When I was 12 my body started changing as I was going through the natural cycles of maturing as a woman. These hormonal changes resulted in gaining weight in places that I considered unacceptable, as a result I started restricting my food intake so I could maintain a size double zero. I restricted and dieted very effectively from 7th grade until 10th grade, although I was beginning to eat large quantities of food (like icing, zebra cakes, peanut butter, ice cream etc.) after heavily restrictive bouts, but I never put two and two together to see the association between the two. I started becoming friends with girls who were athletes, they ate whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted and still maintained an amazing physique. The end of 10th grade is when my eating started to kick up, I started downing massive quantities of "off-limit" foods that I hadn't allowed myself to have in years. At this time I noticed my sister, mother, and two of my best friends were bulimic and a few other friends were anorexic. I never thought I had an official eating disorder, I thought they did, but once I found myself crying when I was drunk with my friends that I was "gaining weight" and couldn't drink these calories when I was 110 pounds and my new athletic friends said I was crazy, I started questioning the validity of that.
In college I was introduced to dining halls with all you can eat buffets...I started binge eating. To compensate I'd restrict and starve myself for 1 day at a time, did two-a-days at the gym (got there at 5am and again at 5pm, working out for a minimum of 1 hour each session as hard as I possibly could). My weight caught up to me though. When I was a sophomore in college I gained 40 pounds in 1 semester, I kept binge eating and this time I wasn't trying to starve myself, I couldn't. My metabolism was still in amazing shape so I figured I could keep eating this way and it wasn't "catching up to me" as badly as I imagined it would have given the massive quantities of food I was ingesting.
When I was 20 years old I panicked about this weight gain (which was gained only over the course of 3 months) and my horrible, obsessive relationship with food and my body. I went on every single diet I could find. I went vegan for 2 years, within that raw vegan for 6 months, week long juice fasts, would "intermittent fast" for 3 days at a time, the "eat only apples for a week" diet, and many more. I was able to lose all of the weight that I had gained and I was an absolute mess. As it came, so it went and I started to gain the weight back, I was losing my grip on myself and food, everything seemed to be spiraling out of control. This is when I remembered what my sister, my mom, my best friend from high school, and now my best friend and roommate of 4 years in college did...purge. I would be on a diet, mix in IF and not eat for 1-3 days to "shrink my stomach", and purge on the days that I would start bingeing or just eating more than I deemed acceptable to maintain my physique.
Eventually I got so desperate and SO sick (constantly getting strep throat, the flu, you name it) that I joined OA. I didn't think I had a problem with sugar, I believed I had a problem with carbs (bread, pasta, etc.), but everyone told me you have to get a sponsor, you're addicted to sugar you need to give it up and abstain, same as all processed foods. This is when I attempted to "abstain" from these foods. While I'm very grateful for OA because it represented coming to terms with and admitting I had a huge problem and helped me learn to eat after a "binge" to not enter the restriction cycle again, I was unable to "abstain" for anymore than 2 weeks from the time I was 20 until 26. I saw about 10 nutritionists, got so many different food plans and sponsors and I would call them everyday saying I will only eat __ today, and NOTHING in between, nothing other than this. Ultimately I'd fail, I'd lie to my sponsor until I could lie no more. I was wondering what was wrong with me, what did I have to do to change?
One day I got so desperate lying on my living room floor eating a full jar of peanut butter by myself and not even having the energy to purge and decided I was going to end my life.
The next day I luckily decided to try something different and get a new sponsor rather then end things. The new sponsor I got took me through the steps, which really helped balance things out for me so I wasn't in such a state of panic and despair. She and I went through all of the "red light foods" and I was abstaining from. This list had about 50 things on it and ranged from abstaining from: most fruit, nuts, added sugar in any capacity (including things like sushi, mayo, pretty much anything processed because more things have at least 1 gram of added sugar), all caffeine, artificial sweeteners, wheat, bread, chips, all desserts (cake, brownies, ice cream, candy, etc.). I maintained this for about 4 months, I lost a lot of weight, felt a lot more sanity return (in a way) but I started proselytizing the OA/AA literature, mainly the Big Book. I felt sorry for people who couldn't stop eating "junk food" and viewed myself as extraordinarily lucky that I wasn't succumbing to my "disease" and I was abstaining, anytime I could tell people my story I thought I was saving them from the monster of junk food and compulsive overeating. I was reading every single food label I came across, called restaurants beforehand and asked them to pull out their ingredients list so I could see for myself that there was nothing I "couldn't eat" in the mix.
