There is a saying that is common in addiction and recovery circles that “we’re only as sick as our secrets.” While I don’t think it’s helpful to think about our relationship with food as an addiction (you can read why here), I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that the secrets we keep in this area will continue to keep us sick. In the case of emotional eating, bingeing, and yo-yo dieting, the secrets we keep around food will also keep us fat and running in circles trying to lose that same weight, again and again.
As Sick as the Secrets We Keep
I used to do most of my binges after work – either in my car on the way home or while sitting at the bar in my kitchen in front of my laptop, chowing down on whatever binge food I had gotten my hands on. My husband got home from work much later from me so this was my private eating time. The only time of day when I could be completely by myself. When he finally got home, I was usually in the middle of making dinner or other housework and my secret eating was completely unknown to him. We’d sit down to eat dinner and I was so stuffed from my binge that it would be tough to get the meal down but I had to because I didn’t want to explain to him that I wasn’t eating dinner because I had binged earlier. Who the hell does that and tells their partner?? Not me. Not when you’re in denial that it’s even happening.
In my college years, my bingeing happened usually late at night, after we’d get home from the bar or a party. My roommates and I would drink some water before bed and usually have some snacks (you know, to absorb the alcohol so we’d be less hungover the next day). Lime tostitos, pizza with ranch dressing. You name it. Really healthy stuff, haha. But sometimes, as everyone would be getting ready for bed, I would still be in the kitchen, eating one more piece of pizza quickly and quietly, while I stood by the fridge. Or I’d sneak one of their buffalo tenders from their take out leftovers. I just had to have it. One more bite. Sometimes my binges would happen in the morning. I’d stop by the Bagelry for a coffee and a bagel – but instead of ordering one bagel with cream cheese (veggie of course), I’d order two, to go. See, if I got them “to go” I thought the cashier would think that I was bringing one to someone else. Nope, just for me, to eat both shamefully in secret while sitting on T-hall lawn.
No one knew about any of this. In college, our binge drinking wasn’t secret. Everyone did it. It wasn’t a big deal (except to the administration). But no one talked about binge eating and most of my friends were of average sizes so I would never have opened up to them about my eating habits. Even my heavier friends, who I did discuss being overweight with, I rarely addressed the why or how. We talked of our size as if it was just an unfortunate accident that we were heavy. “We’re just naturally big girls, I guess! Haha!” we’d laugh. That secret eating had nothing to do with it.
The more I ate in secret, the more normal (for me) it became. I automatically reached for certain foods at certain times, without an obvious conscious thought. The only conscious thought I had about it was that “I would die if someone saw me eating like this.” I knew it was something that I couldn’t let other people see. It was embarrassing, painful and shameful. I felt I had to keep it to myself. It needed to be my secret. The problem was that by hiding the crumbs under the rug, it made it easier to keep the habit going. Each time I did it, it reinforced the habit. My weight went up, up and up – quickly. I felt like keeping the problem a secret meant that it wasn’t really a problem. As long as no one knew about my weird eating habits, I was normal.
We think that by not acknowledging to another person or to ourselves that there is something wrong, that we sneak food, that we overeat, (or undereat, that we plan and calculate how we’re going to burn every calorie we eat off), that we are keeping it from developing into a real problem. If we said it out loud or even confirmed it in our heads, it might become real and it might mean something about us. We might really spiral out of control.
But what is it now? All the things we do to keep this thing going – this obsession with food, the obsession with the state or size of our body – it consumes so much of our time and attention, silently. We can’t do anything else but think of what we’ll eat next, how we can get our hands on whatever we crave or how we can punish ourselves to make up for that indulgence. We can’t live our lives, be with the people we love in any real way and our entire life’s purpose becomes about maintaining some impossible to achieve perfection with our weight and the amount of food we consume.
It’s Only A Secret to Us
The secrets we keep are only secret to us. If we asked the people closest to us if they ever noticed anything off about our food behavior – if they felt like they could be honest (and most feel that they can’t), they would probably say “yeah, I notice that you only ever order salad when we go out” or “I notice that you’re really uncomfortable at family gatherings when there’s a lot of food” or “You know, I thought I usually left a few pieces of pizza to take for lunch the next day and there is always less when I get to work to eat it. I thought my memory was going”. I remember one of my roommates asking totally innocently and non threateningly “Hey, did either of you eat some of my buffalo tenders? I could have sworn I had more than this.” Both me and our other roommate shrugged “No, I didn’t have any.” What?? I’m cringing now, just thinking about it. I can’t believe I lied about that stuff – but it was a part of me I denied for so long.
We are not doing ourselves any favors by keeping it all inside. The secret behaviors we have are not really secret. Maybe they don’t know the exact details, but they know that something is wrong. I know my husband had to know something was up when I’d struggle to eat dinner but my weight was going up instead of down. The sweet guy never said a word about it (thankfully he thinks I’m hot at any size) but he had to notice. My roommates noticed their food missing. (I could have at least paid for it. Ug.)
