How To Stop Binge Eating
Part One: My Story
I woke up with cookie crumbs in my hair. My fingers were stained from eating a curry for eight, and there was an empty cereal bowl in my bed with an empty container of vanilla soy milk on the floor. My television was still on, the Price is Right blaring in my ears. I was going to be late for work. Again.
My head was pounding, I was bloated and I was nauseous. I couldn’t believe I’d done it again. I’d been having food binges like this since I was ten years old. They’d become worse and more intense over the years. This one was typical. I hadn’t eaten a thing other than romaine lettuce and tofu and diet coke for about five days. On the sixth day my body took over, screaming for food and my mind couldn’t stop me from ordering takeout and running to the store to buy snacks while I was waiting for my food to come. My body was starving and it stepped in to take matters into its own hands. I quickly threw healthy things into my basket- healthy snacks, I was always obsessed with being healthy- natural organic cookies, organic blue corn cereal, organic soy milk, all natural peanut butter… and whatever else I saw that I could grab and eat quickly. But no matter how healthy I was, I couldn’t figure out how to stop binge eating. I went home and prayed that the delivery guy beat my roommate back to our little San Francisco apartment.
When I got home, I ate one or two cookies, and then went into the bathroom to do my hair and makeup. I couldn’t let the delivery guy think that I had ordered food for eight just for myself. I swelled with excitement as got dressed up, put music on, put makeup on and thought about my upcoming binge. I could hardly wait to have my private party. When he came to the door, I had dim lighting and loud music on in the background. I wanted him to think that there was a party going on behind me. I was so ashamed of myself. I didn’t want to be caught by anyone, not even the takeout guy from Star of India.
After my food had been delivered, I dropped it off in the kitchen while I cleaned off my makeup and changed into comfy pajamas. I could hardly stand the excitement. I knew what I was about to do and I was pumped. Dopamine surged through my veins… I was elated with the anticipation of the binge.
After I was clean and comfy, I went into the kitchen, grabbed all the food plus a plate and some silverware and laid it out on my bedroom floor. I grabbed my remote and found something fun on television and settled into my food. I ate a few more cookies, then tore into the curries. My body felt full quickly because it had been so long since I’d eaten. But I couldn’t stop myself. I kept eating and eating and eating. My stomach was sticking out and I felt like I couldn’t fit anymore in my body. My skin was stretching as my stomach protruded and I hurt. But I kept going anyway, kept going until it was all gone. I didn’t want any food left over because I knew that it would be my last binge ever. It was always my last binge ever. Every. Single. Time. Except it never was.
I pulled myself into bed and passed out in a food coma, unable to sleep in any position other than my side because my stomach was so overfull that I felt it might suffocate me if I laid on my back or my stomach. I slept hard and I slept deep.
The Aftermath of Binge Eating
I was tired and dizzy when I woke up in the morning. I stood in the shower promising myself that it was the last time, that I’d never do this again, that I was done binge eating for good. It was an empty promise, one that I’d made to myself a million times before… but I still woke up with frosting in my hair and peanut butter jars in my bed feeling sick and ashamed.
Food was my drug. I had to constantly buy new clothes because nothing in my closet ever fit (I was always either gaining weight or losing weight) I was depressed and I felt like my life was worthless. I felt like I was worthless.
Something needed to change.
How My Binge Eating Began
My binge eating started a lot like many others. I grew up in a household with a single Mom who worked a lot. When I got home from school each day, I’d sit alone in my room and watch television while I poured myself bowls and bowls of Honey Nut Cheerios and toasted bread and butter. It was the only thing that helped me feel less alone, less bored and less afraid to be home alone. I had this joyous secret, this thing that I did all by myself that helped me to feel comforted and relatively peaceful. As I got older and my weight began to rise, my Mom became anxious. At ten years old she put me in Weight Watchers. Unfortunately, this only taught me how to restrict and then binge.
My mother herself was a chronic restrictor and a secret binge eater. Growing up, snacks and chocolate and treats weren’t allowed in my house ever. A big treat was a piece of diet bread toasted, with non-fat cottage cheese smeared on it and artificial sweetener sprinkled on top. That was called “cheesecake.” Believe me- that was no cheesecake. Once in a while I’d get a carob covered rice cake. Also, not so much of a treat.
