Stories of Recovery
BRAIN OVER BINGE
By Kathryn Hansen
My name is Kathryn Hansen. I am the author of Brain over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn’t Work, and How I Recovered for Good. This book has been a goal of mine since my worst days of bulimia when I couldn’t find a way to stop binge eating and purging. I vowed that if I ever found a way to recover, I’d write about it in the hope of helping others struggling with the same horrible problem. Here I’ll share a brief version of my story with the same goal in mind – to give hope to other bulimics and binge eaters, and to humbly offer a possible solution, based on my own experiences and hard-learned lessons.
My eating disorder started in 1997 like most eating disorders do – with a diet. At the age of 15, I began slowly cutting back on calories and increasing my exercise until my weight became alarmingly low. During the time I was restricting food and losing weight, I felt like my appetite was a monumental problem. The more I cut back on my food intake, the more I wanted to eat, until one day in March of 1999 I lost control and binged for the first time. Little did I know, this was only a natural biological response to food deprivation â€”my body and brain were trying to protect me from starvation, and in a strong survival reaction, my powerful brain drove me to binge. But, at the time, I couldn’t just sit back and accept the gluttonous thing I’d done; so I purged.
My binge eating (and purging to compensate for the binge eating) increased gradually until it became a life-consuming habit. Despite much therapy, my binge eating continued for six years, until I finally found a way to take full responsibility for my problem, and take control of my own behavior. Before I can explain how I eventually recovered, I need to explain why years of therapy did not help me. Let me preface this by saying that traditional therapy heals many, and I’m not trying to take away what works for others. I am only explaining why it didn’t work for me, and offering an alternative voice for those like me who are not healed by traditional therapy, and for those who are unable or unwilling to receive it.
In therapy, I learned the common theme of most conventional eating disorder treatment: eating disorders are not about food. I learned that my bulimia was a symptom of psychological problems like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and family conflicts. I learned that my destructive eating behavior signaled an inner emotional crisis. My therapists said I used my bulimia as a coping mechanism to deal with issues and feelings I couldn’t face. They said my binge eating filled an important need or void in my life – a need that was much more than physical.
In therapy, no one told me I had the power to quit binge eating anytime I chose. Instead, I learned I didn’t have much control over my own behavior; that is, until I addressed the underlying emotional issues. I tried to address those supposed underlying issues for years. I set out on a path of self-discovery, hoping to find some answers to why I binged, hoping that if I made some changes in my life, healed past hurts, or built new relationships, the incredible urges to binge would go away. I learned ways to deal with depression, reduce anxiety, and build healthy self-esteem. I worked on my nutrition, battled my perfectionism, and learned to cope with the events and feelings that supposedly triggered my binge eating episodes. I tried to figure out what purpose the bulimia served in my life. But all the while, I continued to binge and purge.
Therapy didn’t work for me because it did not target my problem directly; instead, my therapists tried to cure me in round-about way, addressing all sorts of issues that didn’t have much to do with my real problem – binge eating. Furthermore, the view of my bulimia as a complicated problem that helped me fill some sort of emotional need gave me countless excuses to indulge my habit and countless reasons to avoid responsibility for my own actions. When I believed I was binge eating to deal with depression, cope with anxiety, avoid feelings and problems, ease pain from the past, or because I had a disease, it gave me all the more reason to go ahead and binge.
I don’t blame my therapists because after all, they were only trying to help me, and they were always sensitive and supportive. Dealing with underlying issues and triggers helps many, but it simply didn’t empower me to stop binge eating, and there are many like me who have had the same experience. I was able to recover only after I decided to view my eating disorder differently: by dismissing the belief that I binged for deeper, more profound reasons, and completely changing how I approached my problem.
I recovered abruptly in May of 2005. I believe that I have zero risk for relapse, even during stressful times in my life. My daily struggle with food is finished; the pain that my habits brought me has disappeared; the misery of those years of binge eating is gone. The relief I feel to have put my eating disorder behind me is beyond words. Yet, my recovery was not typical. It did not involve meal plans, emotional self-discovery, spiritual enlightenment, or a higher power. It did not result from a decrease in anxiety, an increase in happiness, an improvement in self-esteem, a new medication, or any major life change. It was simply me, armed with a bit of knowledge, finally taking control of my own actions. Next, I’ll explain briefly how I was able to achieve complete recovery.
The most important thing I had to learn to recover was that there was nothing wrong with me. I was not diseased, or psychologically or emotionally unwell. I’d simply become a temporary become a victim of my own healthy brain “a brain” that was only doing its job through all the years I was bulimic. I had to stop viewing my binge eating as a symptom of underlying emotional issues and psychological problems, and start seeing it as a symptom of something very real and concrete going on in my very healthy brain. I had to dismiss the belief that I binged to cope with problems and emotions, and instead learn how my brain worked to drive my destructive behavior.
My brain drove my binge eating by sending out strong urges to binge which included all the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and cravings that led me to the refrigerator, pantry, or the nearest fast food restaurant. These urges to binge were the one and only cause of each and every binge, from my first binge to my last. If I’d never had urges to binge, I never would have binged. It was that simple. My urges to binge were not symptoms of anything; they were the problem, the only reason I was bulimic.
