I’ve just eaten a litre of vanilla ice cream, a packet of chocolate biscuits, a frozen cheesecake and seven dried figs in less than forty minutes.
But what’s triggered this lack of control, this most recent escape into such short-lived anaesthesia? Well, my laptop suddenly gobbled up the two thousand words I’d just written for this article and emotional eating has been a big part of my life for the past 35 years. Given this article’s subject matter, though, I’m more amused than ashamed; an emotion that usually engulfs me halfway though and directly following a binge, and that most likely sent me fleeing to food in the first place. There is something particularly abject about chomping down into a frozen Sarah Lee past its use-by date.
BED (Binge Eating Disorder), the most common of eating disorders in Australia and more prevalent than Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, affects almost as many men as it does women of all shapes and sizes, incomes and ethnicities, and its occurrence in the over-forties-demographic has doubled in the past decade. Most people still assume this kind of crazy eating is for teenage girls or celebrities, whose every visible rib, baby bump and puckered thigh are exploited for all they’re worth and for all of us ordinary peeps to perve at.
But I’m not a celebrity or a mid-lifer in denial of the ageing process and seeking love and acceptance from a vanilla slice. I’m an educated, middle-aged, middle-class-feminist. So why can’t I stop eating compulsively and start relating to food like a ‘normal’ person.
In her book Midlife Eating Disorder, Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., points out how recently BED in older people has been acknowledged as a serious illness and that “in the medical field, typecasting eating disorders as teen disorders poses dangerous challenges for adult women and men seeking care.”
My love-hate-but-mostly-hate relationship with food started when I was a teenager and my girlfriends and I would loll about at school talking diets, food, fat and calories and how great it would be if only we were perfect. None of us was over-weight but that’s not the point. I was already hiding food from Mum, shoplifting Tim Tams and not eating in front of boys. When I left home at eighteen to go to University I lived in a share-house and survived on take-away kebabs and jam doughnuts one of my housemates routinely brought home from working at his dad’s doughnut van at the Vic Market. I’d binge and starve, eat and fast, diet and exercise and in between it all, and if I had the time and energy, go to university and waitress at a local café.
It was around this time and after a ten-day fast of cappuccinos and menthol cigarettes that I attended my first therapy session and the physiologist gave me a little book called “Fat is a Feminist Issue” by Susie Orbach. Orbach’s take on the female body and self-esteem issues from a feminist perspective was a revelation and that she suggested giving up dieting, and eating what I liked and when I wanted, was welcome relief.
For a time. I binge when in extremis – extremely bored, sad, pathetic, in-love, self-hating, procrastinating, anxious, frightened, rejected, drunk, happy, sexually frustrated … I binge when my twelve-year-old son is asleep. I eat in bed while I’m reading. I consume calories like the Cookie Monster when I’m watching television and I can devour the pantry while on the phone, as long as the other person does most of the talking.
I fret I am not a good role model for my son, that I am projecting onto him my own disordered thinking and that he has inherited the same binge-eating schema. Sometimes I’m grateful I don’t have a live-in partner because my BED is plain embarrassing and I’m too old and self-aware to be so out of control and focussed on food when there’s still so much else to do like trying to keep kids out of barbed wire enclosures for one thing.
Maybe it’s because of my disorder I don’t live with a significant other. Or maybe I don’t want one and I keep a hold of my ‘issues’ as a form of self-sabotage. ‘Partners and children suffer when adult women and men are afflicted’, writes Bulik. ‘The cost of treatment renders families destitute and destroys relationships. Intimacy is crushed by body image concerns. Trust in relationships is shattered as women and men desperately try to hide their illness from others’.
I dissemble around my relationship with food. I cancel social occasions and work commitments. I hide at home. I make pretend excuses as to why I’m not eating at a dinner party because on the way there I’d actually stopped off at a 7-Eleven and gobbled up enough junk food for an end-of-season footy bash. It’s hard navigating intimate relationships at any time let alone when an eating disorder can dictate how you feel and think about your body. And by extension, how you feel about someone else touching it, looking at it and planning on enjoying it.
