Confronting binge eating in eating disorder recovery

by Diana Beaudet and June Alexander

Shame and stigma can debilitate people experiencing an eating disorder, as the following exchange reveals:

Dear June,

I’m trying to look after myself, but I’ve been struggling in this last week and I don’t know why. After traveling with my family, I came back feeling really positive about recovery (our trip was what ideal recovery would look like and I maintained that – feeling at ease – for the full 10 days). But now that I’m home, I’m all over the place. I don’t understand it. I often feel so close to fully embracing recovery, but then I’ll get blind-sided by the eating disorder and I feel like I have to start over again. Again, and again, and again. It’s frustrating.

My biggest struggle and darkest moments are with recovery binging. I know this is a normal part of the recovery process. But after being so restrictive, controlled and disciplined for so long, binging feels like the ultimate form of being out of control. The self-hate and significant depression that follows a binge is unlike anything else I’ve felt. I’ll often write, but the writing is just angry and unproductive. 

I recently listed to a podcast with Brene Brown about vulnerability. It was so interesting, and it’s made me think that maybe my recovery could be very different if I was more willing to be kind to myself, especially in response to a binge.              

– Diana

Response from June  

Dear Diana,

You raise a really important issue and I draw on a 2012 post with this response. Being vulnerable to eating disorders and anxiety, I live each moment as it comes. Embrace each second, focus on it, and the rest of the day and year looks after itself. When eating disorders’ ruled my life, each day was black or white. There was little or no grey. Each day was good or bad, and I was good or bad, depending on whether I kept within my calorie target or blew it. The target – and I set thousands of them, again and again and again – would be broken within hours or days. Always. With each failure, my spirit would crash afresh, and I’d become more entrenched in my eating disorder prison.

Freedom came eventually, not from making resolutions, counting calories or checking weight on bathroom scales, but from allowing myself to “be.”

The key to freedom was remarkably simple: three meals and three snacks a day. Throw away the scales, refuse to count calories, eat three meals and three snacks a day. Easy to say, but oh so difficult to do. I’m here to say though, that these changes in thinking patterns and behaviors can be achieved, even after decades of living with an eating disorder, and the reward is the regaining of true self. At any age, this freedom CAN be achieved. Amazing things will happen.

The problem with resolutions and rules, especially related to body image, is that calories and weights set us up for failure. People who suffer eating disorders have rigid mindsets. Therefore, no matter how tempting, it is best to avoid setting boundaries, or limits, on the types of food we can eat, and how much we can eat. We are too hard on ourselves. We need to learn to be kind to, and compassionate with, ourselves.  We must not let figures on a page or in our mind boss us around, determine if we worthy beings. Easy to say, so hard to do.

Today I don’t think in terms of black and white, or grey. I prefer red and green, with amber between. I like a lot of amber. Definition: a yellow light used as a cautionary signal between green for “go” and red for “stop.” Amber is sunny, soft, warm and friendly. Amber is loving and forgiving. Amber provides a safe place to recognize we are going in the wrong direction, to pause and head back to the security of the green. Amber is like a buffer zone between two extremes. But life was not always this way because with an eating disorder, there is no buffer zone:

I’ll share with you some diary excerpts that highlight some of my own struggles:

  • Age 27, December 1st, 1978: I have decided that this muddled year will give me at least one achievement. I will weigh xxx by the end of December. From today, until I weigh xxx, I’ll eat no more than zzzz calories a day. And thereafter I’ll always weigh xxx. I will record everything, containing calories, eaten by me, until I reach my goal. … I’ll have the consolation of knowing that every day I’m getting a little slimmer. And I’ll start the New Year as a new person, rid forever of the nasty effects of anorexia nervosa which have plagued me since I was 11 years’ old. I’ll be a new me!
  • December 8th, 1978: Down to xxx. Only xxx more lbs and I’ll have won my battle. I am very determined. I will not let myself down this time. 
  • December 22nd, 1978: As is obvious (because I stopped recording what I ate), I went off my diet for a few days – amazingly, despite ‘gorging’ myself, I gained only xx lbs. I will not ‘gorge’ myself again. I’m allowing myself zzzz calories per day. I find I have to count calories – but I don’t mind, not if it means I’m slim and carefree, and can still eat special foods in my intake. 
  • Age 28, January 8, 1979: I feel like a bird that has lost its wings … I’m sick of feeling sorry for myself and hope something happens soon to brighten my outlook. 
  • January 10, 1979: My depression has led to me ‘gorging’ myself this past week. Today I must start lifting myself out of the doldrums, and live in hope … I’ll allow myself zzzz calories a day, with no increase until I reach xxxx.

