'I couldn't stop, and that was scary... I was powerless over food'
A flyer in the local library set healthcare worker *Fiona O'Hagan, now in her 40s, on the path to managing her food addiction and gaining control of her life, she tells Katie Byrne
'I think I was born an addictive eater. I was always interested in food. I was the child who loved buns and cake. If a recipe said 'makes 12 buns', I'd triple the recipe. But I don't remember it being a problem until my late teens when I became conscious of my weight and how much I was eating.
I was probably a normal weight when I was in college, but I always had this sense that I was too big and should be thinner. It wasn't that anyone ever made me conscious of it - my parents never critiqued my weight - but I began to binge eat, and it always happened in secret.
I went to great lengths not to get caught doing what I was doing. I would eat normally in front of other people, but when I'd come home and there weren't other people in the kitchen, I'd just start eating. Then, if I heard people coming back into the kitchen, I'd be scrambling to hide the evidence by stuffing the wrappers in the bottom of the bin or throwing them in the outside bin. If I had a meal out I'd still want to eat when I got home. If I went into a shop I'd tell myself I was just going to buy a newspaper and I'd come out with a bag of junk food. I would often come home, have dinner and go to my bedroom to eat.
On my day off work, I'd find myself walking around the city, going from cafe to cafe. Rather than a pub crawl I was doing a cafe crawl. I didn't want anyone to see me eating all the food I wanted to eat, so I went to different cafes instead. Every slice of cake was going to be the last one. I wanted to stop, but I found I couldn't. The hunger wouldn't go away.
There were times when I'd say: 'Okay, I'll just eat 'healthy food' but instead of eating four rice cakes I'd eat the whole packet. Or I'd buy a bottle of Diet Coke and instead of having a glass I'd drink the whole bottle. If I restricted certain foods - say crisps or chocolate - I'd still be compulsive about whatever I allowed myself to eat. Even if it was vegetable soup - I'd eat almost a pot of it instead of a bowl. In an effort to slow down my eating, I'd try to eat with a small spoon or even chopsticks.
I also went to diet clubs to try to lose weight. There I could see that other people could stick to diet plans, but I couldn't because I'd go off on a binge and that would ruin the objective.
At one point I got into running and I really enjoyed it, but it was really a way to try and control my weight. And while there were times when I thought I was doing okay, looking back, even if I wasn't binging, I was still obsessed with food. I was still thinking, 'how many calories are in this?'
People would have noticed my weight going up and down but they wouldn't have thought the problem was as bad as it was. I was living a double life and pretty much all my eating was in secret because I was ashamed of it.
I just couldn't seem to manage my food like other people. I could see how others could take or leave their food and be genuinely satisfied. I knew I wasn't like them. I couldn't do that. The off-switch just wasn't there.
There were years and years of eating before I realised that I was powerless over food. It wasn't like being in a rut; it was like being in a hole. I couldn't stop - and that was scary. It was like I couldn't be satisfied and, eventually, I got to a place where I just felt hungry all the time. If I could have eaten all day, I would have. Another person gets full and thinks: 'I'm going to stop eating now'. My experience was that although I had just eaten a load of food, I still wanted more.
I was living and working abroad when I saw a flyer in a library that said: 'Is food a problem for you?'. When I rang the number I got speaking to a member of Addictive Eaters Anonymous (AEA). It was a relief to speak with someone who understood what it was like to be an addictive eater. After that I met a member who shared her story with me. I could relate to her experience and that was powerful. I was given hope hearing her story of recovery. In the beginning I just went along to the meetings and listened. I heard members share of their experience of the 12-step programme and how they had found freedom from wanting to eat.
The programme is patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous and it is based on the 12-steps. In the first step we admit we are powerless over food and our lives have become unmanageable. I needed to go through the steps with a sponsor - another sober member of Addictive Eaters Anonymous. There were times in my disease of addiction when I was selfish, self-centred, restless, irritable and discontent. I needed to look at my old behaviours and see how I could change and live my life differently.
Addictive Eaters Anonymous is not a religious programme - we're not aligned with any religion, politics or organisation. I would describe the programme as spiritual.
The steps refer to a higher power. What that higher power may be is very much open to the individual. For some people it's God; for other people it's nature. For me it's something other than myself. I don't have to know how to fix things. I don't have to figure everything out. I was a bit wary of the spiritual component in the beginning, but I now tell other people not to see it as a barrier to coming to meetings.
I've heard people talk about active addiction as being like a 'hole in the soul' and there is truth in that for me. I've been going to meetings for nearly 12 years now. I need to keep coming back to meetings to hear about the disease of addiction, but also to hear about recovery and meet other people who have found a solution. I find if I share my story with others, it helps me.
My life has really changed for the better since I got sober. I can get home from work without stopping to eat. I don't find myself sitting on the bedroom floor wondering how I got myself into this mess again. I don't feel like I have to be up at 5.30am for a jog.
But the main way that my life has changed is that I'm not thinking about my weight all the time. If I go to a wedding or a family event, I'm not thinking about what I can and can't eat. I can eat my meals and not want to have any more or any less. I can look forward to meeting people instead of worrying about what I'll eat.
The obsession with food and the compulsion to want to eat isn't there anymore and that's the greatest gift."
* Name has been changed to protect anonymity
Addictive Eaters Anonymous meet every Monday at 7.30pm in Teach Mhuire, 37 Lower Gardiner Street, Dublin 1. For more, seeaeairl.org
Binge eating facts: Understanding binge eating disorder (BED)
'If you're worried about how you're eating, ask yourself if food is in control of you, or if you're in control of it. We're not talking about a yo-yo dieting cycle; we're talking about something that is compulsive. The person feels compelled to eat all the time.
Start to notice the link between how you're feeling and how you're behaving around food. There is often a lot of anxiety, distress, guilt and shame caught up with disordered eating behaviors.
The biggest trigger for binge eating is food restriction. People often get stuck in a cycle. After binge eating, they decide that they are going to be 'really good' and not eat the next day. Then they get so hungry that it triggers them to binge eat again, and so the cycle continues.
Try to create a pattern of regular eating throughout the day. Though difficult, eating regularly rather than dieting can be really helpful. Eating regularly means breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner and maybe another snack.
Find support - There are lots of people who understand this issue, and they can help you look at the other issues that might be going on. Look for somebody who has experience working with this issue and have a chat to them on the phone first to see if you can relate to them. The psychotherapist that you choose to work with should be fully qualified and accredited to a professional body. You can find a self-help book on binge eating on the Bodywhys website.
⬤ Harriet Parsons is the training and development manager at Bodywhys; bodywhys.ie
Health & Living