My urges were generated in the more primitive regions of my brain ”that is, in lower brain regions” the regions responsible for survival and automatic behavior. The urges first appeared when I was dieting because of survival instincts, and the urges continued because my repeated binge eating conditioned a habit into my brain. By stuffing large amounts of food in my mouth over and over again, I made my body and brain dependent on the binges. I strengthened neural pathways and affected neurochemicals, making the destructive habit easier and easier to repeat and the urges more and more irresistible.
All the while, I knew binge eating was not what I truly wanted to do. The urges to binge felt like a terrible intrusion in my life, ruining any hope I had for normal college and young adult years, and driving me to do shameful and disgusting things. Even though I wanted to quit, I couldn’t just say, OK, brain, I don’t want to binge anymore, so turn off those irresistible urges. It didn’t work that way. Once my habit was established, there was no way to turn off my urges except to re-train my brain so that it stopped producing those urges in the first place. Re-training my brain was actually quite simple, and illustrated by the following two questions:
How did I create the habit of bulimia in the first place?
By acting on my urges to binge many times.
How did I reverse the habit of bulimia?
By not acting on my urges to binge many times.
It was straightforward: to reverse my bulimia, to undo my habit, I had to stop following my urges to binge. That was the simple truth that often eluded me in therapy as I was focusing on the deeper emotional meaning of my binge eating. No matter how much progress I was making dealing with emotional issues in therapy, my urges would never go away as long as I kept acting on them; because acting on them allowed my brain to keep strengthening the neural connections and pathways that produced those urges.
The good news for me was, when it comes to the brain, what you no longer use, you lose “not in a metaphorical sense, but in a real, physical way”. The brain is an extremely efficient organ. It builds and fuels the neural connections and pathways that are frequently used, and it weakens and prunes the ones that aren’t. From the first time I had an urge to binge and didn’t act on it, I began teaching my brain that my habit was no longer necessary. In turn, my brain began to weaken the neural connections and pathways that supported the habit, and gradually shut off my urges to binge.
But, how did I stop acting on my urges? There were five things I did (listed below) that allowed me to refrain from following urges to binge:
1. I viewed my urges to binge as neurological junk. (This means I quit believing the urges signaled a real need ”physical or emotional” and stopped assigning the urges any value whatsoever. I viewed them as automatic brain messages ”generated in my lower brain” that had absolutely no significance.)
2. I separated my highest human brain from my urges. (This means I realized the urges weren’t really me, but instead were generated in brain regions inferior to my true self. My true self resided in my prefrontal cortex ”my highest human brain” and it gave me the ability to say “no” to binge eating. I had to know my urges were powerless to make me binge, and my true self had ultimate control over my voluntary actions.)
3. I stopped reacting to my urges. (This means I stopped letting my urges to binge affect me emotionally. I simply let them come and go without getting wrapped up in them. This made the urges tolerable and actually easy to resist.)
4. I stopped acting on my urges. (This was the cure for my bulimia, made possible by the three steps above. I didn’t have to substitute any other behavior or emotionally satisfying activity for binge eating. I only had to refrain from binge eating.)
5. I got excited. (This was a bonus. By rejoicing in my success, I sped along the brain changes that erased my bulimia.)
Together, the five steps above comprise what I mean by “brain over binge” the title of my book. This concept is definitely an offshoot of “mind over matter” because it was my mind my true self, my prefrontal cortex, my highest human brain that had the capacity to override the harmful matter, my urges to binge, coming from my primitive, lower brain. The prefrontal cortex the seat of the true self lies structurally above and forward of (over) the lower brain; therefore, my recovery was not only mind over matter, it was quite literally brain over binge.
My urges to binge went away quickly after I stopped acting on them, and soon my bulimia was a distant memory. Today, I might not be the perfect, successful, confident, shining example of what I once thought a recovered bulimic should be “in love with life and in love with myself” but each day, I do have the opportunity to live a real life, with all the joy and pain it brings. I have some faults, problems, and weaknesses â€“ like everyone else in the world; but without the bulimia, those problems are immeasurably more manageable. I now a husband and three children of my own, and I can be available to them and to all the people I care about. Without my bulimia consuming me, I am better able to tackle the daily challenges that I face, even if I don’t always cope perfectly.
I know some may question the legitimacy of my recovery, saying that stopping the binge eating (and purging) is only treating the “symptom” of a deeper problem or disease. Some may say that if I stopped binge eating without resolving the underlying issues, I will inevitably relapse or I will turn to other unhealthy means of coping like drugs, alcohol, or other self-harming behaviors. Some may say stopping behaviors is only one aspect of recovery from an eating disorder, and by just doing that and calling myself recovered, I am selling myself short. I do not have space to address those criticisms or countless other issues surrounding my bulimia and recovery here, but I do address them in my book.
My ideas may be a bit different from mainstream approaches, but since traditional therapy doesn’t cure everyone, there is certainly room for alternatives. No one should have to live with an eating disorder, and I believe that more ideas and differing viewpoints only increases the chances of curing everyone; because after all, we are all different and different approaches work for different people. If my recovery story can help even one person escape the torment that bulimia brings, I will have done enough.
Author Bio: Kathryn Hansen is an author and stay-at-home mother of three young children. She is a native of New Orleans and currently lives in Phoenix, AZ. She can be reached through her website, www.brainoverbinge.com.