One of the biggest issues of having an eating disorder, is that so many people seem to have different ideas of what an eating disorder is, or should be. It is easy to dismiss someone’s condition if they don’t physically display symptoms. I have heard people who, upon learning that someone is anorexic, will look them over and decide that they don’t look skinny enough to be so, or to dismiss someone with bulimia because they are ‘too fat’. Empathy is difficult for many people, especially when it comes to a situation that they haven’t experienced directly. Emotional Overeating is so readily dismissed as an eating disorder, an attitude usually summed up with expressions like “Oh you’re just greedy”, “You have no willpower.” or “You can’t just accept that you’re fat and it’s your fault.”
This is the attitude that prevented me from acknowledging my issues with food for some time. I was worried that if I went to a doctor with my fears, that I would be dismissed as a time waster or just some pathetic fatty. I recall my local GP during one visit in my early teens, completely unrelated to my weight, grabbing at my belly flab and telling me to just ‘lose some weight’. I recall running in to a friend of my mother’s when I was off school with a sore throat, having not eaten for two days and being told it was a good thing because it might make me lose some weight.
Weight loss was always made out to me to be something easy, and that being unable to do it was a deep character flaw, of which I should be utterly ashamed. And I was.
My problem is that, for whatever reasons, my biggest coping mechanism for the challenges of growing up, was food. Sugars and carbohydrates were a readily available emotional bandage for hurt feelings, bruised ego and shattered self-esteem that came from a combination of quite brutal bullying at school and my own deeply instilled Gender Identity issues. As I grew older and managed to find ways to get a hold of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs, my coping mechanisms spread out, but food was always the quickest and easiest fix to get. Of course, like with all coping mechanisms, each time you need a little more to get the same level of satisfaction.
By the time I was 19, my weight had crept up to something harrowingly bad, and so I embarked on an effort which helped me drop 4 stone. Over the next 7 years, my weight steadily crept up past where it had been before, thanks in part to an attempt to quit smoking in my early 20s. Upon my decision to transition I then made another great effort, shedding almost 5 stone but that too, with the quitting of smoking and start of HRT hasn’t stayed off, and although I am still down a stone and a half on where I started, I am still way too heavy for my own sense of contentment, and, more importantly, to qualify for Gender Reassignment Surgery (My BMI is a few points above the required upward limit).
So why can’t I stop comfort eating? Honest answer, I don’t know. It is like I sabotage myself. I have a good day where I have exercised and counted my calories, only to find myself halfway through a large pizza or scraping the bottom of a jar of peanut butter than, when I last looked, was full. I might pop to the shop for loo roll or fairy liquid, and come back with a metric ton of cheesey puffs and chocolate. Before going veggie I could be stood in the takeaway, saying to myself over and over “Just a small pizza”, but when asked what I want it comes out as “Large meat feast with fries and diet coke…” coz you know, diet coke makes all the fucking difference. Then I sit at home and eat the whole thing whilst at the same time feeling completely lost and out of control, disgusting and degenerate but with no apparent ability to stop.
“So?” I hear the doubters say “That’s not an eating disorder, you just need willpower.”
I have heard those words from not just people looking to be nasty, or just shut me up. I have heard them from people who genuinely think that those words are the kindest, most helpful thing to say to me. But it isn’t the same as having a ‘pig out’ every now and then. It isn’t sitting there after going a couple of biscuits over the usual, or treating yourself to dessert and then feeling naughty. This is knowing exactly how shitty you are going to feel after and yet feeling utterly powerless to hold yourself back, and until you have experienced it, or similar things like addiction, it is very hard to relate to.
Let me explain about my ‘willpower’. I obsess about food and eating. I obsess about calorie counting. Every moment of every day I am thinking about food. Sometimes it is in there with the other stuff I think about, other times it is the only thing flashing in my defective brain, but it is always there. My willpower is almost constantly on, resisting this, resisting that, avoiding temptation, but all it takes is one lapse. My willpower can be on full strength for 23 hours and 55 minutes every single day, but the damage I can do to my diet, my waistline and, ultimate, my future in five minutes is fucking spectacular.
One of those large Cadbury’s chocolate bars that costs about £1 doesn’t even last a minute… BANG! 500 unwanted calories.
Crisps? 100g bag, gone in 2 minutes… another 500 calories.
A jar of peanut butter and a whole loaf of white bread… I don’t even want to know how quick that would disappear… 3-4,000 calories.
Having a good day? I’ll have the urge to ride the high with food. Bad day? Pick myself up with food. Rock Bottom? Nah, it’s not rock bottom ‘til I’ve eaten a whole cheesecake by myself and I’m clawing at my own arms or beating my head against a wall to try and snap myself out of this self-destructive trance with as much pain as I can inflict on myself.
When I am stood within dashing distance of the bathroom and downing as much water as possible to try and ‘ctrl-z’ the binge, I get the feeling that willpower is not my primary problem.
So what help is out there for people with similar issues? There’s a support group in Leicester for overeaters, who meet every week at the Peepul Centre… except they don’t. I turned up to their weekly meeting only to find that none of them had. They hadn’t left a message with the centre about it being cancelled, and the contact details they had on their literature were defunct.
I went to my GP and asked for help. He just said he’ll refer me to a dietician (a referral I am still waiting for by the way) which is not what I need.
I bought Paul McKenna’s book ‘Overcoming emotional Eating’ which has helped me somewhat, but I still fail all too often.
Overeating is not like Anorexia or Bulimia, it doesn’t kill you. It is sneakier than that. It damages your body so much that other stuff kills you instead. I guess the indirectness of the damage is the hardest thing people have to get their head around when trying to gauge the seriousness of the condition.
There is a website (www.b-eat.co.uk) which seeks to offer advice to people with eating disorders. Apparently when a feature on The Wright Stuff last week covered emotional overeating, the b-eat website crashed within moments of the link appearing on screen, yet all the advice I can gather from it is to go to see your GP. Well I already tried that.
So why am I talking about this? Is this to give myself yet another label? No, I have enough of those already, and people are always quick to add another whether I want one or not. I am talking about this because the statistics say that this is by far the most common eating disorder. This is a problem than affects men and women equally, and is believed to be responsible for a large proportion of obesity cases in the western world. Whatever the root causes of our emotional compulsion to eat, there are so many of us with this problem, but no one really wants to talk about it. Like with so many other issues, we would rather listen to the medical opinions of social pundits or fashion magazines telling us, over those of actual medical professionals. What scares me is that I have sought help and been met largely with apathy and this attitude has to change.