Breaking Free - Part I: A Journey
There was a time when I told my 'Battling Bulimia' story readily. It could have become The Story of my life but something happened to change that. This is the 'AHA!' moment I promised to talk about as the impetus for change after 30-some years of failed attempts to kick this behavior to the curb.
I had a dream so very real, one where I was discovered dead inside the hotel room where I was staying at the time. I was surrounded by massive piles of junk food and in my cold and rigid hand was a half-eaten slice of pizza. Laying next to me on the bed was the empty box, proof that it had contained an extra large pizza. My face was slathered with pizza sauce, as though I hadn't used my hands until the last piece-the one I died holding- but instead just dove in face-first because it was the shortest route from insane cacophony in my head to binge-induced coma-like calm. There were bags of every sort of chocolate, all opened and sampled, with wrappers littering the floor. There were boxes containing every pastry I've ever lusted after covering every inch of available counter space. There was a second bed in the room and it was stacked 3 rows deep with more pizza! There were EMT's in the room and a CSI team was busy taking pictures of the scene. Pictures! I'm observing this all from a corner of the ceiling and my thoughts were "I've got to find a way to remove all the food before they get photos!" The thought that this would be the story chronicling my demise put me into an intense state of shear terror! The next nightmare scene immediately became one of me trying to climb out of a deep, muddy sepulcher as the 3 people that came to witness my burial all talked among themselves of what a sad and lonely place I must have been in, living a life of such hypocrisy.
Have you ever been in a place so dreary, so forlorn, and asked: "How did I get here? When did I get here? How long have I been here?" Of course you have-we're only human! While this story may not have any effect on you, it completely freaked me out. Over the years, I'd had repeated nightmares about my teeth crumbling while gorging on sweets, leaving me with a mouth full of snaggly, vampire-ish teeth though I've read that this is actually a fairly commonplace dream. This Death by Gluttony dream left me feeling mortally petrified and I found myself asking "How the hell do I get out?"
This dream occurred around August of 2015 while I was in Sarasota working. There wasn't anything unusual happening at the time, other than just getting older, doing something I really didn't enjoy doing and still bingeing from time-to-time as a way to blur out the dissatisfaction I was feeling in my life (so I thought). This dream made me aware of just how broken I felt and that I couldn't go on doing the same thing.
I definitely didn't want this nightmare to ever become remotely close to reality but it followed me around; I could hear the voices at my grave site dissing me for having lived as a hypocrite and all I could think to myself was 'Well, what did you expect?'
In trying to figure out how to accomplish what I had been failing at for most of my life, I went through all the how's, when's and why's of where I had ended up. I started researching eating disorders again. I revisited my experience with (expensive) outpatient treatment through a highly-regarded and endorsed addiction treatment center, in addition to my experience with OA (Over-eaters Anonymous). I read up on the latest advancements for drug therapy (not an option for this girl!) manipulating dopamine, GABA receptors, serotonin and a slew of other feel-good drugs for addiction therapy. While treatment centers and OA may work for some and I certainly don't mean to offend or step on toes, it was not an effective approach for me. Again I found myself asking 'Why? Why weren't these effective for me?' The answer was pretty simple: They all took the ability to resolve 'The Problem' away from the afflicted and gave that power to someone or something else, whether it be in the form of group support, drug support, diet support, trigger food avoidance, a higher power, hospital support-even lock-up support! And on top of that? None have been able to provide a guarantee of 100% success with any one approach when applied to the population needing help! How can we tell someone with eating disorders to seek help when there is no understanding of what the true cause is? When available treatment resources are effective for some, but not for all? How can you even prescribe treatment for something that doesn't have a definitive cause? When the jury is still out on how effective the semi-effective treatment is when years later the success rate for 'cured' shows a high percentage of relapse? What if some of those treatments actually make matters worse by instilling the theory that one is mentally ill with a condition that isn't fully understood, and by so terming it a mental disorder further stigmatizes the individual?