Oh, painful to read, isn’t it?! Does she ever get off this horrid, punishing, self-harming, eating disorder treadmill? YES, she does!

For decades, December was my worst month of the year. All were a struggle, but December was the hardest. It should have been the happiest month, for it was full of events to celebrate – Christmas Day, my birthday and New Year’s Eve. But December was a reminder that I was about to be another year older, another calendar year was about to end and, despite many self-made promises to the contrary, I remained bogged and imprisoned in my eating disorder.

I would try to engage in light-hearted fun and socialize with work colleagues, friends and family, while inwardly feeling dreadful. Small chat on the outside served as a camouflage while my busy mind plotted and planned strategies to ensure tomorrow, whatever date it was, would mark the moment in time when I would ‘take control’ of my life and “be normal,” “eat normal.” But there were moments, when another failure sent me to the black pits of despair, that it seemed all too hard.

The truth was that ED was sabotaging every area of my life – at work, with friends, with family. I knew what I wanted but didn’t know how to get it. It wasn’t something you can buy. I wanted peace in my mind, and contentment in my soul.

Surely writing things down would help. I mean, if I wrote down rules and boundaries on when to eat and how much to eat, it would be there in black and white, and all I had to do was obey these rules and respect the boundaries, right? Right. Surely this was possible. The idea was good but the method was wrong. It was driven by and was strengthening my eating disorder, not me.

The dictionary definition for “resolution” is: a firm decision to do or not to do something. 

The years rolled by. Countless “firm decisions” were written on page after page of new diaries. Thousands of “new starts” throughout each diary. Matched by thousands of “failures.” I was aware at some level that I had tried this before, and failed. So why try again? Because this time, I would succeed. I had to. I had to keep trying to escape, or ED would nab me completely. Fear was acute…yet sadly I would never succeed while I continued to play Ed’s game, which sadly, because the eating disorder had been embedded in my brain so long, was the only way I knew.

When we have an eating disorder, it is terribly scary to eat three meals and three snacks a day. My tolerant and remarkably patient recovery guides eventually convinced me that this was the only way to freedom. They formed a safety net of support while I summoned the courage to break free of entrenched eating disorder behaviors. My diary took on a new role, this time supporting me instead of the eating disorder. Pages became filled with thoughts and feelings, and their content was shared with my therapist, who helped me to interpret them and gain a fresh perspective.

Importantly, I learnt that if I binged after breakfast, not to miss lunch. Even if I felt full, I would make a sandwich with a favorite filling and eat it, and plan another favorite dish for the evening meal. If I binged in the evening while watching TV, or when someone upset me, I learnt to get up in the morning and sit down to a full breakfast, even though I felt bloated from the night before.

I learnt to never skip a meal. Ever. Gradually, by ignoring the eating disorder, it shrank in significance and began to loosen its hold; I began to relax and the urge to binge subsided. This is when amazing things began to happen.

Instead of focusing on food, I began to experience focus on healthy feelings, and gradually I gained the courage to embrace, explore and nurture them. The poor things had been suppressed, ignored and numbed for years. I began to get in tune with my body and appetite. What I call a miracle occurred – I began to actually feel what I would like to eat for my next meal. I had dreamed about this for years. There was a way to go, but I began to forge my identity as the true me.

Eleven years ago, I experienced my first Christmas in more than 40 years, without feeling depressed, anxious or terrified that I would be an unacceptable human being if not a certain weight; I looked forward to eating whatever was served on my plate, including the gravy on the meat and potatoes, and the brandy sauce and dollop of cream on the plum pudding. What treats! I was also able to look forward to my birthday and the New Year. No more counting of calories, no more weighing, no more dieting, no more isolation, no more depression, anxiety or ED. No more tormenting voices screaming in my head. No more self-loathing and self-hate. No more PLANS. Hello to peace, contentment and opportunity to engage fully in the joy of eating, sharing and connecting with others.

One meal three times a day, with a snack between, put me on the path to freedom. That’s all it takes.

About Diana and June

Last week, we celebrated and honored the June 2, 2018 World Eating Disorders Action Day with a series of posts and a special edition newsletter focusing on this year’s theme: shame and stigma around eating disorders. We have explored the theme further with today’s post that is drawn from a real, raw and very recent email exchange between June and Diana (who  befriended June while advocating for the first World Eating Disorders Action Day in 2016 and now serves as an editor on thediaryhealer.com). The exchange highlights the personal shame, stigma and anguish that many people can feel in the midst of their eating disorder experience and recovery.