Monday, February 2, 2015

One Binge to Rule Them All

Late one Friday night over the holidays I proudly reported on my Facebook wall that I had successfully overcome an urge to binge that had been gnawing at me the entire day. A thin, genuinely supportive friend of mine sympathetically chimed in, “I binged for you. I ate six chocolate chip cookies.” I chuckled when I first read his comment, but then I stopped and thought about it for a moment, and my amusement quickly turned to genuine confusion. Six cookies? That’s it? Does he really think eating six cookies constitutes a binge?

Let’s do some math here. A typical homemade chocolate chip cookie is 130-160 calories, give or take. Toss in a cup of milk and we’re talking around 1000 calories for six cookies. If that sounds like a binge to you, odds are you are much, much thinner than I am. Six cookies would barely register as overeating for me. A dozen cookies? Overindulging, perhaps, but still not a binge. A dozen cookies after a double western bacon cheeseburger, large fries, and a wastebasket-sized Dr. Pepper? Getting there, but only if it’s followed by a large Oreo shake and maybe a donut or two.

I’ve had many, many binges that easily topped 10,000 calories in a single day. That would be the caloric equivalent of more than 60 cookies. Now that’s a binge.

The DSM-V defines binge eating disorder as “recurring episodes of eating significantly more food in a short period of time than most people would eat under similar circumstances, with episodes accompanied by feelings of lack of control.” For those of you who do not suffer from binge eating disorder, it is likely hard to fathom and impossible to truly understand—either physically or psychologically—what a full-on binge feels like. For those of you who do struggle with it, I’m guessing what follows will sound all too familiar.

First off, I want to make it clear that I never want to binge. No one does. Ever. It’s not something I plan on or look forward to. I don’t consciously decide, “I’d really like to eat until I hate myself and feel like my stomach might rupture.” But I can usually feel it coming on. Sometimes it’s triggered by stress or sadness, sometimes it’s celebratory due to happy news or being on holiday. Or it might be triggered unexpectedly by a smell (typically something deep fried) or even simply seeing an advertisement for a favorite food. But some days I just wake up knowing it’s going to be a hard day for no particular reason. So I pray extra hard, try to plan out healthy meals for the entire day, and make every possible preparation to prevent the binge from actually happening. But I usually fail.

I have days where I successfully fight the urge all day and all night, but they are brutal, bloody fights, and I inevitably wake up the next morning with my willpower reserves completely depleted. The harder I fight it, the more and more the urge builds. It builds slowly, unyieldingly, to a deafening crescendo where all I can hear is my body demanding that I eat the worst food I can get my hands on, as quickly as possible. Once I reach breaking point and decide to surrender, there is no turning back. I am immediately consumed by a sense of urgency to get to the nearest source of unhealthy food as quickly as possible. And then I drive to the next source. And the next. And the next.

A binge is when you beg and plead with yourself to stop but you simply can’t, no matter what you try. You think about the reasons why you want to lose weight. You think about the consequences. You tell yourself that you already feel sick and you don’t want to eat any more. You beg yourself to stop. You pray, you cry out to the universe, you listen to Tony Robbins on your iPod, you use every trick in the book to try to stop it, but you can’t. You do not want to eat any more food and you feel like you physically cannot eat any more food, but you have to eat more food. You don’t know why or how, but you have to. And so you do.

You go to one convenience store to buy enough junk food to get you to the next convenience store, because you are too embarrassed to buy too much junk at one place because you feel fat and ashamed and you know they are judging you for buying pure junk. This fear is not unfounded, by the way. Just a few weeks ago while in Austin for a conference I was in a Hostess kind of mood and the gas station clerk who rang up my Twinkies, Cupcakes, and Donettes said “Sugar…Sugar…Sugar” as he scanned each item and tossed them disdainfully into my bag. True story.

But even the shame isn’t enough to stop you, nor is the nausea. Nothing can stop it. If you are capable of stopping, it’s not really a binge. It is terrifying and heartbreaking. You feel like a failure, and when it’s over you are left with guilt, shame, and disgust. And lots and lots of wrappers.

If you think someone that does this doesn’t care about themselves, you are wrong, so very, very wrong. They care more than you can possibly understand. Imagine the panic you would feel finding yourself so completely out of your own control. It destroys you emotionally to know that you are hurting yourself (and often those you love) as you do this, but still you cannot stop.

For those of you who have never struggled with binge eating disorder but feel confident that you have the solution (Drink more water! Think positive! Go for a walk! Take this magic pill/potion!), my only request is that you formally type it up, submit it to a peer-reviewed journal, collect your Nobel Prize for solving the obesity epidemic, and then, and only then, send it to me for consideration. But for those of you who actually have first-hand experience struggling with binge eating disorder, I would be very interested in hearing what you have to say.

And to anticipate the comments and emails from concerned readers, yes, I have sought professional help for my binge eating many, many times. I’ve received clinical counseling from psychologists that specialize in eating disorders, and I’ve also sought out advice from doctors, nutritionists, dieticians, personal trainers, coaches, herbalists, bishops, rabbis, gurus, and curanderos. I’m working on it. Trust me. But I do appreciate your concern, and for that I sincerely thank you.

Happily, I’ve lost over 100 lbs since June (roughly halfway to goal), so the evidence suggests I’m doing a little better than I used to. But in the interest of full disclosure I’ll admit that I binged the weekend before I finished writing this post, so I’m not out of the woods yet. But the urges are getting fewer and farther between. What’s working for me lately seems to be structure, sticking to a routine, and trying to find alternative outlets for my stress. It’s finding a steady weekend routine that’s tripping me up.

