The Binge Eating Monster
Everyone likes food for the most part – you need it to live and it often tastes good so, yeah, you eat. Other people eat, too. I also eat, but here’s the rub; a lot of the time, when I eat, I keep eating and eating and eating and eating. Just ridiculous amounts of food that make me feel like a chubby tornado, sucking down anything edible that’s around. I know there’s a fairly sizeable amount of people like me in the world, to whom food is a crutch, or an addiction, or a comfort when issues arise. For us it’s not “I’m hungry, let’s eat, ok now I’m not hungry and will stop”.
To preface the rest of this post, I should say that I’m coming off of a binge right now. I was around 455 at my biggest, and at 250 at my smallest (as an adult((obviously))). In the last part of 2016, I went from 280 down to 250 again, and was maintaining very well, until the basement opened and out lumbered the Binge Eating Monster. I’ve since put on 40 pounds. In the last 6 months. This isn’t healthy in the BEST of conditions, so of course I am concerned and all that anxiety was causing further binge eating episodes. I stayed up late, got little sleep, and gorged myself every night when my family went to bed.
If you’ve never experienced a binge episode, imagine standing at the counter with a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly and eating a spoonful of each at time and being…I dunno, numb? You can’t stop, or don’t want to, or both. It’s going to McDonald’s and ordering so much because you’re afraid of running out of food while you still want to eat, so you get a combo and 20 nuggets and then something else to eat while you drive home, too. You feel guilty, disgusting, burdensome, sick, weak, and exhilarated all at the same time. Because the binge is a compulsion, satisfying that compulsion is like scratching a really bad itch, or taking a hit of a drug you miss, and while you’re in the dregs of the episode, you feel numb and detached. Afterwards, it’s nothing but regret and guilt (and often a very disagreeable stomach). You can gain a substantial amount of weight in a short period, and it’s actually dangerous because there is a positive correlation between binge eating and type 2 diabetes (and weight gain).
So it is with binge eating – it’s a process of self-indulgence brought on by compulsion and rounded out by self-loathing. There are many triggers, some more psychological and some more biological, but in the end they’re all damaging and can frustratingly exacerbate other mental health disorders AND vice-versa. You can be in your clearest mind, functioning smoothly all day, hitting step goals, making healthy lunches, and in control of your destiny, but when the Binge Eating Monster rears its ugly head, it can feel like you’re powerless. The reason I suggest the BEM (as it will be referred to from this point forward) is because, at least in my experience, it feels like domination from another force. You freeze, and you think “I should stop this” but the compulsion is so strong that it drives you to keep eating. This little imaginary creature crawls into your brain and compels you to keep eating, even though you’re an otherwise reasonable person. And that’s the key; binge eaters are often otherwise completely rational. There’s a reason that most binge eaters do it privately – it’s not just embarrassing but we also realize it’s not correct. In fact, it’s this rationality – even when it comes to diet and healthy eating – that provides the greatest source of frustration. You can see all the angles, you can KNOW the binge eating is detrimental, but when you’re there drowning in the moment, it can be difficult to surface.
Being Rational With An Irrational Tagalong
The Binge Eating Monster doesn’t care about your goals, your upcoming class reunion, or your health in general. The compulsion simply wants to be addressed. In psychoanalytical terms we call this an unchecked Id. The Id controls your basic primal impulses like eating and sleeping. All it’s concerned with is pleasure and food provides a lot of pleasure, so it requires your higher mental functions to keep in check, but with an overeating disorder, the Id crushes the controls you have to keep it in check.
These are some things that help me – I cannot state they’ll 100% help you, but I have read a lot of people’s personal accounts of binge eating episodes and I’ve been counseled on it. My strategies for coping and overcoming are based on my experiences and my research.
1 – Before a binge, there’s often a feeling of a loss of control. This can be from stress, depression, or simply a feeling that comes out of nowhere. Any kind of loss of self-control or detachment from self can set up your BEM to take over and you absolutely don’t want that. As my wife would say, detrimental choices are caused by a detachment from your future self. That person who wants to be in great shape, or wants to heal their diabetes – you’ll never get there if you lose sight of it. In order to prevent this loss of control, I stay focused on my weight loss and health goals. I re-read them (I write in journals a lot) every morning and at night before bed. I flip through my planner and read them midday. Staying connected to your goals is like a tether to the future, and your Binge Eating Monster can’t chew through it to take control of your actions. The more you practice self-awareness and conscious living, the stronger that tether and the weaker the Monster’s attempts become.
It’s often been expressed that willpower is like a muscle – the more you practice it, the stronger it becomes, and this is true. If you’re prone to giving into your impulses, then you will continue to do so. If however you start to tell yourself “no”, even periodically, it will become easier to do when you need to do it.
2 – Day-to-day, I keep up a schedule of exercise and stick to it. I lift weights 3 times a week, run 2 or 3 times a week, and do a little yoga for my lower back. Working out has a tremendous impact on your mental clarity and your ability to stick to an improvement plan. I’m not saying you need to start Crossfit, but dedicating some time everyday to exercise is a good primary habit. Secondary healthy habits, like avoiding garbage food and being mindful of your eating choices, will develop around the primary healthy habit. The various after effects of exercise, including things like rearranging your schedule and forcing yourself to make time for it, can drastically decrease the likelihood of a binge.
3 – Purge your home of your binge-trigger foods. For me, it’s peanut butter and chips (not at the same time). It’s entirely too difficult for me to stop at a few chips or a bite of peanut butter when I’m feeling weak so I avoid them until I’m mentally stronger. In my experience, binges don’t start with a meal that I’ve purposely sat down to eat. Instead, they begin during stress or sleeplessness, standing in the kitchen or pantry, and they end when I feel like a bloated, defeated creature, like a whale that’s beached itself trying to eat donuts. If those specific triggers aren’t there, I’m much less likely to binge.
4 – Give it 100%. 99%, 80%, 50% – these are incredibly difficult. No matter what your “diet” is, stick to it 100% because when you give yourself leeway, that’s when the BEM strikes. “Just one bite” turns into “just one slice” which turns into “how do I explain to anyone that I ate a whole brick-and-mortar Pizza Hut?” The Binge Eating Monster preys on your ability to justify your slip-ups. Honestly in all facets of life, the 100% policy is a very powerful way to tackle your goals.
Well, almost all facets – don’t stick to it when giving blood or something.
5 – Get help. My binge eating comes from someplace that I cannot pinpoint. This isn’t the same for everyone, though. Some people binge because of a traumatic event, and for some it’s a response to a very real biological problem. What I described above are coping strategies that work for me, but a counselor or MD can be thoroughly useful in rooting out the cause and creating a solution to your binge eating monster.
The fact of the matter is that binge eating is a mental health issue. It’s not something to be ashamed of, despite how it makes you feel. Get help, stay focused on what you want, and don’t give the BEM power. It will be something you need to work at daily, even meal-to-meal, but being mindful of it is the first step to being able to resolve it and take back control of your life.