Flow Athlete and foundation member, Mark Tozer, shares his story with a disorder many have experienced and tells of his road to recovery.
“It has taken a long time to build up the courage to post this, but I do not share it to get pity. I am sharing it so that I can leave a damaging period of my life behind, so I ask that you bear with me.”
Today I cried. This in and of itself is not a big deal, because I cry quite often, but today’s tears were different. On 12 December, 2012, I was diagnosed with binge eating disorder. It had been building for several years, slowly at first but had grown to become something that controlled my entire life. For the first time since that day, I truly feel I have recovered from this dark time in my life.
What is binge eating disorder (BED)?
I am sure most people have felt that they have binged on food before maybe eaten too much at a special occasion or demolished a whole tub of ice cream after a stressful day at work. I have definitely done this, but I tend to think of this more of occasional overeating. Binge eating is another beast entirely.
Binge eating disorder, like other eating disorders, is mental illness characterised by an very unhealthy attitude towards food – in this case, regular periods of binge eating. Unlike other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa though, BED does not involve any compensatory behaviours such as over-exercise, laxative abuse or self-induced vomiting. For this reason, many BED sufferers are overweight or even obese.
A binge eating episode has two clear features:
- Eating a large amount of food (considered unreasonable by regular standards) in a short period of time – generally 2 hours, but can be shorter or longer.
- A feeling of loss of control while eating and the inability to stop, even if you want to.
Interestingly, again unlike anorexia and bulimia, BED is equally prevalent in males and females and affects around 4% of the general population.
The long road to disorder: My Story
My journey to disordered eating began in my early twenties. I had become increasingly aware of my appearance and was not happy with my weight or the way I looked. So naturally, I started working out an dieting. Nothing out of the ordinary there. I really enjoyed the fitness aspect of the process, and continue to do so to this day. But I became increasingly obsessed with what I was putting in my body.
I started to diet harder and harder. Low calorie, low fat, low carb, no carb, intermittent fasting. I tried all of it. As I got stricter and stricter, all I could think about was the foods on the ‘restricted’ list. This was a problem. So I started to allow myself little cheat meals, periods of time on the weekend when I was ‘off diet’. Again, this started off pretty normally, generally just the one indulgent meal on a Saturday night.
Then the meals began to grow and they would extend to the whole day or maybe the whole weekend. When I allowed this to happen, I became consumed with guilt and shame. I didn’t want anyone to know what a failure I was, so I started ‘cheating’ in secret. This is the point when my eating disorder truly took me. I would buy copious amounts of food and sneak them into the house. Then I would pretend to have a headache or be tired (some bullshit excuse) and squirrel myself away in my room and eat…. and eat, and eat.
Once I began truly bingeing, this would happen maybe once a month, but as time passed my binge episodes became more frequent. By late November 2012, I was bingeing more than once a week and knew I had to do something before I caused myself permanent damage. I took myself to a psychologist and she confirmed what I had pretty much decided for myself; I had Binge Eating Disorder.
What is a binge episode like?
I can only describe a binge episode as complete lack of control and they were terrifying. From the onset of a binge, I would normally go through 4 phases: Craving, The Edge, Anarchy, Completion.
- Craving – we all have them. That little feeling in the back of your head that tells you that you want some chocolate. For many people, they could just have that chocolate and the craving would be satisfied. For me, the craving was never really about the food so a small amount would not fix anything. I found at this point, I could sometimes pull myself back from the binge but there was no guarantee.
- The Edge – if a craving was strong enough or if I was going through enough emotional shit, I would reach the edge. It felt like I was leaning over cliff ledge, about to fall off. I knew it was stupid and I knew what the result would be, but I couldn’t stop myself. I would start obsessing about what I would eat and there was no room in my head for anything else. My heart rate would start to quicken and I would be in a mild panic that I wouldn’t be able to get everything I ‘wanted’ or that I would be busted. That never stopped me from getting to the shop though.