Each morning before bringing me to school, Mom would stop at the newsstand near our apartment building to grab the paper. Next to the newspapers was a gigantic candy counter. It started at my feet and climbed to at least three feet above my head. It was a colossal wall of floor to ceiling candy. Each day I’d just stand there in a daze and stare at the gigantic candy counter and dream of the day when I could eat everything there. And at night when I was falling asleep, I’d lay in bed and fantasize about the candy wall… I was obsessed. In fact, in first grade, when we had to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said I wanted to be a candy store owner and drew a picture of myself sitting in front of the candy display.
My mom was a single working Mom and she was super busy. I came home from school alone to an empty apartment from the time I was six years. I was both scared and lonely. Oh I understand that it wasn’t my Mom’s fault. She was amazing. She did everything she could to provide for us and make sure that I was well taken care of. But still, it was scary for me to be alone in the apartment, especially in the Winter when it got dark early. To calm myself down, I’d sit in front of the television and watch cartoons and eat. I’d tackle giant bowls of cereal or I’d toast bread and smear it with margarine- again and again until my Mom came home. It passed the time and helped me to forget that I was alone and scared.
A few months before I turned eleven, my Mom began to notice that I was developing hips and thighs. She was not happy about it. I don’t know if my curves or impending womanhood were frightening to her or if she was just afraid of me being curvy but whatever it was, she didn’t like it and had me on Weight Watchers when I was ten. She promised that she’d buy me a Benetton rugby shirt for my 11th birthday if I lost 6 pounds. At the time, that was THE THING to wear. We didn’t really have spare money to spend on luxuries like that and I REALLY wanted one. So I worked really hard to white knuckle it, follow the diet, stop the after school binges and lose the weight that she wanted. I got my shirt and I was happy and my mother was pleased.
But as I got older and puberty threatened, my curves wanted badly to break through. I was becoming a teenager and I wanted to do what my friends were doing. I wanted to go out to pizza and frozen yogurt like everyone else. So I rebelled against my mother’s health food regime and decide to eat what I wanted. But my mother was none so happy with my weight inching back up and again, at age 13 I wound up back in Weight Watchers . But this time I was less compliant- I figured out that I could not eat all day and then eat what I wanted that night and still stay within my food allotment for the day. I told my mom I was eating my oranges and tuna in the day time, but really I was eating nothing except for an occasional diet coke. At night I told her I’d be going to the diner with my friends for salads but I wasn’t. I’d eat a few candy bars or some pizza or at night and that was the way I lost weight, still keeping my mother happy, and doing what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, this set off years and years of a very intense cycle of bingeing and starving.
The Effects of Constant Dieting and Binge Eating
I hated bingeing. But I loved it too. It was an inner conflict that felt like it was tearing me apart from the inside. I had wars being battled inside my body and my soul. It became more and more intense until it spun out of control. High school was a mess. I’d skip breakfast and lunch and come home from school so starving that I’d eat anything I could get my hands on. I’d use my lunch money for ice cream and French fries or pizza or whatever was available. I put on weight – a good amount of it and my Mom was not happy. She tried more diets on me- we became vegetarian and vegan – which created even more bingeing for me. I wasn’t getting any real nutrition, subsisting on things like cheese-less pizza and diet coke and chips and salsa. I was dizzy, tired and couldn’t concentrate. And this lasted years, all through high school and college. I would starve for days until I couldn’t take it anymore and then I would binge. Imagine all that brain power that I missed out on during school by thinking so much about food, eating and not eating. Gosh, I probably had 10% of my focus on school and 90% focus on food and my pursuit of weight loss. Had I not wasted all that brain power- maybe I could have been the scientist who cured cancer by now, maybe I could have created world peace, or simply, maybe I could have gotten better grades.
Every binge, I promised myself was my last. It was the very last time because tomorrow I’d be back to eating nothing except lettuce and tofu or whatever it was. It got worse and worse. Food was both my best friend and of course my worst enemy. And bingeing was so opportunistic. I binged even when I didn’t want to – just because I could, because the house was empty, my roommates weren’t home, I had an afternoon to myself.
I did everything I could to compensate after I binged. I starved myself for days on end, I exercised myself into the ground- running miles and miles, swimming miles and miles, doing hours on the elliptical. I took laxatives, sometimes I even threw up. I felt like a mess. My bingeing was so out of control and I was out of control. I was depressed, lonely, my self-care was totally absent, my body felt awful, I had no energy, I was literally dizzy and anxious all the time. I felt so alone in this cycle like I was in a jail cell all by myself. I just wanted out. I would pray at night so hard that this would be my last binge- that I could turn over a new leaf, that I could have the life that I wanted where I felt good about myself, that I could just stick to a diet for good and finally look the way I wanted.
