How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 5

This is the fifth and final post in my How I Beat Binge Eating series. In case you missed them, here is the Intro as well as Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. I finally figured out how to stop emotional eating and bingeing, and I hope my story helps you believe that you can change too!

Pretty Much Normal (and SO Much Happier!)

By here, my daughters were 1 and 3. My binges hadn’t gone away completely, but I was getting better and better all the time. It was exciting and satisfying to finally feel somewhat “normal” with my food and exercise. It was ironic, too, that after all my years of dieting and restricting and training for long races, I was starting to lose some weight without effort. You read that right: by curbing my workouts to 30–45 minutes a day and working in dessert a few times a week, I was losing weight! I dropped down from the mid 150s to the mid 140s by simply taking good care of myself. It felt amazing.

beat binge eating
Camping with Mark and the kids by my favorite lake up in the gorgeous Uintahs.

A Final Test

Then something devastating happened. Because I love the person it involves dearly, I’m being intentionally vague. It’s a part of my story I can’t leave out, but something I also can’t share fully here because it’s only my story by extension. I apologize for this, but I feel it’s right, and the person I’m talking about cleared what I’ve written but asked that I leave it where it is and not elaborate further.

Anyway. I found out that someone I loved was struggling with an addiction. This wasn’t something anyone knew about until this person bravely chose to come forward, bring things to light, and start the fight to be free again. When I found out what was going on, I was completely thrown off-balance. I would never in a million years have seen it coming. And, though I know now this wasn’t right, I felt partly responsible.

Guilt Again

This person had been close enough to me that I found myself analyzing every aspect of our relationship, every interaction over the past few years. I started feeling intense guilt, thinking that I’d been mean and judgmental and all-around rotten at times to this person. I was convinced that if I’d been better to this person, maybe things could have and would have been different.

I also struggled with bouncing back and forth between wanting to give this person a hug and wanting to throw them in front of a train. Some of the details of the deception involved in keeping this addiction up had to do with lying to me, using me, and generally abusing my trust. This was someone I’d loved and respected for years and years, and finding out they’d kept so much in the dark made me feel angry and lied to and betrayed. Yet when I’d feel this totally justifiable anger and hurt, a new layer of guilt would wash over me for feeling anything but sympathy for this person who I knew was suffering so much. I was both hurting for this person and extremely hurt myself, and for a week or two I could barely even function.

I don’t know what I would have done through this time if I hadn’t had Mark by my side to remind me, over and over, that this wasn’t my fault. He was and is the best friend I’ve ever had, and I don’t know how I could live without him. I also wouldn’t have made it without another good friend who had recently been through something similar and was willing to talk with me about it all. And I know for a fact I never would have made it through without my parents’  willingness to let me collapse on their couch and sob whenever I hit my breaking point and just couldn’t take it anymore.

Relapse & Realizations

During this time of high stress, I had a mini relapse of a few bad, bad binges and one purge. For a brief, dark time I felt as lost and sad as my freshman self from the past. Again I found myself trying to use food to cope. But what happened was actually really interesting: I found that bingeing just didn’t help. 

Back in the day, I’d feel massive euphoria and relief when I’d eat a huge quantity of sugar. It calmed and comforted me like a drug. But now? It didn’t have that effect anymore. I just felt overstuffed and cranky after overeating—which I’d always felt post-binge, of course—but the temporary high that used to drive me to binge wasn’t there like it had been years ago. It wasn’t a sensation of feel-amazing-then-feel-crappy like before: it was feel-crappy-then-feel-crappier.

Furthermore, my stomach couldn’t tolerate the volume of food it used to. I hadn’t had a full-on binge in so long that my brain and body had recalibrated: not only did I not enjoy them like I once did, but I couldn’t really even binge like I once had! I physically couldn’t do it.

how to stop emotional eating with healthy coping mechanisms
What DID help during this time? Running was a lifesaver, for one. I still stuck to 5K training and other short workouts, but I knocked my 5K time down to a new personal best on one particularly hard day. Taking stress out on the trail works!

