glow notes

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Stopping a binge

It happens to the best of us. You were doing so well with food, and suddenly you find yourself face down in a pint of ice cream, or at the tail end of an entire pizza, or driving down the street with a bag of Kettle Chips in your lap and a large chocolate bar in your hand. Your stomach hurts, you feel puffy, and your brain is fit to explode. Part of you wants to quit, to feel good again; part of you wants breakfast at a greasy spoon. What to do now? Here's a plan of action that works for me, I hope that it can help you, too:

  1. Hit the "reset" button
    In some ways, I think, our brains are like really complicated computers and, at times, we need to just hit "control/alt/delete" and don't save the damned file. Something small and symbolic can help. Like brushing your teeth or doing the dishes or slowly drinking a cup of herbal tea. Exercise, especially outdoor exercise, can help me a lot. Doing something with friends can be a great reset. Remember, this isn't about punishing yourself or making yourself clean, it's about slowing down for a minute and breaking out of binge mode.
  2. Watch out for Big Round Numbers
    If you feel like "Oh, I may as well keep eating until the day/the week/the month is over, I've screwed up now," that's the binge itself talking, not your higher self. You can stop right this second, at 2:04pm on a Tuesday. It doesn't need to wait until a certain time (such as, ahem, Monday or midnight or the first of the month).
  3. Don't be mean to yourself
    Dude, you don't need to be punished, so quit telling yourself that you're bad. Even if you did need punishment - you've already paid. Do you feel good right now? No, I didn't think so.

    There's a concept in the spiritual path I practice that you aren't punished for your sins, you're punished by them. Think about it. I look at sin as being off target, or not in line with our highest good as opposed to being bad. It's not clear to me that the binge wasn't for your highest good - maybe it taught you a valuable lesson or in some way made you a more empathetic/kinder person, or whatever. But let's say for the purposes of this discussion that it wasn't for your highest good. You've paid for that sin in stomach pain, you've paid in feeling tired and crappy, you've paid in actual money for the food and perhaps new clothing. You've paid enough. Now move on to step 4.
  4. Be nice to yourself
    The flip side of not being mean is being actively nice. Put on an outfit you like (one that doesn't feel tight, for God's sake!). Make sure that you feed yourself next time you feel hungry, and that it's a meal you really enjoy (no punishing yourself with HUGE salads and unseasoned chicken breast unless that's what you really WANT, and I doubt it). Take a nice hot bath. Go buy a good book or go to the library. Call a friend you love if you want company. Take a yoga class if you like that kind of thing. Go target shooting if you're a gun nut like my husband. Whatever you enjoy.
  5. Get some support
    This can mean going to some kind of meeting (such as Overeaters Anonymous or Smart Recovery) or seeing a therapist of some kind (your insurance may cover this). It may also mean just being with friends, even if you don't talk about what just happened. Or, it may mean buying a book written by somebody who understands. There are lots of them.
  6. Give it some light
    Secrets have power. If you feel safe, you can make the binge No Big Deal by talking about it openly. For instance, I might say to a friendly colleague "Yeah, I'm skipping the office Christmas party because I have had a problem with binge eating and food events really trigger the problem. I've been doing really well for a few years, but work parties scare me" or I may say to a good friend "Wow, I totally pigged out last night and it frightened me because it felt like a binge. I used to weigh 175 because of binges and don't want to go there again" or "man, cherry danishes and other sugary pastries are a total binge trigger for me, I wonder if it's psychological or physiological or both. You ever have that problem?" The friend may know how you feel or not (though you may be surprised what people will tell you), but in being open, you just opened all the windows and rolled back the ceiling and said to the monsters in your soul "Yoohoo! I see you! Want a cup of tea?."

    If this doesn't feel safe, honor that. Consider trying it in small ways, just with certain friends who you know love and support you. You can even say "it feels weird to say this, but . . ." Or you can go back to step 6 and try a group or a therapist, since you are safer in those contexts. Or, you can write in your journal - even being open and honest with yourself is like opening the curtains and letting some light in.
  7. Get real
    Once you feel a bit more stable, it's time to analyze what happened. You had a good reason for bingeing, so what was it? Did you get too hungry? Tired? Fill up your schedule with more events that you could handle? Did you do too much for other people and not enough for yourself? Are you lonely? Do you need a vacation? Were you force feeding yourself immense cabbage and radish-sprout salads and ignoring your appetite for chocolate ice cream? Did you feel bad about something else? Maybe an event at work or in a relationship?
  8. More deep thoughts
    If you'd like, try this exercise. Draw a line down a piece of paper to create to columns. On one side, write down everything you got out of this binge, other binges, and bingeing in general.

    For instance:
    -the food tasted good
    -I didn't have to think about my weight and diet and man am I tired of thinking about it
    -I got comfort about not saying what I thought to that friend who made a hurtful comment (whoa, you might think, I didn't even realize I felt bad!)

    If you keep going with this list, you may discover some interesting stuff!

    In the other column, write down the costs of regular bingeing.

    For instance:
    -weight gain
    -lethargy and puffiness
    -stomach pain
    -expensive to eat out
    -expensive to buy new clothes
    -feel bad about myself
    -myriad potential health problems
    -keeps me from dealing with issues directly, and they just keep coming back

    Be as specific as you can. For instance, list each health problem you are having (or might develop) as a result of overeating. This isn't about punishment, it's about getting real about the consequences of your behavior.

    Look at the list of what you got out of bingeing. Did the binge solve those problems permanently, or do you still have to deal with those things?

    Consider (and list, if you'd like) whether there are any alternatives to bingeing. For instance, if the food tasted good, can you consider eating more foods you like on a regular basis? If you were sick of thinking about your diet, maybe you should have a free day once a week to give yourself a break from dieting. Can you do that without bingeing? (I'll write more on the difference been a free day and bingeing in another post). Or can you modify your eating plan to be less complex? If you felt bad about a conversation with a friend, could you have either talked to that friend OR written in your journal OR spoke to another supportive person about your feelings? Would that have worked? What would have?

    You don't have to find all the answers or, really, do anything with these lists, but you may want to come back to them and see how the costs may outweigh the benefits and/or what benefits you are getting out of bingeing (which means you aren't crazy, you're just in need of something!) and how maybe, just maybe, you can get those benefits in other ways that don't have so many costs.

    [This exercise was adapted from a really wonderful book called Sex, drugs, gambling, and chocolate: a workbook for overcoming addictions by Tom Horvath, a cognitive behavioral therapist. I recommend the book to everybody, not just people with "addictions."]
  9. Embrace your humanity
    We like, as a society, to pathologize stuff. "Oh," we might say under our breath to a friend "her dad's an alcoholic, so she's a codependent and that's why her marriage is messed up" or "her sister beat her, so now she's fat because she doesn't want to deal with her feelings" or even something as simple as "I've got an addiction."

    Here's the deal. We all have our "stuff." If life were easy, self help books wouldn't be right up there with diet books on the best seller lists. Life is supposed to be a journey. Your "stuff" may not look like mine or his, or hers, but rest assured, we all have it. The people that you most admire have it, too.

    Some of us have overcome some stuff that you haven't yet, and therefore have something to teach. You have overcome some stuff that others haven't yet, and have some stuff to teach. You'll have more to teach as you continue on your journey of life.

    This is what makes life gorgeous, multi-hued, full of texture. This is not a tragedy, it is a glorious saga. Each time you fall, you get up again (perhaps each time a little sooner). You are the hero of your own story. You deserve that story in all its ragged splendor and juicy magnificence.

    Don't sell yourself short by slapping a label on your story. Milk it for every lesson you can. Then move on to your next lesson.

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