Overlooked disorder and self-recovery
You may agree that today’s society has so many issues that need addressing, but it is also very important to support positive trends such as openness about mental health. As someone with a huge interest in psychology, I have read and watched a lot to realize how much it means for people with mental problems to see that they are not alone and they are understood. As someone who has been dealing with an eating disorder, I truly believe that every story matters. Especially when some problems get constantly overlooked while causing disturbances to a lot of people all over the world.
We’ve all heard about anorexia, which is the most lethal mental illness, and bulimia. Undoubtedly, these are very serious issues and the amount of coverage in the media is totally justified. However, there is also a Binge Eating Disorder, or BED, which actually affects more people than anorexia and bulimia combined1, and it is the reason why I am writing this article. I don’t want to go into my whole personal story (the reason being perfectly described by the relatable Chandler-moment below), but I do want to tell you more about this disorder and, most importantly, share sources that helped me overcome it.
Binge Eating Disorder is characterized in the DSM 5 by “recurrent episodes of binge eating that must occur, on average, at least once per week for 3 months”. A binge episode is quite different from what everyone experiences while overeating during holidays or failing to notice finishing a whole bucket of ice cream while being consumed by a favorite TV-show. It starts when a person is alone and sometimes isn’t physically hungry. During the episode the amount of eaten food is far larger than any average meal and the speed of consumption is more rapid than normal. The process is accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt, disgust, weakness, lack of control, and those feelings stay after the episode is over. Frequency of the episodes, amount and type of food can vary.
I personally did not have an official diagnosis, but I did not need it to figure out that something was wrong. During my worst times I’ve had binge episodes almost every day and was constantly overeating. I felt tired and weak and disgusted by my lack of control. This made me pity myself, which led straight back into bingeing. I was always thinking about food and losing weight, so I was going to the gym. What distinguishes BED from Anorexia and Bulimia is that overconsumption of food does not lead to extreme compensatory behaviors such as excessive workouts or induced vomiting. I could not do that because I felt sorry for myself all the time. There was a constant battle in my head between urges and rational thoughts. I exercised moderately because I wanted to get my mind off of food and just be healthy. Being a psychology student and a person who loves (over)analyzing everything, I could clearly see the problem and that I needed to stop. Being a super reserved person, I did not want to talk about it and wanted to sort it out alone. When I first started having binge episodes, I didn’t even know what they were and they weren’t very severe. However, I did gain noticeable amount of weight and got even more self-conscious. That was summer before the start of 11th grade.
Now let me fast forward to the last year, when I reached the very bottom. Hell, now the only way was up. I am very lucky to have eternal unconditional support from my boyfriend, but during the last block before Christmas I realized I needed professional help, I was desperate. First psychology-related person I talked to suggested meditation. And this is when my recovery journey started. I do not remember the details about my progress and ups and downs, so now I want to focus on things that helped me on the way. Yes, meditation was the first of them. I downloaded an app called Headspace and followed the free 10-days course. It was not easy, but it gave me a sense of relief and hope that this and my other psychological concerns can be solved. At the same time I made an appointment with the university psychologist, who after 2 brief sessions referred me for therapy. However, my insurance didn’t cover it, and I did not have money to pay for it myself, so even though I believed that counseling would be extremely helpful, I abandoned this idea. There are moments when you feel like nothing is going to help you, but at some point you become so fed up and tired that you are open to anything that will get you out of this. After an extensive search for free help groups in the area I faced the problem of language-barrier because I don’t speak Dutch. Numerous forums and websites gave me an insight into the disorder, but I still could not find that one solution. Until one day I opened the good old YouTube and typed “binge eating” in the search line. Two videos 2,3 I found introduced a book that changed my life.
