The Creation of an Overeater
What follows is a synthesis of many overeaters' stories to convey the nature of the secret-keeping strategy commonly used by people who overeat and/or binge. This one is selected to show the complexity of what goes into creating and maintaining an inner secret.
Four year old Mary sits cross legged on the gold-braided living room rug looking up at the TV. Behind her on the big, brown couch sits her father reading the newspaper. He grunts and shakes the paper.
She hears the sharp rustle and cringes, but stays seated on the floor. He slams the paper down on the wooden coffee table. Her hands tremble, and her heart pounds. She breathes short, fast gasps. She sits very still, trying to become invisible.
He growls softly, deep in his throat. Her body stiffens as she stares at the TV, focusing her eyes, ears, heart and soul on the screen. She hears a thud as he jumps awkwardly to his feet. She keeps watching TV, trying to get inside the set, the story, the figures on the screen.
He kicks the couch. She hears the wooden legs scrape against the floor. Her body tight and unmoving, she tries to be as hard and still as the floor. The colors on the TV screen seem to become more vivid to her. She tries to pour her entire being into the screen, making the pictures and sounds her whole world.
He roars at the walls. "Nothing gets done around here. What kind of mess is this?" Mary's eyes glaze. Her heart beats faster. Her mind is totally absorbed in a soap commercial. Her body attempts to retreat into a numb calm. She ignores the pounding of her heart.
From the coffee table, her father picks up a small box of crayons and throws it across the room. She breathes deeply and stares at the Bugs Bunny cartoon now playing. She is oblivious to all but the cartoon. She has achieved invisibility and nonexistence.
He bellows, "Nobody does a damn thing around here!" and sweeps an end table with his hand, sending a lamp and ashtray flying. She has lost awareness of her body, the floor, the room, sounds, sights, smells. To Mary now, only Bugs Bunny exists. Her father lurches around the room, mumbling unintelligibly. In the cartoon Bugs Bunny steals a carrot. Mary laughs.
Her father whirls at her. "What's so funny, you lazy good-for-nothing brat, making a mess everywhere and laughing at me!" She looks up, dazed. She doesn't know what he is talking about. She is so removed she doesn't know who or what he is.
"Answer me, you worthless, no-good!"
He picks her up and throws her across the room. She crashes into the wall. She may feel terror and pain. She may cry out, "No, Daddy, please," or, "I'll be good," or "I didn't do anything," or "I'm sorry."
She may say and feel nothing. She may remain dazed and feel body pain later. She may not remember this happened. She may remember the events but not the feelings. She may remember body and emotional feelings, but not the event. Lack of memory or partial memory shields her from the unendurable knowledge that she lives with a dangerous person. This person can explode at any time, frighten her, hurt her for no understandable reason, and she can do nothing to stop him or protect herself.
All she can do is blank her felt existence out of existence. For a while, Mary does not exist to herself.
Mary found a way to protect herself as best she could from unavoidable and intolerable fear and pain. Her pain comes from more than the physical event.
Emotionally, it is intolerable for Mary to know that her father can and will terrorize her at any time and that her mother will not or cannot protect her. The people she depends on for daily caretaking and protection are dangerous to her. She cannot bear to live with that knowledge and so she finds a way to know as little as possible about her true situation.
If Mary can blot these painful experiences from her awareness she will be able to fearlessly love and trust her father. She can also depend on her mother to care for her, and she can experience herself living in a safe world.
This has more to do with overeating than many people realize. A child has few self-protective resources. If an inescapable, painful, fearsome or humiliating situation exists, creative, strong children can put themselves into a trance. In this way, they can dull the horror of their experience.
Children can divide their minds into pieces so that they are not present as a whole person during extreme torment. Different fragments carry different parts of the experience so the children do not have to know or remember the episodes in their entirety. In this way, they make their experience manageable. Mary saved herself from having to tolerate through knowledge or memory what is intolerable.
As Mary gets older she may not be able to put herself in a trance as easily as she could as a child. Actual events and emotional memories may approach awareness levels. She may reach for food to help her maintain oblivion. If food works, and it does for many people, she will continue to use eating to help her achieve the trance state she feels is necessary for her survival.
