What Does BED Look Like?
Here’s a test:
Which of these images is of a woman with binge eating disorder? If you answered all 10, you are much farther along than I was as recently as a year ago.
I’m posting these, not as a gimmick or shrine to myself, but instead to discuss in real time what it is like to look at a person and make a snap judgment about them, their health or their mental wellbeing. That may seem like a tall order but I think we can get through this and learn something together.
My name is Lizabeth and I finally realized I suffer from binge eating disorder about a year ago. At that time what I knew about myself deep down was that I desperately wanted to “take the weight off for good”, that I was somehow weak willed and that I was doomed to always feel ugly, saggy, bloated and old. I was desperate to be thin again and I literally prayed, like I pray for the health and wellbeing of my family, that this time it would somehow stay off and I could finally be happy with Me.
I’ve spent the sum total of years waiting to feel good about myself because I couldn’t imagine feeling good unless I was shaped different than I was. Mostly because what I saw in the mirror never registered as healthy or average, what I saw made me feel shame. The image in the mirror was never shaped “right” when I was thin, and when I wasn’t thin it was like looking at an enormous canvas with all of the words we associate with fat written all over it. “Sweaty”, “Rotund”, “Lazy”, “Stupid”, “Old”, “Worthless”, “Ugly”, “Disappointment”, “Trying Too Hard”, “Hopeless”, “Embarrassing”. According to my thoughts, people were nice to me because I’m nice or because I’m funny or because they were related to me, but I knew in my heart that when they thought about me in private, they thought of me as a fat, pitiful, misfit. So it goes to follow that I couldn’t feel good about myself until my shape dictated that I appeared otherwise, both to myself and they way I assumed everyone else saw me.
That assumption is immensely burdensome if you think about how much psychic energy it takes to orchestrate the internal conversations of everyone you’ve met and to believe those things about yourself as well.
In keeping with the purpose of this discussion, I’d like to pause and check in on whether or not you assumed those thoughts to be consistent over all of the images you see here? Did you think that the photos of thinner shapes had the same distorted thinking as those of the larger shapes? How about the seemingly healthy sizes in between? This is the first part of the point I’m making; the shape of a person is not a reliable indicator of how a person feels about themselves or their sense of self worth. A person’s health, mental or otherwise can’t be gauged by how ‘fit’ they look.
On top of that messed up, mental jujitsu, I piled on guilt for not being a beautiful wife; for no longer being a beautiful daughter as compared to the shrine of decades old photos that parents keep; for not contributing to household finances; for that little matter of aging and for the fact that the only way to make the above guilt manageable was to engage in a shameful, degrading secret; my bingeing. The thing that I dreaded not only because it left the indelible stamp of excess on my frame, but because it scared me to lose control around food and it infuriated me to feel soothed by it.
Without getting into a triggering description but for the benefit of those who have never experienced a binge, it’s comparable to a reflex in as much as it happens without you initiating the sequence intentionally. If you’ve ever tried to hold your breath because you didn’t want to breath something toxic but you simply couldn’t hold that breath until you passed by the toxicity and you breathed involuntarily…. it’s sort of similar. Even though a person who binge eats knows they don’t want to succumb to a binge, their internal systems override their conscious decision and, like the body knowing air is what it needs, the binge fulfills the need being suppressed, and often that need is the need for comfort and soothing.
For me and my distorted sense of self, I was forever battling the message that I wasn’t good enough or attractive enough or worthwhile unless I was thin, so in order to be thin I’d restrict and in order to survive depriving myself of nutrients, I’d eventually end up bingeing.
At a certain point, having been thin so many times, it seems as though I would have stopped and said, “Ok, I’m happy shaped now. No need to pester me anymore Mr. Inner Voice”, but unfortunately, when you’re talking about mental health, it’s not that cut and dried.
This cycle of BED is a nonstop treadmill because the self-loathing function never gets to a point where it’s completely done its job. It may have prompted me to jeopardize my health by restricting, but even when I lost weight it continued to tell me the same message, that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t being a good enough daughter/wife/woman, that I looked wrong and came across wrong, that people didn’t understand me and above all else, that I should be ashamed for these reasons.