In an odd way, that relapse period helped me see how far I’d come. I’d figured out, on an emotional level, that food couldn’t really solve my problems. Yes, I still overeat and even occasionally “binge,” but I now see that what I call binges in my head are really just emotional overeating that happens to come as a result of old binge thinking: I follow the same logic my binge urges thrived on, but the amount I eat in reaction is tiny by comparison to what it once was. I figured out then that I hadn’t actually binged in years. I still had overeating and emotional eating issues, true. But true, actual bingeing had been out of my life at this point for a long, long time.

Gina

This time was also heartbreaking for our family as my mother-in-law’s health began to really decline. Gina had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer back in 2012. She lived a miraculously long and full time after her diagnosis, despite the pain and discomfort of aggressive chemo. I don’t know how she was so unfailingly kind and optimistic through so much suffering, but she was. Gina was amazing that way.

But it was during these already hard months for me personally that we had to watch her finally begin to lose the fight to cancer. I’d be lying if I said I never used food to cope during the sad last few months of Gina’s life, because I definitely did. But even then, my binges were small hits of sugary comfort food rather than full-on bingeing episodes.

 

Gina McConkie
This is my mother-in-law, Gina, with the six grandbabies born into our family since her cancer diagnosis—babies she wasn’t supposed to live to meet but did nonetheless. How’s that for inspiring? My Rorie is the one in the pink swimsuit.

 

The 12 Steps: How It All Came Together

Part of the person I mentioned before’s recovery from addiction included involvement in a 12-step program. The particular program they used is an adaptation of the original Alcoholics Anonymous steps made to be (1) general to any type of addiction, not just alcoholism and (2) to fit in with the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormon church), who sponsors this program and of which I’m a member as well. Here is a link of a free PDF of the recovery manual for anyone who’d like to check it out.

I saw dramatic, miraculous changes in this person as a result of this program. I have no doubt that God can and does help people change. I started flipping through the recovery manual too, mostly to be a support to my loved one as they worked the steps but also out of curiosity for my own issues with food and eating. And I loved what I found there.

Now, I don’t feel that eating disorders and addictions entirely line up: there are similarities, yes, but the analogy isn’t exact. For example, feeling like slipping up and overeating is a problem or sin as serious as a relapse in drug use is silly and counterproductive, in my opinion. Thinking this way only fed into my old fires of perfectionism and guilt. Figuring out how to stop emotional eating and bingeing is a big deal, sure. I know personally how much upheaval and emotional damage food issues can cause. But still, a problem with food is nowhere near the magnitude of having a problem with illegal drugs or alcohol. Reminding myself of this was key.

So the 12 Steps weren’t a perfect, exact fit for me. But much of what the 12 steps offer is beautiful. I found the steps VERY applicable to me and still do. Honestly, writing these posts has essentially been a Step 4, as any of you familiar with the 12 Steps might  note.

Essentially, I feel like this addiction recovery manual is a great handbook for anyone who wants to change and wants God’s help in doing it. I followed the steps as far as they applied to my situation, even called into a few of the support meetings for a time, and read through the manual again and again because of the hope it gave me.

how to stop emotional eating with the LDS addiction recovery manual

Faith AND Works

The main beef I’d had with Kathryn Hansen’s Brain Over Binge was that she emphasized so much of how you can beat bingeing by yourself. She even repeatedly criticizes the approach of 12 Step Programs as fueling her old mentality that she needed an entire emotional and personal overhaul before she could ever stop her bingeing. But as someone who has been a Christian all my life, I was uncomfortable with the idea that I was every going to fully recover without God. That did not resonate with me like the rest of her book had. But something big clicked as I read through these 12 steps.

I felt in my heart that I could keep applying the Brain Over Binge principles along with deriving strength from a higher power. The saying “God helps those who help themselves” finally made perfect sense to me.

Yes, Kathryn Hansen was right: I could theoretically change my bingeing habit all by myself. But the beautiful thing is that because Jesus Christ lived and died for me, I don’t have to! I do my best to set myself up for success by eating enough calories every day, not overexercising, and trying to reframe my negative thinking. These efforts of mine generally do keep me binge free.

