“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage
is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will
try again tomorrow’.”
Mary Anne Radmacher
“Hi. My name is Louise, and I’m a binge eater”. This was my weekly introduction at 12-step Overeaters Anonymous meetings I attended religiously, for almost two years over ten years ago, in an attempt to deal with my rampant binge eating.
Bipolar disorder is not always a stand-alone illness; many other disorders may co-occur with it including my own personal nemesis, binge-eating disorder (BED). BED followed me around the grocery store, showing no mercy and willing me to go down the centre aisles; seeking out cookies, ice-cream, and potato chips. It caused me to sprint past the unappetizing brussels sprouts in my race toward the ultimate anesthetizing effect of junk food.
While BED was not as challenging as my bipolar disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, it was still extremely difficult to coexist with it. It was also embarrassing, as it was impossible to hide my food addiction from the outside world, since my weight yoyoed up and down, ranging from runway thin to quite obese. All I tried to do most days was mind my own business by eating sensibly, but overwhelming food cravings sabotaged any well-thought-out nutritional plan I may have had.
I was trapped in a habit loop: trigger/behaviour/reward. The trigger was anxiety, the behaviour was uncontrollable gorging, and the reward was feeling satiated and surprisingly more tranquil than I would have been if I had taken an Ativan. BED was a highly effective and easy way of alleviating stress, which was the reason I engaged in this behaviour repeatedly, even though the cycle was so very damaging to my body. I was aware I was slowly killing myself with food, as sure as I knew Christmas would arrive each December, yet I was powerless to change my behaviour at that time.
Understandably, most people would be shocked at the severity, complexity or horror of binge eating. For starters, some binge eaters consume such gargantuan amounts of food in one sitting they have to take Gravol for the ensuing nausea: like a wicked hangover when we dare not move, for fear we’ll be sick.
That was me for a significant stretch of my life. I hid it. I lied about it. And I even cried about it.
I was the hostess who couldn’t wait until the main course was finished so I could eat all the scraps on everyone’s plate in the kitchen under the guise of readying the dessert. I was also the same hostess who ate half the desserts before my guests had even arrived, so I learned to buy in duplicate. I could easily spend $25 a day on junk food, for weeks on end, which explained why my cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure were often sky high, and my bank balance was in the deepest of lows.
According to the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition), binge eating is comprised of:
- consuming food faster than normal
- consuming food until uncomfortably full
- consuming large amounts of food when not hungry
- consuming food in solitude
- feeling disgruntled, depressed or guilty after eating a large amount of food
I ticked all five boxes. The DSM’s definition makes BED seem somewhat tame compared to my behaviour and the subsequent self-loathing and confusion I experienced; I ate volumes to stomp down past traumas and took Ativan to quell my ever-present anxiety about it.
My partner learned of my binge eating after witnessing my behaviour for the first time at an outdoor buffet on our second date. He spotted me as I was trying to slink away from the food table with a plate piled high with every dessert on offer (about five or six). By the time, he caught up with me, I was hiding behind the garage, sitting with the sun warming my face, licking icing sugar from my lips and fingertips. Not one of my better moments to be sure. But he just looked at me, with the hint of a smile playing on his lips, and said, “You’re busted.” He didn’t know the complicated relationship I had with food—since sugar was my kryptonite—or that I would face extreme food challenges on a regular basis.
Fast-forward to the present day; eleven years later. Miraculously, I’m still with the same man, but it has been less than an easy ride. I’ve been known to make many promises about swearing off all junk food only to fail again and again.
My partner used to be a first-rate hobby baker in the early years of our relationship, always trying out new recipes, so there was always an abundance of baked goods around the home. But he threw out any leftovers so I couldn’t hoover them at midnight in a vain attempt to help me keep my weight down since I was so distraught over it. He was clearly affected by my inexplicable behaviour. I soon discovered the excess baking in the trash and began wolfing down every morsel. That was when we both entered the Twilight Zone: he discovered my nocturnal feasts and started sprinkling a light dusting of Comet on the baked goods rendering them inedible—or so he thought. But sadly, on my worst nights, when BED had me in its crosshairs, I would devour these baked goods after meticulously brushing the Comet off with a pastry brush.
Bingeing brought out the crazy in me. My life was so out-of-control I would overeat horribly thirty minutes prior to every Overeaters Anonymous meeting, due to the stress of attending, until I was full to the back of my teeth. The irony was not lost on me.
