It didn’t take years of therapy to free myself from my eating disorder. All it took was a book.
The bingeing days
The urge to eat is welling up inside me. I can’t wait to get out of the office and stuff my face. What am I gonna have? Something with frosting. That coffee shop around the corner has mini carrot cakes with generous cream cheese frosting. I’ll get one of those. Or two. I’m salivating already. 30 mins to go.
What else do I want? I should probably have something savoury for dinner, you know, to be good. I’ll get a smoked salmon salad from the supermarket. That’ll leave space for the stuff I really want, like cinnamon buns and Galaxy chocolate. Yum. My excitement is building. 15 more minutes.
I can’t bear it. I need something in my mouth right now. That packet of digestive biscuits on the office snack table is almost empty. It was full this morning. People will notice if it finishes in one day. But I want that sweet crumbliness on my tongue. I need those biscuits. Now.
Full of shame, I sneak over to the snack table, empty the biscuits into my hand and hide the packet in the bin. I’ll buy a new one for the office tomorrow. God, I want to cram them in my mouth right now. No, I should go back to my desk and eat them there. I put the first one in my mouth whole. Ah yeah, that’s the stuff.
This isn’t hunger. I know because the biscuits do nothing to quell the urge. They only make it stronger. It is something else entirely. Something darker. And it terrifies me.
Time to go. I dart out of the office and head straight to the coffee shop, then the supermarket, then home to my room. The day ends like every other day: in a food coma. Next to my bed is a bin bag with the wrappers from my smoked salmon salad, two mini carrot cakes, a cinnamon bun, two Galaxy chocolate bars, a smoothie bottle and an empty packet of digestive biscuits — the one I was supposed to bring to the office the next day.
In the morning, as I take my bin bag out to hide the evidence, I chide myself for being so disgustingly greedy and make myself promise to not binge today.
But I break that promise. That day, and every day, for two years.
What binge eating did to me
I lost all trust in myself. My broken promises proved that I was incapable of keeping my word, so I stopped committing to things. My response to social invitations changed from “Yes” to “Maybe” because I couldn’t predict when I’d be hit with another urge to binge.
I gave up on myself. I had tried everything to stop bingeing. I got angry with myself. I pleaded and begged. I reasoned with myself, listing the consequences on my wallet, waistline, health and social life. I scared myself by imagining being found dead, all alone, grossly obese, surrounded by chocolate wrappings. But, even though I agreed with all this, I kept on binge eating. So I gave up. I gave up on my dreams and ambitions and settled for just surviving.
I loathed myself. I was disgusting. What kind of person goes through whole boxes of cereal in one go? Sometimes, even that wasn’t enough and I’d steal my housemates’ food, then buy more and eat it down to the same level, so they wouldn’t notice. It shocked me that I could sink so low. I concluded that I was fundamentally screwed up. I didn’t deserve anything good. I deserved to live in deep depression for the rest of my worthless life.
I lived in fear. The next urge could arrest me at any time. They were predictable to some extent: after lunch, after work and pretty much all weekend. Usually when I was alone. But sometimes they’d come when I was out with friends, and I’d have to find an excuse to leave and stuff my face in secret. I always had snacks in my bag, just in case. When shopping for a binge session, I’d buy extra, scared that another urge would hit after the shops closed. And I ate that, too.
The first step to recovery
Admitting I had a problem. Surprisingly, it took me a long time (almost two years) to get to this stage. This was because:
- I didn’t know what was happening to me. Having just come off a stringent diet, I thought it was natural to eat more and crave sweet things. But I didn’t understand why I had urges even a year after I’d finished my diet.
- I expected it to stop, at least in the first year. I still had hope that I’d break the cycle tomorrow, and tomorrow never came.
- I was deeply ashamed by my own behaviour, and covered it well. No one knew what I was doing and I wanted to keep it that way.
- I blamed my own weak will and greed. I thought it was a flaw in my personality, not a disorder that could be helped.
Eventually, it got so bad that I couldn’t pretend I didn’t need help anymore. But there was no one to ask. I was living with a host family in England at the time and my parents were thousands of miles away. Finally, I reached out to my cousin, a nutritionist. Having worked with anorexic and bulimic people, she was very understanding and told me I should see a therapist. That was a hard pill to swallow. I had an actual disorder? It’s something I’ll have to manage for the rest of my life, isn’t it? Damn, it’s going to define me. People will know me as the binge girl.
Unfortunately, on my graduate salary, I couldn’t afford therapy and neither could my parents (not that I told them). I didn’t know what to do. Driven by fear, I spent all my free time scouring the internet for answers.
Saved by a book
Then I found it. Brain Over Binge by Kathryn Hansen. The title, Why Conventional Therapy Didn’t Work and How I Recovered For Good, gave me the first glimmer of hope I’d had in a long time, and I devoured the whole thing in a day. Reading her story, I was suddenly not alone anymore. She had been where I was, she knew my shame, my fear, my loathing, my despair — and had come out the other side.
Her book taught me there are two types of overeaters: bulimics (who purge by throwing up or working out afterwards) and binge eaters (who don’t). That was me. Even though it was bulimia she recovered from, she said the same method worked for binge eaters, too.