Throughout her life, she may feel body pain and emotional tremors without connecting them to any outside incident. She may sometimes attribute these feelings to physical illness or minor accidents. Gradually she will accept these feelings as "the way she is."
Eventually she may be certain she has these feelings because she is "bad" or "worthless." She may feel "special" in her feelings of terrible faults and therefore feel she deserves special attention in the form of punishment or abandonment.
Mary may feel the physical and emotional feelings she experienced during the abuse she experienced as a child without connecting those feelings to her history. Like many people who overeat or binge, she may not remember sections of her childhood. Her memory blanks may be so thorough, she will not know she does not remember.
Part 5: Mary Grows Up -- Adult Stages of Being an Overeater
Observing the adult Mary who chronically overeats and binges, we notice seemingly inexplicable traits. She has limited and odd childhood memories. She cannot remember the old living room, but she does remember the TV. She doesn't want her children playing with crayons. She continually tries to please her father with gifts and attention. She is angry at her mother most of the time.
She will not have furniture with wooden legs in her home. She refuses to be in a room with any man, including her husband, while he is reading a newspaper. She is afraid to laugh in public. She has many secrets. She may steal little sweets in the grocery store or in social settings when she thinks others are not looking. She will refuse to attend violent movies. Yet she may have sadism/masochism fantasies, perhaps secret, perhaps acted out.
She may blank out at times. On careful observation we might notice that these mental blanks occur when someone around her has body, facial or verbal mannerisms similar to her father.
She has deep bouts of sorrow and loneliness where no one can cheer her up. She feels alone, ugly, bad, scared and is the worst person in the world to herself. She gets angry and sad when people will not change rules or behavior for her. If they do change to accommodate her wishes, she will be briefly grateful but will feel the changes are not enough. She surprises people by not remembering them or their kindness. She doesn't remember needing people.
She overeats regularly. Sometimes she vomits on purpose. When she feels familiar despair she will binge.
Mary is trapped in the overeater's prison. Mary exercises. She reads diet books. She doesn't understand why she can't stop overeating. She believes she overeats and feels bad because she is bad. She is certain that if she stopped overeating her life would be fine, and she would be happy and a good person. She feels humiliated and helpless because she can't stop.
Mary is not curious about her feelings. Her main concern is stopping her feelings, not understanding them. Her lack of curiosity and her insistence on making food her main point of focus are crucial in maintaining her ignorance about herself.
As long as her secrets remain unknown to herself, Mary will continue to feel she is in constant danger. Because she is oblivious to the torture and heartbreak she experienced in her past, she has not learned to recognize and avoid abuse in her present. She may allow abusive people in her life, even invite them, because she doesn't know she has more power than she did as a child. For her, abuse is more than familiar. Abuse feels like home.
Someday Mary might become curious about herself. If she does she might begin her triumphant journey.
Triumph actually begins with defeat. Once Mary knows that everything she has tried has failed, she may open herself to something new. This is usually the reason people seek 12-step programs, meditation, support groups, friendly and comforting religious programs and/or professional psychological help.
Their pain, fear and despair is so intense that they are willing to reach out to something unknown and perhaps frightening rather than continue their way of life.
Overeaters also look for help when they feel they have no other choice. Sometimes the overeating itself is no longer effective in blocking their feelings. They feel overwhelmed with anxiety. They are alone with their secret without knowing what it is.
This devastating feeling reduces all choices to one: meet your true self at last. The possibility of freedom lies is changing direction, reaching out to unfamiliar resources, examining your inner life.
What follows is a series of secret discovering questions, preparatory activities and action steps to start you on your triumphant journey. Answer the questions. Begin to discover your secrets. Learn how to build the inner strength and knowledge base that will equip you to discard the overeating way of life.
end of part 5
Staff, H. (2008, November 30). The Creation of an Overeater, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, November 29 from https://www.healthyplace.com/eating-disorders/articles/creation-of-an-overeater