My favourite binge food was maple syrup. I preferred pure maple syrup which I swigged directly from the bottle, consuming a whole bottle in one sitting. My dietician at the time told me I consumed such large amounts of sugar at once, as a way of self-medicating, because it boosted the serotonin in my brain (that regulates mood), producing a sense of happiness. This sense of happiness was extremely short-lived. Believe me. While satisfying in the moment, the initial boost of sugar dropped off quickly to produce a sugar crash and a much lower mood.
No doubt about it. I was an addict with a black belt in binge eating. One that stood in front of an open fridge door after work—before I had even removed my coat—in full python-mode inhaling food; rarely taking the time to chew properly; eating quickly as if I feared someone would take it all away.
Compulsive overeaters live with the reality of weight gain following the ingestion of thousands of calories in one sitting, so some of us purge (bulimia) in an effort to stay slim by inducing vomiting and/or swallowing large doses of laxatives. I was fortunate in that I was able to resist this urge even though I came very close to purging after experiencing intense negative feelings and great sadness following a binge. Those who engage in bulimia run the risk of heart disease, after throwing their electrolytes out of balance, from the repeated abuse to their bodies. I knew, with great certainty, that I would have espoused bulimia’s drastic measures as fully as I’d embraced the destructive binge eating, and I would be dead, dead, dead today if I had.
I clearly didn’t have much concern for my physical health—bingeing as much as I was—at least until I was diagnosed with prediabetes. There are concerns that certain antipsychotics probably increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes through weight gain, and by negatively affecting insulin sensitivity. I should have taken heed with the massive amount of sugar and empty carbs I was consuming, considering I was also taking large quantities of certain antipsychotics at the time. Having a family history of diabetes (on both sides) further increased my vulnerability to the illness. It was a code red situation. I was dancing a dangerous pas de deux with food and should have been more prudent.
The truth is that nothing in this universe could have stopped me from bingeing except the emergence of the very real threat of severe ill health and possibly premature death. The terror that was attached to prediabetes, as a possible precursor to diabetes, knocked some sense into me. This diagnosis was a dose of reality, in the chaos that had become my life, and the first step forward in implementing change.
Clearly, a 12-step program was not going to be enough, so, after my diagnosis, I enrolled in a year-long prediabetic program designed by dieticians, and with huge support was able to change my unhealthy eating habits. I started to nourish my brain and body by adhering to a wholesome balanced way of eating, mostly shopping around the more nutritious perimeter of the grocery store where the healthier food was located. I began resisting the temptation of fast food: my former aider and abettor in the crimes against my body.
You might ask, why did I binge? Firstly, I had a propensity for it because of the correlation between BED and bipolar disorder. It can also be attributed to my childhood and a stern father who only showed affection when he would buy me a milkshake or sundae at our local soda fountain on Saturday afternoons. It was when I was at my happiest, so I most likely started to associate food with love at a very young age.
I was a colour-inside-the-lines kind of child, striving for perfection, but my quest as an adult to be slim, beautiful, and perfect backfired, resulting in even more bingeing. Damn modern-day culture for bombarding women with such unrealistic ideals of beauty. I know it’s paradoxical to gain weight while dieting, but that is exactly what happened because my frequent compensatory starvation diets bombed abysmally. Ultra-strict diets never worked for me—because it was impossible to maintain that level of willpower—but I was compelled to diet rigidly in times of wellbeing to offset the weight gain from the high volumes of food I consumed at other times. I was trapped in the cycle of bingeing or dieting with nothing in between.
Like so many things in life, BED diminished as I aged. Turning sixty a few years back had a great impact on me. It inspired me to re-evaluate my relationship with food and come to terms with the underlying issues that led to my bingeing in the first place.
Wanting to be model thin has been replaced by the simpler and more obtainable goal of wanting to feel good in my skin. I’ve stopped battling my inner demons with food, and I refuse to see the world in absolutes. I no longer see things through the toxic lens of black and white thinking; only seeing perfection or failure; not grasping the word moderation or the concept “good enough is good enough.”
I am now deaf to the call of addiction, which proved to be loud, and as persistent as a mosquito trapped in a bedroom in the still of night. I also managed to reverse my prediabetes even though I am left with the consequences of bingeing: a slack body like an elastic band that has been stretched one too many times, and extensive dental work which over many decades cost me more than a BMW.
These days the smorgasbord in my life is not one laden with food, but one that is rich with positive experiences, learning, and hope. This has resulted in an equilibrium between the opposing forces of overeating and starvation.
The compulsion is gone.
And I am free.