When you think about it, a name is merely a string of letters on paper, a sequence of phonemes. A name doesn’t define a person or display a personality. It can’t tell you what topics someone finds interesting, what music someone likes, what occasions make someone giggle or cry, or who someone loves. After all, possibly the most famous lines from Romeo and Juliet are Juliet’s balcony soliloquy in Act II: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
But, you know what? Romeo and Juliet died at the end of the play. They were two naïve to admit that names do have power, associations which individuals alone cannot break. They didn’t realize that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will hurt even worse. They will worm their way into my psyche and sit there, affecting my view of myself and how I perceive the world – all because of the word you used to tell me how the world perceived me.
Take the “F” word. In the case of profanity, the fact that we need to call it “the ‘F’ word” shows that it is powerful, capable of being signified by only a letter. The power rests in the connotations. For some, the “F-bomb” may just signify rebellion or adulthood or nostalgia for keggers at the frat house. For others, it may have sexual connotations or be associated with anger and fear. If you’re 16, it may just be synonymous with the letter “R,” and it may signify the reason you can’t go see that movie (legally).
And then there’s the other “F” word, the word we associate with disgust and repulsion, the word that makes us picture globules of grease and jiggly excess: FAT. It’s a socially damning word. Sure, we use other substitutes to mean roughly the same thing: big-boned, plus-sized, overweight, husky, etc. (see our post Dictionary 101). But the word “fat” has more derogatory power.
If you’ve been reading my posts and my biography, you may know that I’ve been going to counseling for the past few months. This isn’t my first try at counseling/therapy/paying-money-to-talk-about-my-feelings-to-a-stranger, but this was the first time I’d gone in and introduced myself and my reason for walking in as “I binge eat and I need to stop.” The fact is, the problem has escalated so rapidly and so much in the past year. I’ve struggled with it in some form or another for years, but there were great spurts of “being good” and eating well, even losing weight. This is different, though, and I’m still not sure why.
I began (this round of) counseling on May 29, 2012. I would talk about work, relationships, faith, general life-purpose things. Sometimes we wouldn’t talk at all about body image or eating issues – until I finally confronted my counselor and said that was what I needed to fix the most. (She claimed that she avoided it because it clearly upset me – read: made me cry – and it didn’t seem like I wanted to talk about it. Well, of course I don’t want to talk about it – I’m ashamed of it and have expended so much energy trying to hide it.) Failure to address the issue makes the issue seem….like a non-issue. That is, it confirms one of my fears: that I’m nothing but a spoiled, selfish white girl with no real problems. I’m inventing a situation out of nothing but poor body image, which nearly every woman in this country has. I’m making a big deal out of nothing – and letting that nothing destroy me. That, to me, is the height of pathetic – and selfish.
But two weeks ago, after being introduced (read: passed on because I’m not improving) to my counselor’s supervisor, this new counselor mentioned, almost in passing, this phrase: “disordered eating.”
I felt relieved. All I had wanted was a name, some identifiable ailment or disorder that I could point to and say, “THIS is what I struggle with.” The fact that it has a name means that I am not alone. Others struggle with this, too, and other counselors and therapists and psychologists and people-you-pay-money-to-to-treat-you have developed ways to help them deal with and overcome this. If I could somehow identify it as a disorder, then maybe I could accept – if not myself, then – the fact that I struggle with something that is, on its own, definable. It didn’t have to define me.
But it didn’t escape my notice that she’d said disordered eating, not eating disorder.
Even now, I sense a reluctance to name it. Anybody who eats an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s partakes in disordered eating, but s/he doesn’t necessarily have a binge eating disorder. Anyone who says “your haircut looks great!” when it doesn’t could be guilty of compulsive lying but wouldn’t be labeled a compulsive liar.