At some stage I burned out and decided I was totally out of alignment with the life I was living, decided to quit my job and travel the world for a year. The first month I did that, I met a spiritual teacher who actually teaches concepts very similar to the concepts in the Beat the Binge program. He told me that the relationship I had with food didn't sound like food freedom to him, he recommended letting myself have the things that I wanted and getting in touch with how it made me feel* instead of making decisions based on external rules, shoulds/shouldn'ts. He mentioned the rules were the "thinking mind" (what Lydia calls the "chatter brain") and the "working mind" (the "you brain") was the logical part of our brains, those are the thoughts we can start to trust. With this new message I knew what he was saying was true, but I was absolutely terrified... Anytime I'd have a bite of something with sugar, wheat, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, etc., I would absolutely freak out, panic, do a 10th step inventory on it (part of the process in OA). This wasn't going to work if I was to be traveling on the road out of a backpack for a year. Seeing that madness in myself I decided it was going to be messy but I walked away from OA and decided to learn for myself what freedom would mean for me.
Throughout my travels I started eating things I hadn't had in 6-7 years...and hadn't truly allowed myself to have without guilt in probably 13 years. I was still restricting heavily, I thought yes I can start experimenting and if it gets "out of control" I can just not eat and skip meals again. At this stage I started reading Brain over Binge and Intuitive Eating but couldn't quite see what was missing. I went down to 110 pounds (which was my weight when I was heavily restricting in 10th grade of HS) and desperately struggled to try to maintain it. I had loads of caffeine, coffee, tea, etc. everyday. I refused to eat breakfast and often lunch as well, believing that once I started eating, the flood gates were open to I should limit it to just eating once a day. At this stage my metabolism dropped, I started gaining weight even though I was hardly eating any food. I was baffled and confused, crying all the time, trying to lose weight and feeling it slip through my fingers.
When I returned home I felt so crazy around food, started gaining weight again, I decided to go back to OA. This helped calm down many areas of my life, I looked at things that disturbed me and "caused me to eat" (which I believed at the time), I started eating adequately and it was going okay. Suddenly I found myself planning all of my meals again, cutting out major groups of food out of fear, I wasn't bingeing because that would be losing my abstinence but I was overeating everyday and was totally crazed/obsessed, plagued by food and my body, again. Suddenly it hit me that this is the very lack of freedom I was experiencing when I left OA a year prior. No amount of 10th steps were helping me drop my desire to lose weight, the hatred I felt toward my body, no amount of meal planning was making me feel more free...it was making me crazy. Although it resulted in many positive changes for me, I kept looking relentlessly for a real solution until I came across Lydia!
Wow I don't know where to begin with the freedom I experience now...the insights this program has delivered has been one of hindsight for me, it's easy to forget how completely different things are now as opposed to the way things used to be. Although I have wobbly days on occasion and tendencies can still kick up from time to time, I do not consider myself to have an eating disorder in any capacity, it's simply not true for me anymore. I feel as if I am a normal eater, and becoming more and more so each day. I never imagined the the freedom I experience now would be possible for me. I thought the only freedom I could know was abstinence, I thought I would be a "compulsive overeater" my whole life and it was something I'd have to manage as best I could (which implies rules, many many rules).
I may struggle to articulate what changed for me, it seems like the whole process has been so magical I can hardly believe it or iterate what happened but I'll emphasize a few key changes I've noticed. My definition of food freedom was this:
"Food freedom for me is no longer being afraid of, intimidated or discouraged by the presence or absence of food. It’s no longer obsessing about my body weight and size and instead feeling comfortable in my skin and coming to a size that is balanced and easy to maintain without 'control' or 'force.' It’s no longer obsessing about and planning what I’m going to eat vs. what I need to never eat again and abstain from that. On a daily basis this would mean having food and eating be a normal, right-sized part of my day that never takes up too much mental space, it’s a source of enjoyment or just a neutral event, but no longer a shame-laden, demonized opportunity to fail again or succumb to something. On a daily basis this would mean waking up and going to sleep with food not being the first or last thought of the day, and if there are a lot of food thoughts just knowing deep down that they don’t mean anything, and I’m totally fine and free regardless of the content of thoughts. I want to feel totally safe around food, and not worried that I’m going to “lose control” at any moment. I don’t want to believe I’m a food addict, someone that will forever be a compulsive overeater, I don’t want to believe that I need to change every defect about myself in order to be free of food, I want to know I’m always without a doubt free from this crazy compulsion."
I've experimented with eating almost every previously "off-limit" food, the fear has now gone away almost entirely around those foods, and I don't struggle to control my urges, to not certain things, I don't feel afraid of myself around food because now I'm allowed to have it...and I know that I can if I really want to, there's no crime in having what I want. Food and my body weight are no longer the first thoughts in the morning (unless I wake up hungry) or the last thought of the night. I haven't planned a meal since the 2nd week in the program, my hunger and fullness cues have come in abruptly, they're as obvious and apparent to me as the need to use the restroom and previously I didn't know what it meant to feel hungry or full, it was always a guessing game for me, a shot in the dark. Food can be a source of excitement for me, but I no longer believe there's anything wrong with that. When food feels a little "too exciting" I know it's because I've restricted that food in the past and have some lingering beliefs that I shouldn't have it or it'll go away eventually, I call out the chatter around that, and then move forward.
