“It’s not just one thing” – recovery from binge eating disorder

Posted 16/11/2017

I have lived with binge eating disorder for about 30 years, but recently I have been able to stop bingeing. I used to think it was something I would have to live with for the rest of my life. But I have found that recovery is possible. 

We all want easy answers and a quick fix, but what I have learned is that there is no one single thing that works for everyone. It can take a lot of work, a lot of trying different things, and probably a combination of several different approaches to find what works for you. 

Some things that I think helped me over the years, and which eventually contributed to my recovery:

  • When I struggled with body image, having partners who loved me as I was made me realise my worth was not connected to how I looked.
  • As I studied, and worked my way up in my career, I realised I had skills and talents, and I gained confidence and self-esteem.
  • A book, Overcoming Binge Eating by Christopher Fairburn, gave me a method to try to understand my bingeing, by recording my eating and my thoughts and feelings.
  • I learned that dieting seemed to make it worse, and that I needed to eat enough, in regular meals, and not restrict any particular foods, so that I didn’t get very hungry or feel deprived.
  • By writing down how I felt, I found that a variety of emotions and situations triggered binges – it wasn’t just one thing.
  • I learned that it was possible to distract myself with other activities sometimes, and avoid bingeing, at least for a while.
  • Another book, Brain Over Binge by Kathryn Hansen, taught me that bingeing is a habit that can be broken. It is possible, although sometimes very uncomfortable and upsetting, to feel the urge to binge and not act on it. And if you do this repeatedly, it gets easier.

I found that this final approach worked for me, and as days, weeks and months passed and I did not binge, I felt like a miracle had happened and I was cured.

I wish I could say that this was my ‘Happy Ever After’ ending. However, after several months binge-free, I came home from a holiday feeling the ‘post-holiday blues’, and felt like I needed food to cheer myself up. I was in a stressful situation at work and I felt like I could not cope if I couldn’t binge.  Somehow I felt unable to stop this in its tracks, and I reverted to my old binge behaviour for several months. 

Knowing that I had stopped before made it somehow seem worse that I felt unable to stop again. I did not know, at this point, that learning to deal with relapses is all part of recovery. After a year or more, when things at work had calmed down, I eventually decided that I wanted to try again. By being kind to myself and allowing myself small treats rather than big binges, I was able start applying the technique in Brain Over Binge, and again I stopped bingeing. However, I was still afraid that I could relapse again if I started to feel down or stressed again, so I decided I needed to do something more to prevent that from happening. 

During all this time I had never talked about my bingeing. It was my terrible secret that I always hoped I could sort out on my own, so I would never have to admit it to anyone else. I decided that I would have to try a radical approach and seek out help, even though I found the idea of talking to anyone terrifying. I was lucky to find a local support group, and a counsellor who specialised in eating disorders. I cried all the way through my first group meeting, even though I barely spoke, and also cried all through my first counselling session as I explained my shame. But amazingly, it felt like a relief to finally stop holding onto that secret. 

I used to feel like if I could just sort out my eating, then everything would be fine, as though it was isolated from the rest of my life. I didn’t realise I would end up reassessing so much of my life. I am still in counselling, and learning a lot about the ways in which I struggle to manage my emotions due to my family background, which may have led to me using food in this way. It is hard and painful sometimes. I spend a lot of time thinking about things and writing them down to try to understand myself. Ultimately this is about so much more than just food and eating – it’s about my whole life.  

Contributed by Karen