Overeating – Facing the truth. (A Case Study)

Excessive eating is something we’re all guilty of in one shape or another. We’ve all been involved in particular social gatherings or celebrations where we find ourselves over-indulging.

But when does it cross that line between being an occasional indulgence to an all-controlling addiction? Jane Thomas, a former patient, has successfully navigated this challenging chapter of her life.

Through the use of counselling and CBT, she now provides her own perspective on the journey she faced from addiction to where she is now.

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Addiction doesn’t want you to know you can beat it – A Case Study

“Throughout my adolescent and adult life, I never honestly considered the thought that I’d have an eating disorder. I never purged or excessively starved myself like you’d normally think.”

It wasn’t too long ago that I had this in my head all the time when I edged towards the conclusion that something might be wrong. But really it occurred to me on more occasions than people think. The pressures I had to face daily pushed me into a spiral of sadness, self-consciousness and depression. The only way to indeed counter it was through food; it lifted my spirits in a way that nothing else could at the time.

It’s easier to say these things in retrospect that it would have at the time. But, eventually, I needed to come to the conclusion that I had an addiction to food. It was my crutch; using it the same way that heavy drinkers turned to alcohol: It was my sanctuary from a world that bore down on me with unrelenting pressure.

After a while, the effects moved from mental to distinctly physical; all the tasks I could previously do with ease got harder and harder, forcing me to confront the reality. In the past Binge Eating Disorder would have just been shrugged off, but I’m glad that it’s finally receiving the recognition for what it is, and what it can do to people.

I’d pushed through my teenage years and twenties using eating as a means to shut out stress and other undesirable emotions.

It dominated 3-4 days of my week, binging on whole packs of chocolate, cakes and crisps. It pulled me away from those sad feelings at first, but it fast needed more and more. It got to points where I’d put foods together that in retrospect make my stomach turn. All to just push away those uncomfortable thoughts and questions.

While I know my friends and family mean well: none of the things, they suggested worked. From food diaries to fad diets, they were all roads that just led me back to the same destination. Feeling like a failure, and needing food more than ever.

Despite their advice and having a boyfriend, none of them suspected just how deep my addiction dwelled in me. I was always a highly active person, so it kept those suspicions at a distance. But there would still be moments where the subject would be brought up. Leaving me to make my excuses and get out of the discussion.

While I dodged and deflected, the truth is: I wanted to get caught, to have someone come face to face with my chronic problem.

I felt like it was just going to be my life from now on, having to sheepishly sneak away to a secluded space to quell my addiction. Time and perseverance, however, and It stopped. But It’s more complicated than just a sudden end to what was once a near lifelong addiction.

As a teenager, boredom made food a more enticing hobby; easily accessible and easy to enjoy. It quelled a lot of my issues while at university, but unlike hobbies and activities at uni, it kept with me. Whenever I felt sad, it was so much easier to just eat, and place it in the back of my mind; making excuses like ‘it’s just this one’ or ‘I’m treating myself’.

This wasn’t something that just started happening while I was in University though, My parents were an impacting force upon my approach towards food. They grew up relatively poor, with food acting as an extra incentive for good behaviour as other more expensive things weren’t available to them.

Getting treats from my parents for being ‘good’ were always happy times for me. Creating an immediate positive association with food, making it easier for me to use it as an outlet later on.

My mother was never the type to treat herself but doted over my sister and I. It was only ever food that she decided to get, not just for us but for herself. I can definitely see where I picked up this destructive behaviour from. As a result, my mother had issues with her health due to her weight. Understanding the effects it had on my family; she went through tough relationships which fuelled her use of food as a coping mechanism.

In contrast, I distanced myself from food initially; I was an incredibly shy and anxious person. My mother re-married a person I was seriously scared of; it made eating next to them impossible.

University liberated me from this struggle, granting me my own space to act and do what I wanted. All of a sudden, this long-distance relationship I had with eating escalated; I was almost always hungry. The appetite that had been suppressed before suddenly spiralled; I had personal space and affluence of time.