But when I have weak moments, even in spite of all my best efforts, I can pray for strength to keep doing all those healthy things. And every time,  I feel those prayers answered through God’s grace. God hasn’t fixed my problems for me, but He has helped make me strong enough to keep fixing them myself through my persistence and learning and hard work.

As tough as the entire year of 2015 was, this year was where my recovery final cemented itself as real and lasting. It showed me that bingeing no longer did anything real for me, and it showed me how my best effort alongside the grace of God would keep getting me and my eating better and better. It showed me that I could survive some of the hardest things life could hand me without using food as an unhealthy crutch. I did it: I beat binge eating.

Where I Am Today

It’s June of 2016 as I type this now, and my life is GOOD! I eat enough every day now. I eat desserts regularly. I don’t overexercise. I have a sound understanding of what my nutritional needs actually are, and I honor them. I’m able to question and analyze negative thinking rather than spiraling into self-hatred and frustration by default. And I rely on God, every single day, to help me keep these new habits and ways of thinking strong. I work as hard as I can, and He helps me along.

Family shot by the castle on our trip to Disneyland in April 2016.
Classic family shot by the castle on our trip to Disneyland in April 2016.

My life and eating aren’t perfect, but they are so far from what they once were. My bad days tend to be me eating 5 cookies when I planned to eat three, or feeling cranky and eating a bowl of cereal instead of facing the actual problem I’m facing right away.

Is my eating perfect? No. But whose is? Honestly, I’d be okay if this is how things stayed. I keep working towards getting better but acknowledging that where I am is pretty great. I feel healthy. I feel happy. And I feel like all that awfulness of bingeing is finally, finally behind me.

Back when I first decided to truly get better, when I was early in my pregnancy with my second child, I promised myself that before I became pregnant again, I would be in a good and healthy place with my eating. It wasn’t fair to a coming, unborn child for me to be pregnant again if I wasn’t healthy enough to care for a little one that would depend entirely on my health choices.

Furthermore, I know that pregnancy can be an emotional time that also comes with increased hunger, and practically speaking, it wouldn’t be wise for me to be pregnant until I had a better handle on my binge eating. Mark agreed, and so I simply worked through my eating as best I could and decided our family wasn’t going to get any bigger until things had truly changed for me long term.

I can’t help but cry as I type this final section.

Pregnancy #3

It was near the end of 2015 that Mark and I had a series of long talks. Talks about me. Talks about us as a couple. Talks about our daughters. Talks about the horribleness of the past year.  Talks about how my eating was finally, actually changing, even in times of high stress. Talks about what we wanted to do in the coming few years, and talks about how we were going to get there. And we finally felt that the miracle I’d worked for, that he’d supported me through, and that we’d both prayed for for years had finally happened: my eating was more or less better. Things had finally changed for me. And I was healthy enough to be pregnant again.

In January 2016, we got the double pink line we’d been trying for. I was pregnant! We had hoped and prayed that we’d be able to be pregnant with this baby and share the good news with Mark’s mom before she passed on. Miraculously, we were able to tell Gina about her grandbaby to come just three weeks before her passing in February of this year.

healthy pregnancy
Me at 15 weeks along with little Scarlett, right when my bump first “popped.”

 

As I type this I’m  6 months along with the little one we plan to name Scarlett Gina McConkie. Yes, she’s another GIRL! I’m going to be a mother to three daughters.

healthy pregnancy

In the past, I’ve had the thought that I was the worst person in the world God could have picked to send daughters to. I have been intensely afraid that I’d pass down my insecurities and issues with eating and be an influence for bad, not good, on my little girls. But I now take the fact that I’ve got not just one but THREE daughters to raise as a high-five from heaven. You’ve got this, Sarah, God is telling me. You’ve been through so much, figured so much out, and I want YOU to be the one taking care of some of my little girls.

 

raising healthy daughters

You Can Change!

