I had an eating disorder.
Those are really words I never expected to say. Only a few people who are close to me know and many who are close to me will likely find out here and now. But I think it’s something that’s important to talk about.
Binge Eating Disorder was only added to the DSM-V in 2013. Before then, it wasn’t even recognized as an actual eating disorder. But there is something very disordered about the way this illness cultivates your relationship with food. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting 3.5% of women and 2% of men. But only 1.6% of adolescents are diagnosed with BED, which is the time in my life when I struggled with it.
I remember the first time I became aware that my behavior wasn’t normal. It was after dinner time and I was alone in the downstairs bathroom with 3 protein bars stuffed on my lap. I carefully hid each empty wrapper under a wad of tissues in the garbage bin. I had eaten a full meal prior and wasn’t hungry but I felt like I needed to eat the protein bars that honestly just tasted like a yummy chocolate bar. And one wasn’t enough. I consumed over 800 calories in that one binge at only 8 years old. I was ashamed at what I was doing and I didn’t tell a soul.
The first time I binge ate in public was when I was 16 years old. I had my first job at a restaurant where I was constantly surrounded by tempting food. A few weeks into my hostessing gig, I found myself in the walk in refrigerator on break. I opened the big container of shredded parmesan cheese and stuffed handful after handful into my mouth as quickly as possible. When I heard the handle to the fridge start to giggle, I slapped the lid back on the cheese container and shoved it away where it belonged. I proceeded to make my way to the kitchen line, where the meal I had ordered, before my binge session began, was now ready. I sat at a table in the back of the nearly empty restaurant and surrounded myself with a basket of mozzarella sticks, a plate of french fries, a hefty bowl of clam chowder, and a large ice cream sundae. After 15 minutes, I was done. No one had any idea of how much I ate.
This type of secretive bingeing went on for another 5 years. Luckily, I was able to self-correct my eating habits and eventually ate a rather normal diet. But I still struggled with portion control and eating things just for the taste. My weight was always an issue. However, I was no longer bingeing on a consistent basis. My binges were confined to once a month, which still wasn’t healthy but was also better than bingeing daily. I’m one of the very few who were lucky enough to not need treatment, whether it was medication, therapy or a combination.
So what was the turning point in my recovery? I truly have no idea. Just like I have no idea why I started binge eating in the first place. I wasn’t eating to fill an emotional void and I wasn’t depressed. It was like a light switch in my brain that got turned on one day and then finally decided to shut itself off. Because I didn’t need any sort of treatment, it took me many years to even realize I ever had an eating disorder.
In fact, the only reason I knew BED existed is because we studied it in my sociology class in college. When we went over the defining factors of the disorder, I remember distinctly looking up from my textbook like what I just read couldn’t be real. While I knew my behaviors in the past weren’t normal, I surely never thought they qualified as an eating disorder. But there I was with the definition glaring back at me:
- Recurrent and persistent episodes of binge eating
- Binge eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
- Eating much more rapidly than normal
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
- Eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
- Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
- Marked distress regarding binge eating
- Absence of regular compensatory behaviors (such as purging).
I counted them…1 check, 2 check, 3 check, 4 check.
It took years after discovering what BED was to fully accept that I struggled with it in the past. I never talked about it because it didn’t seem severe like anorexia and bulimia. My friends who battled those illnesses fought hard and BED seemed like a minuscule problem in comparison. I just overate and got fat as a consequence. But I would never say that to someone else with Binge Eating Disorder! So why was I discounting a very real problem I had? I discussed this recently with my therapist and she said it appeared as if I still had a lot of shame surrounding my battle with BED. I was trying to discount my struggle because I didn’t want it to have actually happened. I realized she was right.
Over the past few years I’ve been preaching body positivity and self-care. I’ve been advocating for transparency and honesty about illness. In sharing another part of my story, I hope to reduce the shame and stigma of Binge Eating Disorder. I hope my journey to self-acceptance helps someone else in theirs, whether it’s with BED or something completely different. I hope this serves as a reminder that your pain isn’t invalidated or diminished just because someone seems worse off than you. Remember to never be embarrassed by the mountains you have climbed or the ones you’re still climbing. There’s no shame in your journey.