No one can help us if we don’t want to help ourselves. Helping ourselves starts with getting out of that place of denial. You must be honest with yourself. You have to acknowledge that there is a problem around food and that you don’t want to do this anymore. You have to sincerely be interested in choosing to be kind to yourself and treating your body with love. You have to choose honest living – all our secret behaviors that keep us in that sick place need to come out from the dark.
You have to let go of keeping secrets from yourself. Acknowledge all the things you are doing that keep you sick, fat and running in circles. Up a few pounds, down a few pounds, up a few pounds, down a few pounds. Secret eating, secret exercising. Secret ways of avoiding food, secret way of getting more food. Be honest about how much you are eating, how little you are eating, when and where you are eating and under what conditions (rushed? shoveling in handfuls at a time? only alone? etc).
Once you can be completely honest and forthright with yourself – not keeping anything under a rock, it’s time to share with others in your life who care and can help – if only by being a sounding board that keeps you honest. A therapist might be a good start for some of you – but I also encourage you to talk about your struggles with friends, with family or maybe with a support group of some type. You are not the only one who has this complicated relationship with food – and there is strength in hearing other’s stories. There is also something undeniably powerful about putting your pain and secrets into the world. You can’t hide from them and it makes it less appealing to fall back into it.
Once John knew that I was bingeing on cheez-its after work, he was like “Hey, let’s not buy those for awhile. I don’t need to eat them if you are having trouble with them.” Phew! I didn’t have to allow them in the house “for him” when they were really there to support my secret eating. Whatever you’re binging on – ice cream, cookies, chips, pizza etc – your partner can support you in some way if they know it’s going on. If your best friend knows that you binge when you are stressed out, maybe you guys can chat after work a few nights a week to see where you’re at, and relieve some stress with giggles and venting that only friends can do. The people closest to you can be a form of accountability. It’s not their job to fix us (and they can’t) but if you are being honest with them, it’s a lot more difficult to be dishonest with ourselves.
Your eating secrets only serve to keep you sick. If you share it, acknowledge it and stop hiding from yourself and others, it won’t be able to weigh you down so much. Literally!
Where to start letting go of some of your food secrets?
Try some of these:
- Keep a food journal. An honest to goodness – descriptive, detailed and every single bite or sip of food. If you binge on chips, put it in there. Not writing it down doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Be brutally honest with your food consumption – quality, quantity and circumstances (when, where, why did you eat?). Raw honesty is healing.
- Confide in people who love you. Share your struggles, your pain, your most fucked up habits. Watch as they admit they’re fucked up too. Also that they love you and want to help. Watch as it becomes way harder to deny to yourself that it’s happening if people in your real world know what’s up. This gives you accountability and support.
- Consider seeing a therapist. If you’re really in the midst of pain, it might be worth seeing a therapist. Therapists have great tools and skills to help you recover but they also can act like a stepping stone in opening up about your secrets – especially if you haven’t told other’s in your world yet. Alternatively, if you need help with changing your food habits, hiring a coach or joining a support group can be effective and motivating.
- Keep a regular journal. Write about your day, what is going through your head, urges you have, wins, fails, thoughts – good and bad. Let all those feelings express themselves. This can be a good exercise for “flexing” that sharing muscle. Share with yourself first, and when you can read those words and know they’re honest and not hiding – you will feel more comfortable sharing with someone else.
- Find a Social Media support group. I don’t recommend sharing all your secrets publicly on social media. Don’t tweet about your secret nighttime eating. Don’t take instagram pics of your latest binge. But Do find a private group that focuses on the topic you need support with. There are groups for Overeaters, Binge Eating Disorder – you name it. Some of these groups may not be very active or don’t have very active users – but others are filled with people who have had great success in overcoming their struggles and who want to help others do the same. I recommend joining a couple and reading through the past posts to see what topics they’ve covered and how people tend to respond. You want a group that is supportive, honest and knowledgeable. Both Facebook and Google+ have groups and it may take a few tries to find one that is motivating and helpful. Watch out for groups that seem to have a lot of people promoting different diets and products – admins should be policing that for groups and if they aren’t, the group might cause more frustration and confusion than help.
I know you’re feeling ashamed that you even have these secret habits and sharing it in any way feels like you’re exposed. But something that you should know is that you are not your eating habits. You are so much more than that. When you can be honest with yourself, those secrets won’t have the same power over you. The fear you are feeling is a sign that growth is on the other side. We have to get uncomfortable to make progress. We can’t keep doing the same things and expect something to magically change for us. Open up, share, be honest. Let your secrets become just honest truths about your past experiences and your future will be more changeable.
Download your free copy of Healthy Eating Shouldn‘t Be a Workout: Real Life Strategies to Take the Confusion Out of Healthy Living (includes recipes, snack and meal ideas, ways to save money and more!).