This book is “Brain over binge” by Kathryn Hansen about her bulimia recovery story. The concept that this book is based on opened my eyes and made me realize something I knew subconsciously but could not clearly formulate: binge urges are simply an evolutionary mechanism and they are not necessarily produced by underlying psychological issues. The urges are there because we tried to deprive ourselves of food and now the brain is overcompensating for it. And most importantly, we have the power to overcome them. I won’t go into summarizing it further because Kathryn did a great job at explaining the idea in her book and also on the website that I linked above. In addition, there is a workbook that I used after finishing the book to strengthen my new coping strategies. I cannot say that it is for everyone, but this new approach is what got me out of BED, and it might help you or your loved ones, especially if traditional therapy did not bring any results or is not an option.
After realizing that my recovery is in my hands and I am capable of achieving it, I started looking for other sources. This is when I stumbled across the concepts of intuitive and mindful eating. The idea behind them is that no one other than you can know what is good for your body. Not a single dietitian or a diet plan. By being mindful you can observe sensations within your body and learn what it desires. This will lead to intuitive eating, where you can eat whatever and whenever you like and be healthy. Sounds pretty awesome, huh? And pretty impossible, at least for me. However, I started reading into it and tried it myself. The first days or weeks were really exciting and inspiring because I felt absolutely free and happy. My urges were gone and I could finally relax.
But, of course, I am not perfect. It is extremely hard for me to listen to my body and decrypt its signals. To this day I often want to shout “WHAT DO YOU WANT?! Come on, gimme something!” when I have to decide what to eat (as if it helps…). I do not meditate half as often as I should and I do not pay enough attention to the food that I am eating. I still occasionally overeat because I am, you know, human. I did not lose all that weight and now I am learning to accept it as a part of me and my story. Getting rid of the urges and binge episodes is not the end. Yes, they can come back until you internalize all the important ideas, it is perfectly fine, and they did come back a couple of times after I started my recovery. However, for almost a year now I have been free from the bingeing. I had to work through a lot and emerge into all those concepts. I had to learn how to love and respect myself (which is something I am still working on).
Of course, recovery is an amazing thing, but, in my experience, it may leave you confused about a couple of things. Firstly, how to eat now? I personally expected to start eating clean and healthy for the most part, which might push to some popular healthy food plans. Please, don’t rush into it. It is very hard to learn to let go of any restrictions and still follow a plan, even something that seems harmless. Every time I want some junk food, thoughts like “it’s bad for your health” come up, and I try to listen to them because I care about my health. This immediately leads to this arising anxious feeling that, if I don’t stop, can easily turn into a loud siren with a bright red light in my head screaming “DEPRIVATION! PROHIBITION!”. Yes, always think about the consequences of your food choices but don’t forget to sincerely add “you can still eat as much as you want”. For more on establishing new and healthy relationship with food, check out Gillian Riley’s “Eat less. Say goodbye to overeating” and “Diets don’t work” by Bob Schwartz. They focus on weight loss, which might not be necessary for you, but are based on intuitive and mindful eating concepts. There are also several nice books that helped me, but, unfortunately, they are only available in Russian (contact me if you are interested in them).
After being faced with stressors I noticed another difficult thing. With BED I could just grab a ton of food and numb myself every time I felt stressed or anxious. After the urges were gone, a simple idea of eating so much would make me feel sick. I was left without any coping strategies, vulnerable and confused. At this point social support and finding new positive activities are very important. There are various lists of things you can do to relieve stress, and they include meditation, running, coloring or drawing, listening to music, etc. Surround yourself with people who are promoting positive messages on social media and, if possible, in real life.
Overall, recovery is a long process during which you have to dig deep into your personality and work hard on all the issues that come up on the way. My journey is still on, and one of the big steps is actually deciding to write this article. It is not really my thing, but I would be super happy if it helped to raise awareness about BED. And if you are struggling with it, or another eating disorder, or any mental problem, then I want to remind you that it is not your fault, you don’t have to go through this alone and you CAN overcome it. If you think that no one cares about your problem and no one would listen, don’t forget about people who are already in your life and don’t be scared to be open about your struggle. I know it’s hard, but it’s worth it.
I want to finish with a quote I saw recently:
“Eating disorders are deadly… and the silence around them even more so”
By Inessa Khemii