One product of my online research into binge eating (which, to be honest, is also the product of my concerned aunt’s research on my behalf) is the discovery of a book Overcoming Binge Eating by Chistopher Fairburn*. It features a very general overview of binge eating, including some very basic (and by now, far outdated) studies and commentary. What’s most useful to me, however, is the inclusion of testimonies by people who have binged in the same way. For example:
“It starts off with my thinking about the food that I deny myself when I am dieting. This soon changes into a strong desire to eat. First of all it is a relief and a comfort to eat, and I feel quite high. But then I can’t stop, and I binge. I eat and eat frantically until I am absolutely full. Afterward I feel so guilty and angry with myself.”
These insightful confessions inform and shape the list of characteristics that Fairburn offers to define a binge. (Note: the following is edited to highlight the passages that I underlined – the passages and details with which I most identified):
“Feelings….Some people feel revulsion over what they are doing but are unable to stop.
Speed of Eating…
Agitation….Obtaining food takes on extreme importance; people may take food belonging to other, steal from stores…Most view such behavior as shameful, disgusting, and degrading.
I begin by having a bowl of cereal. I eat it really quickly and then immediately have two or three more bowls. By then I know that my control is blown and that I am going to go all the way and binge. I still feel very tense, and I desperately search for food…Sometimes I go into town, stopping at stores along the way. I buy only from each store so as not to arouse suspicion.
A Feeling of Altered Consciousness…People also report that they watch television…or use some other form of distraction to prevent them from having to think about what they are doing.
…thinking would mean facing up to what I am doing.
Secretiveness. A marked characteristic of the typical binge is that it occurs in secret. Some people are so ashamed of their binge eating that they go to great lengths to hide it—and may succeed in doing so for many years…exercising considerable subterfuge. …After eating a normal meal, some people later return surreptitiously to eat all the leftovers. Others take food to the bedroom or bathroom to eat it without fear of detection.
I leave work and go shopping for food. I begin eating before I get home, but it is secret, with the food hidden in my pockets. Once I’m home, proper eating begins. I eat until my stomach hurts and I cannot eat any more. It is only at this point that I snap out of my trance and think about what I have done.
Loss of Control….Some people feel it long before they begin eating…Interestingly, some people who have been binge eating for many years report that their sense of loss of control has faded over time, sometimes because experience has taught them that their binges are inevitable and so they no longer try to resist them. Some even plan what they see as unavoidable binges, thus setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy….”
But with all this, the book staunchly talks about bulimia nervosa as the primary disorder of concern. Clearly, it is not a disorder to be taken lightly, but I know that I don’t purge (unless you consider over-exercising a type of purge – I have been guilty of that, for sure – though not lately). Bulimia is treated with a clear list of symptoms and causes, but binge eating disorder receives hardly more than a vague, offhanded treatment:
“Binge eating disorder is the other eating disorder in which binge eating is a central feature. It is a new diagnosis whose status is still somewhat controversial[**]…People with binge eating disorder have repeated binges, but they do not take the extreme weight control measures used by people with bulimia nervosa. Often in the past people who fit this description have been called…compulsive overeaters [sic].”
Privileging bulimia in this text that ostensibly seeks to provide awareness to – and, therefore, help – those afflicted with binge eating makes it seems as though binge eating disorder doesn’t really exist, as though it’s not as viable a struggle. As though binge eaters who aren’t bulimics are just poor dieters.
Maybe we are. Maybe I am. After all of that writing, I still wonder if I have a disorder – or if I just don’t have the same willpower that I used to. If I just can’t accomplish what seems like an easy task – just don’t buy the ice cream, just don’t eat crap. Maybe I’m just like the overwrought mother who wants her kid to be diagnosed with ADD just so she doesn’t have to admit that he’s just a spoiled brat who doesn’t listen to his teachers. Maybe I want somebody to name something – binge eating disorder (or, even, disordered eating?) – so that I can have an excuse to keep doing it.
*I will return to this book and some of its contents in later posts.
**Granted, this book was published in 1995, which I recognized is a huge fault. If anybody knows of any similar texts that are more recent (and reliable), please let me know!