Who doesn’t eat too much, now and then? But when is overeating not okay? When is it a problem, or even an addiction? And can diets ever really help with overeating, or is there another way? Jane Rudd*, who attended sessions with a CBT practitioner (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and then a counsellor, shares her story about her recovery from a life of food binging and shame.
YOU CAN END YOUR OVEREATING – A CASE STUDY
“I was an overeater for sixteen years of my life. I never identified myself as having an ‘eating disorder’ because I didn’t make myself sick after binging.
You might think, like I tried to tell myself for years, that maybe overeating is no big deal. But the guilt, shame, and double life it had me leading was very draining, and the truth is, I was addicted to food. I used it much the way an alcoholic uses booze – to numb out. And now, looking back, I am very clear that food addiction IS a big deal because it is a symptom of something much bigger. (And yes, eventually it did affect my physical health adversely, too, which wasn’t fun). And nowadays binge eating is seen as the disorder of its own it really is – Binge Eating Disorder – so thankfully its taken seriously.
By the time I hit thirty, I had been binging at least once, usually twice and sometimes three times a week, for a good ten years. What do I mean by bingeing? An entire box of biscuits, or an entire cake, in one sitting – or both. One of those rolls of pre-made cookie dough eaten raw in pulled off handfuls. Eating four cheese sandwiches with butter half an inch thick. And sometimes, when it was late at night and the shops were shut, the strangest combinations of anything that was still left in the cupboards – once I ate a pack of seaweed sheets for sushi slathered with half a pound of butter. Or I’d put butter, sugar and flour in a cup, mush it up, and eat that (yes, there is a butter obsession going on here!)
I’d tried the usual advice: keeping a food diary, journalling, not letting any junk food in my house, cutting out sugar. Using visualisations and positive mantras, even. Nothing worked.
None of my friends or boyfriends ever figured out that I had a problem. Well, to be fair, one boyfriend was suspicious and asked my sister if I had an eating disorder, but she laughed at him and he dropped it. I mean, I was slim. My love of fitness ensured that. And in front of everyone, I was really into nutrition and holistic living. I didn’t overeat publicly at all, only behind closed doors.
In a way, I think I longed to be caught, and for it all to end, but I grew up in a typical British family where you keep your feelings under wraps so I was terrifically good at keeping secrets. Eventually I just gave up on ever changing and thought, well that’s that, I’m going to be a food binger for the rest of my life, sneaking out the garden when I’m seventy years-old to shove an entire box of cheap biscuits into my mouth!
And then, just like that, my overeating stopped. What changed everything in the end?
Therapy. But not therapy for food addiction or binging at all, interestingly.
Let me go back to the beginning. I would say my habit of overeating began in university. I didn’t have money to do anything nice for myself when I was down, but it didn’t cost much to get the sort of food I could eat myself numb on; back then it was an entire bag of raisin bagels, a box of sugary dry cereal crammed into my mouth by the handful, a few packages of cookies labelled ‘low fat’ so I could tell myself it was okay. I hadn’t yet connected that I was overeating because I was sad. At that age I was not yet that self aware, I was convinced I was ‘treating myself’.
Treating myself with food was definitely a learned behaviour. I can see now my mother taught me my habits around food. She came from a poor background, and I would imagine she learned from her mother as well that the one thing it was okay to treat yourself with, probably as it could be seen as a necessity, was food. I remember being very little and if I was a “good girl” my treat from my Mum was only ever something edible. Sticks of red liquorice, a pack of sugary sesame snaps, a bar of chocolate I was to ‘not tell my sisters about’. On the days that me and my two sisters were all well-behaved there would be a ‘group treat’, such as my mother opening a can of sweetened condensed milk and letting us eat it off spoons (yes, as a health conscious grown up I now shudder at the thought!).
What makes me sad is I can’t remember my mother ever doing anything nice for herself other then buying ‘special’ food. She never pampered herself with clothing or beauty treatments that weren’t necessities, or bought things like books, music, art. It was only ever food. And I can see I replicated that as a young adult. It never crossed my mind to save up and treat myself to a manicure or something nice for my flat.
Not surprisingly, my mother had weight issues. But I was a slim child and teen. Shy and nervous, I suffered from high anxiety from very young. It made me too shy to eat at school. And my mother had divorced and remarried to an extremely strict and domineering man I was quite scared of, so it was almost impossible to eat with my stepfather glaring across the dinner table. When I did eat I often had terrible stomach aches.
University meant I was finally free from the stress of my family home. I had a dorm room to myself where nobody could barge in and I could relax and eat in privacy. And suddenly, I was starving. I remember just feeling hungry all the time. Sometimes it worried me, and I’d try to ignore how insatiable I felt, other times I gave in and off I went to the grocery store for more of those bagels and biscuits. I sometimes wonder if my body was physically starving all the time in those days because somehow the wires in my brain got crossed and the emotional starvation I suffered from manifested physically. Because I can see now I felt down all the time back then, as all the stress from growing up tried to make itself heard and as the lack of honesty and intimacy in my life meant that I had many friends but little real connection.
