My name is Cathy, and I used to be a compulsive binge eater.
The first time it happened, I was studying for a physics midterm during first year university. A day before the exam, I was trying to find the maximum speed of an electron travelling through an electromagnetic field, and I got stuck. Question after question, I fumbled through formulas and came up with wrong answers. With time running out, I realized that I was going to fail this exam. Dreading my futile attempt at studying, I looked for something to distract myself from this unpleasant experience. Coincidentally, there was a jumbo pack of soft-baked, fruit centered granola bars in my room. I took one and ate it without thinking. And then, I kept on eating. I took one bar after another until the whole box was gone. When I told this to my friend the next day, she exclaimed, “Cathy, you’re a binge eater!”
So that’s how it started. Eating soothed me when I felt overwhelmed by life’s difficulties. It provided instant relief from whatever troubles I was facing, a little flavour-filled escape into temporary pleasure. I was hooked.
Soon after, I developed a habit of eating food to cope with stress. It didn’t matter what the food was, what mattered was I was helping myself feel better. Although this may sound similar to eating for comfort, the loss of control I experienced around food was anything but comforting. Despite my knowledge of the negative consequences of binging, I couldn’t stop eating even when I wanted to. I made trip after trip to the kitchen late into the night. First, I would grab one food and carry it to my bedroom, telling myself that it’ll be the last thing I eat before going to sleep. After all, what’s the harm of one after dinner snack? But before I finish eating, I’m already thinking about what to have next. A part of me resisted—I was already full and I didn’t need more food. But that voice is drowned out. “Oh it tastes so good”, “just one more bite”, “you’ve been so good lately, you deserve this”. I tiptoed to the kitchen for seconds, thirds, and fourths. I felt my heart beating harder with excitement as I opened the fridge. Blood pulsing in my head, my legs, and my arms as I took out my usual binge foods, or whatever called out to me that night. Determined hands lifted the morsel of food past my lips and into my already salivating mouth. Jaws vigorously chewed before I quickly swallowed to satisfy the urge to eat. What started out as “just one snack” turned into a binge. I felt my face turn red with shame because I was stuffing myself with food instead of facing the challenges in my life. But even that realization doesn’t deter me from eating more. Eventually, the combination of stomach pain, guilt, and tiredness overtakes the need to binge. By this point, I often felt physically sick and usually hated myself for eating so much (again). If I’m feeling hopeful, I tell myself, “it’ll be better next time”.
This pattern carried on for years. It was exhausting fighting the same thoughts over and over and over again. At that time, I felt like I wasn’t gaining ground. Looking back, I know that’s not true. All the effort I put in to reduce the compulsive desire to eat: setting goals, reflecting, meditating, talking to friends and family, brushing my teeth, exercising, problem solving, organizing, planning, and encouraging myself to keep on going, they helped to gradually decrease the size and frequency of my binges. Despite the positive changes, I was aware that I still overate when I was feeling stressed or when I attended a special event with tempting food. I also avoided buying previous binge foods from the grocery store in order to prevent myself from overeating: bread, yogurt, peanut butter, jam, granola bars, nuts, crackers, cookies, and ice cream all made the list. I was still afraid of my eating disorder.
The home stretch on my healing journey was learning to eat mindfully, which involves paying attention to the smells, tastes, and textures of food, bodily hunger and satiety cues, as well as thoughts and emotions during meals and snacks. With imperfect practice, this awareness eventually helped me to respond wisely to compulsive eating urges, eat flexibly based on my hunger, and enjoy previous binge foods in moderation. After years of struggle, I’ve started to develop a healthy, rewarding relationship with food, and it feels so liberating. Healing from disordered eating took patience, courage, understanding, and determination, and I did not do it alone. I am very grateful for the support I received from dietitians, counsellors, friends, and family along the way. My past experiences with disordered eating motivates me to help others who are still in its midst. As a registered dietitian and mindful eating instructor, I can provide trustworthy guidance along the way. If you or someone you love is struggling with food and eating, please don’t hesitate to reach out.