Many therapy-based treatments insist that the Eating Disordered Individual (EDI) acknowledge a lengthy recovery process, perhaps spending years on the therapeutic couch, recounting countless hours of childhood family dynamics in search of the reason for the disorder. What if your family really had nothing to do with it and what if knowing why it developed has nothing to offer in terms of recovery? And what if you can't afford the couch?!
I know roughly when this started and I thought I knew why. I've researched theories on 'why' - from psychologists, researchers, medical experts, and others personally experiencing it. A big part of why none of it resonated with me is because it has either been left by the medical community as 'Results of research are inconclusive; more research needs to be done' in addition to their direct message to sufferers that 'You will need the help of a professional to overcome this' and from fellow-BED's providing 2-3 definitive reasons why (they believe) BED people do what we do, and put forth with such conviction that it almost dares one to think otherwise. None have made sense to me, again just attesting to the fact that this is a complex behavior with uncertain origins. So there I was, still asking: How the hell do I get out?
I spent the next 2 months after that nightmare questioning every move I made, especially as it pertained to my passion for fitness. Because I had made a successful career in this industry for many years, I already knew that my past didn't have to equal my future. After all, I had started Ferrari Fitness Systems during one of the darkest points in my life and managed to dramatically change my BED behavior and those changes had stayed with me. I just wasn't where I wanted to be, which was in complete recovery. I had stopped destructive purging via starvation and over-exercising, I had stopped compulsively weighing (to rarely weighing and not even caring about the number on the scale) and had drastically reduced the amount of times I binged as well as the amount I ate during a binge. But the urge to binge never went away and I hadn't entirely stopped binge eating, though I no longer purged. I thought about what I had done to change my direction those 20 years ago and it was simply that I wanted to change and that started with my inner dialogue.
Think about it...the distance between you and all that you want in this life is in the language you use and this truly starts with the internal language you run your life by. When I say I was a hypocrite, that may be easy to understand when you know I ran a fitness business. That's like taking the advice of a Pulmonologist that smokes cigarettes, right? Yet we all have internal dialogue we live by that could be considered highly hypocritical. Easy example: Say you're a highly-skilled entrepreneur but you only allow your business to reach a certain level of financial success because your parents went through the Depression and their relationship to money was one built on fear: fear of losing it, fear of never having enough, fear of spending it. This became part of your belief system and while you may feel that you're doing fine with your ability to earn, maybe you don't allow yourself to realize your full potential because there is a message you operate by that says 'I'll never be wealthy' or 'I don't deserve to be wealthy.' You're successful yet frustrated because you believe you have the ability to do more but something is holding you back. This is where the work comes in. You will have to get over your ego. You must face yourself and hide NOTHING, bury nothing, preserve nothing and justify nothing. I say this because you must stop making excuses for whatever it is you do in your life that keeps you from achieving what you want. I thought that by creating a website and writing a blog about my struggle with BED, committing to do BEFORE and regular AFTER photos and that by sharing this in a public platform, I would be holding myself accountable and would finally overcome BED once and for all. And for the most part, I did. But I wanted to be entirely free from the urge to binge and having had 12 episodes where I caved in over the last 16 months, I felt dissatisfied with being so close to freedom but not owning it. I had a big part of it right but something was still missing. Back to research I went; in fact, I became obsessed with finding answers.
When I initially set out to overcome BED, it was a total mind game. I literally felt as though I was doing battle when the urge to binge came upon me, facing off against myself and launching into a litany of why I was not going to engage in the behavior. It was exhausting! But over time, it became easier and the urges became less frequent. I saw this as a process of reprogramming my mind, thinking often of the quote 'As you think, so you become.' I listened to a LOT of The Power of Positive Thinking, The Secret, and Having an Abundant Life; I read everything I could on the habits and thought processes of successful people; I did tons of exercises designed to help me become the best version of me, digging through lies I told myself that weren't based on reality and replacing them with belief in my ability to be whatever I wanted to be. I was making great progress-more than I had in over 30 years of trying to win this battle-but it still was not a true victory.