And this brings me to the second part of my point; the shape of a person is not a reliable indicator of how well they treat their bodies. Again, and I stress; a person’s health, mental or otherwise can’t be gauged by how ‘fit’ they look.
As you can see from this array, over the last 13 years I’ve gained and dropped and regained a few hundred pounds. Very few times in my entire life have I been the same size for more than 6 months. When I was, it wasn’t because I’d mastered anything, it was because I was severely restricting and THAT right there is why it never occurred to me that I had an eating disorder. Let me put it this way, I didn’t abuse laxatives, I ate without purging…. there’s no “there” there as the saying goes. Or so it seemed to me.
In 2010 it became evident that I needed help. My sense of self was lost, I saw no future and I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I had an amazing husband and a wonderful family, with the personal truth that I was a dismal, embarrassing failure of enormous size. I was drinking heavily which certainly didn’t help, and combined with my already chaotic inner dialog of self-loathing, I decided that the only way to escape the constant struggle and disappointment was to take my life. Thankfully I didn’t succeed. Instead, I started down the road of intensive therapy.
It was in substance abuse counseling that I realized my disordered thinking stretched far beyond substance abuse, it was a twisted root pervasive in the things I believed about myself and it conflicted with the things I needed to do in order to take care of myself. My disordered thinking told me that now that I’d stopped drinking I had no excuse to be fat; that since I wasn’t drinking my empty calories I ‘should have dropped the weight’. It was then that I knew I had to look at what was going on beyond substance abuse, because having removed piece of the puzzle, I wasn’t feeling healthy any longer and the fact that I’d kept my sobriety intact allowed me to trust that intuition.
I began my search for resources where things hurt the most, around my body and my eating. I looked at a few online meeting for overeaters and chat rooms for dieters but that wasn’t the guidance and information that I needed, what I wanted was real live help. Then I began to pick up on the right words and I searched under “binge eating problems”, still not considering that I might have an actual disorder.
I got a glimmer of the ‘food as nutrients vs. food as emotional shield’ paradox that had been present throughout my life when I came across the Binge Eating Disorder Association. Reading the pages of the website I saw myself in the stories and articles and it was then that I became aware that I was hopeful and it was a feeling that I questioned over and over again. You see, the thing about shame based behaviors such as binge eating is, they exist in the shadows and they DO NOT want you to rely on other emotions. Shame is a greedy, golden idol.
Realizing that hope is justified because you are in the midst of indisputable fact is an overwhelming feeling and it was my best understanding of what an epiphany is. I’d like to say that it overwhelmed my sense of anxiety, so much so that it kept me from bingeing that day but that’s probably not the case. To be honest, I don’t know if I did or not, but if I did binge, it would have made sense.
Hoping, planning, believing in yourself; all of those things provoke anxiety and so considering I had a system in place for several decade for how to deal with it, I may have just gone on a food bender. What I’ve learned since then is, that’s ok.
That could be the pithy summation for this piece, “I’ve learned that it’s ok”, but the fact is, getting to the point where I can say, I didn’t fail because I ate, is a big deal. It’s much bigger than it sounds, and it’s certainly bigger still when, through my actions, I live it.
The person I am now looks an awful lot like the person in those pictures, each and every one of which has binge eating disorder. The big differences are that the person I am now is in the way I treat myself; as a more compassionate and loving caretaker.
I no longer look at myself as a walking billboard of cruel beliefs, I look at myself as a person whose body that is working for her and not against her, a body that is regularly cared for with proper amounts of healthy food, regular medical checkups and the occasional pedicure. I look at myself with a broader definition of beauty, one that includes things beyond the stereotypes and unrealistic ideals that we so often gravitate toward in American culture. I look at and cherish the smiles that it took to give me smile lines and the confidence I’ve got in that smile.
I’m no longer any of those ‘Me’s. I’ve still got (choose the color) hair, hazel eyes, all the same features; but what you won’t see now is shame in my eyes. By getting help I shed light on that dark place and there’s nowhere left for shame to hide. So that’s what I think BED recovery looks like, a wide open and well lit place to be myself.