I’ve given a lot of thought to how to write about this subject, not least because at its worst, a personal blog can quickly become a load of self indulgent, self pitying discussion of the author’s problems- and who wants to read that?
There’s also a chance of upsetting some of my loved ones, but thankfully they know I’m in a much better place mentally than I was a couple of years ago. If I am really going to ‘go there’ then I want to keep it relevant, informative and provide some links that others might find useful. So with a deep breath – here goes!
Firstly, what is the definition of addiction? Because this is what I’m about to talk about. *If you are vulnerable to being triggered by content about addiction or eating disorders, please stop reading now*.
“Addiction is a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, activity, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm”
There are lots of people who believe you cannot be addicted to food. While that may or may not be true in a purely chemical sense (although just try to truly give up sugar…!) in a behavioural sense, food addiction or an unhealthy relationship with food is real, dangerous and it destroys lives.
I believe the reason it can be so destructive is that it’s culturally acceptable and there clearly is no way to avoid food if you wish to survive. These days in developed countries it surrounds us 24/7 and it can feel like there’s no escape. You can’t abstain from food or go cold turkey.
I’m not going to go into how I personally developed Binge Eating Disorder (B.E.D.) but two of the most common triggers are 1) dieting 2) being made to feel unacceptable due to your appearance. (I’ve included links to more information at the end).
The addiction develops by using food as an unhealthy coping mechanism for emotions and feelings, plus the vicious cycle created from self-hatred and shame. Eating to distract from or suppress emotions that are difficult to handle, then feeling self-hate and shame again because of the loss of control and hopelessness that accompanies a binge.
It can take over your life in the same way as any addiction. Most B.E.D. sufferers end up very overweight and spend a lifetime (like me) trying every diet under the sun, believing this time will be the last time, but without the psychological causes and behaviours ever being addressed, it never works.
Cue even more feelings of abject failure, often depression and a worsening of the disorder over time. For me personally, it has been a battle raging in my mind (and body) for more than 30 years.
Even at its worst, I always continued to function at work – more or less – because I had to, but the hidden battle within just got worse the more responsibility and pressure I took on. Anxiety and stress are definitely issues for me.
There is very little help available from our overstretched mental health services and I won’t labour this point, but unfortunately the system is not set up to help anyone who is killing themselves slowly.
Despite all the risk factors that go with becoming morbidly obese, and staying in that zone for around 20 years, I consistently failed to meet the criteria for help on the NHS and this is sadly not uncommon. Unless you can afford private therapy, you’re on your own.
Compare this with all the help available for anyone who has an issue with smoking, alcohol or drugs. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve turned down a prescription for anti-depressants. Somehow I instinctively knew it wasn’t going to help with the underlying causes of my problem. I’m not saying it was the right choice, but it has been my choice.
This is the paragraph where I risk really upsetting my loved ones, but in order to bring home the seriousness of this mental illness, I think I have to and I’m sorry. This addiction led to me planning to take my own life on several occasions.
I couldn’t see any way to become free of it and I no longer wanted to live with the desolation of what an utter failure I was for not being able to stop it. Despairing because I was never going to look the way I wanted to or be fit and healthy enough to fully enjoy my life.
Addiction and self hatred poisons everything good and leads you to make poor decisions for yourself in favour of short-term distraction and temporary relief. Believing you’re not good enough the way you are also makes you believe you’re not good enough for others, leading you to second-guess and sometimes sabotage your relationships.
Bizarrely and cruelly, reinforcing the negative view you have of yourself feels more familiar and comfortable than hoping for something different. Even when you really need a hug, you believe the other person will find it disgusting to touch your body and you shy away from affection, building those walls ever higher.
I was fortunate enough to finally be referred to some specialist help in 2017, due to a small trial taking place offering Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) to patients with a high Body Mass Index (BMI). I had already sporadically been paying privately for several different types of therapy over a two year period – some helped and some didn’t – but I think it laid the groundwork for this lucky break of a referral to an Eating Disorder specialist.
Therapy is probably one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I am thankful I had a supportive employer who let me take time out each week to attend. Having that discussion and admitting to the extent of my problems was not easy, but by this point it was a matter of survival. I was also incredibly lucky to be in a relationship with a wonderful person, meaning I had some vital moral support.