I love to cook for friends and family but how can I do this when I’m ‘in the food’ as the OA (Overeaters Anonymous) 12-Steppers would say. ‘In the food’ means being in the zone that is the binger’s private’s hell. In 2012, BED was added to the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and now has its own set of criteria as distinct from the other more widely known eating disorders. According to the DSM-5 to be diagnosed as having Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by: “Recurring episodes of eating significantly more food in a short period of time than most people would eat under similar circumstances, with episodes marked by feelings of lack of control.”
Some days I wake up with a major food hangover and the nausea, fatigue, anxiety, fuzzy thinking, irritable bowl syndrome and depression are debilitating. Living with an eating disorder when you’re a grown-up with kids, a mortgage, an 82-year-old mother who knows you inside out, and a job, is both harder to hide because of all the responsibility but often easier to get away with too. If I want to drive to the shop, come home and consume a $50 fix in my bedroom I can. I do. BED can be an expensive habit.
My BED has waxed and waned over the years. For weeks and months, I’d be fine, in control, my illness manageable, and then wham! One emotional trigger and I’m off again and gorging. When my sister died four years ago my BED was triggered big time and I also took up running. A lot. In fact I couldn’t stop moving. I began training for the half-marathon. My grief had turned my life onto high flame and I was in psychic-free-fall and as I fell I began to drink and to take Valium to help me sleep. Within six months I had become a bingeing, alcoholic, grief-stricken, drug addicted, promiscuous, marathon runner.
These days I still run but far less obsessively, drink only occasionally because the alcohol can trigger a binge, and listen to book readings on a podcast instead of downing Valium to get me to sleep at night. Food is the “good girl’s drug” as Sunny Seagold describes in her book “How to Stop Using Food to Control your Feelings”. I’ve used benzodiazepines, alcohol and tobacco occasionally but food remains my drug of choice.
The grief is still there, that will never go away, and when I do have sex, I make it free of mind-altering substances as possible. It’s sexier that way Obesity and eating disorders are a capitalistic dream but we are forever blaming the individual instead of the food and those who are financially invested in our consuming it. “Because who should be shamed are the food companies that are producing foodstuffs that aren’t even food,” writes Susie Orbach. “Who should be shamed are the corporate structures not the individuals.”
When the man with whom I was having a relationship decided – around the same time I was retrenched from my long-term tertiary teaching position early this year – that it was easier to pay me to go away for a week to a health retreat than to commit to me, I was thrown into a bubble of boundary controls and extreme sports. I stopped bingeing and gave myself over wholeheartedly to the control of a suite of clean-living life-coaches and organic chefs, naturopaths and flower readers. I felt great after that week at detox-boot-camp but it’s impossible to maintain that kind of regime in one’s own environment.
After three weeks at home, with my relationship in disarray and my finances too, I began to retreat back into the food and the whole awful cycle began again. BED does not just screw with your brain it can stuff up your body too. Bulik again: “Some, but not all, of the complications associated with BED are secondary to obesity, such as Type 2 diabetes, gallstone, high blood pressure, stroke, digestive problems and high cholesterol.”
Going through menopause has also contributed to my renewed ‘enthusiasm’ for bingeing. While my hormones rage and I do too, I use food as company when I’m not up to any other kind. But it’s the regular exercise, the healthy eating, in between the less frequent binges these days, and the therapy that has all kept me from going completely nuts.
And being honest. Writing and talking about my condition has been a way to cope, although my mother is appalled I would go public yet again with another of my lamentations. I used to hide food from Mum and my illness from everyone else but no more hiding.
As the analyst Winnicott said, “It is a joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.”
Walking with her mother, Elly Varrenti reflects upon family and loss.
I wait for my mother in our usual place at the Botanical Gardens. There’s a lake and ducks, a kids’ playground, oaks and elms.
My 82-year-old mother and I meet most mornings for a half-hour walk. She usually sets the pace, although sometimes we do get out of sync. Once I was so excited telling her about my latest relationship disaster our walking got faster and faster.
“Can you believe he actually said that, Mum? I mean can you believe it?”
“Slow down! I’ll have a heart attack if we keep up this pace. He’s not worth losing your mother over, is he?”