I wanted to feel confident, I wanted to have a good life, a relationship that I enjoyed, a life that I wanted.
And then… things started to change. I started to change. It was the late 1990’s, I was in my early 20’s and I desperately needed things to be different. I started working on myself spiritually. I quit my Silicon Valley job, I started seeing a therapist, and I began an intense meditation practice. I worked on healing my difficult relationship with my Mom and I learned to be kinder and gentler to myself. I also took a year-long class in hypnotherapy.
Healing from Binge Eating
As I began to heal, I also began to heal my disordered eating. I began to accept myself, stopped dieting and started eating actual meals every day. I started learning other ways to deal with the loneliness and the unrelenting chatter in my brain. I learned that so much of my dieting and bingeing was used to help me stop thinking. I just had a brain that thought too much. It was unrelenting. There were times when I felt as though my brain would burst out of my head. I realized that my biggest addictions were to “thinking” and “doing.” I would actively do things to keep from thinking like eating or going on severe diets to keep my busy brain occupied. Thinking too much was uncomfortable. A lot of people with binge eating issues are super smart and find that they eat (or diet) to keep themselves from overthinking. It was a coping mechanism that I learned when I was young to keep me from thinking about how lonely I felt and from feeling the loneliness. I couldn’t deal with it back when I was a little girl because I thought that the fear would swallow me whole. Learning how to quiet down my busy brain was life-changing. It wasn’t that I made all the noise turn off, but I learned how to disengage from the noise, to let it be what it was, just noise that I didn’t have to listen to. That noise could be anxiety, beliefs about how I needed to be thinner or thoughts that I was unworthy, or even just urges to binge. I learned how to stop making scary predictions and then living in the aftermath of the stress that those thoughts gave me. “No one will ever love me!” “I’ll die alone!” and other similar thoughts began to lose their tug. The voices are wrong, you are worthy and you matter.
As I healed in mind, body, and spirit, things opened up for me. I loved working with the mind and I was especially drawn to working with women who were dealing with binge eating and compulsive eating. At the same time, I came to a deep place of healing with my own disordered eating. I couldn’t get enough of this work and went back to graduate school in Psychology – I devoured everything I could about psychology, the brain, neuropsychology, addiction and how people change and grow and heal from trauma and pain. I became a California Licensed Psychotherapist after seven years of study and internships. I worked in Eating Disorder clinics and saw so much recovery. I loved helping others who were dealing with bulimia, anorexia and of course Binge Eating Disorder. My life came together in ways that I can’t even describe. I just all of a sudden became myself. I didn’t change myself, I became myself.
I Didn’t Change Myself, I Became Myself
I became comfortable in my skin. I became okay with who I was. It wasn’t a diet that changed me, it wasn’t weight loss, it was letting myself be who I was and allowing my worth and my value into the world. I wasn’t beholden to hanging back waiting to lose weight anymore, waiting for the bingeing to stop. I returned to the world and I loved being in it.
At the same time, as I was evolving and changing and healing, my Mom became very ill. And in 2002- – when she was 54 years old, I lost her. It was the most painful time of my life.
Up until she got ill, her body was fine, it was curvy, healthy and beautiful. But then it wasn’t. It was sick and it was very skinny and she couldn’t put on weight. At that point, she would have done anything to have her curves back.
“Was this worth it?” I thought, “were all these years of dieting worth it?” My mom didn’t die from her eating disorder, but she did die without solving it, without really embracing who she naturally was. Her life was spent fighting against herself and her natural beauty and curves.
I can’t tell you when my very last binge was- I really can’t. But one day I realized, I haven’t binged in months, and then years. My recovery just snuck up on me. I noticed that I had no desire to binge. My feelings were accessible to me and I was able to manage feelings like anxiety, sadness, excitement, desire… things that before had been elusive to me. It’s not that I never had these feelings anymore, of course I did and I do — I’m human. But my ability to have those feelings and to feel safe with them, letting them wash over me, and knowing that they were just feelings, not something to run away from helped me to move through them more easily without turning to food to forget or diets to gain control. Even when I had the opportunity to binge and the desire came up, it wasn’t even a deep desire- it was just a noticing- a phantom urge. I noticed when I had urges to binge, but I understood that just because I had an urge, I didn’t need to chase it, that I had a choice. I felt empowered. Binge eating disorder is so opportunistic and although the opportunistic side of bingeing still presented itself, I didn’t feel like I had to binge the way I did in the past when the opportunity was available. It was so liberating.