I had a skilled and experienced therapist who I worked with for a year and what an eye opening experience it was. There is so much I can say about it, but I want to highlight one of the most important learning points. The key to addressing my problems was to focus inwards, not outwards. When your ‘inwards’ is a pretty messed up and scary place to visit, it’s the last thing you want to do and that’s why battling an addiction is so hard and painful.
Having spent most of my life looking outwards and relying on external measures of my success and worthiness, I was suddenly forced to confront myself, as this was the only way towards healing. I found it incredibly difficult – and still do.
When I look around now with fresh eyes to what our society has become, I fear for the psychological damage that’s being done by the culture of busy, ‘always on’, social media, an unhealthy and narcissistic focus on appearance and the seemingly constant need to seek approval from others.
Don’t even get me started on the toxic diet culture and abnormal eating habits promoted by an industry that’s making a lot of people very rich by not only preying on people’s insecurities, but creating them. We need to start asking ourselves- if we’re constantly on and off some special eating and/or exercise plan – is this approach working? No.
I was lucky to grow up in a simpler era, with time for unstructured play, creativity, imagination and the freedom to just ‘be’, but I still developed an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with life. What chance do we have now when no-one seems capable of being alone with their thoughts?
The last person in the world who wanted to try meditation was me. I thought it was a load of rubbish and that I could never possibly benefit from it. However, with gentle coaxing and the positive use of technology in the form of the Headspace app, I learned to do it. To this day I credit meditation as being a game changer for my road to recovery, and it still is.
Nothing else has ever come close to helping me cope with anxiety. It requires patience, commitment and consistent practise (none of which I’m great at) but the rewards are worth it. I now use Calm and the price of the annual subscription is less than one of my habitual binges used to be.
My previous blog post was about Minimalism and this is where those concepts plus my recovery come together. Meditation and mindfulness are both about removing distractions and living in the present moment, which is key to tackling anxiety.
By removing everything that distracts you from the things that matter most in your life, it is far easier to see and focus on the best stuff (and appreciate what you already have). This Minimalist concept that I call ‘extreme prioritisation’ now guides most of my decisions. I’m far from perfect but it has had such a positive impact.
No longer seeking the approval of others, ‘proving’ your self worth with money, perceived status or the stuff you own (or wear) is incredibly liberating, but again, it takes commitment to develop these new habits. Finding true meaning in your life and developing new coping strategies to replace the role the addiction has been playing is fundamental to letting it go. Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say.
I’ve had to completely re-evaluate my priorities. It has been necessary to reduce my stress and anxiety by working less and finding more time for my loved ones and the activities that bring me the most health and happiness. Most importantly, I have more time and energy now to cook, something I used to hate with a passion.
I’d like to end with a message of hope but also a couple of pleas. My message of hope is that recovery is possible with the right help – but this is a mental illness related to emotions and feelings and it is not an issue of understanding what healthy eating is or the number of calories in a doughnut.
My first plea is to not judge that overweight person in front of you who is unhappy with their size for having a lack of willpower or being stupid or lazy. If you have a healthy sense of self esteem and you haven’t developed any unwelcome coping mechanisms, then you are very fortunate. You don’t understand what that person is going through.
My second plea is for everyone to check out some of the resources I’m posting below, to educate yourself and maybe your friends and family. At the very least this will lead to more compassion for those with a mental illness and it could help someone by spotting the signs of a problem before it gets out of hand.
The current situation we find ourselves in magnifies anxiety and a lot of people with eating disorders are really struggling because the coping strategies they have developed are more difficult to implement, while the non-food pleasures in their life may have been taken away. The charity BEAT is experiencing a 30% increase in calls to its helpline, if you would like to give them a small donation, it could help someone like me .
Food is not my enemy, it nourishes me and keeps me alive – but I can no longer let it be a crutch or a source of entertainment. I now also understand that I’m so much more than an illness, my weight or size.
I refuse to be defined by those things, although recovery is a rocky, winding road. Raising awareness is just one positive thing I can put out into the world – thank you for reading. S x