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What Are You Seeking When You Binge?


A client was talking about bingeing and suddenly I had vivid memories about losing myself in food and not being able to stop eating. How I felt that first heady urge to eat wildly and then the compulsion taking over. I remember the excitement, the giddiness that turned into euphoria: Ha! I’m eating whatever I want and I’m going to eat as much of it as I want. Yippee! Hurray! The feeling was so private, though somewhere deep down I was making a public statement: You can’t stop me, so don’t even try. 

People who haven’t binge eaten or engaged in any other kind of compulsive behavior cannot imagine why a person would want to stuff themselves silly, way beyond hunger or satiation. Understandably, the idea repulses them. They’d hate the physical feeling and would view gobbling down food as fast as one can as debilitating and downright unnatural. And, of course, they’d be right.

In my 76 years, I’ve never been sure what I was looking for in those binges. Yes, I suppose some of them were a grand distraction from emotions I didn’t want to feel—loneliness, emptiness, not loving myself, not feeling loved enough. Those emotions were there but I don’t think they were all that was driving me. There was also a sense of naughtiness—“I know I shouldn’t but . . .”—and the smugness of having a secret.

Truly, it all felt like “invasion of the body snatchers,” as if someone had knocked me out cold, removed my brain and taken over my body. That is to say that I felt I had no choice but to binge. I didn’t want to do it so much as had to. I think I was searching for pleasure and food did get the dopamine popping. Of course, we didn’t know about dopamine back in the 60s and 70s but we take good rushes where we find ‘em. 

I think where we, therapists and clients, may go wrong in discussing binge-eating is making it seem sane. Let’s face it. It’s insane, like gambling away or shooting up the rent money or going back to an abusive partner again and again. It’s a compulsion. I wish I could give you a precise formula for ceasing binge-eating. I wish I’d had one when I was headlong into food with no end of feeling like a human garbage can in sight.

Fact is, I did stop and haven’t binged in decades. I’ve overeaten, sure, but haven’t had the desire to stuff or drown myself with or in food. What helped is just what you’ve been hearing: recognizing you’re engaged in a compulsion, self-soothing, getting more joy out of life, distraction, increasing mindfulness with food and life, changing your beliefs about food and its purpose, not depriving yourself of foods you love, not dieting or focusing on weight. And oodles of patience, practice and self-compassion until you succeed.