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The secret battles of the binge eater

Gary Barlow recently told the Radio Times how his binge-eating lurched out of control in the years following the band's split in 1996.

Gary Barlow recently told the Radio Times how his binge-eating lurched out of control in the years following the band's split in 1996.

Published Oct 20, 2011


London - The small hotel in Monterey on the Californian coast was one of the prettiest I had ever seen. The hotelier was kind and welcoming, the room a comfortable delight, the views over the bay out to the Pacific Ocean enchanting.

It was 2002 and I was on a wonderful holiday with my other half, yet from the moment of our arrival I’d had just one thing on my mind... the plate of home-baked biscuits laid out on the reception counter for the guests.

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There were a dozen dark chocolate cookies, fat with mint chips. The hotelier saw me eyeing them and smiled: “Have one.” But I didn’t want just one. I wanted all of them immediately, and the thought filled my head every minute of our stay.

Every morning a fresh plate of cookies would appear on the counter, and every day my waking thought was finding a way to eat as many as possible without being seen.

Grabbing the whole lot in front of anyone who happened to be there would not be socially acceptable, so elaborate hanging around was involved.

Big pockets also came into play, followed by the easy part- a dash to the loo to eat them as fast as possible. I managed at least six on all three days.

Such is the world of the compulsive overeater.

Obsessing over cookies or cake or chocolate was normal to me. It was shameful too, of course, hence the secrecy. But it was all horribly, miserably normal for years on end... around 34 years, in total.

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Gary Barlow would understand. The Take That frontman recently told the Radio Times how his binge-eating lurched out of control in the years following the band’s split in 1996. He ate for comfort until he was on the brink of 17st (about 108kg).

“It was about food, obviously, but it was more about a reaction to who I’d been,” said Barlow, who at 40 is now back below 12st (about 76kg). “I decided: ‘OK, nobody wants me, but I don’t want to do it [be successful] anyway, and to make sure I don’t do it again, this is how I’m going to look’.”

Gary and I would have plenty to talk about. I have memories of hiding chocolate and cake in my bedroom at the age of eight.

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Slowly the pattern was set. I would plan times of privacy- for which read secrecy- buy chocolate and cake in bulk with my pocket money, and eat it all at some speed until I achieved a sensation of being so full that I felt sick.

Strange as it may seem, this was a gratifying, pleasurable feeling. Research shows that eating large quantities of fat and sugar has a soothing, sedative effect on the body.

In compulsive overeaters, the ingestion of trigger foods prompts the release of seratonin, a naturally occurring substance in the body associated with well-being and happiness.

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It continued into adulthood. Accommodating my compulsion was an ordinary part of everyday life. Waiting until I was hungry to eat was alien.

Only once can I remember being caught, around 2001. My husband had gone out and I had immediately embarked upon demolishing a cake secreted in my home office. But he had forgotten something and came back almost at once.

Somehow I shoved the cake out of sight- but he was startled by my expression. “Good God, you look so guilty!” he said, laughing. I can’t remember my reply. I was just thinking about the cake waiting to be eaten.

A few times over the years, I stumbled across articles about overeating and felt overwhelming recognition. So I knew what the problem was called. Yet it was impossible to imagine a life free of it, as I didn’t even know how to begin solving it.

Besides, the shame kept me silent. Nor did my need to overeat have any effect on relationships with men, partly because somehow it wasn’t until I was 31, a year after I met my husband, that I began to pile on weight.

He was the kindest of men and never undermined me, but when I attempted to confess the problem, he didn’t quite know how to help. He wasn’t alone. Once or twice I tried to explain to friends that I was a compulsive overeater and, meaning to be kind, they said: “No, you can’t be.”

It was a crazy parody of the archetypal scenario where the first battle is to get the addict to admit their problem. I was desperate to admit the problem, but I couldn’t find anyone to take it seriously.

I tried the support group Overeaters Anonymous, a “12 steps of recovery” group similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, and the first place I ever met anyone like me. But I found it hard to relate to the very first step- “that life had become unmanageable”.

Secrecy meant I could manage my life all too well. Of course I wasn’t happy, but on some level carrying on was still easier than stopping.

Maybe it was because, unlike alcoholism, compulsive overeating doesn’t leave you drunk in the gutter- and it isn’t likely to cost you your marriage or your job. But it can lead to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and major depression- not to mention the obvious weight gain.

Between the ages of 31 and 42, I gained four stone, making me 13st 10lb (about 87kg) at my heaviest. Of course, that affected my already hopeless self-esteem enormously, but the worst of it was not the weight I gained but the confidence I lost- and all because of the shame of my dirty little secret.

After my failed attempts to confide in both my friends and husband, as well as total strangers, the secrecy returned- and as long as the compulsion was secret, it could not be solved. Alcoholics have a phrase for it: Secrets keep you sick.

The epiphany came without my even realising it. When I was 41, we moved out of London to a village in Berkshire, and we rapidly developed a wonderful circle of close, local friends in a way I had never done before. I saw them often, and it made me feel good. I felt able to tackle my weight, and I began to lose some.

Slowly, I became aware that not only was I not bingeing, but it didn’t feel inevitable that I would go back to it, as I always had before. I was on the road to recovery, although it would be another six months before I understood the reason.

Throughout all the years spent overeating, I had never been able to figure out why I did it. One night an ordinary natter with a girlfriend unexpectedly gave me the answer. She knew that although I’d grown up with two siblings, I had always felt rather isolated in childhood, with few friends.

Suddenly, in the middle of talking to her, I found the answer: food had become my lifelong friend, always there for me to turn to when I wanted it. But now that we had moved to our new home and acquired this supportive circle of friends, the compulsion to binge had receded.

Thanks to the love and kindness of my new friends, along with considerable efforts on my own part, my recovery continued. I didn’t see a therapist or try any more support groups. I did it on my own.

Of course, the quandary of recovery from bingeing is that you can’t kick eating in the way that alcoholics stop drinking.

Quitting food completely has one obvious drawback- death from starvation. Instead, you have to find a way of managing your life alongside your addiction. Much of the battle is about simply breaking ingrained habit, because the power of a habit lasting 34 years is not to be underestimated.

The rules were pretty obvious, all to do with keeping out of harm’s way, especially at times of stress. Even now, at 47, I can never permit myself to buy cake or chocolate for my consumption only, because it will create a pattern.

I cannot have biscuits in the house, because I will eat them all immediately. Multipacks of anything are a no-no. Severing the supply at source means it just isn’t there to be eaten.

It is five years since I binged. Putting as much time as possible between myself and my last episode of overeating is vital. If I were to binge just once, then all the old demons would fill my head, enticing me to do it again the next day, and the next- and so on into oblivion.

Eating my head off occasionally in the company of friends is fine, because it isn’t secret and doesn’t set a pattern.

The vast relief of freedom from the old cycle is indescribable. I slip a little occasionally, but not for long. Vigilance is difficult sometimes, but nowhere near as tough as living with the shame. And being four stone lighter isn’t so bad either.

Now and again I remember those cookies on the hotel counter in California. These days, I would probably take the one offered, and enjoy it.

Yet I will always have to be careful, because the woman I used to be, whose goal it was to eat the lot, will never be completely out of my life. I’ll always need to be strong- to ensure she doesn’t comes back. - Daily Mail

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