Like I said, growing up in a family where you never admitted how you felt and never let on that things were less than perfect made me the perfect person to hide an eating problem. I knew just how to deny things and lie to myself even. I remember cramming food into my mouth standing in the walk-in fridge of the restaurant I worked at, stolen handfuls of cheese, pieces of cake, things I would never let the other staff know I ate as they all thought I was so ‘healthy’. I’d take home the day old baked goods that were offered, claiming they were ‘for my roommates’, then eat the entire bag myself in my room. The thing I still feel awful about is the way I would sneakily go through my housemates’ cupboards when they were out, stealing little bits of all their food. I remember squirting one girl’s chocolate sauce directly into my mouth from the bottle, and eating one spoonful of every flavour of her jam!
By aged 27 there were physical side effects. There was of course the bad skin and bloating, but the shocking moment was when I visited an osteopath for a running injury and during the routine assessment he pushed on a very painful bit of my abdomen that made me palpably flinch.
He frowned, and asked me in a carefully neutral tone if I had a problem with drinking. “I don’t drink at all,” I told him, confused. “That sore bit was your liver” he told me. That’s when a little voice in my head whispered at me, “It’s the overeating, it’s catching up to you.” I went home and cried.
But I couldn’t stop. By that time I was living by myself, and my binges were increasingly expensive. I’d buy groceries that were to last the week and eat them all barring the vegetables in a night. It wasn’t even about ‘treat’ food by then, it was just about putting anything into my mouth until I felt comfortably numb, even if that meant all the healthy and gourmet food I’d managed to stick to buying at the grocery store (I could only buy junk food from quick dashes into corner shops where I wouldn’t see anyone I knew, I was obsessed with keeping up my facade!). A party-sized tray of dim sum was suddenly for one, ditto the pack of smoked salmon. It was like I couldn’t open anything without feeling compelled to eat the entire thing.
I remember doing a budget one month and I’d spent £500 on food not including meals out. That was a shocker. I was literally eating enough money I could have bought a designer handbag.
By the time I was 28, food couldn’t keep down my recurring bouts of sadness and I finally found myself in therapy. I didn’t even bring up eating at first with my therapist as it seemed the least of my worries. I had terrible issues with relationships and commitment and struggled with ADHD and I couldn’t bear to also have another problem to present so didn’t mention it.
I tried CBT first (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), with a male therapist that had come highly recommended by a girlfriend. It ended up being a good fit for my tendency to be very dramatic and only think in black and white, making extreme choices in life that weren’t always good ones. CBT helped me to have a more balanced view of life and be a more practical and less self-destructive.
I waited until the fifth week when I felt more comfortable to bring up my overeating. “How much are you binging? What exactly do you eat?” He asked.
“A box of cookies, maybe?” I heard myself weakly suggest.
“Do you make yourself sick after?”
“Well that’s not such a big deal,” he said. And that was that.
I often wonder why he didn’t think eating an entire box of cookies a big deal and brushed it off. Was is because he was a man and didn’t understand my self-destructive eating? Or did he realise focusing on it might not be the best thing at the time? My latest therapist told me that sometimes if a counsellor realises that giving someone a label might make things worse they avoid that, which does make me think he might have recognised I’d obsess as I did have that sort of personality back then!
Of course what I should also be wondering is why I was so embarrassed about the extent of my overeating I didn’t admit I often ate more than just a box of cookies. In any case, it didn’t get touched on again. CBT is short term therapy and there were more than enough other things to cover.
What was great about that CBT practitioner was that he really supported my attempts to learn meditating and had quite an interest in it. I started to bring mindfulness to my eating. Usually when I binged, part of it was that I ‘turned off’, often reading something as I shoved food in my mouth. Trying to put my full awareness on what I was eating was very uncomfortable but telling.
It became so blatantly clear that I was eating to avoid big emotions that I began to note how much I’d spent my entire life trying not to feel. How half the time I’d find myself mindlessly in the kitchen cramming something, anything, in my mouth, it was because I was afraid of an emotion rising up. I started to stop and ask myself, what is going on here? What am I feeling? Inevitably the answer was sad. Afraid. Rejected. Lost. Like a failure.
And lonely. Terribly lonely. I grew up in a family where no one was close, nobody trusted anyone. Oh, I was popular, magnetic, I had tons of ‘friends’ and boyfriends. But nobody knew me.
My life was void of real intimacy. And I started to have awful clarity I had replaced love with one thing- food.
I found myself back in therapy a few years later, this time with a female counsellor. Again, I didn’t bring up my food habits at first. My therapist was a beautiful woman, and incredibly slender, and I remember thinking, I would be ashamed for her to think I was the sort who has an eating problem. Can you imagine, I was paying £100 a session, and she’d made it clear that it was a safe space and was all about me, but still I was trying to impress my therapist!
