Note: This essay describes some of the symptoms and effects of eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers.
I remember first binge eating when I was 6 or 7. It was a Saturday morning, and I snuck an unopened package of Chips Ahoy into my bedroom. I ate the entire box while my parents slept in the room next to mine.
I don’t remember being upset or worried about anything, but afterward, I shoved the crumpled box under my bed, behind a folded quilt. I curled up in pain and willed myself not to throw up. I cried with my face in a pillow for what felt like hours, wondering why I’d done that and what my parents would say if they ever found out.
After that, bingeing became something I did regularly, pushing the boundaries of “full” further and further.
I wasn’t an overweight kid, but I also wasn’t thin, and I was acutely aware of that. I didn’t have great modeling when it came to appropriate boundaries related to food, though I also never witnessed anyone binge eating or responding to stressful events by eating. Most of the people I knew and loved who were overweight or obese were highly successful in their jobs, ate joyfully and shared large family meals. Even when they dieted, often regaining the weight later, I never saw or learned about eating in a way that appeared to be obsessive or compulsive. It seemed clear that something was very different about me, even as I exercised and concentrated on fitness: I always wanted to eat more. Even when my stomach hurt from overeating, after a huge dinner, in the middle of the night — I wanted more.
I didn’t think anyone else could possibly understand how horrible and disgusting I must be because of my eating. I had to keep this a secret.
I became fixated on my weight at a very young age. My memories of kindergarten, and even earlier, are saturated with the belief that I was fatter than all of my friends. My elementary school PE teacher once poked my waist and made a joke about “pinching an inch,” and it became a recurring anxiety dream. My sense of identity was intimately intertwined with my hunger. The self-loathing of longing to be thin like my friends supercharged my desire to eat until I felt nothing but full, sick, outside my body.
As a child and a teen, I saw therapists for issues unrelated to my eating. When I spoke about feeling ugly or overweight, they both assured me that I was neither of those things. They talked about my friendships and my popularity. Later, a psychiatrist even told me: “You have so many boys who want to date you. You’re a beautiful girl!”
As problematic as that statement clearly was, I clung to it at the time ― and yet it had no effect on my binge eating. So I participated in team sports, like swim team and track, that kept me in the “normal” (if not thin) weight range.
I tried many times to purge, to force myself to vomit after eating an entire loaf of bread or five candy bars, but I couldn’t do it. It never worked, and I felt like a failure even at that. What kind of person eats like this and doesn’t at least throw up afterward? I asked myself. My self-worth plummeted further. I admired the bulimic girls at my high school. They were thin. They could eat as much as they wanted. Why couldn’t I be like that?
Once I hit college, my weight began to fluctuate more and more dramatically. Exercise alone couldn’t keep my weight steady. I’d gain and lose 10 or 15 pounds over a period of months, sometimes not binge eating at all and then taking refuge in painful, dysregulated eating whenever a large stressor hit.
One bad breakup, for example, led to me not eating for weeks. I ended up with three ulcers, chronic diarrhea and a medical leave of absence for a semester. Everyone told me how amazing I looked as I packed my car to drive home. Once I was back at school the next year ― my friends now graduated and off living their lives ― I gained 30 pounds in three months after trying to quell my loneliness with food.
After that, the roller coaster grew more extreme with its highs and lows. I’d gain and lose 30 to 50 pounds over a year or two, over and over. I hid my binge eating from my romantic partners and friends, eventually marrying an extremely fit man who, early on, grew frustrated with my weight gain.
“It’s not that hard. Just be mindful about what you eat,” he insisted, a lesson he’d learned from his therapist mother, who was also extremely fit.
“It’s not that easy,” I told him, but I never opened up about what was really happening. And truthfully, I didn’t know what was really happening. I’d never heard of the phrase “binge eating” without it being tethered to bulimia. I thought that either you binged and purged, or you gained weight because you had no self-control, and so I gained weight and hated myself.
I didn’t know to look underneath my behavior ― to wonder why I was hurting myself this way. I couldn’t see how the “just be mindful” blame mentality that my husband and so much of the rest of world employed was actively working against me. I didn’t recognize how powerful and violent shame can be.