She was bulimic for six years and was in therapy most of that time. The reason therapy didn’t work was because it didn’t treat the problem directly. Most therapists believe binge eating is a side effect of a different root cause, so they focus on fixing other things in your life, like relationships, confidence, self-esteem, etc. But, as I had experienced, the urge to binge eat still comes when we are happy and successful and all is well with the world.
Therapy helped her with many things, but it didn’t offer a direct way to stop binge eating. She eventually recovered from bulimia by using a different method she found in Rational Recovery: The New Cure For Substance Addiction by Jack Trimpey, a book she randomly picked up to read while purging at the gym. This book’s central tenant is:
Anyone can recover from alcoholism or another addiction whenever they want, without treatment.
The method doesn’t treat addiction as a disease. The belief that we can’t resist our urges creates a victim mentality that only encourages and excuses the addiction. The way to recover from an addiction or an eating disorder is to take full responsibility for it. To understand that no matter what we are thinking or feeling, we ultimately have full control over our actions. With this new perspective, Kathryn freed herself from bulimia for good. By reading her story, I freed myself, too.
How I stopped binge eating forever
Her book helped me understand what was happening to me and why. In learning how my brain works, I gained the power to change it.
It all started when I went on an intense diet and lost 12kg in 30 days.
- This dramatic weight loss kicked my body into survival mode and my “animal brain” — the primitive brain region that maintains basic biological functions and ensures survival — took over. It drove me to sugary food in order to prevent starvation. (In hindsight, I realised I never had cravings for savoury food, only sweet). As Kathryn explains, “The animal brain falsely believes that the addictive substance is as necessary for survival [as water and oxygen]… so an appetite for binge eating got mixed in with all of my other valid survival appetites.”
- Unbeknownst to me, while I was enjoying sweet treats, my brain was forming a habit cycle. Habit cycles consist of three parts: trigger, action and reward. The trigger was an urge, the action was eating, the reward was that oh-so-sweet sugar high. One leads to the other in an endless loop.
- I mistakenly believed that the only way to make an urge go away was by eating. Every time I listened to an urge and went on an eating spree, my “animal brain” got the message that this habit was still necessary for survival, and it strengthened the automatic brain pathway. That’s why any amount of reasoning from my prefrontal cortex was useless; this was happening deep in the primitive, irrational part of my brain.
- To cure myself, I had to do one thing: break the cycle. If I stopped obeying my urges, I could erode that brain pathway forever. That’s what leads to permanent recovery.
And that’s exactly what I did. Now I knew I had control and that my urges were just an automatic signalling from my brain, I didn’t have to take them so seriously. They lost their power over me.
I experimented with this for the next few weeks. At first, it was difficult because I didn’t know if I had the strength to ignore an urge. My track record proved I didn’t. When I felt an urge swelling within me, anxiety rose along with it: I knew what was coming. However, thanks to my newfound knowledge, I now had a choice.
My “animal brain” could send me all the urges it wanted to, but it had no power over my voluntary muscles. It couldn’t force me to open the refrigerator. So, instead of eating to make the urge go away, I’d distract myself by doing something else or refocusing on what I was already doing. (Distracting myself in the past hadn’t worked because I thought my urge was a legitimate need to eat). Miraculously, the urge would die down on its own. I almost cried with relief the first time it happened. I was finally back in control. The more I disobeyed my urges, the weaker they got. After about a month, they stopped altogether.
I haven’t binged since.
My life now, free from binge eating
Six years on, those bingeing days are a distant memory. So distant that I can hardly believe it was me. The experience has changed me, but not defined me.
My relationship with food: I vowed to never to restrict my food intake again. That’s a promise I have kept, and it’s given me more freedom around eating than I ever thought possible. I don’t feel I have to be careful around food anymore; I honour my body by simply eating when I’m hungry and stopping when I’m full. Ironically, because I deprioritised my weight, I’m the thinnest I’ve ever been.
It’s an ongoing journey of discovery, the tie between food and emotions. Sometimes I eat emotionally, sometimes rationally, but I never beat myself up about it. The shame has disappeared and I’m free to enjoy my food in public again. I’m loving my life, now that it doesn’t revolve around food.
My relationship with myself: I went to work replacing my self-loathing with love and acceptance. I remember actually apologising to my body for treating it so badly. And I forgave myself for not knowing any better. Because I love myself now, I naturally want to eat what’s good for me and healthy food fills me with as much glee as a generously frosted carrot cake does.
It’s taken a few years, but I’m learning to trust my word again. I stopped holding my track record against myself, because I realised the past is not a label. Yes, I used to binge eat, but I don’t anymore. Yes, I used to hate myself, but I don’t anymore. Our past is not a reliable prediction of our future. Lasting change is fucking possible.
Looking back at that experience, I’m amazed that I was able to recover so completely from something that could’ve imprisoned me my whole life. As have many others. Simply by reading a book.
That is the power of a story. Who knows where I would be if Kathryn didn’t write that book. I’m forever grateful to her. Stories change lives. And we need to keep on writing them.