So as scary and crazy as it seems to put all of this personal stuff about my life out there where anyone can read it, I wanted to do it in case what I’ve learned can help anyone else on their way. I want to shout from the rooftops that you don’t have to starve yourself to be beautiful and healthy. Dieting and restricting aren’t the answer. A number on the scale can’t make you happy. Food can’t heal your hurts and heartaches. And most importantly of all, if you too struggle, know that YOU ARE STRONG ENOUGH TO CHANGE if you’re willing to give it time, never give up, and trust in God!

I don’t know who you are, but if you’ve been through any of the things I’ve described,  I want you to know that you aren’t alone. You aren’t crazy or broken or bad or beyond help. You’ve got this. You’re going to be okay. Getting better is absolutely possible, and I know that if you’re willing to give it time and work, you will make it!!!

I’d like to wrap this up with one of my favorite quotes of all time:

beat binge eating

How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 4

This is How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 4. In case you missed them, here is the Intro, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Things Got Better!

My eating slowly but steadily began to improve. I found myself using a lot of the ideas from intuitive eating but plugging them into some structure. For example, when I first began, I decided I’d eat three meals and two snacks a day, trying my best to eat them when I could feel that I was hungry but not sweating it if my day’s schedule didn’t permit that. I’d let myself eat whatever I felt like for those meals and snacks, provided it was FOOD and not dessert. I began experimenting with how often desserts should be in the mix, and after trying a small one daily, then a big one weekly, I found that 2 (maybe 3) normal-ish desserts a week felt best.

food addiction beaten
Me with my little family on my sister’s wedding day in Fall 2014.

That rough gameplan didn’t make my binges go away entirely, but it did help a lot. Later on  I discovered MyFitnessPal and found it to be a wonderful tool. I started seeing my eating as a budget. I had a set allotment of calories to work with, but within that? I could choose whatever I wanted! No more rigid meal plans for me. As odd as it sounds, calorie counting has been amazingly liberating for me.

Also, thanks to MFP. for the first time in a really long time I was eating enough calories (some days—keep reading for why I wasn’t on others). It felt amazing after years of starving or overstuffing myself. I came to believe that while some foods have addictive components (for me, SUGAR!) I didn’t really suffer from some sort of food addiction at all. I had simply let myself be perpetually hungry for years. No wonder I was rebounding with binge eating!

Things weren’t magically all better, and I still binged once or twice a month. I felt at peace, though, like I was on a good trajectory. And my weight, without aggressive undereating or overexercising, returned to my pre-pregnancy 140s. It took 8 months to get there, but I got there in a happy, healthy, relaxed way. The difference between losing baby weight after Sophie vs. after Rorie was like night and day.

Parties and gatherings were still hard, though. Events where huge plates of cookies and brownies sat on a table for a few hours while everyone mingled were still challenging for me to negotiate healthily. I’d often eat a healthy snack before going somewhere like this, knowing from my time with intuitive eating that arriving at a tough food situation starving was just setting myself up to overeat. But by the party’s end, still I found I’d usually succumbed to the slippery slope of “I’ll just have one cookie as one of my snacks today” > “Shoot, I had two.” > “Crap, now the day is ruined.” > “I’ll eat 10 more since today’s already shot and start over tomorrow.” Binge thinking still got the better of me fairly often.

Cannon Beach
Mark and I spent a weekend in my childhood stomping grounds near Portland, Oregon last year. This was the first (but not last!) vacation I went on without getting even close to bingeing. I was so, so proud.

As a result, I would shy away from social and family activities more than I should have (or at least cry and get stressed out an hour beforehand before redoing my makeup and going despite my fear). But it was encouraging, at least, to note that my binges in day-to-day life at home were fading out almost entirely. I still struggled in “unusual” food situations like parties, vacations,  and holidays, but by and large my eating was really beginning to normalize.

Resources That Helped Me Keep Changing

I continued to read up in books and online about bingeing and emotional eating, and I came across a few things that really helped me.

I found a handful of bloggers who shared their own frank experiences with binge eating. The two that stick out in my mind at being significantly helpful are Runs for Cookies and Nia Shanks. I’ve never faced the challenge of having to lose 100+ pounds like Katie, and don’t really care for lifting like Nia, so some aspects of their sites and experiences don’t apply directly to me. But their posts about binge eating and how to overcome it spoke right to my heart.

