If you've read a magazine intended for women in the past decade, you've probably come across an article by Geneen Roth. A smiling blonde rarely photographed below the shoulders (and always in a black, figure-concealing turtleneck so you aren't tempted to compare your body against hers), she's the print publishing world's go-to expert in binge eating.
In the article I first (sorry for the word choice) devoured, Geneen talked about the broad spectrum of women she'd met in her workshops for binge eaters: wealthy women, broke women, fat women and women of average weight, happy women and depressed women, all of whom had realized that this one part of their lives was not healthy.
There were single women who didn't date because they were afraid it would hamper their ability to binge, and married women who put locks on their refrigerators and begged their husbands to hide the key at night to prevent them from sneaking out of bed to binge.
I'd never thought I had an Eating Disorder before, but I suddenly saw myself in both of these scenarios.
At the time, I was co-habitating with a nice, slacker guy, one who wasn't so much enabling as clueless. We moved in together after college, into my first real apartment, and it was the first time I ever really made food choices for myself. (In college, I was always broke, and on a meal plan. Even if I wanted to binge eat, it would be hard to do with $20 in my checking account and having to swipe my card at the commissary at prescribed mealtimes. )
I usually ate healthy, but he ate whatever he wanted. And when he was sleeping or out of the house, I would find myself consuming things like a woodchipper, feeding pretzel rods and barbecue potato chips into my mouth as fast as my teeth could make them into pulp.
When an entire box of Toaster Strudels or Girl Scout cookies went missing in the night, he would either not notice or make a joke of it. I think maybe he thought that this was just something women did, occasionally plunging face first into a Whitman's Sampler in a tornado of chocolate wrappers and hands, like in the Cathy comics.
It didn't happen every night -- probably once every 10 days or so, depending. I was a careful eater, living in the big city where a size six was still not considered very "thin," and always one week of low-fat cheese and controlled portions away from my "goal weight." After a week of savoring vegetarian sushi and making elaborate, healthful salads, I might find myself in Whole Foods, knowing my boyfriend would be out for the night with his friends, and suddenly start filling my basket with wedges of brie, a loaf of zucchini bread, a bag of chocolate covered pretzels, peanut butter, and those Paul Newman cookies that taste extra good because the proceeds are going to charity.
Immediately following a binge, I'm filled with guilt over what I've just done to my body, but also because there are people out there who are starving and I have this horrendous compulsion to shove mac and cheese into my face so quickly I can't taste it. I begin fantasizing about living in a place where somebody was making all of my food choices for me -- like jail.
It is a weird, automatic feeling -- TV makes me think of someone having a "substance abuse episode" as something that happens suddenly, brought on my some inciting emotional incident. But like other "scoring," binging often involves a certain amount of planning. I might have zero junk food in the house, and put off a binge as long as I could, reading quietly with a mug of tea, while secretly thinking Pizza, Pizza, Pizza knowing that in the next hour I would probably order an extra large pie and finish the whole thing.
When I lived with my boyfriend, I would put the evidence in a trash bag and take it to the dumpster behind my house, burying the whole thing under another bag in case my he should happen to go back and dig through the trash (not that he would, but you never know.)
While I had the vague feeling that this was all Bad, I never really thought of it as disordered eating. There wasn't necessarily something that made me binge (a breakup or a bad week at work), I never thought, "I'm an emotional eater" or "I'm using food to cope." I have the same kind of changeable moods and free-floating anxiety that all people in the world have. But I also have this habit, a routine I can't seem to break even though it makes me feel sick and awful.
It's also hard for me to say I have A Problem because like I said, it doesn't happen all the time. And I never purge, which would be Really Bad instead of just Bad-Bad. I just feel like shit afterward, emotionally and physically. Sometimes, I never feel full, even after taking down eight tacos from the delivery Mexican place and washing them down with that old binger's standby, a carton of ice cream.
If you've ever eaten too much candy too fast, you know the physical sensation. You can practically feel your organs trying to frantically keep up. I usually get headaches and intense nausea. I worry that this is actually bad for my body, that I'm going to get pancreatic cancer or Type II diabetes or just permanently "break" my body's ability to feel normal feelings of hunger and fullness.
Then there is also The Guilt. I feel fat, disgusting and gluttonous. I feel like the Cathy comic, shoving food in my mouth until I physically cannot eat any more. I don't have a bad life -- I have friendly co-workers and good parents and lots of nice, supportive friends. If you met me and knew, you would wonder why I am doing this. I'm not the Type-A eating disordered girl from the studies and books who uses food to feel in control of her life.
Some of it is probably emotional, that I'm unthinkingly medicating with sugar and fat the same way some girls enjoy three glasses of wine in a bubble bath after a long week. I'm sure another part of it is my body craving this toxic crap when I'm being so good to give it its calories through stuff like tofu cutlets and baked yams.
I am hungry all the time, whether I'm watching what I eat or not. I grew up eating a mix of healthy and processed foods, begging for cookies but resigned to having a reasonable amount of them doled out by my parents after a balanced dinner. But left to my own devices, I can't self-regulate. I might eat a nutritionist-approved breakfast of yogurt and fruit, a lunch of kale and brown rice and an orange, and grilled seitan and broccoli for dinner. Maybe my body gets scared that it's never going to have a Dorito again, because after a week of being "good," I'll often find my face in a full-sized bag of Cool Ranch.
It's a testament to the power of the pure-need part of the brain over the reasonable, thinking part that it is nearly impossible to say to myself, "Stop this. Don't go to the store. Don't buy the cookies. Don't even put on your shoes to do it."
No matter how careful I am during the day, in a cubicle, or in with a group of girlfriends at dinner, there is some part of me that knows when I am alone and I can and will buy and eat an entire box of Fig Newtons and a whole sack of Cheeze-Its.
I've been binging for several years now, and I probably won't stop until someone figures out what I do and is horrified by it, too. I have told myself again and again that I'll quit, that I'll go to a Geneen Roth workshop, that I'll start a journal, but I always go back. I wish it were as simple as filling the fridge with healthy alternatives, or freezing my credit card in a bowl of water, but somehow I always find a way around it, and there I am, a whole pizza gone, wanting to cry.
One look at Wikipedia and you'll see why my problem is such a grey-area when it comes to treatment. The entry on binge eating disorder (or BED) begins by stating that it's the most common eating disorder in the United States, and then the very next sentence admits that it's not officially classified as an eating disorder.
I've considered OA and support groups, there's still part of me that thinks I'm not "that bad," and that I would feel like an interloper. I picture the people who are there who are actually killing themselves with food, and worry that all I could say would be, "I normally eat pretty healthy but every two weeks or so I eat so much I stand in front of a mirror calling myself a fucking fatass or dump dish soap into a box of brownie bites."
I'd like to see a psychiatrist and a nutritionist and one of those hormone specialists who promises to test your blood and fix you with shots and patches and a custom diet. But right now, my insurance doesn't cover mental health care, and I can't afford to pay for excess private treatment.
It doesn't help that I've known women who were anorexics or bulimics (who have an officially classified ED) who were turned away from private facilities for not being "severe" enough. So for now, it seems unlikely that I'll seek treatment aside from being careful not to diet so severely that I "trigger" a binge, and to try not to be alone too much with the contents of my cupboards.
Because binge eaters aren't always visibly affected weight-wise (mine falls someplace in the upper register of the "healthy" BMI for a 30-year-old woman of my modest stature), it's unlikely that anybody will know unless I tell them or they look through my trash.
But I hope if you're like me, this at least helps you to know that there are others of us out there, hiding their garbage, feeling equally clueless about the next step.