A table laid out with desserts

Binge Eating Disorder Masks A Host of Unmet Needs

I walked past the dessert table, again.

I had been admiring it from across the room all night.

I’d walked through the buffet line and served myself a pile of stuffed shells, garlic bread, roasted broccoli, and bacon-wrapped scallops, only to find the dessert table at the end, taunting me.

It wasn’t yet socially acceptable to take one. People would notice if I did.

I sat at the table and realized I had forgotten to get a napkin. I took the long way back to the front of the line to retrieve one. My mouth watered as I eyed the mini cannoli (my favorite), the cookies & cream cake (also my favorite), the lemon cake (my absolute favorite), and the Italian cookies (which I hate, but which I will eat anyway if they’re on the dessert table).

I don’t need dessert, I decided, turning my eyes away from the sweet pastries. I’m not going to have any. I’ll fill up on my dinner, and then I won’t have room for dessert. I grabbed another slice of garlic bread.

As I ate my dinner, nagging at my children to eat their vegetables and trying in vain to focus on the adult conversation, my eyes kept drifting toward the now-forbidden fruit.

I cleaned my plate, soaking up excess marinara sauce with my second piece of garlic bread, and all the while I could feel that creamy, sugary goodness calling to me.

People started to get up, to drift toward the place that I had deemed off-limits. “I’m stuffed,” I said to my husband as I stood to dispose of my plate.

The trash can just happened to be next to the decadent display of baked goods.

“Ooh, I don’t think I can resist a cannoli,” said another guest. Casually, I turned my head toward the desserts, as if I’d just noticed them for the first time.

“Yeah, it’s the best bakery in town,” I said, plucking one up for myself. Okay, but just this one.

I returned to my seat and ate the cannoli, very responsibly. I then dusted the powdered sugar off my hands and followed the sound of my children’s gleeful cries into a different room.

I watched the children play. I scrolled through my phone. I listened with one ear to the spirited conversations around me . And, after a few minutes, I wandered away.

I found myself back in front of the dessert table without quite knowing how I’d gotten there.

The room had cleared out save for one of the caterers, who was bustling back and forth, disassembling the hot dishes and walking them out to the truck.

With a plastic knife, I cut one of the lemon cakes in half. I never get to eat these. And they’re my favorite, I said to myself.

I’ll stop after this, I promised. I unhinged my jaw and shoved the entire thing into my mouth, so no one who happened to enter the room would see me eat it.

By the end of the evening, I’d had a cannoli, one of each type of cake (including the second half of the lemon), and a generous handful of cookies. And all of this was in addition to a dinner that had already left me feeling uncomfortably full.

This is binge eating disorder.

Plate laid out with banana and cookie desert, drizzled with chocolate
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

Binge Eating Means I Can’t have just a little of anything

Beginning at age eleven or twelve, I would often open and finish a box of crackers or cookies in one sitting. Ever since I can remember, on the rare occasion we had a home-cooked meal — and especially when we visited a buffet-style restaurant — I would eat until I needed to undo the button (and sometimes the zipper) on my pants. More than once, I have systematically eaten an entire bag of candy, even the flavors that I don’t like, just because my eyes fell upon it. If something is almost gone, even if I don’t want any more, I’ll finish it. I am a card-carrying member of The Clean Plate Club.

My compulsion extended to sex, at a very early age. I went out seeking it, and I consumed it, pretending the invisible hand guiding me was my own. And, as with binge eating, I felt like shit afterward. I knew that I shouldn’t have done it, and I couldn’t understand why I’d done it anyway.

It was no different with drugs. When I was sixteen and started using cocaine, I quickly learned that people who use cocaine are not finished until all the cocaine is gone. I should stop. I should save it for later. My friend is coming over and expecting for me to share. I’ve had too much. Nothing was loud enough to drown out the voice shouting, “Just a little more.” But, always, eventually the baggie would be empty, and the dread would set in, and I would feel so distraught that I couldn’t imagine living another day.

It’s been suggested that, since so much of my young life felt so empty, I used food and other substances as a way to fill myself. I’m told it’s possible that, with so many things out of my control, I grasped whatever I could in order to feel like I had power over something.

But that never sat quite right with me. If I used food, and drugs, and sex, so that I could feel in control, then why does it so frequently feel as if I have no control at all?

Why is it that, while my mind knows what I should be doing, my body is unwilling to cooperate?

If I know I’m causing harm to myself in the long-term, why can’t I just short-circuit the shame and the guilt by not doing the binge eating that’s slowly killing my soul in the first place?

There are some cracks in my foundation

One of the first and most enlightening things I learned in my teacher preparation program was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is essentially a ranking system for human needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy takes the form of a triangle. At the base of the triangle are the foundational things a human needs for survival, like food and shelter, and above them, safety and security. At the middle is the need for love, belonging, and esteem, and at the tip is the need for self-actualization and enrichment.