I’m grateful to these two brave, brave women for sharing what they do and helping me feel less alone in my struggles. Some of their practical suggestions have also been a big help to me as I’ve continued to experiment and find out what was going to work for ME eating-wise. I highly recommend hitting those two sites and reading any of their content on bingeing, because it’s good, sound stuff.

Reading Brain Over Binge

Just as big a deal for me was the book Brain Over Binge, by Kathryn Hansen. This book, and Kathryn’s accompanying website, is wonderful. I’ll just say up front that I don’t 100% agree with everything in the book (again, I’ll address this in a few minutes), but the main premise made total and complete sense to me.

Essentially, she explains how she recovered from her binge eating by separating it from other emotional issues. While so much literature on binge eating teaches that you need to dig out the deep, root, emotional causes of your bingeing, Kathryn argues that you can (and should) address such issues as depression, perfectionism, insecurity, and anxiety, but that you don’t need to totally solve all of those things before you can stop binge eating. By following a series of logical steps in your thinking, you can retrain your brain to simply not listen to binge urges. Binge urges, she explains, often begin from your HEALTHY brain’s sending you messages to eat more in response to dieting and restricting. I know this happened in my case: remember how I’d walk past that bakery back at BYU and feel like I NEEDED to get those brownies? It’s because my brain—which is healthy and whole, by the way, not broken and crazy—is designed to help me survive and wanted to get me to eat more so my body could be nourished. These binge urges recur and become habit as you continue to restrict and then binge, which reinforces the wiring in your brain that creates habits.

Therefore, if you can simply stop repeating the action of listening to those urges and bingeing, you can get to the point where those urges eventually stop coming because you’ve treated them as “neurological junk” and unwired the bad habit of bingeing! Seeing binge urges as simply bad brain wiring that can be fixed rather than some dragon that would take years to slay gave me hope and confidence in myself. The notion that I could just CHOOSE to stop bingeing rather than spending years slogging through other issues rang true to me.

My Takeaways from Brain Over Binge

That was a really quick and incomplete summary. But it’s what I took away from the book, and I found that idea very empowering. After years of believing I was emotionally damaged and unwell and binged in reaction, I got validation for an idea I’d already suspected was true: my binges were simply HABITS formed by repeatedly bingeing. They weren’t the result of anything major I needed to spend years working out! Sure, I had insecurity and anxiety I wanted to keep working out. But so did a lot of other people I knew who weren’t binge eaters. I sometimes felt angry, wondering why I somehow had to become this superhuman person with no emotional issues so my bingeing could stop, while others could keep being imperfect yet not have eating problems.

If any of these ideas ring true to you, I strongly advise you to hop on Amazon and grab this book ASAP. It is well worth the time and money, and was a real turning point for me in feeling empowered and able to beat binge thinking. If you’re unsure, or simply waiting for the book to get into your hands, I’d go onto the Brain Over Binge website and subscribe to Kathryn’s emails so that you can get her free eBook. It’s a great introduction to the ideas in her full-length book and does a much better job than I did explaining how binges are a result of urges to binge, and that’s that.

In her book, Kathryn describes how once she figured all this out, her binges stopped right away. I wish it’d been such an ON/OFF switch experience for me, but it wasn’t. I still binged even after reading this book. But, I found that the 5 steps she gives for responding to binge thinking when it creeps in were gold. I wasn’t successful every time, but at maybe 1 in 3 parties or gatherings where I had to be around a lot of sugar, I found that I could make it through an evening without giving into my binge urges. It didn’t work all at once or right away, but I had solid proof from my experience that Kathryn’s ideas did in fact work. And I kept using her 5 steps, practicing and practicing, trying to get that brain wiring to keep changing. I still use this technique today, and like any muscle of the body you repeatedly and persistently work, I feel that my brain is truly becoming stronger and better able to beat binge thinking.