To this day I wonder if it was because I’d psychologically conditioned myself to eat less. And by the time I’d left home, my body had had enough and was free to demand what it wanted.

The nature of my family relationships and friends meant that I had a high number of people to talk to, but very little in the way of deep connections. The choices I had were social ties with people I didn’t really trust, or keep it to myself. I chose the latter.

Coming home for holidays ended with me secretly sneaking down to the kitchen to liberate anything from cake, cheese among other things. When it came time to return to university, I’d often take home large quantities of food under the pretence that they were ‘for my roommates’. They would never see any other mouth but my own; as I’d go on to eat them on the journey back.

By my mid-twenties, I couldn’t hide it away so quickly as it started showing on my skin and face. When I sustained an injury training, I visited an Osteopath thinking it was a problem with my posture.

But when he pressed into my abdomen, he told me in no uncertain words that it wasn’t just a core muscle problem. That it indicated a problem with my liver, the overeating was catching up to me; and had started to write itself on my skin and organs. At that point, I just wanted to cry.

It wasn’t so easy as just stopping though. It couldn’t just stop, it started to escalate as my demands, and food bills rose exponentially over time. Weekly shops that would have tided over anyone for a week or more lasted only days or hours with me. Forcing me to buy weekly stores for days of mine.

Food had moved from ‘treats’ to being a crutch that I depended on with greater emphasis. Any happiness that I felt from eating had dimmed to a numb or ‘meh’ feeling. It had fast devolved from a high to a need with a soaring price tag. Anything ‘party’ or ‘economy’ size would be a meal for one in my mind and house.

One month, I’d spent nearly £600 on shopping without including every time I’d eaten out. It was a staggering figure, one that horrified and didn’t surprise me at the same time. I had eaten through what people could live off for six months in one.

Food failed to give me the feeling it had in the past, and by the time I was 28, I couldn’t manage it that way anymore. It’s when I pushed myself to undergo therapy in an attempt to find help.

For the initial sessions, I had dodged questions about my eating habits; centring sessions on the relationships with my parents and friends. I had suffered from ADHD along with social interactions, it felt like I’d be buried by my conditions if I added overeating in too.

Online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was one of the methods I’d gravitated towards. It came from good advice from a friend and had started to see the therapist to pull myself away from the extreme thinking which had dominated my perspective.

After five weeks, my eating disorder finally came into the conversation. It was approached with such a casual demeanour that I still ponder over it today. Whether it was because he couldn’t comprehend the impact, or that he could understand what kind of aversion I had towards bringing it up.

My last Online Therapist believed it was the latter; and it’s right, it’s an aspect of my life I’ve been focussed in on for so long. Any additional probing by him may have pushed me steps back. I didn’t need that.

That area of my life didn’t receive too much focus; Online CBT is more of a short-term part of the more prolonged treatment I’d get. There was already plenty to cover, so we continued talking about other things.

Having CBT as my first experience with getting help was pivotal; It opened my eyes to the ideas of meditation, mindfulness and re-framing whenever it came to mainly trying time of my day and life. It allowed me to gain greater awareness about how and when I’d overeat. It gave me pause for thought about the fact that I’d passively eat while doing something else and got me doing more productive things with my time.

It had dawned on me that I was using food as an emotional crutch; hiding behind it because I didn’t want to face the feelings that haunted me in my footsteps. Instead of reaching to the fridge, I’d reach more into myself: asking why it was that I was so hell-bent on eating? It was because deep down I felt sad, alone and dejected, and I was using food to bury it for however long I could.

The lack of intimacy with family, friends and possible relationships was the real thing I was buried; I felt chronically alone. I knew countless numbers of friends, but none of them knew me.

Years later, I’d pushed myself to go back to online therapy and found myself obstructing any conversation about food for the first few sessions. Spending £100 an online therapy session and being in front of someone I visibly felt jealous of, it made me want to put on a social mask. I felt ashamed, and no matter how many times she made it clear that it was a safe place, that shame persisted.