As the story goes, we humans can’t concern ourselves with our high-level needs if our low-level needs aren’t being met.

But, it’s a little more complicated than that. In my case, while some of my base needs were being met, others weren’t. The result was an uneven, lopsided development, grown out of a foundation that could support me quite strongly in some areas but not at all in others.

For example, I’d been told how smart I was since the day I was born. That part of my psyche was nurtured and enriched, and as a result I have always been precocious and intellectually curious. I always earned really good grades, even when my mental health was in the toilet. I grew easily into the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, in this one area of my life.

My inability to reliably obtain the basics like food, security, and love, however, stalled a large part of my development in the base of the triangle. Because of this, for much of my life, I’ve been on a perpetual quest to find protection and love—typically from sources that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide it, at least in the long term.

Binge eating is a vicious cycle

That compulsion to seek became ingrained in my unconscious behavior, long before my rational brain developed. Each dessert I ate; each acknowledgment I received from a guy; each line of coke or speed — they all gave me this quick hit of elation, and that became all I knew of pleasure.

But then after a day, or an hour, or a minute, the joy would wear off and the seeking would begin again, and if I couldn’t find what I needed, I would drown in both desperation and shame.

The things that I had unconsciously seen as a means to exerting some kind of control over my life, began to control me instead.

Now that I know all this, why am I still Binge eating the entire dessert table?

As I got older, cleaned up, and began a healthy romantic relationship, food was the only thing left for me to contend with. And, as a woman living in our society, I have been the unwitting recipient of vast amounts of “truth” regarding self-control and food.

Contrary to what diet culture will tell you, willpower is not the panacea of food health. It exists only in limited quantities, and for people like me, who suffer from binge eating disorder and live in a constant state of survival mode, it is not always available when we need it.

When I am most anxious, most escalated, most vulnerable — that is when my base-level adaptations come out, and my inner five-year-old is incapable of understanding that the sundae I eat now will leave me feeling bloated and miserable later, or that if I eat a sundae a day, my long-term health goals will be compromised.

Simply put, my need for that quick hit of pleasure often still trumps my long-term desire to be fit, healthy, and happy. And it’s not about willpower at all.

It’s about that little girl who slipped through the cracks while the rest of me grew up.

And, now that I know all this, I can begin to patch those cracks so that she can grow up, too.


This story was originally published on Medium.com.

Woman wearing black shorts and a white, long-sleeved shirt sitting on a bed with her arms crossed in front of her

Years of psychological abuse by my “friends” took a toll

Are you still friends with me? I wrote on a scrap of paper. Below, I wrote the words Yes and No. I folded the note and wrote Amber’s name on the outside.

When our third-grade teacher turned toward the chalkboard, I nudged the boy next to me, reaching out with the note and motioning toward the girl with chestnut-colored hair seated in the front row. I watched the note progress up the aisle, my heart thumping in my throat, fearing both the consequences should I be caught passing notes and the possibility that the girl who I considered to be my best friend might circle No.

The teacher turned toward the class. I snapped back to my task, trying to will my eyes away from Amber and toward the work on my desk.

A moment later, the scrap of paper dropped down in front of me.

Maybe, she had written in.

I felt sick. This was even worse than No, leaving me on the hook to wonder what I would have to do to make her like me again.

Amber was capricious in a way that I had never been able to predict or comprehend. One day, we would be catching grasshoppers and braiding each other’s hair at recess; the next, she wouldn’t even acknowledge my existence. We had sleepovers together from time to time, but at school the following Monday morning she would often refuse to talk to me, or, even worse, she would tease me — a pastime in which the other kids gleefully participated.

checklist with yes and no options
Photo from Pixabay on Pexels

Each day, as I arrived at school, dread pooled in the pit of my stomach as I waited to see whether or not Amber “liked” me that day.

I was an innocent kid, sheltered and naïve. Trusting. I was also desperately lonely. I can’t remember a single friend I had in first through fourth grade, with the exception of Amber. It made me a perfect candidate for psychological abuse .

“Hey, Nikki, do you want a bite of my banana?” Amber sang one day. As I reflect over the decades, I imagine her face in caricature: beady eyes; brows angled to a cartoonish degree; a smirk on her lips.

In the moment, though, I took her at face value. She had never offered me food before, but I didn’t think anything of it. And, anyway, I’m not one to turn down free food.

I shrugged, leaning in. “Sure.” I don’t like bananas that much, but getting something from Amber was better than getting nothing.

I had already taken a generous bite before I noticed the crowd that had gathered. As the food hit my tongue, I twisted up my face in disgust and spit the mushy mess out into my hand.

