It is easy for me to acknowledge I have binge eating disorder (BED) at this point in my life. After years of silent shame, I now understand the purpose the disorder served. With this knowledge, I am able to be a whole person and map my future without living under the shadow of a never-ending preoccupation with food anymore.
It wasn’t always this way.
Sometime between the ages of five and seven, I discovered the power of food. I discovered I wanted more of it than I was permitted to have, that it was a restricted temptation, and that I thought about it a lot. It calmed and shamed me at the same time. It signified love and hate. It brought me up and then down. It was my best friend and my worst enemy.
As a child, I often led my playmates to the kitchen hoping they would ask a parent for food. I did not like to ask for food. I was ashamed, even at an early age, of my seemingly insatiable appetite. I was sure I was the only person struggling this way. I was strangely “abnormal” in my mind, and this created a gap between me and the rest of the world.
My mother insisted that I “eat healthy” and taught me to distinguish between “good” and “bad” food early in my childhood. For her, food was love, but it was also a source of control. She probably had anorexia, although she was never officially diagnosed or treated. And her body paid the price. She went on to abuse alcohol in her twenties and thirties, and, unknowingly, passed all her shameful feelings around body image to me.
I struggled as a child with the stigma of being overweight. I was teased and bullied, despite being well-liked by my peers and teachers. My parents expressed concern and tried to intervene. My mother and I dieted together with little success. I learned to rely on the scale to determine how I felt about myself. An entire day, week, or month could be ruined by a weight gain, and I correlated these gains to my inability to be “good.”
It was hard to enjoy life while concentrating on how not to think about food.
My deep-seated guilt about my secret eating produced a lot of anxiety and depression. I knew people wondered how I could gain weight while eating normal portions at meals, and I knew my overweight body was a source of anxiety and helplessness for my parents. I was ashamed that I could not resist food, and yet I knew it was the only thing that allowed me to escape and simultaneously calm me during difficult times or even everyday life.
As my weight continued to increase through my childhood and into my adolescence, I withdrew from friends and activities. My mother’s alcoholism and my parents’ eventual divorce took their toll. I spent my teenage years engaging in risky behavior and binging on food, alcohol, and to some extent, drugs. But food was always the preferred substance. I planned each binge I could, but was always open to the spontaneous consumption of whatever was available.
During my late teens and early twenties, my friends and high school classmates were going on to college and building their lives. I attempted twice to attend college and found I could not handle the pressure and resulting anxiety and depression that came with the demands of a higher education. This failure, in my perfectionist mind, was unforgivable.
I struggled for several more years as my mental health deteriorated and my waistline expanded. I was in the depth of despair and depression with no money, no future, and even less sense of self. I knew I needed help and it meant a commitment to searching for answers. I was not very hopeful, but willing to try anything.
I found a weight management program and, with the help of a therapist, began to work on the underlying issues related to my out-of-control eating. I was losing weight and feeling better than ever before. I felt my problems were melting along with the weight. I began to conceptualize the idea that an addiction to food was an eating disorder.
The cognitive behavioral therapy with a focus on weight loss provided me with a new outlook on life and tools that I could take with me. I began a university program in political science and began engaging in life. Things were considerably better, but only temporarily. During my college years, I regained most of the weight I had lost. I was extremely distressed about this weight gain, which resulted in more binges. I knew I needed to seek treatment once again.
My new therapist diagnosed me with “binge eating disorder.” I cannot convey the liberation I felt. All my food preoccupation and overeating actually had a name. Now I could stop making moral judgments about myself and my lack of will. I was finally able to look at the problem and find ways to address it without guilt and shame. Responsibility for the disorder now belonged to me and I felt relief.
I assumed this diagnosis meant there were many more people who struggled like me. I began to search for other binge eaters through both national and local eating disorder groups. I occasionally found one or two, but it soon became apparent that either I was one of a very few or that this disorder was severely under diagnosed and discussed. I was certain it was the latter, and I began to think about what it would be like to have a supportive community of those with binge eating disorder.