“I didn’t know to look underneath my behavior ― to wonder why I was hurting myself this way.”
After our second daughter was born, I gained a greater amount of weight than I ever had before. I was now obese, binge eating many times a week, feeling isolated and sad at home with two young children. I joined Weight Watchers, hoping for a healthy kick in the pants.
Here’s what happened: I lost the weight I gained. Everyone was amazed. Everyone thought I was a new woman.
But here’s how it happened: I kept binge eating, only this time I ate bags of carrots and cherries, containers of strawberries, 20 celery sticks at a time. I kept binge eating those “healthy” foods in secret, always eating as fast as I could, hiding it from my family, especially my kids.
I had another baby, did not gain much weight, and took up running. I trained for marathons and started gaining weight. I couldn’t obsessively focus on vegetables when I needed energy for long runs, so I started eating rice and bread again. I let myself “cheat” on long run days.
As I grew fitter and stronger, I gained more weight. Then even more.
When my oldest child experienced a medical crisis at age 8, I lost all control of my eating in my panic. From that point on, with his continued need for care, my fear and anxiety ruled my life more than ever. I ate and ate, bingeing almost every day.
I recognized the danger in this and went to a therapist who, once again, talked about mindfulness and asked me to keep a food journal. The shame of having to write down what I was doing kept me from bingeing for a few weeks, but then one night I snapped. Without any other tools to handle the huge feelings inside me, I ate a box of saltines and an entire bag of Halloween candy. I emailed the therapist to cancel my next appointment and never went back.
This pattern continued until this year, when I finally told my husband what was going on. He was shocked ― he had no idea about the severity of my eating issues. Over the years, he’d let go of his established ideas about weight and diets. Going through difficult family challenges had connected us in new, strong ways, and he did a lot of soul-searching.
I knew he accepted and loved me for who I was. But even that acceptance hadn’t persuaded me to share what I was going through. The shame was so deeply rooted that I never told anyone.
What helped me to change this was, in part, watching a friend going through recovery for alcoholism. Food addiction, like a drug or alcohol addiction, involves a combination of brain chemistry and patterns of behavior. As I talked with her, listened to her explain her sense of helplessness and guilt, heard her describe the feelings I’d felt myself for so long, I finally realized I wasn’t some lazy, atypical mess who just needed to control herself. Like so many others, I was a person who struggled with anxiety and a lack of self-worth. Like so many others, I had developed seriously flawed coping skills. All of us were and are humans, and so often, this is part of the deal ― figuring out what’s going on, learning, failing spectacularly and trying again.
Awareness was the first step for me. Forgiving myself was the next.
Months into this new view of myself and life, I haven’t stopped binge eating. But I do it much less now ― and when I do, I tell my husband, I write about it, I talk about it with friends and family. I own it, reflect on it without shame, forgive myself and move on.
I try new coping mechanisms to divert myself from eating as a source of comfort or numbing. I take a walk with my husband, read a book, watch terrible reality TV or even play Minecraft with my son. Sometimes one of these works! When it doesn’t, I force myself to shrug and accept a hug from the people I love.
And the biggest change of all: Finally, over four decades into this life, I can see my body in a different way. This isn’t about weight, and it never was. My body is a gift at any size, and in my struggles with anxiety and depression, I latched on to it as a target, rather than looking more closely at what I was experiencing.
Now, as an adult, I can do that. The cognitive behavioral therapy techniques I learned to help support my child have also been life-changing for me. I use these every day, from substituting in different behaviors when I panic to simply giving myself permission to eat those fries — because fries are delicious and I’m allowed to enjoy food! Eating doesn’t have to be a punishment or a secret.
“Why write this?” my husband asks as I talk through this piece with him, sharing my worries about the potential response of internet trolls who love to attack women from anonymous accounts.
I try to explain how important it is for others to see experiences like their own, especially ones that are usually hidden ― and especially about weight, which is often discussed in the guise of “health concerns” but is so commonly used to shame and bully people, whether in the media, the doctor’s office or our own homes.
I might never be “cured” of the compulsion to binge eat. But I’m not alone with this, and I will continue to grow and evolve as a person, grateful for the body I inhabit.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.