The memory of my first binge is imprinted on my brain. I was 14 and going through my first experience of grief after losing my grandmother the week before Christmas. Home alone the day after she died, I had an overwhelming craving for chocolate and frantically searched cupboards for something to satisfy my need. I found a pile of selection boxes and biscuits, and within minutes all that was left was a pile of wrappers and crumbs. I felt sick, but I also felt less empty and sad.
I quickly replaced the sweets and tried to forget what I’d done. But one binge led to another, and over the next few months, I used food to soothe myself when I was upset or stressed about school. I began hoarding chocolate and crisps under my bed. I started to gain weight, and my classmates mocked my size. I became isolated and binged when I came home from school, consuming everything I could get my hands on until I didn’t feel upset. I ate until I felt nothing at all.
I didn’t know that I was experiencing binge eating disorder (BED), a mental condition defined by someone having recurrent and persistent episodes of binge eating, eating large quantities of food over a short period. Unlike bulimia, these binges aren’t usually followed by purging. BED is not about choosing to eat large portions, nor are people who suffer from it just ‘overindulging.’
Using food as a coping mechanism for stress, heartbreak, and job woes became a pattern for the next two decades. I sometimes went months without a binge, but when sh*t hit the fan, I inevitably returned to my old ways.
When I had the urge to binge, I became single-minded and could barely focus on anything – work, friendships and relationships all suffered. I rarely lived alone, so I couldn’t control what was in the cupboards or fridge, and if cake or chocolate was lying about, I would lie awake plotting to eat and then replace the food before anyone noticed. Every binge was accompanied by a food ‘hangover’ when I felt physically and mentally awful. The bingeing and self-hatred were exhausting, but for years I didn’t think I had a mental issue; I just thought I was weak-willed.
I tried to stop, but every time I deprived myself of food, it made me want to binge even more.
We rarely hear about BED in the media. Still, it is thought to be more common than anorexia and bulimia – a study in 2017 found that BED made up 22% of eating disorder cases, with anorexia accounting for 8% and bulimia 19%. Weight stigma and public misunderstanding about BED may be partly to blame for the lack of coverage. Very few people are willing to openly admit they have a problem because of the shame attached to bingeing. And some people believe that only obese people are affected by BED.
“Binge eating disorder can affect anyone regardless of their weight, shape, age, gender, race or background. There is a misconception that binge eating is down to greed or a lack of willpower,” explains Martha Williams, Senior Clinical Advice Coordinator at eating disorder charity Beat. “These damaging stereotypes can stop people reaching out for support. A binge can be a sign of emotional distress and a symptom of something much more complex than simply ‘eating too much’.”