And there was that time we had to stop walking altogether because we were laughing about those pictures of Treasurer Joe Hockey sucking on a fat cigar shortly before he announced the budget cuts.
“Come on,” she said. “Hurry up before it rains.”
This morning I watch as Mum manoeuvres her small silver car up to the curb, and when she gets out I notice she is wearing a new brown felt hat.
“Very becoming, Mum.”
“Got it from Vinnies. You should go there. Stop wasting your money.”
“They got any nice jumpers?” My 12-year-old son is as tall as I am now.
“They’ve got everything. Good quality, too.
“Okay. I’ll go today.”
“The leaves are all wet on this path,” Mum says. “I can’t afford to fall over again.”
“You can hold on to my arm if that helps,” I suggest.
“No, thanks. I’m not a complete geriatric yet.”
My mother doesn’t like me writing about her because she always comes across as tough and pragmatic.
“I feel things, too, you know. Just because I don’t talk about everything.”
I routinely defend my right to tell the truth as I see it, and she remains suspicious of my need to share.
“It’s indecent the way your generation just lets it all hang out,” she says.
I’m just fiercely grateful she’s still around to talk books and politics, cooking and kids, and to argue about all the rest of it.
These days I watch her rearing her late-daughter’s five-year-old son, and I can sense in my mother’s small body the quiet agony of grief. It’s not toughness I see, but long-learned self-protectiveness. For people like Mum, exposing one’s vulnerability, asking for help, is not so easily done.
My sister took her own life four years ago.
Took her own life. Somehow it doesn’t sound as shocking as ‘suicide’.
There were those who suggested Mum have my sister’s baby fostered. “Never!” Mum said. “I’ll look after him. It’s not a choice.”
Mine is a political family legacy. Single-minded commitment goes way back. Both my parents were ‘Persons of Interest’ to ASIO during the 1950s, and Mum’s Italian migrant parents were dogged if not disorganised anti-fascists.
My sister, fired with the same Bolshie gene, was an activist from her early teens. Later on, during her medical training, she pursued life with the sharp and scary focus of a revolutionary, travelling and volunteering in Chile, Nicaragua and, later, East Timor.
Her son has his father’s eyes, his grandmother’s empathy and his mother’s mischievous intellect. And her mouth. He definitely has my sister’s mouth.
On weekends my nephew stays with his dad, an Iraqi Kurd who spent five years in detention before my sister managed to help get him out. He is now an Australian citizen and has little to do with his countrymen. The post-traumatic stress disorder has made sure he is not very sociable. He is politely suspicious of the world and has never missed a weekend with his son. Not once in four years.
Mental illness is not like in the movies. It’s not like in The United States of Tara or Girl, Interrupted or Silver Linings Playbook. In real life, severe mental illness is not fun or zany or interesting or sexy.
In real life, my mother cared for her deteriorating daughter without conditions or limitations. I did what I could, responded to the calls at all hours and was at her hospital bed after her first two attempts. But, mostly, I watched on helplessly as Mum did battle for her gifted, troubled daughter.
I hated how much our lives had become all about my sister’s illness. I hated her illness. I did not fulfil my role of the unconditionally supportive big sister. I tried, but often I failed. I missed her. I wanted her back the way she used to be.
“How long have we been walking?” I ask Mum.
“It hasn’t even been 20 minutes yet.”
“The lake looks beautiful, doesn’t it?” I say. “All misty.”
“It does. Like from a children’s fairytale.”
It’s my mother’s patience, her gentle guidance and a teacher’s attention to the minutiae of her grandson’s development that strikes me when I am with them. She can’t play ball with him, but she can read and talk to him and she can fret about his monkish diet of rice, cucumber and mandarins. She can painstakingly connect the lines from one generation to the next.
Since her daughter’s death, my mother has changed. Everything is different now. Mum hates getting old and is worried about what will happen to her grandson when she dies.
“I just want to hang in there until he’s seven. Like the Jesuits say, give me the child until he is seven et cetera.”
In that small child we see all that we have lost, but all that we have found, too. And it is beautiful. My late sister’s child is beautiful.
“We’ve walked for half an hour, Mum. You want to go have coffee or something?”
“Not yet,” she says. “Let’s go around the lake just one more time.”