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Heavy Meddle: Help! I Binge Eat At Night!

An anonymous reader confesses, in anguish, to overeating at night. (Tom Sodoge/Unsplash)
An anonymous reader confesses, in anguish, to overeating at night. (Tom Sodoge/Unsplash)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

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Dear Steve,

I have a problem. I am a compulsive nighttime overeater. On a typical day, I eat appropriate portions of healthy food for breakfast and lunch. And then, once the sun goes down, something happens. I become ravenous. Well, no, that’s not actually true. It’s not even that I’m hungry; it’s just that my self-control evaporates and something takes over me. It’s like I don’t have a choice. I go to the kitchen and surrender. I’ve eaten an entire large pizza in one sitting. On another occasion, I ate an entire pound of pasta. Countless times, I’ve polished off an entire box of cereal inside fifteen minutes. I could go on. I won’t.

Even the act of writing an anonymous letter, acknowledging that I do this, is deeply humiliating.

I’ve struggled with overeating, as well as bulimia (though at the present time that at least is in check), in secret for many years. I think part of the problem is that I live alone, so I don’t have to work very hard to hide it. I’ve been in therapy on and off for many years for a host of issues, but my relationship to food has been a central theme. One counselor suggested mindful eating – sitting down with my pre-portioned dinner, eating slowly and deliberately, and thinking about every bite I take. If I am compelled to overeat, she advised, stop and think about why I am motivated to do so. Try to come up with alternative ideas. Remember, in that moment, how lousy it feels after.

It’s been an effective strategy when I muster the strength. But more often than not, when I’m eating, I just quiet my mind, and allow myself to shovel forkful upon forkful. For those few moments, I am blissfully checked out, in the throes (I suppose) of my addiction. I’ve considered Overeaters Anonymous, but shame has kept me in the closet. Even the act of writing an anonymous letter, acknowledging that I do this, is deeply humiliating. What should I do?

Thank you in advance for your help,
Can’t Stop

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Dear Can't Stop,

Believe it or not, there is an official diagnostic label for folks who suffer from this pattern of compulsive eating at night. But I suspect you already know this.

There are plenty of behavioral measures, large and small, that you can take to try to combat what is called “Night Time Binge Eating Disorder.” They include:

*Eating a good breakfast

*Establishing a set pattern of having three meals daily, if possible a day at regular times

*Preparing healthy night-time snacks

*Purging your home of binge foods

*Brushing your teeth after dinner

*Tracking your eating habits

These all sound good and logical, and probably help with lots of folks. But I suspect that your pattern of over-eating is emotional and psychological, not physical. Actually, I don’t suspect. I know. Because you say so:

It’s not even that I’m hungry, it’s just that my self-control evaporates and something takes over me.

Start imagining a life in which you can quiet your mind without stuffing your face.

That something is a compulsion. It may be worsened by programming your gut brain to expect a sucrose bomb every night. But it arises from some darker set of anxieties that lurk beneath your insatiable hunger. I have no clue what those might be, though I suspect they were the root cause of your bulimia, as well. The net effect, in this case, is that you manage to transform food from a source of pleasure and nourishment into an instrument of self-punishment and guilt.

The one thing I can say with some assurance is that disorders of this sort — ones predicated on shame — thrive when they are concealed. The only way you can begin to heal is to confront the fact that you have a disorder. Give the Devil (and the devil’s food cake) its due. Stop beating yourself up. Because that kind of self-hatred is what undermines your efforts to get better.

The logic works like this: Why should anyone help me get better when I’m such a gluttonous weakling?

Again, you have a disorder.

And, as it happens, millions upon millions of other people do, too. So not only do I recommend that you find a therapist who specializes in food disorders. I hereby order you to attend a meeting of Overeaters Anonymous. (Okay, “order” is above my pay grade. How about I just implore you?)

This is vital. Because the moment you come out to people at that meeting, you will be accepted for who you are, and what you’re struggling with. You will feel part of a community. The shame and guilt you’ve been lugging around will start to give way to reckoning. With all due respect to Van Morrison, the healing will begin.

About the best thing you could have done was to write me a letter. Now you’re job is to take the next step. Find a therapist you can trust. Find a group in which you can feel less alone. Start imagining a life in which you can quiet your mind without stuffing your face.

It’s out there. But you have to overcome your shame and step toward it.

Onward, together,
Steve

Author's note: I certainly know my way around a late-night cupcake, but I don’t have personal experience with eating disorders. So I’d love to hear from some readers who recognize some of the struggles Can’t Stop is describing. What else does he or she need to hear? Your advice is most welcome in the comments section below. And feel free to send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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