorder.
Having BED is like having a flat tire but continuing to drive. You know there’s a problem, but instead of taking the time to fix the tire, you just keep driving, putting more and more strain on the car. When you continue binge-eating patterns, you’re avoiding the opportunity to stop, check in with your mental state and fix the problem.
I finally decided to tell my therapist. She helped me develop some recovery strategies.
Today, many Western societies place a high value on what we have come to believe is a “healthy” (read: thin) body. But while we spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between food and our bodies, we rarely discuss openly the relationship between food and eating disorders and other mental health issues.
The stigma attached to BED (and other eating disorders) is due partly to the fact that we don’t talk about it. By writing this article, I aim to make the disorder more visible—both for other binge eaters and for those who have told me that my binge-eating can be “cured” by “willpower,” by sewing my mouth shut or by just “being healthy.” These sorts of comments increase the sense of shame in the individual struggling with an eating disorder.
A positive aspect of starting conversations about BED and other eating disorders is that more people will realize that recovery is possible. The methods we use to become healthy are as varied and unique as we are. We develop eating disorders for different reasons, in distinct contexts. We must each find the method of “unlearning”—or of learning healthier patterns—that works best for us.
Some ideas for recovery
The recovery process doesn’t happen overnight. But every action towards recovery counts, even when you fail to meet the objectives you’ve set. You are still moving forward, still getting better.
I found group therapy helpful in my own recovery. The more I talked about BED with others who faced the same sorts of challenges, the less shame I felt. At the same time, I received support and empathy from others in the group.
Making a calendar of small but significant actions is also helpful. For example, mark on your calendar ahead of time the sort of meal that you will really enjoy, and then take your time cooking that meal or going out to eat it with friends and family who can be your support system. Savour the flavours and textures, and the opportunity to start a new relationship with food and—more importantly—yourself.
Another tactic is to carry a small journal and make note of any time you feel the urge to eat in a disordered way. Consider what sort of things triggered that urge (What were you doing? Where were you doing it?) and how you felt when it happened (Did you feel angry? Anxious? Sad?). Then, brainstorm some activities (like walking around the park) that might distract you from that desire. Call someone who can encourage you.
Re-establishing a healthy relationship with food
At times food has brought me pleasure and relief from sadness, but it has also brought me extreme stress. Recovering from BED is not like recovering from an addiction to alcohol or gambling. Many people living with these addictions choose to eliminate the substance or the action completely. I don’t have that choice.
But I’ve learned that by purposely focusing on activities and ideas that do not include food, my urge to binge decreases. I now try to exercise more, walk when I feel stressed and avoid supermarkets when I’m feeling triggered. When I visit Mexico now, I’m surrounded by friends and family; I enjoy food socially and without shame, and on most days, I don’t feel the urge to binge.
Though I still have difficult days, BED no longer controls me. Now that I’m able to have a different relationship with food, I realize I did well in recognizing my problem and looking for help. I hope that others with BED can begin taking steps towards recovery.
Stop the car. Change the tire. Your drive will be smoother.