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 2

This is How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 2. In case you missed them, here are links to my Intro and Part 1 posts of this series.

“Disordered Thinking”

Now, let me be clear: I was NOT fat. At 5’5″ at 145ish, I wasn’t huge by any stretch of the imagination. Yet my critical view of myself distorted everything I saw in the mirror, and I seriously believed that I had a weight problem. In retrospect I can see how messed up my thinking was. I now think I look pretty fit, cute, and awesome in the pictures in this post. I wish I could go back in time and both whack myself upside the head for being such an idiot and then immediately give myself a big, big hug to help with all the hurt and fear I was dealing with back then.

disordered thinking
Eat hardly anything, eat everything, repeat. Through all this madness my weight and body hardly changed at all.

But anyway. I made a firm promise to myself that purging was no longer an option for me. It was something I never wanted to revisit. But instead, I decided I’d get “healthy.” I was convinced that I was fat and needed to lose weight, and that somehow all of my problems were rooted back to the inadequate, unacceptable way that I looked. I felt like I was addicted to food, particularly sugary food. But if I could work hard and have willpower, I though, I could change everything about myself and my life.

I still catch myself defaulting to this crazy logic in times of high stress. I think it’s easier to decide weight loss is the answer to your problems in life than it is to actually face your real problems. I see now how irrational, how stupid this line of thinking is. But in any event, I moved forward both determined to never purge again and to lose about 20 pounds.

 

The Beginning of Intentional Dieting

So I joined a gym. I hit the fitness and diet magazines, cutting out and saving 1200-calorie diet plans and sub-300-calorie dinner recipes. I began doing sets of exercises from the magazines that promised to thin my thighs and flatten my abs. I decided I was going to become a newer, better, infinitely hotter and happier version of Sarah.

I sincerely thought that by losing some weight and getting my eating back under control, I’d solve all my problems at once because I’d then be not just healthier but prettier too, which would mean more dating and more friends. Ta-da! I remembered how kind everyone had been when I’d lost weight back in junior high, and whereas one day it seemed like no one noticed me or liked me much, the next day I was bombarded with attention and praise simply because I’d dropped a jeans size or two. I wanted that again! I believed I was going to have EVERYTHING once I lost 20 pounds. And sticking to my  new regimen of “healthy” meal plans and tough workouts was my ticket there.

By this point, all my overtly dangerous and disordered behaviors were gone. No more purges, no more sub-500-calorie days. But my thinking was so jacked up that I was still doing watered-down versions of full-blown disorder behaviors. I ate, but not enough. I didn’t make myself throw up, but I still used exercise as a less-intense form of compensated when I felt I’d eaten too much. And my thoughts were nothing but FOOD. FOOD. FOOD. FOOD. LOSE WEIGHT. GET SKINNY. FOOD.

I think a lot of people currently or in the past fall into this category. We don’t have full-on disorders that need swift and serious medical attention, but we’re not living in a healthy and happy way. Food and exercise and weight loss become obsessions. It’s not so much a state of disordered eating but a state of disordered thinking. It’s being almost anorexic. Borderline bulimic. Often orthorexic. It’s not glaringly dangerous or unsafe, but it is miserable. And it’s a zone I lived in for far too long.

Restricting

Yet the bingeing raged on.

Before this, I was bingeing not out of hunger but solely due to emotions. I ate fairly healthy and normal meals and snacks throughout the day before I’d ingest an excessive several thousand calories of sugar in the evenings. But starting in the second half of my freshman year, once my first real efforts to diet began, my eating took on a whole new pattern. For the first time ever, my caloric intake became chronically low. And I honestly believed that I was being HEALTHY at this point: after all, the magazines were telling me to do all the things I’d started, and surely they weren’t advocating disordered behavior, right?

The best way I can sum up the shift here is that my binges began solely as a comfort mechanism when I was met with stress I couldn’t handle. But then they morphed into a biological, inevitable rebound effect as I was perpetually hungry. Consistently undereating is what kept the flame of my bingeing alive and well. Label it as restricting, dieting, or whatever you want, but it’s the #1 reason I could never stop binges from happening.

disordered thinking
Here I am at a friend’s wedding. Disordered thinking still kept me in its grip: at this point in time, I still believed I was horrendously fat.

Addicted to Food?

My binges never again reached the sheer amounts of food they did during that brief, awful time during my first semester as a college freshman. But the frequency of my binges? I found myself overeating if not all-out bingeing once or twice a week. I could “stick to a healthy eating plan” for about 5 days before giving up, it seemed. I’d do just fine with my bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, sandwich piled mostly with spinach for lunch, then chicken and veggies for dinner for a few days. But every time, like clockwork,  I’d snap around day 5 or 6. I’d walk past the campus bakery and feel my brain screaming at me that I needed brownies—and buy not one but a dozen. I’d go to a party and wolf down a huge plate of chips and dip plus a half dozen desserts. My hunger would get the better of me every single time after a few days of “good” eating, and despite my best intentions, I’d binge. Every. Single. Time.

I chalked it up to my pathetic lack of willpower. I’d swear to “start over” the next day. Often, I’d revise my diet or eating plan to be even stricter than it had been before, and the vicious cycle would continue.

