Stolen Years

Allowing myself to feel,

To cry,

To realise just how much you stole from me.

Peace, inner calm,

The strength to be myself.

The courage to admit just how terrified I was.

Sapping my self-esteem

Till I felt worthless, unworthy of any joy.

The feeling of dread

That they would all realise I was a fraud,

Not knowing what I was doing.

Seeming calm but completely out of control,

Wanting it to end,

But not knowing how.

Eating down the sadness,

Throwing up the fear,

Not knowing why

But knowing it was wrong.

Knowing they’d be horrified

If they ever knew.

Trapped in the cycle

Year after year.

So many years stolen.

So few remain.

Time to make them count.

It’s been a year!

On 24th July, 2021, I wrote the post “I binged today. Here’s what I learned.”

At the time, it didn’t cross my mind that I’d go a whole year without a full-on, painful, BED-style binge.

Yet here we are, in August 2022, and I haven’t binged like that since. There were so many points where it could have, and previously would have happened, and yet somehow it hasn’t. And I’m not even sure why.

I’ve certainly come very close. I’ve planned binges, bought binge foods, then put them away. I’ve had days when I just wanted not to feel, to numb myself, but used other ways to cope. And I’ve had days when I’ve eaten past fullness, just to take the edge off.

I’ve had plenty of days when I’ve hated my body, wanted to shrink it, trade it in for one that works properly and doesn’t hurt. When I’ve blamed it when something went wrong. I spent every day at my parents’ home in oversized and black clothes because when I packed, I was taking my anxiety about travelling out on myself.

I’ve delayed eating until lunchtime, even dinnertime some days. I’ve eaten nothing but binge foods every meal for days at a time until my body has screamed for something green.

I’ve eaten mindlessly. I’ve gone for weeks at a time without moving my body. I’ve had days when I’ve eaten nothing at all thanks to migraine induced nausea, and days where I’ve done nothing but graze.

But what I haven’t done is fall into such a pit of self-loathing that my only response is to binge until my stomach is so bloated and painful I could cry.

Why am I telling you all this? Because recovery isn’t about being perfect. Aiming for perfection can contribute to an eating disorder in itself. No, recovery is messy. It’s one step at a time, then sometimes three back. It’s learning as you go along: learning from mistakes, as well as successes. And it can look different every single day.

You take each challenge, each new experience as it comes. Leaping into the unknown, sometimes curious, sometimes terrified, holding onto the knowledge that whatever you face it won’t be as bad as before, when you were in the depths of the disorder, unable to see a way out.

Then little by little, the good days start to outnumber the bad. You face challenges, and change, and upset, and disappointment, and don’t automatically default to those old eating disorder coping strategies: bingeing, purging or restriction.

And one day, seemingly from nowhere, you realise that the eating disorder is no longer in control. It’s not screaming anymore. It’s a whisper, sometimes so quiet you can barely hear it. Sometimes it’s not even there at all.

It’s been a year since I last binged. My eating disorder is no longer in control. I’m in recovery. And I couldn’t be more proud.

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Am I addicted to sugar?

This week, Richard Osman opened up about what he referred to as food addiction, and it got me thinking: am I a sugar addict?

There have been times is my life when I’ve wondered if I’m addicted to sugar. Pretty much every binge I’ve ever had contained at least a sweet component, anything from cereal or bread and jam to cakes, chocolate and ice cream. And there are so many “experts” who claim that sugar addiction is real.

The thing is, I followed the conventional advice and tried to “detox” time and time again, and yet I still craved, still binged, still hated and punished myself for my inability to control myself around sweet foods. Even after diagnosis and treatment for Binge Eating Disorder, I still didn’t feel safe around sugar. I continued to binge on sweet foods.

By this point I had finally managed to give up smoking, and I had been a heavy and committed smoker for a very long time. The addictive properties of nicotine are well documented. Yet in a matter of weeks, the cigarette cravings paled into insignificance compared to the all-consuming need to binge on sweet foods.

I went online looking for a solution, and this is where I first saw the term intuitive eating. I learned more about the concept of restriction causing cravings, and finally things started to make sense.

I had been inadvertently taught that sugar was bad from an early age. I remembered my mother telling me how she’d been annoyed at my Nan for putting sugar in my tea. And at my granddad for sending me home with bags of treats.

Don’t get me wrong, we had sweet food at home. But there were comments if I tried to eat too much. And then there was the pre-Christmas diet. Of course, I didn’t really know back then that money was tight and my mother was trying to stretch it further. So I internalised a different message.

And yet some of my fondest memories of childhood involved sweet food. Baking with my mother on weekends. Her teaching me to make pastry and cakes. Going to the sweet shop with my granddad and being allowed an ice-cream cone to eat on the way back. My great aunt’s home baked cherry cakes when she looked after us in the school holidays.

Sugar became a source of comfort, yet forbidden. It made me feel good, yet bad. And it became wrapped up in those emotions and more as my bingeing took hold.

