Do you remember your first diet? I remember one of mine: Scarsdale. I was 11 years old. I lost about 20 pounds, after which I gained about 25.

This pattern of gaining then losing, then gaining even more, continued into my early adulthood, when I topped out at 270 pounds. I was alternating dieting for a week or two with periods of binge eating for a week or two—being very strict, then very out of control.

It was not until I read—all in one tear-filled day—Geneen Roth‘s seminal book, “Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating,” that I realized there was something else at work here. I was not someone without willpower, I learned. I was not an “out-of-control glutton,” as a school counselor I once saw told me. There was something else at play here: I had an eating disorder.

At that time, the mid eighties, there was really no label for binge eating disorder (BED). In fact, one therapist I saw referred to me as a “failed bulimic,” meaning I did binge, but I “failed” to purge. Boy, that felt great. I couldn’t even get an eating disorder right.

I knew, though, no matter what name I gave it, when the drive to binge came along—which it did almost daily, I could not stop it. No matter what I tried. It just overtook me. No amount of “willpower” and no amount of body shaming or drive to lose weight was going to stop me. I would do anything to get food and get to my binge space, which was usually in front of the television.

A binge was, for me, all about checking out.

My clients talk about this all the time: the “zoning out” that happens during a binge. The whole world goes away and, along with it, its stresses, demands, feelings, and fears. It was just me and the food.

What I now know is that was exactly what I needed: a break, from everyone else, and especially from the critic in my own head. My eating disorder, no matter how much it ruined my life in other ways, was “working.” It was giving me a sacred time away from everything and everyone. In short, I needed it, and for good reason. It was not weakness; it was survival.

When I finally got into counseling, I learned all the roles food played in my life, and that proper treatment—not another diet—was essential to finally let my eating disorder go.

In fact, dieting itself was making things worse. I needed to have a lot more tools than food in the toolbox to deal with my life. I used food for so many reasons: distraction from difficult feelings, to mask anxiety and depression, to avoid social situations, to rebel, to reward myself.

I had to learn a new way of being in the world. I had to deal with losing a lot of weight, which was more complicated than I ever imagined. And while the road was not easy to travel, it has been the most important journey I have ever taken. It has been how I have found myself.

I am happy to report I now eat when I’m hungry, most of the time, and stop when I feel full. I also remain at a consistent weight range. I eat whatever my body and tastes desire, and any “rules” for eating are suggested by my body’s specific needs. Movement—not “exercise” but moving for joy and pleasure—is part of my life most days. But not if I don’t want to.

My journey is not “perfect,” and I don’t want it to be. It’s just my path. I hope with all my heart you find and follow yours, too.

–Amy Pershing, LMSW, ACSW