“Ew!” I cried, holding the half-chewed bite in my hand as I grimaced at Amber, the taste still acrid in my mouth. “What was that?”

“Horseradish!” she guffawed, and as I ran to the nearest trash can, the rest of the crowd erupted in laughter behind me.

Another day, as I was walking with my hands full, she tripped me. I fell on my face, unable to catch myself, and split open the bottom of my chin. I never spent much time feeling my chin before that day, but it was sore for months afterward and I was convinced that the tip of my chin had been broken off.

Amber moved away sometime after that, but I still felt the force of her manipulation. Her psychological abuse still touched me even from towns away. She was the master to my puppet, tugging at the twin strings of my need for approval and the belief that I was unworthy of love.

Somehow, by the age of eight years old, Amber had learned how to exploit my deepest needs, my biggest fears, and I — praised daily for my abundance of conventional intelligence — was none the wiser.


I moved away, too, and I found another Amber without even looking. This version came in the form of a duo, with one clear alpha, Loreli, and one obvious beta, Kelle, who together were basically my only friends.

When Loreli liked me, I felt like my life was worth living. But there were some days when Kelle would whisper, “Sorry,” and then say more loudly, “We don’t like you today.” And I would then be alone, once again subject to the whims of psychological abuse by an abusive and unpredictable girl.

I didn’t agree with some of the things Loreli did, but I felt pressured into doing them too, so that I could remain friends with her.

Loreli smoked cigarettes. I did not. “What?!” she asked, incredulous. When Loreli came to sleep over one night, we stole some cigarettes from my parents and, from then on, I was a smoker.

I didn’t inhale, though, I told her later on.

“What?! It’s not even worth it if you don’t inhale.”

By the age of twelve, I was smoking — and inhaling— daily.

Loreli was sexually active — or so she said. I was not, though I’d been sexually abused by a relative the year before and was still — am still — coming to terms with that. “What?!” she said when she learned of my inexperience.

I lost my virginity before she did, it turned out, and it wasn’t until I learned this that I felt duped.

She was a liar. She was a manipulator. She had tricked me into doing what even she had been unwilling to do. It was psychological abuse, plain and simple.

I’m so stupid, I thought. I felt so worthless.

And to top it off, I had messed up my life to — what? To impress her?

Well, it’s too late to turn back now, I said to myself as, rather than acknowledging my folly and turning back, I crept ever further down my new path — even after Loreli left school and stopped calling me.


Amber and Loreli weren’t the only unpredictable women in my life. At home, I was watching my mother self-medicate and behave erratically, and I felt powerless and insignificant in that relationship as well.

Many of my first physical relationships were equally unsatisfying. I perpetually sought a love that was absent from the circles in which I was seeking it.

The closest I got to a real sense of belonging was with a group of girlfriends I had in seventh and eighth grade. There were five of us, and we were all very close for a time. We had nicknames for each other, and we spent time together before and after school. We called each other on the phone, and we even created a logo for our group.

These girls, though they’d grown up with her, hadn’t been influenced by Loreli the way I had. None of these girls was sexually active. (I was.) None of them smoked or did drugs. (I did.) And none of them arbitrarily exerted power over their so-called friends in order to make themselves feel loved and worshipped and worthy.

But I did.

I am horrified, looking back now, at the things I did and said to this group of girls. I intentionally excluded certain ones from the group and pressured them all to do things they were uncomfortable doing. (Mostly, mercifully, they resisted.)

The girls whose parents were most involved in their lives began distancing themselves from me.

“My mom says you can’t come over anymore,” Ashley said.

“My mom says you’re a bad influence,” said Carolyn.

“Fuck them,” I said. “Sneak out.”

Angela’s sister, who was five years older than me, threatened to kick my ass if I talked to her sister again.

I was so indignant about losing my friends, and so painfully unaware that I was the one driving them away, that I completely turned my back on all of them and continued to self-destruct.


My oldest daughter, today, is just about the same age I was when I met Amber. She has already been subject to psychological abuse by her peers, used as a pawn by a girl her age in a controlling relationship, and I am terrified it will happen again.

My path has already been set. I didn’t “Turn Out Just Fine,” but neither can I go back and change the way I behaved based on my early relationships. I’ve done a lot of work to unravel what caused me to relinquish my own self-worth so freely, but that’s not my concern right now.

Right now, my concern is raising two beautifully self-aware girls — girls who don’t fall into the same patterns of psychological abuse I did, because they know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are worthy of love, and that anyone who tells them differently is not fit to be in their lives.


Author’s note: I cannot speak for the girls I knew as a child, but I do know that abuse is a cycle and that it is possible these young ladies were abused themselves. If you or someone you know needs it, help is available. Watch your kids for signs of abuse; it doesn’t always look like you’d expect it to.


This story was originally published on Medium.com.