In retrospect, I now see that anyone living on 1200 calories a day and burning another 300+ in daily workouts would react exactly as I did. My binges were a result of the physiological need to stay nourished! My brain was telling me I needed brownies because there was in fact a serious lack of carbs, fat, and general calories in my system! I didn’t see what I was doing as “starving myself,” because in my mind I was eating 3 “healthy” meals a day.

But I literally was starving most days, netting about 900 calories where a girl at my age, weight, and height could have and should have eaten somewhere near 1000 more calories than that daily. Yet because of my frequent bouts of overeating, I was probably averaging roughly the correct amount of calories: it just came about by under eating for several days and then stuffing my face.

Keeping Up Appearances

No one would have imagined all this was going on by simply looking at me. With what I felt was herculean effort, I dropped only a few pounds (at my lowest, I was 142) due to all the bingeing. And at my all-time high when my binges were at their peak as a freshman, I was in the low 150s. The few people I confided my overeating problem to acted confused: I hadn’t lost or gained a lot of weight at any point, and I wasn’t purging anymore, so what was the problem?

addicted to food
Another picture from the days where, in my distorted mind, I believed I was still problematically fat. Isn’t that sad?

I’ll tell you what the problem was. The problem was that I felt like garbage. The problem was that at any given moment I was either ravenously hungry or overstuffed and sick. The problem was that I inwardly screamed at myself and called myself horrible names any time I put one toe out of line from whatever stupid diet or cleanse or meal plan I was currently on. The problem was that I looked in the mirror and saw only UGLY. The problem was that I was unhappy and confused and had no idea what “healthy” even was anymore.

The Emotional Damage of Disordered Eating

I kept most of these feelings locked up inside. And it’s not like everything in my life was horrible. Not by any means! I found myself loving the major I’d chosen, finally making more friends and dating more, and honestly feeling fairly happy a lot of the time. So much of my life was great. I landed several writing and editing internships in a row that were fun and fulfilling. I got married to a wonderful, wonderful guy. I graduated from school. I had my first baby, my darling daughter Sophia.

But this undercurrent of constant dieting, constant fighting for a goal weight, and constant self-loathing was always in the background. The time after I had Sophia especially was brutal as I starved/binged myself down from my delivery day 200ish to my pre-baby 140s in just 4 months. The overtly dangerous purging was long gone, but the way I was living sure didn’t make me happy.

Sarah McConkie wedding day
Me on my wedding day with Mark. 🙂 I’m so lucky he’s mine. He’s known about my eating struggles since the early days of our marriage, and he’s never been anything but supportive and loving and amazing through all of this.

And ironically, a new emotion crept in. I read in lots of places that bingeing was a result of trying to cope with stress and problems, and that made me feel so, so guilty. What stress did I have, after all? What problems did I have? My husband loved me, and I loved him. My new baby girl was healthy and gorgeous and perfect. I’d found work to do from home that kept my passion for writing and editing alive (and also helped our meager college-student budget all work out). I had made wonderful friends in the town we’d moved to after I finished my degree.

Guilt

By pretty much any standard, my life was amazing. What kind of crazy, whiny, ungrateful, broken loser was I to feel the need to binge with so much GOOD in my life? By this point, I’d decided and firmly believed that I was fat, but I now also believed I was fundamentally a bad, pathetic human being.

binge eating
My beautiful oldest daughter, Sophia, at just 3 days old.

This is what my life was like for the next 4 years.

Life had settled into a groove of good with hidden bad. I was constantly dieting and restricting, and as a result, constantly overeating. Disordered thinking dominated my thoughts about eating, exercise, and my body. But it was livable. And so I lived that way, pretty much from the second part of freshman year on until I became pregnant with my second child in 2013.

sure I was addicted to food as a new mom
Here we are on a hike with baby Sophia in the fall of 2011.

Pregnancy #2

At the beginning of that pregnancy, both my husband and I were hit with a terrible, terrible stomach flu. Think stomach convulsions as painful as childbirth. Dry-heaving in 10-minute intervals for two hours straight. An ER visit because I seriously thought I was either experiencing ectopic pregnancy or dying. It was horrendous.

Yet the end result of all that misery was a bit of weight loss—and people noticed. I was hit by waves and waves of “You look amazing! What are you doing?” and I loved it. It was like when I lost that weight in junior high all over again! I liked the slightly thinner version of myself too. So? I found myself dreading the inevitable gain that was going to come with this pregnancy. I next found myself lying about having morning sickness (which I really didn’t) so I could skip meals here and there. But within a week or two, I realized this was NOT okay.

I felt horrible. What kind of monster would start all this disordered stuff up again while PREGNANT? How could I be DREADING weight gain when the reason for it was that I was bringing a beautiful baby into the world? What selfish, shallow, superficial, small-minded brat could justify intentionally undereating that would put my unborn baby at risk? I was so ashamed.

The phrasing I used when I talked to myself was overly harsh, but my core feeling was right. If this kind of thinking and behavior was resurfacing while another little life was dependent on mine, I needed help. ASAP.

Coming next: How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 3