Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States, and yet due to its secretive nature, we so rarely talk about it. As part of my #MentallyWealthy series I wanted to include a variety of mental health issues, which is why I am sharing this story with you. Thank you so much to A for sending this in, I hope it helps someone in need 🙂
I first started binge eating in 2013, around 5 years ago now. At the time I was 16 years old, had just left high school to study ballet full time, attend auditions, compete, and focus on pursuing my dancing career. Being in the ballet industry, I was highly aware of my appearance, and I worked hard to maintain a very lean physique to adhere to what companies wanted.
The first couple of months went well; I trained hard and progressed to the upper stages in my competitions. I would spend half the day at home doing online studies, then train until the late evening. But as time went on, I started to snack on less-nutritious food, and this lead to a small amount of weight gain. It eventually drew the attention of certain people around me and they felt the need to comment on it. I was happy at the time, but drawing attention to what was wrong with my body made me think I wasn’t good enough, and that I needed to “be better” by eating less and losing weight. This line of thinking back-fired and the restriction lead me to start sneaking the foods that I really wanted to eat in private when I was at home alone.
Cue the restrict-binge cycle. I would frantically raid the kitchen for things I deemed “unhealthy” that I could take without my family noticing. It didn’t even have to taste that good; if it was in abundance and a “forbidden” food, I would eat it. After the frenzy of collecting this food, I would take it up to my room where I was in a safe space – no one would discover me there as long as I kept the food hidden. My heart would be racing, palms sweating, my stomach would have a weird butterfly feeling, and I would almost feel high off “not being caught”. I would then begin to feel relaxed – the thought of consuming all this food that I had “forbidden” myself for so long was enticing, a huge release from my self-imposed restriction. During the binge I would feel happy, content and detached from my feelings, because I was finally allowing myself to be “free”. I’d keep eating to the point of feeling sick and my stomach couldn’t stretch anymore. When I couldn’t physically eat another thing, I would wake up out of the “dream-like” state I had been in and feel embarrassed, ashamed, and extremely disappointed within myself over my “lack” of self-discipline. Then I would binge again to make myself feel better. It was a vicious cycle.
After 6 months of training full-time, I travelled to the U.S. for a 2 month elite summer school at a well-known ballet company. I was advised to take this opportunity to “lean out”, and I was determined to take on this advice to stop my bingeing for good. Upon arriving there, a lot of factors worked against me. I was the only Australian in my level and despite attempts to make friends, I was scared to put myself out there socially. My roommate and I didn’t particularly get along, making me feel even more alone. This feeling of isolation was not a good combination for my eating habits. Everyone would go out to enjoy some ice-cream a couple of times a week and have a cookie after dinner, but because I’d restricted myself I felt like I couldn’t engage in these activities with them. Instead, I would hide in my room and binge on the foods I’d bought from the supermarket, giving me a sense of comfort from the foreign environment I was in.
At the end of the two months, I was desperately missing home and very lonely. I hadn’t lost the weight I’d wanted to, and felt like a failure going back, despite the fact I’d been chosen to perform in many lead roles and gained the interest of the company directors. I saw myself as not good enough because of this. Upon arriving home I tried to use extreme methods of restriction to lose the weight. Of course, it didn’t work – I would feel so deprived I would binge even worse than before. This continued to the end of the year – the pursuit of a dancing career was becoming too much for me and after my experience in the U.S. I decided to go back to school.
Since then, my relationship with food has been up and down – my weight has yo-yoed many times and I still struggle with bingeing to this day. It took a hit a couple of years ago when an immediate family member was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The stress of the situation was a lot to bear at the time, and having the responsibility of looking after her during treatment took a great toll on my mental health.
A big change happened at this point. I had to take her place on a trekking trip the following year and in order to do that I needed to get fit. I started walking long distances to get my endurance up, and then train with a heavy pack to prepare myself for the altitude. This didn’t end my bingeing habits for good, but it gave me something positive to focus on that didn’t require good aesthetics, helping to clear my mind and improve my mental state. What has changed for me since then is my relationship with myself. While I go through phases of not having good self-esteem, the “illness” has taught me how strong I can be and that my appearance does not define who I am as a person and what I can achieve. If I could go back to my 16-year-old self and tell her anything, it would be to stop being so mean to herself and just be content with the way she is! She doesn’t need to adhere to unnatural body standards to be great at something, because she is so much more than that.
In terms of how it’s affected my relationships, the urge to binge previously overruled my desire to see my friends – I would cancel plans to then binge at home because it felt comfortable. I lost a lot of friends because of this, and I will be the first to say that the binges weren’t worth all the good times I missed out on. My family has had to cope with my bad moods, anxiety and depressive tendencies surrounding the binge-eating cycle, with me constantly hiding in my room not wanting to talk to anyone. And to my partner, while I don’t seem to worry about what he thinks of my weight, I still fret over whether he will think I simply lack self-discipline, or that I have too much “emotional baggage” to deal with. I’m trying my best to overcome these thoughts, but some days it’s easier said than done.
So while I am still struggling with this, it’s made me stronger and more empathetic towards other people and whatever they may be going through behind the scenes. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, and I know what kind of person I want to be in the future. There’s nothing else to do now except keep chipping away at the “recovery” stone and focus on getting better!
To all of you who are suffering from binge eating and feelings of guilt – you are not alone.