Three Essential Steps in My Recovery from Binge Eating Disorder

Three Essential Steps in My Recovery from Binge Eating Disorder

By Ellen Shuman, Binge Eating Recovery Coachellen head open smile white shirt

Critical Insight #1: I realized I shifted my attention to “food-thoughts” whenever I didn’t want to think, feel, or do something else.

As I listen daily to others talk about origins of their Binge Eating Disorder, I realize my own story is not at all unique. My details might be different from yours, but we all have a story to unravel; a narrative from which to learn and grow. Here’s mine…

I grew up in a garden-variety dysfunctional family. My Mom was unpredictable; sometimes loving, often angry. She had no emotional regulation skills! Much of my energy as a child went into figuring out ways to manage her moods, just so I could feel safe. There was no room in that family for my feelings.

My Dad was emotionally and physically absent; he’d leave the house whenever my Mom raged.

He left the house for good when I was 14 and married his mistress.

Both of my parents managed their emotions with food; sometimes through restricting, sometimes through bingeing. Many-a-night I’d catch Mom or Dad standing in a darkened kitchen sneaking something sweet from under a dome-covered cake plate, shame and crumbs visible on their faces.

I don’t remember a time in my childhood when I wasn’t food-focused. I was “a good girl”, but ellentable-1always looking to score (or sneak) cookies, Hostess cupcakes, ice cream from the Good Humor Man, buttered toast with cinnamon and sugar, TV dinners. I really loved the cherry Pine Brothers Cough Drops my sweet grandfather, Papa Ben, carried for us in his shirt pocket. Simultaneously, my other grandfather, Lou, regularly and very publicly tried to bribe me, “I’ll give you one dollar for every pound you lose,” he’d say.

My mother’s way of addressing my binge eating was to put me on more diets than I can remember, just as her parents had done to her. Mom even talked our pediatrician into giving me diet pills (amphetamines), starting at age 8. When I look at pictures of me from childhood, chubby at times, sure, but so what? What were they thinking?

Nothing stopped my bingeing for any significant period of time. The diets just made me want to binge more.

Despite the fact that I had lots of “stick-to-it-iveness” (even hyper vigilance) in many other areas of my life, nothing my Mom or I tried “fixed” me. I’m not sure when I started feeling this way, but I grew up believing I was different from everyone else; that I was a problem that needed to be fixed… if I could just figure out what to do, how to lose enough weight…I could get happy…

In my 20’s, I was still binge eating and simultaneously excelling professionally. I was a successful TV News Reporter; Emmy and Peabody Award Winning. I was bewildered, frustrated, depressed, and full of shame. WHY COULDN’T I STOP THIS? It made no sense.

I sought help from diet doctors, dietitians, and many psychotherapists. In therapy I talked about and gained a great deal of insight into my family’s dysfunction. In hindsight, though, I find it quite telling that in the middle of many of those therapy sessions…when the feelings started to get too intense…I’d start to plan my next binge, in my head, right then and there in the therapist’s office. I couldn’t wait to wrap up those sessions so I could go binge!

In truth, I never shared that pattern of thinking with any of those therapists…and back then, not one therapist ever asked me to talk about my food or binge thoughts. So I missed making that all-important connection between my avoidance of intense feelings and my compulsive shift to food thoughts.

Several of my early therapists told me I was using food to “control.” They said when I understood what happened in my childhood, my binge behaviors would just dissipate.

(Note…We now know that’s outdated, simplistic thinking. Binge Eating Disorder is so much more complicated than that. Contributing factors in the development of BED can include a complex mix of heredity and genetic vulnerabilities, depression, anxiety, stress, high interpersonal sensitivity, brain chemistry and conditioned brain states, hormones, environmental influences, increased access to high sugar/high fat foods in our diet, dieting history, internalization of the thin ideal, bullying and abuse, just to name a few…)

So, my binge eating continued, most often right after work (I call that “transition-eating”), and until bedtime when I would pass out on the couch in a food-haze. On weekends, with less structure in my days, I isolated in my apartment, ordered large pizzas, 2-liter bottles of caffeinated Diet Coke, and many desserts. I binged on movies and ate some more. I felt so much shame but still kept bingeing…

Well-meaning friends and clinicians offered seemingly practical, yet infuriating suggestions like,

“Instead of ordering a pizza, why not take a walk around the block. Or, what about finding some new hobby, Ellen?”