It wasn't until I started to think about the brain as a muscle-one that is capable of creating all movements of and within the human body-that I considered the term neuroplasticity from all of my recent studying to acquire 3 personal training certifications. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life - in a nutshell. While I had considered neuroplasticity in terms of motor development, this is the same cellular process your body goes through to change thoughts and behaviors. Here I can recommend some excellent books providing copious amounts of scientific data: Rational Recovery by Jack Trimpey; The Animal Within Us by Jay D. Glass and The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey M. Schwartz. This also led me to a book by recovered bulimic/anorexic Kathryn Hansen Brain Over Binge. I highly recommend this to anyone struggling with bulimia, BED or even just experiencing difficulty in sticking with a diet. It is written in an engaging, easy to understand approach that specifically addresses neuroplasticity as it applies to diet. It provided the answers I was looking for and also helped me to understand why I had been successful to such a great extent but hadn't made the full leap to cured. I had just approached it from a different angle and not understanding the physiological implications just made it a bit harder for me to make the full connection to complete recovery.
This was the hard way: August of 2015 brought me a nightmare that rocked my world at age 55, after 40 years of struggling with BED. On October 10, 2015, I made a non-negotiable commitment to myself that I would stop comparing my life to others (did you know that comparison is a thief that steals all your joy?), stop keeping score of the amount of times I'd failed at trying to change, focus on the good things about Stacey, be okay with my truth (the good and the bad), stop making life a game of All or None, be patient, focus on small movements forward and not expect perfection. By January 1, 2016, I was ready to make a resolution that was radically different than the previous 40 I had made, primarily 'I will lose weight' (far too vague, by the way...) and instead resolved to not go out and buy binge food. I didn't want to binge at all and hoped I wouldn't but allowed myself room to make mistakes without it having to be the end of another resolution-which of course would only be viewed as another failure. I was too fragile and didn't know how many more failures I could endure. But remember: part of my non-negotiable contract allowed for these riders. I also kept reminding myself of the cliched 'It's not how many times you fall, it's how many times you get back up.' And I've done that a LOT-must be why I have such incredibly strong legs! I started focusing on the amount of times I got back up, and kept some of my favorite quotes on this theme in constant view:
A person who falls and gets back up is much stronger than a person who never fell.
Sometimes you have to get knocked down lower than you have ever been to stand up taller than you ever were.
Our greatest glory is not in never failing but in rising every time we fail.
Falling down is how we grow; staying down is how we die.
We're not born winners or losers; we're born CHOOSERS.
Sounds admirable, right? Yet, the most difficult time came about 3 weeks into this when I was feeling particularly bored and dissatisfied with where I was in my life. I remember pacing the floor and praying for strength and guidance not to turn to a binge episode for distraction. I admit that it wasn't easy staying in the moment and doing the work on switching up the internal dialogue-after all, we're talking about undoing 40 years of habitual behavior-and the thirty-some minutes I spent doing the work felt like an eternity. Having to rescue your own self is a challenge but the choice is ALWAYS yours. And, there is NO ONE else who can. I kept reminding myself that others may try to sell me on the idea that I NEED their help to recover (drugs, hospitals, psychotherapy, etc.) and that this had never felt right to me: I had to do the work. I needed to get to a place where I knew I could trust myself to respond to life authentically. And this is where the HARD came in: why did the urge to binge continue to plague me, through all the strides forward while reaching goals and not having unrealistic expectations about how my life would be different in recovery? I simply wanted freedom from bingeing so I could live a healthy life.
In the next post, I will sum up the reasons that urges are challenging to deal with and why we all, at one time or another, give in to them and feel powerless to do otherwise. I'll also explain why, once you know the etiology of an urge, you can overcome it on your own-without drugs, without therapy, without a food plan - if you want to. Even if you don't have disordered eating but have trouble sticking with a diet, whether it's to lose weight or become healthier, this will benefit you as well. You'll understand why diets don't work and probably become angry at the diet industry that's been trying to sell you 'The Answer' by taking advantage of this physiological phenomenon that can be so easily manipulated.