While I entered the sessions collected and as normal as I could, I binged around my sessions. And as she pushed into moments of my childhood, the binging surged as well. As my past emerged again, food propped me up more and more, it got to the point where before and after the appointments, I’d map out food near the office. Leading to binges of Jamaican buns, bread and butter and anything else I could get hold of.

The guilt of hiding finally boiled over, and I came clean to her. And as I regaled her with my awkward moments, we found ourselves laughing at the whole ordeal. Amazingly, it’s what I needed; the positivity and awareness of the ludicrousness of it. From there I was able to unpack that area of my life in a way I’d never been able to before.

And just like she’d said to me, there was no judgement, only positivity. After that, I didn’t feel any need to bring it up again. Just having that positive environment to lay it all on the table was incredible to me.

“She laid out to me this one crucial thing: That I spend a great deal of my time using food to mask what truly crushed me. That I was always criticising and putting myself down, spending the time criticising and shaming myself.”

It showed me just how I think and feel about myself: and that was what hit me the hardest. Seeing with what level of disdain I treated myself; never allowing myself to feel happy or proud of what I’d achieved. Only having bad things to say about myself.

Another piece of advice I took was finding a new piece of reading material in the shape of ‘Eating Less – Say Goodbye To Overeating’. The fact that the author simply stated that managing and putting an end to overeating was not going to be simple. That it wasn’t some kind of switch that you just turn off: Addiction to food is exactly that – An Addiction.

This book gave me the confidence and initiative to create a general structure to my eating habits. It taught me to honestly think on whether I wanted to binge or not; I’d tell myself that I could binge, but only after completing another task to act as a way of determining whether I truly wanted to or not. Upon finishing the task, It wouldn’t interest me anymore so I wouldn’t binge.

My black and white thinking was what affected my decision between binging and not. It was also the choice between giving myself the respect I deserve, or not. I ate healthy for myself, I felt a level of excitement and respect for myself that enticed eating healthily. Gone were the days when my self-hate put pressure on my liver.

It was a genuinely unusual thing; I became focussed on finding new ways to show how much I loved myself. From interactions with friends to living and being healthy, that my binging had stopped without my noticing. By the time it had entered my mind, I was celebrating a year since I’d last binged on anything!

One year had gone by since binging, and the unwieldy 7 pounds that I carried around had melted off me. I’d reconnected with fitness in a significant way; using it to express myself more while talking to like-minded individuals. It allowed me to tear down both the physical and mental weight I carried around like psychological lead.

In my mid-30’s, I finally had the confidence to put on a bikini. I knew from there that I had removed barriers which had once dominated my perspective for over half of my life. Allowing me to show the respect that was long overdue to me.

I’m glad that the level of support given to people who suffer from EDONS is far better than it was before. Knowing that those out there that live under the shadow I once did can finally find the support they deserve.

It was incredible getting to the bottom of my eating disorder, only to realise it was the wrapping of an otherwise larger, more significant problem that dogged me. The lines were drawn between mental health, emotions and physical health for me to see. It makes me think that those men and women that look at themselves with such disdain. They should approach seeing a therapist before going on a diet they otherwise might not need.

If these experiences sound familiar to you or sound like someone you know. Please share it, and together we can help raise awareness and give those that suffer in silence the help they need.

For more information call 0753 718 1090 or email help@online-therapy.company. To book a Virtual Therapy appointment with the Online Therapy Company, please fill in the online booking form.

Author – Dr Aisha Ali – DPsych Couns Psych, ADOS 2 Certified B.Psych (Hons)

Dr Aisha Ali is a highly experienced BPS Chartered Counselling Psychologist and Expert witness with over 15 years experience of working within the NHS in complex care and private practice. She has extensive experience of working with individuals, couples and families presenting with complex psychological and emotional issues. Aisha provides life and performance coaching.

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