In 2007, after I had been working with people who had been suffering from Binge Eating Disorder and Bulimia for several years, I started this website to help people who didn’t have access to therapy. At that time, there was very little information or help for people suffering from Binge Eating Disorder. In fact, it wasn’t even a recognized diagnosis and it wasn’t in the DSM. After this website became visible and a known resources for those suffering with BED, I was asked to write a book. I worked on it for years and soon, my best selling book, Reclaiming Yourself from Binge Eating: A Step-by-Step Guide To Healing was published. My recovery was certainly a recovery from a disordered relationship with food and from binge eating, but it was also a recovery and a reboot of my life. I became whole and complete in a way I never thought possible.
How Did I Recover From Binge Eating?
1. I healed my malnourished brain. I was so undone from either starving my brain or flooding it with lots and lots of sugar and processed food that I was completely off. I had anxiety, depression and stress. The first thing I had to do was learn how to eat regular nourishing meals. This helped both my mind and body strengthen and heal.
2. I took the focus off what I looked like and refocused on what I felt like. This meant implementing self-love techniques and learning how to care for myself. Rather than spending time looking in the mirror at dressing rooms, I wore clothes that fit and felt comfortable. I spent more time focusing on what I was feeling, how I felt in my clothes and how my clothes felt on me rather than what I looked like. At that point in my recovery it was difficult to go into dressing rooms at stores. It made me feel panicky and depressed. So I just stopped going into dressing rooms. I bought clothes, judged them by how they felt and wore was felt good. I put myself and my needs first.
3. I learned that I was worthy and whole and complete. I healed my insecurities. I got out of relationships that I was in because I felt unworthy and believed that it was okay for me to be treated badly and I worked on creating a loving and positive relationship with myself.
4. I learned that my urges to binge were impulses that didn’t have to be followed, but I could instead dive deep into what was underneath those impulses. If I wasn’t in the mood or mind space to do that, I allowed the adage “this too shall pass” to comfort me while I surfed the urge or occupied myself with things to do other than binge eating. Eventually it passed and my urges became less and less.
5. I completely stopped dieting and learned to shut out all the noise around me that said I should be on a diet. Instead of listening to everyone else’s advice, I learned to tune in to the wisdom of my body so that I could give it what it truly needed. In the past, I had listened to what others thought my body needed. Nutritionists, trainers, weight loss gurus, etc… they would all give me different advice about what I should be eating (All vegan! All raw! All meat! No carbs! No sugar! No white foods! No fat!) But the only person who lived in my body was me. I stopped following diet books, food gurus, weight loss guides, nutrition specialists and instead I began focusing on how I felt when I ate certain foods, how my body felt, how my mood felt, how my mind felt. And this enabled me to choose foods that were actually serving my body and nourishing me. It allowed me to eat with enjoyment and it made eating enjoyable rather than a stressful activity and it helped my body feel satisfied and nurtured.
6. I learned to sit with my feelings and not be afraid of them instead of running from them and using food or focusing on losing weight to try and make them go away. This mindfulness practice helped heal my binge eating.
7. I learned not to engage with thoughts that were not serving me and were unhelpful. Again, I understood that the thoughts were impulses that, like urges, didn’t have to be followed.
8. I stopped trying to be perfect and instead learned to accept the me who I really was. That was certainly a difficult one, self-acceptance didn’t come easily to me. But once I stopped fighting with myself all the time, I felt more at peace. The constant struggle was exhausting.
9. I started taking better care of my body, learning how to get more sleep, making sure that I got to my doctor/dentist’s appointments. I took control of my health and focused on being balanced, healthy, and at peace instead of being skinny.
10. I stopped using other people as a guide as to what I should look like, what I should weigh, what I should act like and who I should be dating… I stopped comparing myself to others and began to look at my own path, my own dharma and tried to learn to be at peace with that.
11.I learned to stop judging and criticizing myself and I definitely made it a practice not to judge or criticize others. This felt lighter and easier in my body. My critic took up so much space in my mind. Once I stopped engaging with that judge, I felt a levity that I hadn’t known existed before. I instead found a deep compassion for myself and for others. Coming from a place of compassion always feels lighter and easier. It’s a way for you to feel calm and at peace more of the time than not. It’s a gift to you and to those around you. It helps you to shine a light into this world that so desperately needs that.