Scaling Back on Running

One more critical piece of the puzzle fell into place around this time. I figured out that even if I ate 2000ish calories a day, burning hundreds of calories a day through exercise made it hard for me to feel full enough to resist binge thinking.

I truly love running. I love how it feels. I love the sense of accomplishment I get any time I run farther or faster than I ever have before. I love how being able to whittle down a mile or 5K time gives me a way to chart progress with actual numbers—I find when I have those healthier numbers to focus on, the number on the scale means less and less. Running is fun and empowering and all-around wonderful.

But.

Have you ever run 10 miles? Or 13? Or more? If so, you’ve likely experienced what I call RUNger: the crazy waves of hunger that hit a few hours post-run and make you ravenous for the rest of the day. This is a healthy body’s normal response: a 10-mile training run, for example, burns about 1000 calories for a woman of my height and weight. This means for my body to carry on and do its normal thing, it wants 1000 extra calories to make up for the ones my run gobbled up.

In theory, the solution is simple: eat 1000 calories and stop being hungry. A lot of people properly refuel after runs and don’t have any problem. For them, running long distances is healthy and great.

But I found that being THAT HUNGRY made it hard for me to not give into binge thinking. While it would have been fine, in terms of calorie math, to eat a big pile of cookies on a day where I ran 10 miles, it didn’t feel emotionally good to do so. In my still-recovering mindset, eating a higher-than-normal quantity of food, even a healthier food like a big sandwich, would trigger my binge thinking. “You’ve eaten a ton today. Just go on and finish the remaining 9 cookies since you had 7 already,” the binge urge would say to me. And too often, I listened.

It was frustrating to me to discover something I loved so much was in fact making my recovery harder. But I couldn’t deny the correlation I was seeing with long-run days and binges whenever I’d train for a race longer than a 5K.

5K
Mark with me at a 5K we ran together in August 2014.

Shorter Workouts = Less Binge Urges

So for my personal situation, I decided to, for now at least, cap my exercise to 45 minutes a day max. This kept my calorie burn via exercise low enough that I did need to eat some extra calories to maintain normal hunger/fullness levels, but not a ton. This was hard for me. In fact, I did cave and run one last half marathon with some friends in the spring of 2015 just because it sounded so dang fun. But I knew that I was feeling better and eating better when I went back to shorter workouts once that race was over.

In short, high levels of running left me too hungry to beat binge thinking. I may have been eating 2000+ calories a day, but because my runs were so long in the past, that 2000 wasn’t nearly enough to keep me healthy and full. And having to eat SO MUCH to make up for my exercise was stressful and hard as I was still trying to figure out healthy moderation. As much as I hated coming to that realization, it was the truth.

So for my workouts, I shifted gears to 5K training. I was surprised to find that this kind of running was still satisfying and fun, but I could simply do a lot less of it and still reap almost everything I loved about running. Once it was too cold and dark to run outdoors in the morning, I’d do shorter workout DVDs daily.

Right now, it seems like “30 minutes a day or less” is really trendy in the fitness DVD world. This works out great for someone like me, who’s all about working hard but is trying to limit the total time and calorie burn to a reasonable level. I personally love Beachbody’s T25, Jillian Michaels’s Body Revolution, and Jillian Michaels’s Ripped in 30 DVD programs—all challenging, fun workout sets that kept me working out for a reasonable amount of time each day that didn’t make my hunger levels hard to deal with. I’ve also got Insanity: Max 30 and Jillian’s Bodyshred on the docket to try out after I have this baby and feel up to such tough exercise again.

Sarah McConkie
I’m famous! I ran the 5K at SLC’s 2015 Comic Con and the photographers liked my bright-red Nikes enough to snap a picture. 😉  Making this switch in my running made such a difference in my eating.

Recovered?

I was so, so pleased with myself. It was a miracle! My binges were steadily decreasing both in frequency and volume. I was finally figuring things out, like I’d promised myself I would when I was pregnant with my daughter Aurora. I felt amazing.

But would it stick long term? What came next would put all my new habits and beliefs to the test.

How I Stopped Bingeing: Part 5