"Food became my comfort and enemy": What it's like living with a binge-eating disorder
A deeply personal story that sheds light on a little-known mental condition
“It’s not the marks you get in an examination. A promotion at work or getting into a great college. In my family, being thin is the biggest achievement,” says Niyati S, 30. Despite excelling at studies and getting into her pick of colleges, she remained the black sheep, the chubby child. “They said I’d grow out of it, but like the teapot in the nursery rhymes, my mom would sing with me, I remained short and stout. When I told her I thought I had a binge-eating disorder, she didn’t believe me.”
Despite opening up about her illness, Niyati faced ridicule. “Having a binge eating disorder wasn’t good enough. ‘At least if you had the other one, you would have become thin’, my brother laughed.”
The problem with binge eating disorder, according to psychologist Nishita Khanna, is that the common eating disorder is an invisible affliction, because outwardly, there isn’t always a drastic change as compared to anorexia nervosa or bulimia, where patients drop an unhealthy amount of weight. “It’s weight gain, which people then attribute to various other things,” she says.
Some believe it can be developed due to a genetic disposition of increased sensitivity to dopamine. Poor body image, emotional stress and other mental illnesses such as anxiety, substance abuse and depression can trigger binge eating disorder as well.
“Food became my comfort and enemy, especially after a car accident I had five years ago,” Niyati explains. Thanks to lifelong poor self-esteem and constant criticism, her trauma response manifested in episodes of eating a lot of food in a short period of time. “It gave me release, almost felt like a high. But then the guilt and shame would set in. I’d often purge after a binge episode.”
At first, it was emotional eating. The strong, stoic front she’d built to deal with her family meant everything would get bottled up inside. Then the release came over cheesy pizzas, samosas, jalebis and pakodas. Sometimes, in a single meal. “Food became a dirty little secret. Chocolates and chips hidden under my bed, then stuffed into my school bag to be discarded while I was out,” she recalls. “I hated myself for it.”
Leaving home for college seemed like an escape, but the loneliness of being in a different city where she knew no one came with a whole new set of triggers.
“I’d eat to the point of discomfort. When I wasn’t even that hungry and my stomach ached from a previous purge. The speed with which I devoured each piece of KFC from the bucket kept getting faster and faster,” she says.
The random episodes of binging turned into weekly occurrences. By my second year of college, her body had changed, with the high calorie intake making its way to her thighs and stomach. During trips back to see her family, her weight was a hot topic of discussion. “But when I opened up to my mother about my struggle and poor relationship with food I was shrugged off. ‘You just need to get moving. Start taking walks in the morning’, she said. My father wasn’t any different. I just needed exercise, according to them.”
Binge eating disorder is not about physical satiation of hunger, it’s psychological, Khanna insists. “It is about poor eating habits, but more so about using food as a coping mechanism. Like with other eating disorders, it comes with hyperfixations and an overwhelming obsession with food.”
Niyati tried exercising and sticking to home-cooked food in the beginning. But at night, overcome with self-criticism and hate, she cracked and binged again. “For my parents, it was like walking into a crime scene. Remnants of the stack of leftover parathas from lunch. Wrappers of cheese slices, chocolates, biscuits and more covered the table. Even the tub of hummus wasn’t safe from my itching fingers that night.”
After reaching breaking point, she convinced them to take her to a therapist. “I asked them to stay in the room for the first consult as I poured my heart out to the therapist. I felt that they might finally see the turmoil I had been in. The role that they had played in it over the years.” Despite the therapist acknowledging the psychology of her messed-up relationship with food, her parents weren’t able to reconcile themselves to the idea. “Of course, she has no self-control. All she needs is some moderation, bas.” At that point, Niyati knew there wasn’t any point in including them in this process. At least at this stage.
“Family support plays a very important role in mental health recovery. They’re your first support system, the ones you look up to the most and get the most validation from. The stigma of mental illness and seeking help can either be broken or reinforced, depending on how the family reacts,” says Khanna.
Niyati continued with therapy, using saved-up birthday money and internship stipends. Four years later, her parents still don’t know.
“The pandemic and lockdown were tough in the beginning. The isolation and anxiety made me go back to binging after a long time of employing healthy coping mechanisms. Thankfully, therapy went online and I have gotten back on track.
Now, I’m not consumed with thoughts of food, my weight or calories. My anxiety is under control, my outlook towards my health more positive. I wish my parents, and others understood that eating disorders beyond shrinking down to skin and bones are very real. If someone comes to ask you for help, it has taken them a lot of courage to do so.”
A note of caution: This article includes personal experiences and inputs from experts. If you’re struggling with your mental health, please consult your healthcare provider. iCALL has put together a crowdsourced list of mental health professionals across the country, you can find it here.