12. I learned to recognize what state of mind and what situations caused a binge for me so that I was prepared in my most vulnerable moments.
13. I got lots of support from others who were going through the same thing as me. We spoke on the phone daily to give and receive support. Helping people through and getting help myself was one of the most important parts through my journey. I still have a group of 20 friends who have all recovered from binge eating and bulimia at the same time as I did. Several of them also became Psychotherapists treating eating disorders.
14. I learned how to exercise with love. I used to exercise in a punishing way. I would tell myself that it was okay to exercise if I hadn’t eaten that day, but if I had eaten, the day would be spent bingeing. It was black & white, all or nothing. I also sometimes did the thing where I would use exercise to compensate for a binge. For instance, if I had calculated that I’d eaten an extra 3000 calories that day, I’d try to burn 3000 extra calories on the treadmill. If I couldn’t do that (and really, I never could) I’d be angry at myself and the time that I spent running felt worthless and meaningless to me. In recovery I learned that exercise was something that could actually help me feel positive, relaxed and strong. A psychiatrist friend of mine says that if everyone spent 20 minutes a day getting their heart rate up, 75% of people on meds wouldn’t need them… I’m not sure where she got her statistic, but the results of the reduction in anxiety and depression with moderate exercise is real. Doing too much exercise and doing punishing exercise (I was bad, I have to exercise) has the opposite effect. The goal is to move your body daily doing something that you love. Swimming, running, belly dance, yoga, dancing… whatever brings you pleasure and increases your heart rate. Even just 30 minutes a day 4 days a week will have a significant impact on both your physical and mental health. Exercise has many, many, many benefits. Weight loss however is not really one of them. Once I understood this, I realized that the overtraining that I was doing was doing nothing more than hurting my body, making me overly hungry and prone to injury. The combination of bad nutrition and too much exercise led to a few broken bones and constant dizziness. When I learned how to exercise with love, to move my body in a way that felt great without overdoing it, and without forcing myself, I loved the joy of movement.
15. I created a deep meditation practice. Learning how to not follow my thoughts down the rabbit hole was a life-changer for me. Meditation helped me both to relax my body and to relax my brain. Connecting to my breath was something that was always there, always available to me and it worked instantaneously for relief.
16. I stopped trying so hard. Dieting was always an uphill battle. Every morning was an intention of being perfect. And with the strength of Sisyphus, I would just keep pushing that giant boulder up the hill. And it would crash down on top of me and then I’d start pushing it up the hill again. I was exhausted. In recovery I learned to relax and stop pushing so damn hard. This was about healing myself not hurting myself. Life didn’t have to be this hard, I was just making it so miserable. When I learned to relax and give my body what it needed, not too much, not too little, I felt like a person again. I felt normal. I didn’t know that life could have been so pleasant because it had always seemed so hard to me. But letting go of the control and trusting my body to show me what it needed gave me liberation.
What Came After I Learned How to Stop Binge Eating?
My results? My body came to a place that is the perfect size for me and it is easy to maintain. It’s mindless actually. There’s no thought involved. I don’t obsess about food or exercise anymore. I eat when I’m hungry and I eat the kind of food that my body needs and loves and I stop when I’m done. I don’t eat to excess and I don’t diet or restrict. Sometimes I eat fun foods without nutritional value and I enjoy them. But I don’t crave them all the time. When I do, I allow them to myself in whatever proportions I want. Because I’m so in tuned with my body, I don’t worry about overdoing it on treats because I know how my body feels when I do that. It’s self-limiting because neither my brain nor my body has any desire to binge.
But those results are just the food part. Recovery from binge eating is more than just not just binge eating. It’s a complete mind, body and spiritual makeover. I began to find peace in all facets of my life. I wasn’t as easily stressed by things, my anxiety levels decreased as I learned to let go of control, my happiness levels increased and my depressive tendencies all but disappeared. The meditation practice helped me both to find calmness but also to let go of the thoughts that caused me to ruminate or think too much about things that didn’t do anything other than cause me stress without solving any problems. I learned to live in the world in a grounded and peaceful way.
Full recovery from binge eating and bulimia is possible. I have seen it again and again and again in the clients I treat in my private practice and in the clients I treat online and in the clients who are part of my 5 Week Step-by-Step Program.
If you would like me to personally help you recover from binge eating, there are several ways that I can do this. To learn more, click here.
Do you think you might have binge eating disorder? Take the quiz do I have binge eating disorder if you suspect.