Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Memories of Binge-Eating

Okay, this is a big one.

I think I missed the boat on actually getting any kind of diagnosis, and I can't say for sure that I had Binge Eating Disorder specifically. But I've learned about it somewhat in recent years - really recent, just the last one or two - and I know that when I was younger I had binging episodes. I have some strong memories of what it felt like to binge, and I think it's important enough to write up. Because I can't really know what someone who's never been through it imagines a binge to be. It's not mindless snacking in front of the TV and before you know it, the bag of chips is empty. And it's not a big meal. And it doesn't have to come with purges - mine didn't. But I'll describe as best as I can....

It's late at night, usually. It might be during the day, if I've been left on my own and I can be sure that no one else is in the house. If it's night, it's after everyone is asleep, although I'm more scared at night because someone could wake up and come downstairs.

I'm not necessarily hungry. I might be - I might have eaten dinner several hours ago, or I might be basically alright. Whether I'm hungry or not isn't the point, though. Something is coming over me, and it says I want to eat. I want to eat sweets, or salts, or something that would be outrageous if my parents caught me eating it. I'll take a piece of American cheese out of the fridge and eat it without anything else. It'll start simply. If I stopped there, it would be fine, but I don't. I can't.

It isn't really about willpower, but I imagine that it is. Surely, if I just had more willpower, I would sit in the room next to the kitchen and not go back for more. Surely if I weren't so weak, I'd just stop. But I want more food, and I want it very badly, and I go for it.

Once I start eating sweets, the trouble really starts. If I'm very lucky, there'll be some cookies in the cookie jar, and it won't be too empty. Over the years, I got very good at stealing cookies without being caught. I've learned how to tell when the jar is full enough that one or two...or three...or five...won't be noticed. I learned how to re-arrange the cookies that are left to cover any bare spots on the bottom of the jar. If I'm not lucky, I have a few more options. Sometimes there are granola bars with chocolate chips in them, and I grab those. I know where there are stashes of frozen cookies in the basement freezer, and I'll steal those. I can't heat them up if I don't want to be heard, so I gnaw on them frozen. But maybe none of this is around. There are chocolate chips in the pantry that I'll steal and eat. There are pop-tarts that I don't even like, but they're the closest thing to a baked good in the house and I need that.

At some point, a switch trips. I'm staring at a half-eaten pop-tart, and there's a second one in the wrapper, and all of a sudden I realize what I'm doing. I've already eaten four cookies and a handful of chocolate chips and a half a pop tart, and I can feel that weird aftertaste in the strawberry filling.

But I can't throw it out. I can't stop now.

Because if I stop now, they'll know. They'll find a half a pop tart in the garbage, or find its twin unwrapped in the box, and they'll know I've eaten it. And if they know, they'll punish me. They won't take the food out of the house, the way that a couple of nutritionists have advised - because my brothers, who have no eating issues or weight concerns, should be able to have cookies and pop-tarts around for their lunches. They won't do anything that would actually STOP the binge, but they'd punish me. They'd take away my computer time, or for a little while they'd force me to go to bed when they went, so I wasn't left unsupervised. But it would always happen again, when I was alone and hungry and the urge came.

So I have to keep eating. I'm going to be punished either way, now. This way, it's my secret. My shame, but in secret. Now, my punishment is calories. I wanted to eat all these calories, and that's what I get for having started, is I have to keep eating. I'll get fatter, because I know I won't be able to work off everything that I just ate tomorrow on the treadmill. That's my punishment for binging, is I'll feel fat, and I'll be fat and unhealthy for the rest of my life, and I have to finish the food I don't want, don't like and am not hungry for.

That's what it feels like to binge. Out-of-control, and shameful, and punishing and completely unenjoyable.

When I was at home over the summer, my mom made a reference to her "binging" on a pint of cherry tomatoes, by which she meant she ate a pint of tomatoes in one sitting. But still felt so good, because they're acceptable on her diet and it's a good thing to binge on.

I never found the courage to bring up my memories, and let her know what it's actually like. I never told her to come back when she hates herself and eats without stopping no matter how much she knows she must stop, and wants to stop. I never told her how honestly offensive I thought her comment was. Because I'm still hiding. Because it's still shameful.

I don't binge anymore when I'm at school, partly (I'm convinced) because I have free access to whatever candy and cookies I want to keep in the kitchen, so there's no scarcity. I do have nights when all I want to do is eat 15 chocolates, but somehow these days, I'll get past four or five and lose the taste for it, and put the rest away. Maybe I just outgrew it - maybe there's no fear of punishment now. But the last time I was home, I caught myself starting to sneak again. I caught myself rooting through the cabinet for anything that resembled a baked good, searching through the fridge and starting to get antsy when I came up with nothing that I wanted to eat. Maybe it has something to do with feeling scared and insecure, maybe it's just a bad habit that I'm leaving behind in the past. This isn't a sciency-blog because I don't know the research and I don't know the answers.

But I remember how it felt.


  1. Thank you for sharing with us.

    I remember being about seven or eight, and being on yet another diet, and having to steal cookies, too. (What is it with cookies!) They were in the house for my brothers, and I would take four or five of these gross Keebler soft-batch cookies and just shove them in my face while I hid behind the couch, or outside, or in my bedroom.

    I didn't even like those cookies. The homemade ones were so much better, but these ones were forbidden. They were ONLY for the skinny kids, the normal kids in the house.

    Almost thirty years later, I still remember how that felt, to steal and hide. You're not alone on this journey.

  2. I think you are so brave for writing this. I have so much I want to say about this post but I can't seem to get it out. It's just terrible what people do to each other to "help" them with their "health problems." Imagine how happy we'd all be if people kept their concerns to themselves.

  3. Thanks - I knew this was going to be a big post, and I know it's something important that people should be talking about.

    It's been so long now, that it's hard for me to remember how much my parents actually noticed, and how much they intervened - most of the rules for what I was and wasn't allowed to eat were based around meals/snacks like any normal kid's food rules, except more strict than my brothers. I look back and wonder if they just assumed I stole food because it tasted good.

    I remember meeting once with a nutritionist and admitting that I binged, and that I didn't understand it because all I knew of eating disorders were anorexia and bulimia, and I didn't purge. I remember the doctor being surprised, and I don't remember anything in particular being done to help. Just more guidelines for how to eat properly and less and lose weight.

    So I think it's less of a case of misguided help (at least in my own life) and more of a lack of knowledge and ignoring it. I can't know whether things would have been better or worse if they were trying to address the binging in particular, but if someone could have told me that this was a symptom of a diagnosable disorder and not just me being a weak Food Ogre, that would have been great.