Reclaiming Yourself from Binge Eating: A Step-by-Step Guide to Healing
Leora Fulvio joined us for the following book interview. What follows are our questions, and her thoughtful responses.
In your book, you liken recovery from Binge Eating Disorder to “breaking up with someone who you have been in a dysfunctional relationship with …” Can you please comment further?
One of the things I’ve heard consistently from clients, (and been through myself) is that they couldn’t wait to be alone so they could act out with food. I started to refer to food as “the other lover,” or “ the mistress,” because so many clients would want to get away from their husbands or boyfriends or even leave dates early so they could binge. They would break plans with friends or leave places or events early so that they could exercise. They would sacrifice their relationships with the people they loved and who loved them to engage in their eating disorder behaviors. Acting out with food became their secret lover. But whenever they had a rendezvous with this secret lover, they felt terrible. They felt sick, depressed, anxious and ashamed yet continued to feel compelled to meet up with this paramour. They felt powerless to leave despite the fact that their behaviors with food, exercise and dieting had taken over their lives and created massive trauma for them. It also in many cases created a schism in their own relationships with significant others, friends, and family. This is because they often choose to spend time doing their maladaptive behaviors (bingeing, over-exercising and avoiding food or places where there would be food) rather than spending time in their other relationships. When they were not doing these behaviors, they were often obsessing about the behaviors which also can make someone less present in their relationships. However, despite the fact that the relationship with the eating disorder activities are so dysfunctional, they have been with it for so long, that they feel trapped in it, almost like Stockholm Syndrome. When they are finally free from the behaviors, they are able to see how trapped they were inside an unhealthy relationship with food, their body image and their inner critic.
In your opinion, how do perceived powerlessness and choice impact BED?
I have many different thoughts about that. In many ways I think that we actually are powerless to society’s messages about the way people, specifically woman, should look and should behave. TV commercials selling desserts have taglines like, “go ahead, it’s okay to be naughty…” implying that you are bad if you eat a certain way, but you can go ahead and sneak around with food. Ideas about celebrities getting right back into shape after pregnancy or calling out people for being too fat or too skinny. It’s rampant and in some ways we are powerless to these messages. And so part of what happens is that the messages permeate the minds of the collective consciousness and it’s easy to just follow those messages blindly. “Eat, diet, eat, diet, I have to be thin, I have to sneak my food, I have to diet, I have to eat this cake in secret because it’s naughty…” but actually the power lies in trying to dissociate from these messages and not allowing them to make up your mind for you. You have to sit quietly and find your own true inner voice to find out what is right for you and your body.
In other ways we aren’t powerless but we believe we are. We believe that we are powerless over urges to binge on certain foods, or we believe that if we have an urge to binge that we have to act on it. And it feels that way too. It can feel as though we are powerless against urges. The pain of wanting to binge can be quickly alleviated by bingeing, and so it can feel like you are powerless against that urge. But the truth is that this is not a pain that is going to ultimately hurt you. Using mindfulness, breath and loving kindness, to refocus away from both the urge to binge and the urge to diet will only help you to regain power so that you don’t feel totally powerless against the urge.
Can you please share some details of your suggestions to delay and interrupt a binge?
I really like delaying binges. This is because when you choose to delay a binge, you interrupt the compulsion. It is the compulsion to binge that ultimately drives you to binge and the eating that compels you to continue.
In a time when you are feeling neutral and non-bingey, create a “do something different list,” which is a list of things that are alternatives to bingeing. I like these to be emotionally and/or physically nurturing activities, such as taking a bath, talking on the phone to someone who makes you feel good, stretching journaling, taking a walk or taking a nap or just laying down and breathing. I have more suggestions on my blog.
Then, when you first notice the urge to binge, tell yourself that it is okay to binge, but that you are going to wait a little bit. Set your alarm or your phone for 20 minutes. In that 20 minutes, choose to do an activity on your do something different list. You aren’t trying to fight with your urge or to gain willpower, you are trying to learn to refocus your brain when you are in the midst of a compulsion. When you start to refocus you begin to create new neural pathways, or brain connections. The more you practice refocusing your energy the easier it becomes. Where you focus your attention is what gets strength. Your brain will strengthen the circuitry when you repeat habits over and over again and get the desired affect. So if you seek out food when you are stressed and you do that over and over again, those circuits become very strong which then encourages you to repeat those actions over and over again. The same thing happens when you choose a different action or reaction to pain, sadness or want. Your brain eventually gets used to your new reaction and strengthens that part of you. It does not come naturally at first, it is definitely a practice, which is why finding loving distractions to refocus your mind off the pain of desire (the urge) can be so helpful and healing.
Your “Mirror Exercise” is an opportunity for people to experience loving compassion. How have your readers responded to this?