My hope in baring my soul like this is that people that don’t suffer from disordered eating can understand a little better that the struggle is real, and I pray that those who do battle with the disorder can feel understood and know that they are not alone in their struggle. Not by a long shot. I felt incredible relief when I first heard a psychologist explain to me that other people binged exactly the same way I did. Not that it made the action okay, but just knowing that I was much more normal than I supposed somehow made me feel a whole lot better.

So please share this on your Facebook, Twitter, or whatever it is you kids are doing these days. There is both comfort and strength to be gained from shared struggle, and there are countless people out there who desperately need an extra helping of both in their lives right now.

11 comments:

  1. I have to say that I am actually relieved when people post about their struggles. It helps me to not feel desperately alone. I have a very real struggle too, but not with disordered eating. Still, seeing you fight the good fight against a very terrible and depressing monster (mine's a mental health thing) gives me the strength too! So more power to you!

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    1. Thanks, Karalynn, for the kind words and for opening up about your own struggles. I've been overwhelmed by the feedback I've gotten through Facebook and emails from people that appear on the surface to have picture perfect lives but who battle their own demons constantly. Seems everyone struggles with something, and it's oddly comforting to know we're all in this together, regardless of our specific trials.

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  2. Mark,

    First, just wanted to say that you are a great writer. Love reading your posts, even as I can't help but feel sorry that you have to go through this type of thing. I can relate to the binges, but not in terms of food. I have struggled with gambling binges that seriously mirror everything you wrote. Hating yourself...not being able to stop. I bet it helps a lot for you to be able to write this and sort of purge and share. No, you're definitely not alone. All we can do is keep trying to get better and resist the urges. Sounds like you're doing great. Don't let the occasional falls keep you from getting back up on the horse.

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    1. Thanks, Andrew. I'll admit that I never understood gambling addiction, but now that I know it feels the same way as a food binge it completely changes my perception of it. Thank you for opening up and helping me to understand. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment here.

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  3. Economics blogger Megan McArdle has done some really interesting writing about obesity and public health. Like this:
    "Fat tissue makes people want to eat--it sends out for takeout. And hunger is a signal on par with thirst or pain. You can ignore it, if you have sufficient willpower. But just as most people can't withstand torture (a minority can), most people can't ignore the constant demand from their body for food...If when eating a normal 2,000-2,500 calorie diet, you do not spend significant amounts of your day fixating on food--fantasizing about it, binging, hiding it, strategizing how to procure it--you do not have anything interesting to say to someone who is struggling with obesity. You do not have better willpower than they do. You do not "care about myself" more. You are not more "serious about a healthy lifestyle" because you took off the eight pounds you gained at Christmas. You are no more qualified to lecture the obese on how to lose weight than I am qualified to lecture my short friends on how to become tall."
    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/07/thining-thin/22436/

    I'm really glad that you're writing all this--an insider's account. American popular culture and a lot of other elite culture has selected for people who happen to be thin and conventionally attractive; any effort to crack the assumption that thin = healthier/smarter/more virtuous is worth doing. Good luck with your treatment!

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    1. Fantastic quote fro McArdle, Cassandra. Spot. On. And thanks for the encouragement!

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  4. Thanks for posting this Mark and the best of luck to you in this endeavor. Since I turned 40 I've put on a lot of weight myself (even worse at 50). Lost 30 lb twice & gain it all (& then some back). I've never had the binging problem to the degree you've had it, but I continue to struggle with my appetite as well. It's amazing how psychologically and emotionally I find myself attached to consuming unhealthy foods. Maybe because of changing body and brain chemistry in my older age, or maybe because of some challenging things in my life (and there have been many in the last decade), there's a real truth to the term "comfort food." I feel better when I eat but worse after I contemplate how eating has contributed to weight gain or prevented weight loss. I think I have moderately good will power. I've never consumed alcohol, cigarettes, or illicit drugs. I get up at 3:40 AM fives days a week (typically) to go to the gym, but the food issue-- tied to depressive feelings, or overcoming depressed feelings-- is extremely challenging.

    A few years ago a older lady I know made a comment about someone in the news who was 800+ lbs. She couldn't understand how anyone could let themselves get like that. She's thin, eats a yogurt for lunch, and I don't believe has ever struggled with her weight. When I pointed out that I'm sure the man didn't want to weight 800 lbs her response was typical-- the man simply lacked self control, was lazy, had no drive, etc. A few years later, her daughter was put in treatment for anorexia. She attended classes with her daughter that explained that her daughter was struggling with emotional/psychological issues and that not-eating was a symptom of a bigger problem. For some reason people don't seem to have a problem understanding brain-chemistry, emotions, etc. when it comes to eating disorders that make you unhealthily thin, but they don't always allow the same consideration when approaching eating disorders that cause unhealthy weight gain.

    I'm glad you're on a path that is making you healthier and able to fight with your struggles. I keep hoping that I'll be able to make similar headway with my own set of challenges.

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    1. The "lazy, lacking self-control, no drive thing" is what hurts the most, I think. I have a PhD, a tenure-track job, I sit on the editorial boards of two journals, etc etc etc, yet I sometimes catch myself wondering if I'm fat because deep down I must be lazy or have no drive; it's that culturally ingrained. So frustrating! I am in awe, by the way, that you get up before 4am most days. I'll readily admit I don't have the drive for that!

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  5. this is really brave -- thank you for opening my eyes on this. really amazing.

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    1. You're welcome. And thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

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  6. What an eye opening and honest post. You are an amazing person, Mark. All the power to you!!

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