"Do I Need Help for Binge Eating?" Are You "Sick Enough"? - Kara Richardson Whitely
Even in my worst days of suffering from Binge Eating Disorder, it looked like everything was fine from the outside. That’s what I told people, and that’s what I wanted to believe.
Because, like many people who suffer with Binge Eating Disorder, I was really high functioning. I had a job, a husband, and a daughter. I even did the typical things that many people do: I took the recycling out, I gave money to charity, and I seemed OK.
Dr. Julie Friedman, Eating Recovery Center’s National Senior Director of Binge Eating Treatment and Recovery (BETR) residential program in Chicago, shares,“Often times patients are shocked by the recommendation they hear (of seeking a higher level of care for Binge Eating Disorder). They’ve been suffering for so long that they think this is as good as it gets.”
That’s what I thought, too. Like so many people with Binge Eating Disorder, I just didn’t feel “sick enough” to need help for binge eating. What I didn’t realize before recovery was that I was existing in this world – but not really living.
In Binge Eating Disorder treatment, Dr. Friedman helps patients rediscover the things, places, ideals, and beliefs that they value – as well as their connection to each other and to other people.
Dr. Friedman told me that she recently worked with a couple in which the husband had just entered the Binge Eating Treatment and Recovery program. (This program is the only one of its kind in the world). The couple said to her, “We didn’t realize how bad things were until we were in a hole we couldn’t crawl out of.”
I totally understand their sentiment. Like many people with Binge Eating Disorder (myself included), the eating disorder had permeated their lives – their house, their finances and their relationship — even if some parts of their functioning appeared intact. Friedman continues, “There wasn’t any suffering that they could identify outright… but there wasn’t any joy. It was as if they did not ‘feel bad’ per se, but rather they had stopped feeling good.”
Binge Eating Disorder impacts people in lots of different ways. One of Friedman’s patients had stopped going to the grocery story because she was so concerned and embarrassed by the food she was buying. She lived in a small town, and the grocery store had once been a place of community and connection for her. Instead of visiting that store, she traveled to a store that was four towns over… and then she started having her food delivered to her. Her world became smaller and smaller. And she became more and more isolated. Friedman shared, “My patient said, ‘My whole life was about my eating disorder.’ In treatment, your world becomes bigger.”
For me, in exchange for pushing away my emotions with bingeing (my binges made me feel numb), I pushed away the things that brought me pleasure. Bingeing consumed all those things, as I lived a life projecting the image of being “fine,” while inside I was torn apart by secrecy, shame and my reliance on food to get me through everyday stressors.
All along I had been dismissing my binge eating as being due to my own lack of willpower. I bought into what diet culture tells us, “The solution is simple - eat less, move more, lose weight, and you won’t suffer any longer.”
I put on a veil because it didn’t make sense to even me; I was an otherwise capable person who crumbled when it came to food – and this act of my keeping it all hidden was keeping me from getting help. But in retrospect — only after getting help — was I able to see that my eating disorder had taken over.
I ate, and then, consumed by shame, I would go to several stores in a row to replace what I ate so that my behavior was hidden from my loved ones. I also wasn’t doing a lot of things that brought me joy — from hiking to seeing friends — because I worried what people would think of me and my weight. I worked from home and often tried to get out of in-person meetings, because I didn’t like to leave the house. And if I did, I binged on the way there and the way back. Anxiety and food thoughts consumed more than half of my day. I couldn’t start one thing without worrying that I should be doing something else. Binge Eating Disorder literally swallowed my dreams.
Only in retrospect do I wish and know I should have gotten more help, faster.
It is a big ask and a big risk for patients to temporarily remove themselves from their lives — from family to work. But, according to Dr. Friedman, you can accomplish in a month of intensive treatment what might take much longer to do with outpatient providers. “It’s a big ask to get out of your life, out of your comfort zone. But they do it because they feel so lost and hopeless that they want to fast-forward through a year of suffering.”
And getting out of their environment is key. Dr. Friedman shares, “This is a brain-based disorder. Their environment has been associated with their disorder.”
When she worked in outpatient care, Dr. Friedman felt her work wasn’t as effective. “They had a great hour in a room with me. Then they would go home to the same saboteurs, the same triggers, the same family system that I was not seeing in my office — and nothing would change. It was almost like treading water. You can’t do a whole lot if you are not working with the environment and the people that your patient (and their disorder) are engaging with on a daily basis.”
In treatment, patients often learn what they’ve been neglecting or missing because of their binge eating disorder – from avoiding medical appointments due to fear of being shamed about their weight and/or their behaviors to abandoning self-care like showering and sleep or even avoiding emotional connection and intimacy.
With treatment by experienced specialists, patients learn to have a life outside of their eating disorder and a life worth living.
So much of my journey to recovery has been finding that life worth living and discovering the self-worth within to pursue it. I’ve had to do so by reconnecting with my family about how I’m truly feeling. I do it by finding myself in the woods, hiking to feel truly present, connected and challenged. More importantly, I do it by having the willingness to work through the reasons I binged and learning and practicing the skills that helped me life live without bingeing as a constant crutch.
There was no “sick enough.” Having the courage to admit that I was struggling, that I might need help for binge eating, and finding the willingness to get help has been one of the healthiest, bravest and boldest things I’ve ever done.
Kara Richardson Whitely is the author of Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, Weight of Being and is an executive producer on an upcoming project. She serves as an Eating Recovery Center Binge Eating Disorder Recovery Advocate. You can follow her journeys on Instagram.
Read more about Kara’s experiences in binge eating recovery: