It's easier for me to admit that I am a binge eater than ever before. I embrace it and know that I will live with it daily. It no longer controls me, as I more fully understand why it has been by my side for over 35 years.
Sometime between the ages of five and seven, I discovered the power of food. I discovered I wanted more of it than I was permitted to have, that it was a restricted temptation, and I thought about it a lot. It calmed and shamed me at the same time. It signified love and hate. It brought me up and then down. It was my best friend and my worst enemy.
As a child, I liked to play with friends but often would cut play dates short to eat or plead thirst to lead my friend to the kitchen hoping they would ask a parent for food. I did not like to ask for food. I was ashamed, even at an early age, of my preoccupation.
My mother insisted that I "eat healthy" and taught me to distinguish between "good" and "bad" food early in my childhood. She had her own problems with food. For her, it was love, but it was also a source of control. She learned during her own difficult childhood and teenage years that she had power over food and herself if she denied hunger. She was probably anorexic, although she was never officially diagnosed or treated. She went on to abuse alcohol in her twenties and thirties, and passed all she knew to me.
Eating disorders are thought to have biological foundations. For this reason, I believe that my mother and I were predisposed to our journeys. Societal conventions taught us that the size of our bodies was not socially acceptable, though we were physically healthy. The message society sent us was that we must diet and diet often. My mother and I both struggled as children with weight issues and the stigma of bias by the media and society as a whole. We were taught early to hate our bodies and ourselves. Our self-esteem plummeted, and family strife soon entered our lives. Thus, the perfect recipe for an eating disorder.
As my weight continued to increase through my childhood and into my adolescence, I increasingly withdrew from friends and activities. My only solace was food. I planned each binge I could, but I was always open to the spontaneous consumption of whatever was available.
My mother's alcoholism and my parents' eventual divorce took their toll on me. I spent my teenage years engaging in risky behavior and binging on food, alcohol, and, to some extent, drugs. But food was always the preferred substance.
Both my mother and my father worked to put their own lives back together. They found new mates, built new careers, and sought out some happiness. I did my best to escape from them and my insecure, lonely life through food. It was the only thing I could consistently rely on. I started my first job at McDonalds, which put money in my pocket and a steady stream of fast food in my stomach. I stole and lied to feed my habits.
As I entered my late teens and early twenties, I realized that all my friends and high school classmates were going on to college and building their lives. I attempted twice to attend college and found that I could not handle the pressure and resulting anxiety and depression that came with the demands of a higher education. This failure, in my perfectionist mind, was unforgivable.
I decided to begin a new life in another town. I moved to Washington, DC, a place I loved because of my intense interest in history and politics. I lived with a group of friends and began the job of rebuilding my life…or so I thought.
My mental health problems were not being addressed, so I continued to binge eat and drink. I was kicked out of apartments when I could not pay the rent, and I ruined friendships and relationships through my excessive partying and subsequent withdraws from jobs and societal contact. I was in the depth of despair and depression with no money and even less sense of self. I moved back to Pennsylvania to live with my grandparents and ate my way through the next year.
It took some time, but I eventually realized that I could continue my pattern in my home town or I could make a radical change. After living with my grandparents for a year, I decided to take a job as a nanny for a family with three children in a town outside Washington, DC. I was moving back to the area I loved with a stable job that required me to be responsible and to stay out of trouble. The remaining problem was my eating disorder, and I knew I would need to address it. My weight was increasing steadily, and I was at my heaviest.
I loved the family I worked for and knew that I had made a good decision. I still had a few friends in the DC area, including my high school best friend. I spent a lot of time with this friend, and we happily ate together. At some point along the way, I realized that my friend was purging after she and I ate large amounts of food together. This friend had always made me feel badly about myself through high school and subsequent years as she criticized fat people and was even harder on herself. I came to the conclusion that we enabled each other and I needed intense help quickly.
I found an eating disorder and weight management program at Georgetown University. There, with the help of a therapist, I began to work on the underlying issues related to my eating disorder. At the time, binge eating disorder was not mentioned as a diagnosis, and I was confused about whether I actually had an eating disorder or just a weight problem. At the end of the day, it did not matter. I was losing weight and feeling better than ever before.