When most people with EDs look at the mirror, they tend to dwell on what they perceive to be their physical flaws. This exercise is about focusing on who you are behind and underneath your perceptions of what you see. It’s about showing loving kindness to the person, not to the outward appearance of the body. It is at first difficult for readers because they are so used to looking at their bodies and thinking about what to change. However, learning how to look and see what’s good, not just physically but really the gestalt of your person, can be liberating. It’s the looking at the body and trying to change it that keeps us in our disorder. However, learning how to be with what is is what allows for the behaviors to dissipate. I recently had a reader send me this:
“I am 60 days binge free today! But letting go of binging, after 33 years, is not a magical panacea. The real journey is accepting my real body, the one I live in without manipulation, the one that exists with regular nourishing adequate meals and movement that feels good…”
This is what made me cry, because I realized that she got it. Recovery and Reclaiming Yourself is not about finally losing those last ten pounds, it’s about regaining all that wasted time and energy on body hatred, diets, fruitless weight loss pursuits, detoxes, etc.
In Step Twenty, you address “Healing Shame.” Can you please discuss the interplay between self-limiting thoughts and shame?
Self limiting thoughts and the behaviors associated with them are created to defend against shame. The unconscious belief is that if you carry out certain behaviors consistently, you won’t be hurt or shamed. For instance, a common self-limiting thought is, “I have to be productive constantly.” The belief underneath this is usually something like, “If I’m not always doing something or being productive, I am unworthy and I lack value…” and so in order to defend against being judged (or the perception of being judged by others) many folks will work or constantly try to be productive in order to make sure that they are held in highest esteem by others, but ultimately by themselves. It is endless work. But the truth is, letting go of that need to control other people’s judgment (which is most often your own self judgment) is letting go of shame. When you focus on your own authentic values and your individual needs, rather than fabricating someone else’s thoughts about you and behaving according to what you have projected onto them, you can find liberation.
As you speak to the reader with your Steps, you offer exercises, many of which are journal opportunities. What do you say to those who “hate journaling?”
I think that people usually “hate journaling” because it sets up too much of a precedent about doing things the right way or of having to do it daily or having to be perfect in their journaling. My advice for my readers is to journal through the steps that are resonant for them and that strike them as important or something that they want to investigate further. If they are still disinterested in writing things down, they can still find value in many of these steps by just pondering the questions and answers.
You chose to share some of your own background with an Eating Disorder. How has your history impacted your book?
I don’t think that there were words or descriptions of what I did with food when I was in it. I was either dieting really hard or eating till I was uncomfortable. But I wasn’t alone. It was a totally acceptable and encouraged for me to be on a diet or to live off of diet coke and baked tortilla chips. In fact, when I was young, I asked my stepmother how to lose weight. She, who was both a wonderful and intelligent woman who I respected, told me that I should just go as long as I could without eating, just keep putting it off until dinner time, and then I would lose weight. My mother on the other hand was a little less disordered but very regimented. Her menu consisted of brown rice, squash, tofu and salads. So my model of eating was always dieting. I remember at age 16 thinking, “when will I be done? I really want to be done dieting.” But it didn’t occur to me that I could just be done at that moment. I had to hit my “goal weight.” But it was a moving target and of course I never made it there. I would diet and diet and diet, then I’d be so hungry that I’d just eat and eat and eat. I’d feel so ashamed and so angry at myself. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just “be super skinny” the way I wanted to. It was constant self-scrutiny.
A good friend of mine, who suffered with bulimia entered into a strict regimented 12-step group to help stop her behaviors. We began talking a lot about what we did with food. She binged and purged and couldn’t understand how I could binge without purging, “Well I just don’t eat the next day,” I told her. It was then that I began learning more about Binge Eating Disorder. I realized that what I did, bingeing without purging was an actual thing with a name and that I wasn’t alone.
My own transformation led me to career in counseling and working at an Intensive Outpatient clinic for women with eating. I also began doing an independent study about Binge Eating Disorder. I realized that there was very little information or help for women and men who suffered in the same way that I did because dieting was both supported and encouraged in our society. In 2007 I started my blog Recover to support people all over the world who couldn’t stop dieting and couldn’t stop bingeing and thought that there was something wrong with them because they just couldn’t seem to stay on their diets. I wanted to get the message out that it wasn’t them, it was the diet. I then wrote my book utilizing my own experience, as well as the experience of several of my clients and the experiences and questions that I was getting from my blog audience. My hope was to let people know that they were not alone and that freedom was definitely in reach.
About the Author:
Leora Fulvio is a Licensed Psychotherapist in Marin County California specializing in treating Binge Eating Disorder. She is also the Mom of two toddler boys and one ten year old cat. It is her mission to help people get out from under the tyranny of unrealistic body images and help them to find and align with their authentic values so they can enjoy their lives.