I go out to eat and I never worry about what's on the menu, since day 1 of the program I haven't purged, I no longer over-exercise to compensate, since week 5 of the program I haven't binged at all, I may overeat on occasion but I no longer judge it as "overeating" and feel no shame if I do overindulge. I know I can have anything on that menu and it won't hurt me, nothing will make me "spiral out of control", it's just food, it's no longer terrifying. The desire to "control" urges around food, food intake, circumstances, my body, etc. has nearly fallen away, there's nothing to control because nothing is "out of control" unless I start restricting again and denying things that I truly want. It's more and more apparent to me that the natural intelligence of the body isn't leading me astray and it won't. It's only when the fear chatter comes up, the restriction chatter drives up cravings to have MORE immediately that things begin feel untrustworthy. On occasion chatter revs up about my body image and tries to encourage restriction, this is the only aspect that periodically comes up for me, fear of restriction, fear of gaining weight, and sometimes fighting the chatter in this regard. It doesn't take long for me to bounce back to a place of neutrality and see that it's just a habit, it's nothing personal and I don't need to act on it, but it may take up to a day to snap out of the mindset of mental restriction, I don't act on physical restriction anymore.
As a result of previous programs and other common misconceptions, I heavily associated overeating with emotions, with "character defects", I believed it wasn't because the food that I overate, that the food was a symptom of a larger problem of self-centeredness, "self will run riot." I believed that I needed to address my fears, anxieties, turn the focus of attention off myself and be of service to others instead while facing myself to get in proper alignment. Now I no longer associate an emotional day with a risk for overeating. Just the other day I was extremely sad and a bit anxious, I didn't even think about overeating or bingeing. In the past that would have been my default, the very first thing I would have tried to avoid doing. I no longer believe that I am defective...but rather there are habits in place that are more or less helpful and may cause discomfort within myself. At first I viewed the chatter as something to erase, I demonized it and thought "if I can just get rid of this, then I'd be free." Luckily through the progression of this program I came to see chatter is a beautiful thing...it's a signal, a cue that I'm believing something that simply isn't true. I've come to recognize this feeling that "something is off/wrong" as a gift, that it means something is being believed that's causing some degree of internal conflict and the good new is it isn't true, it's simply chatter, it's only as valid as I make it.
I feel free so much of the day it amazes...I'm free to eat whatever I want whenever I want it, when I go to restaurants now I share my food and enjoy the person I'm sitting with more than the food, I've stopped obsessing about how much I'm eating, if it's too much or not enough in those environments. I'm free to feel and experience my feelings without condemning them or pushing them away, everyday I have the gift of questioning the idea that there's something wrong with me, the gift of accepting myself and loving myself exactly as I am and being gentle and understanding instead of harsh and condemning. I've recently started dating (which I avoided for years because I thought I needed to be in years of recovery until I could date anyone in a serious capacity), my life is becoming effortlessly more honest and in alignment, I care about people more because I care about myself more, I no longer see people as "defective" and I take what others do less personally because I know it's just their pattern of chatter. On occasion I struggle with body image, the fear of gaining weight especially after a weekend of eating less healthy foods and the resulting bloated feeling for instance, but I no longer hate myself for it, I accept how I feel and try my best to come to terms with it as a temporary truth, I know it will balance out.
Moving forward I can look forward to applying these principles to the rest of my life! I don't need to maintain such a tiny bubble in order to stay "safe" from myself, from others. I can experiment in life, play and discover what matters to me, I can see all of the other areas where chatter restricts and indulges and slowly but surely come more and more into alignment with a meaningful and worthwhile life. There have been so many surprises from this program, I feel like every single result of the program was a surprise! But one of the biggest surprises was seeing how perfectionism drives so much conflict in my life...I wasn't aware of the harshness of the perfectionism, the need to figure everything out, fix everything, fix myself, don't try something until I can do it perfectly, don't put myself in situation where there is a lot of uncertainty. I never realized how totally controlled and controlling I was as a result of that! It has been the main driver of most issues with food, relationships, self esteem, jobs, etc. and these self-imposed rules of the life I believed I needed to live, the things I felt I had to do. It's an incredible relief to see that it's simply not true and to see how many areas this carries over to! My life was revolved around not wanting to be rejected and seen as a failure, so I would try to avoid that by any means necessary...now that I see it's just chatter's method of maintaining a false sense of security, I'm free to be who I am imperfectly...I'm free from the belief that I'll arrive at some end goal one day, and with the disintegration of that thought I've been given the absolute gift and joy of having a life again, free of self-hatred and trying to constantly be somewhere or someone I'm not.
I full-heartedly recommend this program to anyone who is struggling with disordered eating and wants to have their life back. I've received more gifts from this program than I could have ever imagined. There may be other programs out there which may provide some degree of relief and freedom, but for anyone who wants to be free for a lifetime, Lydia and the coaches give every participant their all. They give their wisdom, their attention, their patience, and never put themselves above anyone to act as an icon, but rather they teach each person how to put the power back in their own hands again. This is the gift of freedom...freedom of not having an authority over oneself for validation, confirmation. I seek my own guidance, I can finally trust myself rather than externalizing that trust. What an incredible gift this program has been.