The funny thing was that I began to directly binge around my appointments. We were delving really deeply into my childhood, and it was heavy going. I’d deal with it by buying food I’d never usually go near on the way home and binging on the bus! I had a whole routine, I found all the places near my therapist’s office that sold what I wanted – Jamaican patties so greasy they left the wrappers wet, slabs of bread and butter pudding from a local bakery crammed into my mouth as sugar dusting fell onto my lap.
I went to my next session determined to come clean. And I did. I told it like a funny story, mimicking the way I crouched down in my bus seat so nobody could see me feasting in huge mouthfuls, and my therapist burst into laughter. Suddenly I found myself laughing too. It was such an amazing release. Then I was telling her everything, the years of overeating. The furtiveness, the secrecy, the hating my body more often then not.
She didn’t judge me, but she also didn’t make a big deal out of it. It was duly recognised as something I was using as a coping mechanism to talk about as and when I wanted to. And the funny thing was, I didn’t feel a need to talk about it that much after that. Just confessing, fully, properly letting the whole story out, felt like a sort of shift.
My therapist advised me not to beat myself up about my binges, and that was helpful advice.
I had started to see how, not just in relation to food, but in so many areas of my life, I was always putting myself down. A running sound track in my mind of criticisms and shaming. How in some ways that’s what was also a reason for my overeating – it gave me another reason to be hard on myself.
Therapy was showing me how little love I had for myself. No wonder I couldn’t like other people that much, I couldn’t like me that much. I never celebrated what I was doing right, what was okay, but just felt so dissatisfied and unsuccessful. And that was what we focused on- where that came from, this sense of worthlessness and need to always be better then where I was.
I did read one book about overeating to help me. It was a really straightforward book called Eating Less – Say Goodbye to Overeating by Gillian Riley. What really struck me about the book was how she was so straightforward that eating less wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to feel like crap at first, because food is addictive, and as a food addict you are going to have confused hunger signals that you are going to have to fight. Plus it’s not going to feel comfortable being good to yourself and feeling all those emotions that you are suppressing, so there was not point in expecting it to be.
The book encouraged me to try to slowly create structure around my eating. And to take little steps to control it without judging it. Sometimes, if I really wanted to binge, I’d say fine, you can. But first, go sit down and meditate and see if you can feel those feelings, or journal. And then, in one hour, you can binge. Often I wouldn’t want to anymore. Sometimes I would- and it was off to the shop for a box of Jaffa cakes, my then addiction. By then it was down to just a box of cookies after all.
I was really realising how much every single choice I made in life was a choice to either be good to myself, or to tell myself I wasn’t worthy. Eating became no longer about weight, or hiding feelings, but a chance to be good to myself. I wasn’t eating that health food because I ‘should’ anymore, or because it ‘impressed others’, but because it felt exciting, because it was honouring my wonderful body, nourishing my liver that used to suffer, making my cells healthy and strong.
And other things were becoming about being good to myself, too; who I chose to hang around with, what I did with my free time. Life started to become a big adventure in self care, and I got quite distracted with learning new ways to be nice to myself and discovering what actually made me happy and feel good.
So distracted, actually, that the funny thing was the way that the overeating died out and I didn’t even notice. Suddenly, I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I’d rushed out for that box of Jaffa cakes. I realised it had been about a year! Sure, I’d overeaten at restaurants and had foods that weren’t as healthy as I wanted to be messing with, but somehow the conscious destructive eating had phased out without me even realising it.
And so had that stubborn half a stone (7 pounds) I always carried. Yes, some of the things I’d discovered I loved that made me feel good were new kinds of fitness including dance and Pilates. While I am sure they helped tone my body in new ways, I do think it is really just self-esteem that had me shed that ’emotional weight’.
Best of all, I learned to love my body. I wore a bikini for the first time at 36. I had never had the body confidence before. It felt so liberating, so nice to have the sun and sea on my belly, I let myself mourn that the gorgeous young woman I had been couldn’t see how beautiful she was and didn’t have the confidence.
Nowadays I am glad to see there is so much more support for all the more subversive forms of disordered eating that used to get no attention. EDONS – Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified – is now being used as an umbrella term for things like binging but not purging as well as excessive night eating.
I find it incredible that by doing therapy that really wasn’t even about having an eating issue, but just about unravelling who the real me was, and what made her happy, that somehow there was no longer an eating issue. The connection between emotional and mental health and body health is so clear to me it kills me now when other women tell me, their lips pursed tight and their eyes full of self-loathing, that they are going on a diet. I want to tell them to forget it and go to therapy instead, whatever kind of therapeutic help that might be, from coach to psychotherapist to self development group. The inner world is truly the way to change the outer world.”
*name changed to protect privacy
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