This will be a long post. Bear with me! *insert bear picture here for wittiness.*
A few years ago, sick of being sick, I donned my Totoro slippers, downloaded a bunch of rather average movies onto my laptop, and went inpatient for several weeks, determined to recover and stop my binge eating for once and for all.
Part of the services offered by the clinic were educational group sessions, where a psychologist or doctor would explain various concepts such as mindfulness and acceptance. One time, we all got a photocopied picture of an unhappy person with a list of all the effects of starvation syndrome and the risks of being malnourished: the hair thins and falls out, circulation gets poor, the bones weaken and the organs shrink, etc, etc. One girl who, like me, was trying to recover from binge eating, piped up and asked what the risks of binge eating were. We got a vague response about Type 2 diabetes and obesity, and then the doctor went back to talking about the dangerous risks of purging and restricting.
At night time, drinking tea and crocheting with a little too much efficiency, some of us patients would gossip about the extreme behaviours we had gotten up to. The compulsive exercising, the lowest weights, the fear foods, the hormonal irregularities and the laxatives. I found myself referring to my previous times of anorexia, as no one there directly related to my then recent struggles of daily binging without compensation.
I began to realise an unsettling pattern.
When I told people that I was suffering from an eating disorder, the most common response I got was “but you are not underweight. You eat everything and seem to enjoy your snacks.” Indeed, my BMI was healthy and I could eat out at a restaurant without having a panic attack.
The truth is this: when people think of eating disorders, they think of anorexia or bulimia. They think of the dangers associated with being underweight and purging, and remember the high mortality rates. They do not think of an obese adult bulk buying chocolate from the supermarket. That person who stuffs their face can’t possibly have an eating disorder! Some might say they enjoy their food too much and unfortunately didn’t get a proper education in healthy nutrition. Others would say that they are lazy and should exercise more.
I have personally felt that anorexia and bulimia come with a sense of elitism. It is much easier to acknowledge the existence of a disorder when confronted by someone who has the physical attributes and behaviours unique to their illness. If you are extremely underweight, have a lot of anxiety around food, and engage in behaviours such as taking laxatives, how can you not have an eating disorder?
Please don’t get me wrong – I am NOT saying one eating disorder is worse than the other. They are ALL absolute hell in their own ways, and they all have their individual risks and complications. Everybody’s struggle is valid and every attempt at recovery deserves praise and acknowledgement.
But it is a lot harder to ‘prove’ you have an eating disorder if you simply seem to eat ‘a lot.’ “How dare u say u have a eating deesorder,” says a highly intelligent commenter on the internet. Their even more intelligent counterpart adds, “u just gotta understand that sugargh n fat are addictife. I usd to binge on biscits heaps then I realisd sugargh is baad so I stopped and I lost wait. Also u need 2 exercise more! Stop making excooses for being an ugly fatty. And dw its ok for me to call u ugly cos that can motivait u to loose wait.”
BED is not a made up disorder so people who eat a lot can have an excuse. It’s a thing in the DSM-V. BED is not just eating a whole packet of biscuits out of boredom, or comfort eating due to being in a sad mood – it is continually suffering from episodes of severe overeating in a short period of time. People with BED suffer from intense feelings of guilt, shame, misery, embarrassment; disgust, and self-loathing. They also suffer from extremely high levels of distress, often have clinical depression and anxiety, and tend to experience episodes of self harm and suicidal ideation. In short, binging episodes are the opposite of an enjoyable indulgence.
What causes confusion is that there are overweight people who do not have Binge Eating Disorder (BED), just as there are people who binge at times and do not have BED. There are also those who suffer from BED but are not overweight (perhaps as a result of a faster metabolism, medication, and/or being at a lower weight when the binging starts.) Without this knowledge, it’s understandable that there is confusion and doubt.
The determining factor is that those with BED can’t stop the binging. Even when they are full and feel like throwing up. Even when they are curled up on the ground in pain. Even when they can’t afford to buy any more food. Even when they KNOW it is extremely unhealthy for them. Even when they aren’t hungry and just want to go to bed. Even when their weight continues to climb and they desperately want to stop binging… but they just can’t. And they bully themselves, dismayed at this percieved weakness in their self-control: I am indescribably disgusting. As soon as I finish this binge I will lose all of this weight and never binge ever again. But before they realise, they are confronted by another awful binge episode. The lack of control feels terrifying and can be devastating. It only reinforces their highly critical thoughts and further erodes at their already fragile self-esteem.
But many people don’t realise this. They don’t realise that telling someone with BED that they eat a lot is like telling an alcoholic that they drink too much or a gambler that they lose more games than they win. They also don’t stop to think that telling a BED sufferer to “just stop binging and lose weight” is just like telling someone with anorexia to just gain weight and stop restricting. It feels literally, physically, utterly impossible. To recover, just like with any eating disorder or mental illness, they need professional help, time, support, compassion, and kindness. It is never as simple as do or not do.
Some fear that this type of eating disorder will give some people an excuse for their behaviour. Surely those who are simply lazy or enjoy excessive amounts of food or don’t have any willpower then won’t be motivated to help themselves because they are ‘sick!’ But someone with this illness doesn’t just eat a bucket of chicken nuggets and then not leave the house. BED is horribly powerful and can make sufferers feel compelled to do almost anything in order to quench the overpowering urges to binge and intense feelings of anxiety and self hatred. Examples may include: stealing food from shops, lying about their eating habits, eating food from the bin, eating other people’s leftovers, going to multiple supermarkets in one day, hiding food, eating vast amounts rapidly in secret, ravaging the food cupboard like a swarm of locusts, borrowing or stealing money/going into debt just to buy food to binge on, missing appointments or being late to work/school because they can’t stop binging, the painful list goes on. The sufferer is aware of these detrimental behaviours. They are miserable about themselves and their situation. But they feel completely powerless to do anything about it.
The other extra challenge posed to BED sufferers is our dieting and fat-shaming culture. While it is extremely hard for an ED victim to actively gain weight in a society that encourages weight loss, they do at least have science on their side – their bone density improves, as does their concentration and circulation. They can reap the physical rewards of the body repairing itself and receive physical confirmation that they are doing the right thing. However a BED victim cannot recover by dieting and actively trying to lose weight, because that will just refuel their binges. They have to focus on any personal issues, such as trauma or anxiety, work on finding healthy coping mechanisms instead of binging, concentrate on eating a balanced diet with no restrictions, AND figure out ways to manage the addictive behaviour before they can even begin to think about working towards a healthy weight. But when trying to eat a chocolate bar one afternoon in order to avoid eating ten that night, some unhelpful poo-bum will decide it is their holy mission in life to tell you that chocolate has sugar in it (who would have thunk it?!) and you should eat a salad instead. They effectively make you feel guilty about doing the right thing.
To finish, if you or someone you know suffers from Binge Eating Disorder, get help. Your eating disorder is just as deadly and devastating as all of the others. However, just like these other eating disorders, you CAN get better, even if you currently feel like you can’t. Full recovery is completely possible. Please be kind to yourself.
[Well this post has turned out to be loooooooooong. My longest article ever, to be honest! So thanks for reading it all if you did. But this is not a niche subject. BED is more prevalent that you may realise. In Australia, out of all of those who suffer from an eating disorder, 47% of them have Binge Eating Disorder, compared to 12% bulimia nervosa and 3% anorexia nervosa. BED is also the most prevalent eating disorder in the USA.]
Take care now. :o) I really appreciate each like, comment and share. If you want, please use this as a resource to explain to others the nature of Binge Eating Disorder and it’s legitimacy.