Chevese's Personal Story
Monday, March 16, 2015
It is easy for me to acknowledge that I have struggled with binge eating disorder (BED). After years of silent shame, I now understand the purpose the disorder served. With this knowledge, I am able to be a whole person, and map my future without living under the shadow of a never-ending preoccupation with food and weight concerns.
It wasn’t always this way.
Sometime between the ages of five and seven, I discovered the power of food. I discovered I wanted more of it than I was permitted to have, that apparently it was a restricted temptation, and that I thought about it a lot. It calmed and shamed me at the same time. It signified love and hate. It brought me up and then down. It was my best friend and my worst enemy.
As a child, I often led my playmates or younger brother to the kitchen, hoping they would ask an adult for food. I did not like to ask. I was ashamed, even at an early age, of my “appetite” and body. I was sure I was the only person struggling this way. I was strangely “abnormal” in my mind, and this created a gap between me and the rest of the world.
My mother insisted that I “eat healthy” and taught me to distinguish between “good” and “bad” food early in my childhood. For her, food was love, but it was also a source of control and pain. She probably had anorexia, although she was never officially diagnosed or treated until her mid-60s. Her body and mind paid the price. She went on to abuse alcohol in her twenties and thirties, and unknowingly passed all her shameful feelings around body size and shape on to me.
I struggled as a child with the perception and internalized stigma of being overweight even when I was a very average size for my height. I was teased and bullied, despite being well-liked by my friends, peers and teachers. My parents expressed concern and tried to intervene. My mother and I dieted together with little success. I learned to rely on the scale to determine how I felt about myself. An entire day, week or month could be ruined by a weight gain, and I correlated these gains to my inability to be “good.”
It was hard to enjoy life while concentrating on how not to think about food. I could restrict for a time, but ultimately I would succumb to frenzied eating to satiate myself quickly. My head would pound from lack of food, and a very full stomach was comforting — at first.
My deep-seated guilt about my secret eating produced a lot of anxiety and depression. I knew people wondered how I could gain weight while eating normal portions at meals, and I knew my now steady weight gain was a source of anxiety and helplessness for my parents. I was ashamed that I could not resist food, and yet I knew it was the only thing that allowed me to escape and simultaneously calm me during difficult times or even everyday life; not to mention I was always hungry because I was always dieting.
As my weight continued to increase through my childhood and into my adolescence, I withdrew from friends and activities. My mother’s alcoholism and my parents’ eventual divorce took their toll. I spent my teenage years engaging in risky behavior and binging on food, alcohol and, to some extent, drugs, but food was always the preferred substance.
During my late teens and early twenties, my friends and high school classmates were going on to college and building their lives. I attempted twice to attend college and found I could not handle the pressure and resulting anxiety and depression that came with the demands of a higher education. This failure, in my perfectionist mind, was unforgivable.
I struggled for several more years as my mental health deteriorated and my waistline expanded. I was in the depths of despair and depression with no money, no future and even less sense of self. I knew I needed help and it meant a commitment to searching for answers. I was not very hopeful, but willing to try anything.
I found a weight management program and, with the help of a therapist, began to work on the underlying issues related to my out-of-control eating. I was losing weight and feeling better than ever before. I felt my problems were melting along with the weight. I began to conceptualize the idea that an addiction to food was an eating disorder.
The cognitive behavioral therapy with a focus on weight loss provided me with a new outlook on life and tools that I could take with me. I began a university program in political science and began engaging in life. Things were considerably better, but only temporarily. During my college years, I regained most of the weight I had lost. I was extremely distressed about this weight gain, which resulted in more binges. I knew I needed to seek treatment once again.
My new therapist diagnosed me with “binge eating disorder.” I cannot convey the liberation I felt. All my food preoccupation and overeating actually had a name. Now I could stop making moral judgments about myself and my lack of will. I was finally able to look at the problem and find ways to address the guilt and shame.
I assumed this diagnosis meant there were many more people who struggled like me. I began to search for other binge eaters through both national and local eating disorder groups. I occasionally found one or two, but it soon became apparent that either I was one of a very few, or this disorder was severely under-diagnosed and -discussed. I was certain it was the latter, and I began to think about what it would be like to have a supportive community of those with binge eating disorder.
At the time, I had no idea how this unmet need in the eating disorder community would directly affect the direction of my life.
Over the next 10 years, I married a wonderful and supportive man, had two children, and continued to work on my recovery. I learned that dieting was contributing to my inability to let go of the disorder, but continued to struggle with living in a larger body.
After the birth of my second son and a significant relapse, I opted for lap-band surgery. I ignored the little voice in me telling me not to do it. I was depressed after having two children and gaining some weight. The day after I had surgery, I returned home and realized I made the wrong decision. I cried and became very depressed. I couldn’t believe, after all these years of therapy and self-discovery, I wound up with a band around my stomach. It was clear I needed to continue my work with a treatment team to address all the issues that played a part in my eating disorder, including depression, anxiety, trauma and internalized weight stigma, to name a few.
I began seeing a seasoned eating disorder team that included a psychologist, nutritionist and several complementary practitioners to help me manage anxiety through massage, acupuncture and movement. We addressed relationships and the trauma that had long been suppressed. I began to listen to my body utilizing mindfulness, which is not easy and takes time to incorporate and master. We also worked to address the experience of living in a larger body and how others treated me as a result. I realized that, since childhood, I was told I needed to change in order to be acceptable. These messages came in the form of “help” from family, doctors, friends, teachers and strangers. Every one of these messages took away a little piece of my “self” and, in response, I put up walls, retreated within and turned to food.
For many years, I felt my only “hobby” was losing weight. Yet each time I tried a diet, I gained more back than what I lost. I weight cycled over and over, and each time I could not maintain the loss, I added another notch to my “failure belt.”
What I did not understand was that weight loss as a goal was actually getting in the way of helping me find health and destroying any hope I had of a healthy body image. I now know that my desire to lose weight set me up for binges, as it triggered the binge cycle and a lot of shame.
I struggled to let go of weight loss as the ultimate goal in recovery. I began to focus on the positive things I can do for my body on a daily basis. With this work, I now enjoy a better relationship with food and am constantly exploring what will work for me and when.
My life has changed from those days of shame and hopelessness. I am now a whole person who refuses to hide myself or my struggles. I accept my body (most days), with all its imperfections, for what it does for me. It is truly amazing, and I try to keep this at the front of my mind when I have a difficult day. This allows me to rebound and adjust quickly.
In 2008, I founded the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) to build the community I dreamed of all those years ago for those with binge eating disorder.
In 2010, I opened Pershing Turner Centers (PTC) in Annapolis, Maryland, with Amy Pershing, LMSW, ACSW, whom I met through BEDA, to help others find the path to recovery from their eating disorders.
It is my sincere hope that the millions who suffer from eating disorders will have a place where they can discover they are not alone and can, indeed, learn to build their own path to recovery with the help of the treatment provider community and BEDA.
My own journey has taught me that anything is possible and that, while painful and difficult at times, the recovery process can always lead to increased self-awareness and a restoration of joy in our lives. I feel fortunate to have experienced this journey, as it has given me the life I now enjoy.