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Episode 22

Emotional binge eating: My story

Art of plate and fork

I spent much of my life battling food. Overeating made me feel cared for. Make me feel loved. Binge eating temporarily filled that hole inside me. Sugar gave me peace.

Highlights: I had binge eating disorder and was a sweets addict

  • My mother was an alcoholic with borderline personality disorder. She was neglectful and I was a sad and lonely child/teen. I started overeating for comfort, peace, and to feel loved.
  • My mother had at least 12 suicide attempts by the time I ran away from home at 17. Eating helped me cope.
  • I stayed overweight because I was “invisible.” I liked being invisible, especially to men.
  • Exercise gave me the inner strength to take control of eating and gave me another outlet other than food. It made me feel good, just like food did.
  • Sometimes I still eat too much sugar.
  • Whatever happened in your life gave you something that you can be grateful for. Mine is empathy.

Childhood trauma was the cause of my binge eating

I had difficult childhood. I didn’t have any support from my parents. I was neglected and lonely. My mother was an alcoholic. I lived with her in Norway from the time I was eight. My father stayed in the U.S.

My mother had a (then) undiagnosed mental illness. She was an alcoholic, took too many prescription drugs, had drunk men over constantly, stayed away for days on end. She was suicidal. By the time I ran away from home, she had tried to commit suicide at least 12 times. Cleaning up her blood after she slit her wrists was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. It was traumatic. It changed me forever.

Compulsive overeating felt like love

Dealing with this life made me turn to overeating. Binge eating – particularly sugar – made me feel loved and taken care of. It gave me a feeling of being taken care of. It gave me relief. Food made me happy. It was my coping mechanism.

Stop binge eating, start living

Exercise’s mental benefits helped me heal

Once I started exercising, I got stronger physically and emotionally. Exercise helped me feel good, and it started to take the place of food. I didn’t become addicted to it, but I slowly let it become my new response to stress. The endorphins gave me a mental boost that lasted for hours. This mental boost helped me learn to cope with triggering situations.

Falling off the wagon

Sometimes I do still fall off the wagon. I had my overeating completely under control for about 10 years. Now and then I do eat too much sugar for stress relief, especially when I don’t have time for exercise. I won’t beat myself up over it.

Self care and your mental health

Life is about growing, learning new things and not being mad at ourselves for what we’ve done in the past. Just acknowledge it and use those moments as a learning experience. You can’t change the past, but you can change how you react to that past. Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself.

Gratitude for what trauma gave you

The traumatic things that happened to you in past gave you something. There is the tiniest glimmer of something good that came out of it. My good thing is empathy.  My childhood gave me empathy and I am so grateful for that. Honestly… I would not change my childhood if I could. It helps me relate to others, to not be judgmental, and to just accept that things won’t always go my way. I can survive. You can survive.

Short quotes on life from the episode

Sometimes when your life is out of control, the only thing that you can control is what you eat or don’t eat.

My mother’s mental illness was not diagnosed earlier because back then they didn’t talk about it.

Food made me happy. It was the only thing that I felt loved me at the time. Food gave me a feeling of completeness and warmth.

It took a while for me to figure why I would overeat. It was because of how it made me feel.

They could drink wine and yet I wasn’t allowed to eat chocolate. That doesn’t make any sense.

I didn’t feel safe growing up. Nighttime was not a time where Helen was safe. My mother had drunk guys coming in and out all the time.  

When you can look forward to exercising (like walking), and you feel how great it feels to move your body, that take the place of something else less healthy.

I would start spinning my stress away instead of eating my stress away.

Spinning helped me get stronger and started to fill up that hole inside me.

Podcast Transcript

We're going to talk about why I overate and why I sometimes still do.

Now this is a little more personal episode, and if you are triggered by certain things then you may want to skip to a different episode. But I'm going to explain a little bit why I've been doing a more podcast guest appearances.

I did two recently where I talked about my past and in one of them, I said, “Sell, this is why I would eat.” And it reminded me like, this is why I would eat. And I need to share that. I need to share that with you.

I had a fairly difficult childhood and in that childhood, I did not have a lot of people around me. I didn't have any support from parents. I felt alone. I felt lonely. My mother was an alcoholic. I lived with her in Norway. My father lived in the U.S. He was a very kind person. He just was not a fighter. So he didn't fight for people. He wouldn't fight for me when I ended up having to go to Norway with my mother and she became an alcoholic.

She also had mental illness that was undiagnosed for many, many, many, many years. She was suicidal. By the time I left at age 17, she had tried to commit suicide at least 12 times.

She was taking prescription drugs. She was very promiscuous. She would always have men in and out of the doors and they would be coming into my room, and I would kick them out, but it was very difficult. Very hard to live with someone who later was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

There were other things I'm sure were not diagnosed because she always had problems. And nobody really knew because back then they didn't talk about it. So I was very lonely. When I was about 14 and things started to get even worse. That was when I started to turn to food because food gave me comfort.

It made me feel loved. It made me feel taken care of. It gave me that self care feeling. That feeling of love that I didn't have. Food made me happy. And it was the only thing that I felt loved me at the time. It was more the feeling that food gave me. The feeling of completeness, feeling of warmth.

And it took a while for me to figure out that is exactly why I would overeat, because of the feeling that it gave me. Not because I wanted to eat a lot of food, but because of how it made me feel.

And I think a lot of us feel the same way. I have a friend of mine who just recently has been really successful now when trying to lose weight, but she said, “Food makes me happy.” And it's the same thing because she didn't have a lot of love in her marriage. And so she used food because food gave her that same sense of caring.

So when people say, “Well, just don't eat or don't overeat,” it's hard when that is the only thing maybe in life that gives you joy or makes you feel loved.