“You’re clearly a stress eater, Ellen. So, instead of bingeing at night why not take a hot bubble bath and relaxxxxxxx?”

They didn’t get it! Advice like that left me feeling misunderstood and hopeless. My Binge Eating Disorder was not about pizza, a walk, or a bath. And why would I be willing to jump into a hot bubble bath and stew in the very feelings I didn’t know how to tolerate?

Finally, the pieces started to fall into place. It all began to made sense…

Obsessive thinking about food was a way to self-soothe; a way to avoid, distract, dissociate from every single uncomfortable thought or feeling that might possibly swirl around in my head.

Food thoughts were my go-to strategy for procrastination when I wanted to avoid a task, a project, cleaning my house, going grocery shopping. If I was thinking about food, I was not thinking about anything else!

Compulsive diet thoughts and weighing thoughts served the same purpose for me. I could distract myself from all internal awareness and connection by obsessing about the details of a new diet…or by saying “I feel so fat”. Then, I could keep up the illusion that if I could just lose enough weight, all would be well in my world.

Ironically, I had shifted my attention to bingeing, dieting, and weight obsession because I wanted to feel better in my skin…but it all left me feeling full of despair. 

Critical Insight #2 If I was going to give up bingeing as my primary way to self-soothe, I needed new emotional regulation tools.

I finally understood that my food thoughts were not random and they were not really about food. I had been using mindless eating to avoid being conscious, to avoid living mindfully!  Food thoughts, mindless eating, obsessing about new diets, or about what I weighed on any given day, were the only emotional regulation tools I’d had….until I discovered DBT Skills.

DBT; Dialectical Behavior Therapy, developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD, for work with Borderline Personality Disorder and then adapted for use with Binge Eating and Bulimia by Safer, Telch, and Chen, offered me the missing skills and tools I needed. Those include,

  • Core Mindfulness Skills
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills
  • Emotional Regulation Skills
  • Distress Tolerance Skills

Just because I missed out on learning these important skills earlier in my life, did not mean it was too late for me. I wasn’t born to be a binge eater. I learned it, found binge eating soothing, practiced it until I got very good at it and my brain just went there on auto-pilot. I decided I could do the same with practicing DBT Skills. I could make these new mindfulness skills my new “auto-pilot”.

(Note…there is emerging evidence that Mindfulness Work changes the brain! The latest neuroscience research tells us our brains are not rigid, as we once thought. The brain has the ability to change its structure and function in response to new experience. It’s called “neuroplasticity” and we’re never too old to grow new neurons in response to new experiences. Very exciting!)

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~Viktor E. Frankl, MD, Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor

That’s one of my favorite recovery quotes. I liked DBT because it gave me actual tools to use to create that “space” between the “stimulus”; which was the situation or habit that triggered my food thought…and whatever “response” I was going to choose next. I found, in that “space,” I could reach for my DBT skills instead of a milkshake. I could hold onto the DBT process as if each step was an emotional handrail that could help me stay emotionally steady, grounded in the moment, as I decided what I wanted or needed to do next. This process made me feel safe enough to connect with my feelings, one step at a time…

These skills worked for me because they were specific tools to address the thoughts and feelings I was struggling with in that very moment vs. using a generic, distracting activity like, “take a walk around the block”. (Note…In truth, a walk would eventually become a good option for me, but after I successfully learned to emotionally regulate and could tolerate being with my own thoughts and feelings.)

Over time, I have developed many new healthy habits and tools that support me getting and staying mindful throughout my day. These new rituals and routines have replaced my previous self-defeating, unhealthy rituals and habits that revolved around binge eating.

For example, each morning I set daily intentions; one emotional intention or goal, one physical, one nutritional, one spiritual intention, and I commit to taking one item off my “To-Do List”. Each intention I set is do-able, that day. I set these intentions in the shower—so no time wasted and I eliminate any “too short on time” excuse for not doing it every morning. (Note…I don’t over commit. I respect that that’s a set up for feelings of overwhelm and trouble.)

