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.
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.