- Anarchy – this is when I was in full on binge mode. The first few bites would be about the flavour of the food, the sweetness of the sugar or the beautiful mouth feel of the fat. Fuck yes, I was getting to enjoy ice cream!! But after a few bites, the food stops mattering, all that matters is that I can keep eating. When I was bingeing, I stopped being Mark for those few hours. I ceased to be a fully functional human. All that mattered was eating and I could not stop. Once I had scoffed all the treats I had bought, I turned to whatever else I could find in the house. I have binged on bowls and bowls of plain oats, I have binged on jars of peanut butter, I have binged on bags of carrots (yes, binge eating is not only restricted to junk food). Even when I began to feel uncomfortably full and like I would be ill, I still couldn’t stop. My one purpose was to keep stuffing food in my mouth and it was terrifying.
- Completion – binges don’t really have a definitive end point, but generally at some point, I would start to return to myself. Control slowly returned and my feelings turned towards guilt and shame. Without exception, I felt like absolute fucking shit, both physically from eating so much food, and mentally from being so weak. I would beat myself up for days afterwards. I would look in the mirror and hate what I saw, again not just physically, but I HATED the entirety of person that looked back at me. Unfortunately, these feelings are almost the exact ones that would lead to the next episode of bingeing.
How did I begin to recover?
On the advise of the psychologist, I stopped all strict dieting for a while. I had to learn to treat food and by extension, myself, with respect. This was by no means an easy process and I would be lying if I thought it was a finished process, but there are several things that have really helped me:
- Yoga/mindfulness/mediation – I am lumping these three together because for me, they have all fulfilled a similar need in me. The need to slow down, to think and be curious about my body and mind. It has taught me, when cravings strike, to think about them and explore what they really mean. Do I actually want a bit of chocolate or is that just a proxy for something more important going on in my life?
- Telling someone – eating disorders are born in secret and this secrecy is their lifeblood. Before I talked to the psychologist, I hadn’t spoken to anyone about the extent of my struggle. Before this post, there were only two people in the world who knew what I have gone through. Meeting my partner Craig early last year was a turning point. His love and trust allowed me to open up about my issues to someone who knew me for the first time. I think this is when I truly began to heal. So please, PLEASE, anyone out there who is going through the same thing, talk to someone. You are not alone and the more you wall yourself up, the more pain you will cause yourself. Talk to a friend or family member, talk to support networks like The Butterfly Foundation or even talk to me (contact form at the bottom of this post). I will always be willing to listen and offer what support I can.
- Stop all or nothing thinking – my disorder really flared up when I lived dichotomously: I was either ‘on’ a diet and I would eat healthily or I was ‘off’ the diet and all bets were off. This type of thinking made we want to eat all the bad food I could while I was off diet, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to have it when I went back on diet. No, I don’t eat perfectly all the time, but I have tried to stop internally beating myself up for every little slip. I acknowledge it an move on (most of the time).
- Set a goal that has nothing to do with your vanity – for me this is the North Face 100. This goal has become very important for me because now I take the approach that everything I put in my mouth is fuel for me to achieve this goal, rather than reward or punishment.
So what happened today to inspire this post???????
Well first, let me say, thank you for sticking with me this far! Recently, I have started rather strict dieting again in line with a few goals of mine (Mardi Gras, Hot Bitch and the North Face 100). Today marked the first time I allowed myself a cheat meal (it is important to spike calories every couple of weeks to ensure proper hormone function). I admit, going into it, I was nervous. Cheat meals are what brought me undone all those years ago and I was worried it would set off a binge episode.
We ended up going to Una’s in Darlinghurst and I had a delicious Jaeger Schnitzel served with Rosti and Cabbage Salad. It was amazing and I ate most of it. The rosti was huge though and I couldn’t get through all of that.
Una’s Jaeger Schnitzel… yep, it was epic
Afterwards, we ducked across the street for some Gelato Messina (seriously, THE best food in the world). And the most amazing thing happened. After I finished my cone, I was satisfied. I had my carb and sweet fix and that was that. I was not uncomfortably full and I did not feel any obsessive thought creeping in. I had enjoyed a cheat meal and had absolutely no guilt.
And that my friends, is why I cried today. I feel as though a devil that has rode around on my shoulders for seven or eight years has finally left me. This does not mean I can become complacent, but it is truly the most free I have felt in long time.