At the time, I had no idea how this unmet need in the eating disorder community would directly affect the direction of my life.
Over the next 10 years I married a wonderful and supportive man, had two children, and continued to work on my recovery. I learned that dieting was contributing to my inability to let go of the disorder, but continued to struggle with my body image.
After a particularly difficult year, and a significant relapse, I opted for lap-band surgery. I ignored the little voice in me that was telling me not to do it. I was depressed after having 2 children and gaining 20 pounds. The day after I had the surgery, I returned home and began to realize I made the wrong decision. I cried and became very depressed. I couldn’t believe, after all these years of therapy and self-discovery, I wound up with a band around my stomach. It was clear I needed to continue my work with a treatment team to address all the issues that played a part in my eating disorder, including depression, anxiety, trauma, food preoccupation, sleep disturbances, and body image, to name a few.
I began seeing a seasoned eating disorders team that included a psychologist, nutritionist, and several complementary practitioners to help me manage anxiety through massage, acupuncture, and movement. We addressed relationships and the emotional needs I have that were not being met, and how to listen to my body through intuitive eatingand movement. We also worked to improve my body image and address the trauma of living in a larger body and how others treated me as a result.
I began to think I really could be okay focusing on my sense of self and my health. No longer would I focus on my size or need to live up to another person’s ideal about body shape or size.
For many years, I felt my only “hobby” was losing weight. Yet, each time I tried a diet, I gained more back than what I lost. I had weight cycled over and over throughout my entire life.
What I did not understand was weight loss as a goal was actually getting in the way of helping me find health and was destroying any hope I had of a healthy body image. I now know my desire–or obsession, really–to lose weight set me up for binges, as it triggered my feelings of shame around how I looked. I also now know that restricting leads to bingeing.
So I struggled to let go of weight loss as the ultimate goal in recovery. I no longer focus on my weight, but rather on the positive things I can do for my body on a daily basis. I focus on the foods I sense my body needs—not what I used think I “should” or “shouldn’t” eat—and the activities I like to do—not what I used to think would burn the most calories. Movement should always involve things you enjoy or it becomes a chore. With this work, I have begun to enjoy a more well-balanced life, and the cravings for high sugar and fat content food have decreased over time.
I continue to explore what works for me and continue to practice what I learned. I cannot imagine going back to the way I once lived – in my head, alone, with my eating disorder as my constant friend. I allow my imperfections in all their beauty and embrace my body every day for what it gives me.
My life has changed completely from those days of shame and hopelessness. I am now a whole person who refuses to hide myself or my struggles.
In 2008, I founded the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) to build the community I dreamed of all those years ago for those with binge eating disorder.
In 2010, I opened Pershing Turner Centers (PTC) in Annapolis, MD, with Amy Pershing, LMSW, ACSW, whom I met through BEDA, to help others find the path to recovery from their eating disorders.
Having embarked on that never-ending journey ourselves, we are especially sensitive to our clients’ needs. Having dedicated her life to educating herself about eating disorders and treating them with multi-disciplinary, evidence-based approaches, Amy is a uniquely qualified clinician.
Pershing Turner Centers allows us to insist on an approach and level of care that takes the entire person into account, whether they suffer from anorexia nervosa, orthorexia, bulimia nervosa, exercise bulimia, binge eating disorder, or one of the many other types of disordered eating. We want the best care for our clients and their loved ones who are always concerned and almost always a part of the treatment journey.
It is my sincere hope the millions who suffer from eating disorders will have a place where they can discover they are not alone and can, indeed, learn to build their own path to recovery with the help of the treatment provider community and organizations such as Pershing Turner Centers and BEDA.
My own journey has taught me that anything is possible, and that, while painful and difficult at times, the recovery process can always lead to increased self-awareness and a restoration of joy in our lives. I feel fortunate to have experienced this journey, as it has given me the life I now enjoy.
Co-Founder, Managing Director, Pershing Turner Centers
CEO, Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA)