After years of concealing her binge eating disorder, Victoria Ferguson finally felt ready to tell someone. Here’s what happened
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t worry about food. That time must have existed. True, I was always that child with the ‘very healthy appetite’, but I was far more concerned with leaving the dinner table to watch Cartoon Network or play with my Sylvanian Families. I ate when I was hungry, and when I was full I stopped. But at some point in my early teens, my brain and my stomach fell out of sync.
It was a gradual, insidious breakdown of a primal equation. It had started altogether innocently, around the time I moved to secondary school, with me enjoying the newfound liberties of young adulthood. I had a bit of pocket money, garnered from birthday cards and the odd babysitting job. And for the first time, my friends and I were meeting up to go shopping or to the cinema, choosing what we did and what we ate without asking our parents. The power was intoxicating, and boy did we make the most of it. I remember at sleepovers how my best friend and I would pour out our money onto her bedroom floor, and like G20 delegates discuss the details of its allocation between chocolate, ice-cream, and any drink with a radioactive aftertaste.
I have wonderful memories of those sleepovers, eating until we couldn’t eat anymore. But on the weekends I wasn’t having sleepovers, I was spending more and more time on my own (my siblings were at my dad’s house, and my mum was out with her new boyfriend). I tried to recreate the thrill of our girls’ nights in while I sat alone, bored in my living room, watching The X Factor. I bought family packs of biscuits for one and went through entire boxes of cereal for dinner, calling it a treat. In reality, I was lonely.
One Saturday afternoon my mum came home early from a date. I was sitting on the sofa and making sound progress on a packet of Hobnobs when I heard the key turn in the lock. Panic rose in my chest, and I quickly hid the evidence behind a cushion. That’s when I felt it: shame. It squirmed like a worm in my gut. I had never felt like this giggling through sugar highs with my friend, cheeky as we knew we were for our indulgence. But here, eating alone and hiding it like a dirty secret, that’s exactly what it became.
“Without realising it, food had become the thing I turned to when I felt sad or alone.”
Without realising it, food had become the thing I turned to when I felt sad or alone. Ironically, the more depressed and out-of-control I felt, the more I sought it – buying it, hiding it, eating it, hoarding it – to make me feel better, even though I knew it would do the opposite. I continued to chase the comfort of those childhood sleepovers, not paying attention to whether I was hungry or full, not wanting to acknowledge what this was doing to my body, and hating myself for being disgusting and fat. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want them to see this side of me, shameful and unfeminine. And so I would wait until I was alone, then bury that feeling time and time again under a mountain of food.
Thus developed the error in my intricate pubescent programming; a glitch that still today affects my relationship with food. Sometimes I can feel that dangerous compulsion threatening to take hold. I feel a physiological need to eat that’s completely independent of hunger. I don’t hear reason, I don’t feel hungry or full. I’m overpowered by instinct, like a shark at the smell of blood. I eat until there’s nothing left; until the point where my stomach feels physically stretched, and it’s so painful that all I can do is lie down and try to forget.
Secret eating has come in and out of my adult life, sometimes active and sometimes dormant, and so I’ve always been able to talk myself out of the need for professional help, even though that might not have been the best decision. But when six months ago my boyfriend moved in with me, I had no choice but to confront it. It was the first time I had lived with a partner, and unsurprisingly I found that level of intimacy counterproductive to maintaining a secret life of any kind. Still, for a while I continued to have episodes of bingeing, planning them like a jailbreak. I’d pretend to do the washing up, tell him to relax in the living room or to get me something from upstairs so that I could go through the kitchen cupboards without judgement. I would spoon peanut butter into my mouth straight from the jar, and then brush my teeth before he could kiss me and smell it on my breath. I would stuff my empty wrappers to the bottom of the bin, a master of concealment.
I was meticulous in my cover-up. But the shame I felt after these episodes was harder to disguise. I would become snappy and self-loathing. My boyfriend couldn’t understand why I pushed him away when he tried to hug me, but I couldn’t bear for him to touch my ugly, bloated tummy, distressed from the abuse of thousands of extra calories that it wasn’t expecting and didn’t need.
“I told him about the overeating, about the food I would hide and how I would cover my tracks after a binge. I explained how distressed I became during one of these binges, how out of control I felt, and how much I hated myself afterwards.”
Eventually, my boyfriend confronted me. He asked me why I was getting so low and how my mood could switch so drastically. He asked why I snapped at him and why I got so anxious. I cried, unable to hold in the exhaustion I felt after years of this punishing cycle. They stained my cheeks like a confession; tears of embarrassment, tears of shame and, undeniably, tears of relief. A part of me had known from the first time I’d hidden food that the power of this disorder came from my isolation. And so I wanted to tell him, even though it would mean exposing myself. I wanted to give a name to this thing so that it would exist somewhere other than in my secret life.
And so I did. I told him about the overeating, about the food I would hide and how I would cover my tracks after a binge. I explained how distressed I became during these episodes, how out of control I felt, and how much I hated myself afterwards. He had never encountered this kind of disorder before and didn’t fully understand. But he listened, and the more I shared with him the looser the grip of this thing became. The dirty secret I had kept for years was dismantled, just like that, brick by brick. It had never been about needing food but needing acceptance. Accepting as a young teen that I was lonely. Accepting my body. Accepting that sometimes I felt sad and that trying to comfort myself with food did not make me disgusting. My boyfriend accepted me unequivocally, and for the first time, I felt empowered to accept myself.
Telling him was the catalyst for my recovery. But I sometimes wonder, had he not been there to ask the right questions, would I have opened up? Would I have gone to my doctor, or investigated CBT? Would I have realised on my own that feeling this way was a waste of a life? Perspective is a faithful friend when you have him by the hand. But sometimes it takes someone from the outside to help usher him in. That might be a parent or a friend, a GP, an online support group like Nightingale, or an anonymous listener at the end of the Beat helpline.
“Unlike drugs, you can’t cut out food completely, and so it is something that needs to be managed, every single day.”
I know these resources are there if I need them. But since telling my boyfriend and making my problem something we manage, I feel more in control. If I feel the urge to binge, I have someone to tell and to help me rationalise my thoughts. I still have to be wary of certain foods and situations. I know that keeping jars of peanut butter in the house will make me anxious and that I can never have ‘just a few’ crisps. I’ve relapsed a few times. Patterns made over so many years are not easily broken, and I’m not sure I will ever have a normal relationship with food. Unlike drugs, you can’t cut out food completely, and so it is something that needs to be managed, every single day.
Being open about my relationship with food, I am able to manage it. Secret eating is a demon driven by shame, not hunger. Confide in a good friend or a professional ear and that shame doesn’t exist anymore, and so food cannot be used as a punishment against you.