When you think about it, ever since the Garden of Eden, humanity has been experiencing the effects of a cosmic eating disorder. In choosing their own sustenance, Adam and Eve rejected the Lord and experienced nakedness and shame, for the first time. Since then, we have followed in their footsteps by seeking more creative ways of making our own coverings. Separated from the Lord, from each other and even from ourselves – our bodies have become foreign to us, vessels for uncontrollable longings, guilt and shame.
Often in the modern world, it’s not just our lives that are compartmentalised, but our attitudes to ourselves – and our bodies. When it comes to sickness, we tend to treat one aspect of the problem – (usually the physical), instead of recognising that we are whole people, whose mental, emotional and physical health are closely connected. Similarly, our strategies for managing life are sustained by an interplay of psychological, social and behavioural factors. Binge-eating is one example of this. It may feel uncontrollable and even inexplicable, but in reality there are physical, emotional and mental factors which provoke and sustain it.
Psychologically, binge-eating can be a way of handling dangerous emotions, such as depression, anxiety, guilt, anger or shame. It can be a distraction, both self-harm and comfort, a way of blocking out pain. Such emotions can trigger a binge – but the bingeing can intensify rather than relieve them, leaving the person feeling worse than when they started. People with eating disorders often show signs of ‘faulty thinking’, which includes the following;
all or nothing (e.g: ‘I am either ‘fat’ or ‘thin’, ‘in control’ or ‘completely out of control’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When they feel they have ‘failed’, their tendency to extremes is reflected in starving and stuffing. ‘I’m rubbish anyway, so I may as well eat the whole bag of donuts’ etc. ‘I’ve got to eat less food so I won’t eat anything at all’. This sets you up to fail and perpetuates the cycle of self-hatred leading to stuffing.
perfectionism (‘If I can’t do this properly/be the best there’s no point in trying’)
focusing on the negative (So for me, if I give a talk and get feedback which is 99% positive, I’ll only remember the 1% that’s negative. It’s like there’s a big filing cabinet in my head for the bad stuff, but no-where for me to put the good)
emotional reasoning (Jenny didn’t say hello to me this morning. It’s not because she’s having a busy morning. It’s because SHE HATES ME, etc)
worst case scenario thinking (‘If I gain any weight I won’t be able to stop’)
mind reading (an incredible ability to know you think I’m stupid, simply by the way you are breathing)
Then there’s the behavioural stuff – like the links between binge-eating and dieting. Have you ever noticed that when a food becomes ‘forbidden’, you become absolutely obsessed with it? That going for long periods without any food makes you anxious, depressed and more likely to crack in a spectacular manner by chomping down the entire contents of the fridge? Or that the demonised carbohydrate is actually an appetite suppressant – so cutting out entire food groups will make you hungrier? Not to mention a whole plethora of properly serious health risks which are further multiplied if you’re compensating, e.g; by making yourself sick.
And as if this isn’t enough, there’s the social impact of binge-eating. The secrecy, the isolation, the shame. But the more you hide, the harder it gets. The more you cut yourself off from others, the greater the urge to turn to food. And the self-hatred that starts it all off again.
So what’s the solution? Well, there are strategies to help bring the behavioural bit of your eating under control. Things like;
mapping a history of your bingeing and weight: write a timeline noting when it began, what made it worse, what helped, significant life developments
keeping a profile of your binge-eating: when does it happen? where? with whom? what do you feel? what foods do you eat?
planning meals in advance: this spaces out your eating so you’re less likely to binge, makes you feel more in control, helps you relax the ‘rules’ you may have around eating, helps put a limit on what you eat and when
eating with someone else and not doing anything else at the same time, e.g; watching TV. This helps you focus on what’s happening and not get into that horrible automatic stuffing
if you feel like bingeing, delay for 30 mins and do something else with your hands – often the urge will pass
write down your reasons for not bingeing and carry them around
try to avoid situations that trigger binges
set up alternative ways of comforting yourself – walking, reading, painting nails, phoning a friend, having a bath. Try them out to see which ones work for you.
give yourself time and remember that relapse is part of recovery
All this stuff is good and can help. But it is also pretty limited. It addresses behaviour and thinking, not the heart.
I can’t help thinking that, for a lot of people with eating disorders, self-will and self-control (whether too much or too little), is a big part of the problem. To create a “solution” that relies on the same thing is a bit strange. And it won’t address our deepest issues – just one manifestation of them. These techniques might get my weight up or down to a healthy level – but my drives towards self-absorption and self-destruction are still there.
What can actually deal with those powerful drives that overwhelm me? How can I handle the depths of my shame, fear, desire and anger? It’s only when we start dealing in these realities that we’ll start to see Spirit-led freedom rather than a mere re-arrangement of the flesh.
In the next post we’ll think about what Christ offers – a perfect covering for shame, a perfect love to drive out fear and a grander vision to capture our hearts.