But was I addicted? I haven’t been able to find anything conclusive to indicate that sugar is physically addictive in the same way that nicotine and opiates are. And when I look at the physical impact of bingeing, it wasn’t about a “sugar high” for me. I didn’t want to feel anything. I was trying to stuff down my emotions. And usually after a binge I felt awful, in physical pain and full of self-loathing.

But there is a seductive power in the forbidden. Human beings have always wanted what they are told they can’t have. Countless legends have been built around it. Wars have been waged over it. And society is very clear that sugar is bad for you and should be restricted, if not avoided altogether. So it makes sense that’s what I wanted. Savoury food never held that same power over me because that was “allowed”.

And this is why I think that intuitive eating is the key to full recovery for me. It is the only thing I have ever tried that has loosened sugar’s grip on me. It is a long and very gradual process, but I am reaching the point where snacks are left in the cupboard, where I can open a packet of biscuits without finishing them, where I am discovering that there are some sweet foods I don’t even like very much.

It is by removing its power that I am healing, not through detox. By allowing sugar unconditionally, not through abstinence. And there is an increasing body of research in support of this.

So am I addicted to sugar? No, I don’t think so. But I have definitely felt like I was at times. And so I am not discounting food addiction as a concept entirely. And I am all for everyone expressing themselves and their difficulties in the way that they feel best describes them.

Richard Osman has done a brave and wonderful thing in sharing a little of his story this week, and I am sure there are many who feel less alone as a result.

Breaking my silence

This week marks a year since I finally had THAT conversation with my mother. The one where I finally told her the secret I had kept for forty years…

I told my parents about my diagnosis of BED a few years ago, when I started treatment. We had a few conversations about what it involved, and they did their best to understand. The conversations mostly focused around practicalities – my need to eat regular meals and snacks, for example, so they understood why my eating habits had changed.

I remember my dad struggling, and confusing my treatment with a conventional weight loss diet. I remember my mum thinking that time I ate 2 mince pies late one evening was a binge, and trying to explain to her that a binge was way, way more than that. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure they will ever truly understand. It’s taken me decades to, and I was the one with the illness. But at least they finally knew I had BED, and was trying to get better.

What we never discussed was when it all started, and that I had kept my shameful secret from them since I was eight years old. Why not? Well, for one, they never asked. But mostly, I didn’t want to upset them. I didn’t want them to blame themselves. I had no idea whether they had even noticed. But that’s traditionally the way my family functioned. A lot went unsaid back when I was a child.

By this time last year, I was finally ready to open up. I had been campaigning against mental health stigma for a while. I wanted to be more open about BED, my most shameful and secret diagnosis. It was the one which carried the most stigma, the least spoken about, the most misunderstood, the one I could find very little about online, and therefore the one it was most important to speak out about.

And this was about to happen. BEAT had decided to make BED the focus of eating disorder awareness week 2021. I was contributing my lived experience towards the campaign and in the process of deciding whether to share my story publicly as part of it. But the idea of my parents finding out accidentally if I did? It was too much to bear.

So on this week a year ago, I finally told my mother that when I was around eight years old, I started stealing food from the pantry. Food I hoped wouldn’t be noticed. And that these behaviours and more continued for the rest of my childhood, all through my adulthood, until I finally had treatment and started working towards recovery in my forties.

It turns out, I had done an excellent job of hiding it. She had no idea. We had a frank and open conversation about it, and some events from my childhood. I was able to tell her that she wasn’t to blame. That I was just trying to cope in the only way I knew how. Because she did ask the question I’m sure most parents ask: is it my fault?

It wasn’t an easy conversation. It took an immense amount of strength to finally say these things out loud. And it took an emotional toll to process it. But the only thing I regret about that conversation is that it didn’t happen years earlier. Because that conversation was one of the most pivotal moments of my life to date.

From that point, I could be honest, open, and loud about my struggles with BED. I could try to help break down the secrecy, help others realise they’re not alone. Because I felt so, so alone for so long. I could help people realise that what they were doing isn’t wrong or shameful, it’s an illness which can be treated. I could show people that recovery is possible. I could spread hope. And soon after, the BED Post blog was born.

And if someone you know has told you they have BED and you can’t work out why you didn’t notice the signs? This is why: my mother never knew because I didn’t want her to. The same with my father, my sister, my friends, and the men I have had relationships with, including my ex-husband. I became very good at keeping people at arms length. At hiding binges, and the evidence of binges.

There’s still a misconception that eating disorders are just attention seeking. I’m telling this story to show that the opposite is true. You don’t keep something secret for decades if you’re looking for attention.

BED is an incredibly lonely illness. But it doesn’t need to be. With more awareness and understanding, with less shame and stigma, with more training, research and evidence-based treatment, people’s lives could be changed for the better. People wouldn’t wait 40 years to have THAT conversation. Or never have it at all.