After three years as a nanny, I applied to and was accepted in a full-time college program in Philadelphia. My self-esteem was improved, and I was 50 pounds lighter. I could conquer the world! I moved in to a house with two other women who had just completed their senior year of college. They were starting their careers, and I was starting my freshman year. For four years I worked hard and completed my degree in political science. It was a stressful four years that was not without bumps, including several unhealthy relationships, but it also had its successes. I was grateful for the free therapy my university provided, which allowed me to get through my bouts of depression and anxiety. My food intake was more or less consistent with bouts of bingeing. Fewer than before therapy but definitely enough to cause me distress.
During these four years, 30 of the 50 pounds I lost found me again. It was a sign that I had not fully conquered my eating problems. After college, I moved back to the DC area, began my career, and started looking for further help.
My new therapist told me that she believed I had "binge eating disorder." I cannot convey the relief I felt. All my food preoccupation and overeating actually had a name. This must mean I am not alone! I began to search for other binge eaters through both national and local eating disorder groups. I occasionally found one or two, but it soon became apparent to me that I was one of a very few or that this was an underdiagnosed and underserved group of individuals. It was 1999, and I was feeling alone again.
Over the next 10 years I married a wonderful and supportive man, had two children, and continued to work on my recovery. I learned that dieting was contributing to my issues, but I continued to struggle with what to do about my excess weight and burgeoning health problems.
I opted for lap-band surgery. The day after I returned home from the hospital, I began to have serious withdrawal from food. I obsessed about it, cried, screamed, and became very depressed. I couldn't believe that after all these years of therapy and self-discovery that food could still control me like this.
It was while lying in bed during my recovery from surgery that I decided to form the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA). I was searching the Internet and came across a study from Harvard that reported 3.5% of women and 1.5% of men in the US had BED.
I was not alone after all!
I decided not to use my lap band, even though it was now in place around my stomach. I needed "fills" in order to restrict the amount of food my stomach could hold and decided that I needed to better understand my disorder and search for the best treatments available, instead. In reality, just having the band in place restricted my intake somewhat, and I began to lose weight. After losing about 15 pounds, my weight leveled off, and I knew that I had to accept that there was another way to deal with my weight.
I began building BEDA by pulling together treatment providers and other individuals with specific skill sets necessary to build a non-profit organization. We created a mission and began working on laying the foundation for an entity that was going to create awareness and offer individuals and their families and friends the opportunity to find resources, help, and hope.
I also began reading all the studies, articles, and expert advice around the disorder. I discovered that dieting really did contribute to my food preoccupation and that I was going to have to trust that I could learn to live in my own skin without restricting. I needed to learn to eat the foods I love and need while listening to my natural body cues. I also needed to relearn to enjoy physical activity and focus on those activities I enjoyed most.
I continue to explore what works for me and to learn to soothe my inner self with something other than food. I allow my imperfections in all their beauty. I see my therapist regularly, eat what I like using an intuitive eating model, and engage in activities I enjoy, like biking, swimming, and gardening.
I am relearning trust and realize it's not about the weight. I see my therapist regularly and continue to work on the issues that drive me to food. I started talking about my disorder and being open about my struggles. It was difficult at first, as BED comes with a lot of shame. But, as I began to see others relate to me, I became more and more confident about the need to shine a light on the very thing that kept me in the dark and in pain for so long.
BEDA, in a short amount of time, has become a valuable resource for many individuals, family and friends, and treatment providers. I have spent many hours over the last year talking and crying with people who have a similar story. These individuals have given me strength and have contributed in so many ways to my own recovery.
I cannot say I am fully recovered, as recovery is an ongoing lifelong journey. Every day brings new challenges and self-discovery. It is my hope that, through my story and BEDA, I can bring awareness, treatment, and resources to a disorder that has not been given its due attention.
Millions of individuals suffer in silence, because they do not realize that they have an eating disorder. Those who are overweight or obese are told they are fat and are dually battling weight bias. Others suffer inside a "normal" weight body, and still others fight the need to purge or severely restrict after bingeing.
It is time to talk about binge eating disorder and bring help and hope to those who need it. Please join me.