If you feel the same way about food, know that you're not alone, know that it is something that makes you feel good, and you can find another way, and you can get out of it.

You may need some help from a counselor. I didn't - I kind of did it on my own. Although sometimes when I'm really stressed. I'll still go eat a bunch of chocolate. But it's not very often. Sometimes I just need a little bit of chocolate now to kind of take the edge off.

I'm able to just have a piece of chocolate and it still makes me feel good without eating a bunch. But sometimes I still fall off the wagon. Just because you've lost weight doesn't mean that you don't fall off the wagon. I'm going to bet that a lot of people do and they just won’t admit it.

Or maybe their thing is alcohol. I know a lot of people where I used to live would drink wine to relax, drink wine to socialize,  drink wine, drink wine. They could drink wine and yet I wasn't allowed to eat chocolate. That doesn't make any sense. So their vice is a little bit different, but they have the same feelings inside. They just have a different way of handling it.

I turned to food for a huge portion of my life. I'm going to say since I was about 13 until about 36, and then I had a really good under control for about 10 years or so. And then occasionally I would just kind of slip off the wagon and slip off the wagon.

I go up and down like 15 pounds, depending on what I'm doing and what's going on, and how it feels. My kids eat chocolate and my son bakes good bread, good food, pesto to die for.

Another thing that I didn't actually bring up in the interviews - that I kind of forgot in both guest appearances - is that I liked being invisible. I liked when I was overweight I was invisible. I felt invisible because guys didn't see me. And I liked that. I think it’s because my mother was very promiscuous, as I said, and I wanted to feel safe.

I didn't feel safe growing up. Nighttime was not a time where Helen was safe. A  lot of it was because of the guys that she would have coming in and out. And I really liked that whole invisible feeling.

Now I've told my kids everything. Well, not everything, but they know a big chunk of it. They're grown now, but I told them when they were a little bit younger, so they know what I went through because I wanted to be open with them. And I wanted them to feel comfortable.

I wanted them to feel comfortable if things happen in their lives that they could then think, “Oh, well this happened, something else happened to mom. And maybe I can talk to her.” Because it is hard when you think everybody's perfect and you don't realize the kind of things that they've had go on in their lives and you'd be surprised. Everybody has something different that happened to them, but there are some consistencies.

A lot what's different is what happened to people. How that comes out. What is the end behavior. And mine was food. Mine was eating. Some people have drinking. Some people gamble. Some people have a lot of sex. Mine was always sugar. Cookies, pastries. They still make me incredibly happy as you can tell, but I don't turn to it like I used to. I don't have that big hole inside anymore like I used to have. It was very, very difficult growing up and I had to have something to keep me sane. And what I had was food. The food helped me get through the really hard times and the candy and the chocolate and everything. Because it was something for me.

When you can look forward to exercising (like walking), and you can just feel how great it feels to move your body, that can help take the place of something else that maybe is less healthy. When I first lost weight and I got better shape, I used to spin all the times. I would start spinning my stress away instead of eating my stress away.

I wasn't addicted to it. I just loved the feeling and it really gave me that feeling of strength. That feeling of strength, that feeling of being… I guess I felt kind of cared for in a way, because I would go to class and people would see me and it was just fun because I had friends there and we would chat and it was really good to go to that really small spinning studio.

And I really felt like at home there, and I think I was one of the first places I felt at home. And so that really helped me get stronger and start to fill up that hole that was inside me.

One thing I did talk about in the interview the other day is that sometimes when your life is out of control, the only thing that you can control is what you eat or don't eat. I think that is probably a common thread with those of us who eat too much and anorexics, is that we’re controlling things through eating or not eating.

I was controlling things through eating. I don't beat myself up over it at all. I look at it now as that was a coping tool for me and that's okay. It was something I needed at the time and it's okay. There's nothing wrong with having a crutch or something that you need to do at the moment, as long as you can at some point grow past it.

So it doesn't take over your life for a long time. Mine did take over my life, but then I finally got it to the point where it doesn't take over my life anymore. And once you can get to that point you can still feel those little moments. You can have a glass of wine. You can have a piece of chocolate, but it's not an all-consuming need because that's what I had before.

It was an all-consuming need to eat chocolate because I just had to do something to give myself some peace. The important thing is we reflect, and we grow and change.

And that's what life is about. Life is about growing and learning new things and not being mad at ourselves for what we've done in the past. Just acknowledge it and then use that to not repeat those same things, but also use it to become more empathetic. My childhood gave me empathy and I am so grateful for that.

There might be something in your life that you're really grateful for, that whatever you experienced that gave you something. And mine was empathy. (Walk cueing.) This is your time. This is your moment. Doesn't matter what happened before.

Doesn't matter what's going to go on in the future. This is your moment. This is where you change. This is where you get stronger. This is where your life starts. Your new life starts here right now. You’re out there. You're doing it. You're changing things day by day, step by step.

Look at it like that. Look at it like an opportunity. Every time you go for a walk is an opportunity for something. It's an opportunity for change. It's an opportunity to just get healthier and stronger, mentally stronger too.

Give yourself a pat on the back. If you can. I don't know if I can reach my back. I hurt my shoulder almost two years ago. I can't plank on straight arms. I can't do my bra properly, so I cannot pat myself on the back. If you can commit to yourself to getting out there and walking, or if you're doing this on the elliptical or an indoor bike treadmill, commit to yourself.

You have this little time for yourself where you can get some exercise, move your body, clear your mind, put your phone on do not disturb. And just take that time for you. Take the time to walk, take the time to reflect. It's better than counseling. You can just counsel yourself and think about things.



Helen is an author, entrepreneur, certified personal trainer, and lifestyle coach. She lost over 80 pounds and kept it off for 16 years. She loves travel, chocolate, and cats.