Lucy was eleven when she first started to experience binge eating disorder, but it took years for her to realise that she actually had a problem. In this week’s Real Voices, Lucy describes her road to recovery, and the misconceptions and lack of awareness around this specific eating disorder.
I started having symptoms of binge eating disorder when I was eleven years old, but it took me until I was sixteen to realise that what I was experiencing was in fact an eating disorder. It was horrendous for those five years before my diagnosis. I felt really unwell and out of control, and my eating patterns were really sporadic. I went through a constant cycle of bingeing and restricting, and at my worst I was bingeing twice a day. It was really scary. My parents had to point out to me that something was up. I went to the GP which was when I first learned about binge eating disorder.
This disorder is different for everyone. For me, I would almost go completely numb and black out before a binge, and when I came to I wouldn’t remember it, I would just look down and see evidence that I had binged. I liken it to self-harm, as I was eating all this food as a way of dealing with how I was feeling. At the beginning, there were specific situations that would trigger me to binge. I suffered from anxiety, so whenever that was bad I would binge. I also had very low self-esteem so whenever I felt particularly bad about myself, I would binge almost as a form of punishment.
I was actually quite lucky when I first went to the GP, as I didn’t have to wait that long before getting help. Because I was under eighteen I was referred to CAMHS (children and adolescent mental health services) who looked after me for two years before I turned eighteen. I then moved to Edinburgh for university and I convinced myself that I was recovered, though I don’t think I really was. I applied for help in Edinburgh through the NHS and was put on an eighteen-month waiting list. During that time my mental health got really bad, and I attempted suicide. It was very scary, I felt so alone and like I’d been left in the dark.
This was during lockdown, and I was living with my partner at the time. It wasn’t until I got a therapist and started doing DBT (a form of therapy) that I started to get better, it absolutely changed my life. I have fully recovered now, which has taken about two years. The thing with eating disorders that’s difficult is that you will always have that part in your brain that contains those behaviours and thinking patterns, and you need to have access to coping mechanisms and learn how to properly manage them.
There is so much misunderstanding around eating disorders, and binge eating disorders specifically. I think that’s one of the reasons why I suffered for such a long time before getting the help I needed. People may mistake binge eating disorder for overeating, which we all do sometimes, but they’re very different things. I also think there are a lot of stereotypes around who eating disorders affect, like that they only affect young white women. It can affect everyone. There’s also misconceptions that this particular disorder only affects middle-aged women, and there are connotations of laziness connected with it, which is not true at all.
It’s so weird to think but I always felt quite embarrassed that binge eating was my eating disorder, because it’s not restrictive. Restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia are almost glamorised in the media, because we value thinness in society so highly. I remember sitting in the CAMHS waiting room and feeling embarrassed that I wasn’t underweight. I felt as if I didn’t belong there and didn’t deserve help because I didn’t fit the idea of what a person with an eating disorder should look like.
There needs to be more public awareness about binge eating disorder specifically. When we talk about eating disorders, we need to talk about more than just anorexia and bulimia. People need to be aware of the warning signs that they’re suffering from this. It’s so complex. I also wish that the mental health issues behind eating disorders were paid more attention to. There’s so much stress placed on the physical side of it, but it’s actually a mental health issue that happens to have physical side effects.
It can often be difficult to convince healthcare professionals that you do need help, as the misconceptions around binge eating disorder influence doctors as well as the public. A few times when I went to get help I was just told to lose weight to improve my self-esteem, which was the worst possible advice. If anyone suspects that they may be suffering with an eating disorder, it’s so important to reach out and get the help you need, even if it takes you a few tries. Just keep asking for help, and you will eventually get it. The biggest thing is not to be embarrassed, which was a real issue for me. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, and there are so many people in the same boat.