I’ve created and I read a “Self-Care List” every morning. It’s a list of everything I have discovered, through experimentation, trial and error, will support my recovery. Now that I know what those behaviors look like, I am committed to not leaving them to chance (i.e., my current Self-Care List says. “I sleep 7 to 8 hours a night, with the TV off”, “I exercise 3 to 4 times a week for 30-40 minutes on my exercise bike while watching a movie”, “I go food shopping when I am close to running out of appealing fresh fruits and vegetable, so I don’t get bored with my food choices and feel tempted to order a large pizza”).

Here’s one that has really made a big difference in my life, “I mindfully keep my house organized as I go, never more than 30 minutes away from receiving company.” I discovered when my environment is free of clutter, I feel calmer… and I am much less likely to want to shut down with a food thought or any other compulsive behavior. (Note…most binge eaters have more than one thing we can be compulsive about.)

I have identified my “Setback Warning Signs”; what I say and do that are clear warning signs I’m headed for emotional eating… and I have decided ahead of time, if I see those signs, what I will do, mindfully, to stop that old runaway train before it leaves the track.

To recover from BED, I needed both insight AND the right tools for the job. With new tools, my recovery from Binge Eating Disorder became possible…not perfect, but wonderfully empowered…

Critical Shift # 3 “I am NOT my thoughts and I do not have to be driven them!”

Recently, to advance my own recovery and to further help the people I coach, I’ve been reading a lot about the latest neuroscience breakthroughs and techniques for unlocking ingrained behaviors and compulsive habits. In my research, I came across psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel’s book, Mindsight; The New Science of Personal Transformation.

This is how Dr. Siegel defines Mindsight. “Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own mind. It allows us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them…” (Note…In DBT work, this is similar to stepping back and “Observing” and “Describing” what we’re Thinking, Feeling, and Sensing in our body, without Judgment.)

Dr. Siegel goes on to write, “In my own experience, a great transformation begins when we look at our minds with curiosity and respect rather than fear and avoidance. Inviting our thoughts and feelings into awareness allows us to learn from them, rather than be driven by them.”

Now that I have skills; emotional handrails that help me feel safe enough to notice and put words on my thoughts, feelings, my insecurities, my wants and needs, I’ve discovered I’m willing to experience them. And it turns out what I was avoiding was really not that scary after all. When I just notice my thoughts with curiosity and compassion, when I just allow them to exist, they no longer overwhelm me. They just come (sometimes strongly at first), hang out for a bit while I decide what I want to do with them, and then they and I move on with my day. Who knew?

Dr Siegel says, “The good news is that whatever your early history, it is never too late to stimulate the growth of the neural fibers that enable mindsight to flourish.”

Final Note…you do not have to do this work alone. You deserve to be well!  We all do! If you have a Binge Eating Disorder, please find a therapist and/or a Coach who is a good fit for your recovery needs. The work ahead is so worth the effort! 

About the Author

In 1993, Ellen Shuman founded and served as director and program developer for one of the first eating disorder treatment centers in the US dedicated to treatment and research of Binge Eating Disorder. For 19 years, she also has been a Binge and Emotional Eating Recovery Coach who works with people all over the world.

In 2010, she created an online resource/membership for binge eaters who want tools to overcome emotional eating and weight obsession; www.aweighout.com

She and a colleague are currently developing an Online Training Course for therapists, nurses, and dietitians who wish to learn how to incorporate the latest neuroscience breakthroughs; “Brain Interventions & Practical Tools”, into their work with binge eaters. That course will launch later this year.

Her research has been published in The International Journal of Eating Disorders, Behavioral Medicine, and most recently she co-authored a paper published in the Journal of Obesity, “The Weight-Inclusive versus Weight-Normative Approach to Health: Evaluating the Evidence for Prioritizing Well-Being over Weight Loss.”

Shuman started the Academy for Eating Disorders SIG on “Health at Every Size,” along with Deb Burgard, PhD, and was a founding board member of BEDA; Binge Eating Disorder Association. She served as that organization’s President in 2011/2012.

She has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and has produced two award winning news documentaries about Binge Eating Disorder, “The Consuming Secret” and “Why You Can’t Stop Eating”.

To learn more about her work, visit, www.aweighout.com. Ellen Shuman can be reached by phone at 513-321-4242 or email, ellen@aweighout.com

 

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