Posted by: Kathy Harmon on 12/3/2010

I just got off the phone with my friend Mollie.  You’d like Mollie.    She’s beautiful, talented (musically gifted), funny, fit, has a great marriage and is a terrific mom.  You would probably never guess she spent 25 years of her life with a binge eating disorder.  But she did and this is her story.

Mollie remembers that at around age 12 her gymnastics coach suggested it might be better if she lost five pounds or so. Lots of people in her extended family had problems controlling their weight.  Her mom – a fabulous cook – put on weight easily and was vigilant about diet and exercise.  Her older sister had a medical condition that  produced muscle in abnormal amounts and prohibited the type and amount of exercise she could do and still retain a feminine form.

Mollie remembers that early on, from a variety of sources, she acquired the belief that only thin women “could get a man”,  or “a good job”,  or  “the audition for the musical.”  No one is specifically to blame for this: the message is everywhere.

That first diet introduced her to a sense of control.  She lost the weight but then put it back on, then lost it and put it back on (plus a couple of extra pounds).  Mollie has never been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder but she and some of her friends, believe she is a classic case.  She never does anything at a “C” level.  It’s  “A+” or nothing.  For those of you who strive for perfection in all that you do, you know how difficult it is to achieve, let alone sustain, that standard.

From her early teenage years Mollie remembers binging.  She would take a box if cereal to her room and eat it all.  She was literally a closet eater.  She never over overindulged in front of others; she actually sat on the closet floor stuffing herself, hidden from the outside world.  When she lived on her own she would buy a half- gallon of ice cream and make malts. She points out that she didn’t own a freezer so, of course, she had to consume it all in one sitting.  Or, she would order take out, not from one, but from all her favorite restaurants and eat until she contemplated a visit to an emergency room.  She couldn’t stand or bend and could only breathe if she was prone, physically in pain and wondering if her stomach would burst.

Had this been her only extreme she would likely have weighed 500 pounds.  But, there were the alternating diet phases.  She would exercise three times a day.  She tried every diet ever conceived (including prolonged fasting for as long as 30 days).  She remembers her tea and cigarette diet with particular horror.  I asked if she ever purged.  She said she has always been terrified of throwing up, couldn’t do it even with a bad case of stomach flu.  Mollie believes that if she had combined purging with binging she would likely be dead.

Eating for her was never normal.  She always thought about food.  When she was binging she felt terrible shame and guilt.  Her self- talk was all about “If only I were thin...then I’d be happy, have a great job, a wonderful relationship…but I’m such a failure.” When she was dieting and exercising obsessively she thought only of the specific food she would eat as soon as she hit the magic number. 

I asked if she was ever happy.  She remembers once feeling happy for about two hours.  She competed in a grueling fitness competition several years ago that required a brutal regime of exercise, diet and discipline.  There was a sizable monetary prize for the winner and Mollie, the consummate overachiever, focused on being number one. After 90 days she placed in the top 10 our of more than 20,000 contestants.  “I was incredibly fit and proud of myself for what I had achieved.”    But the  “happiness” drifted away within a couple of hours and was replaced by the overwhelming desire to eat her favorite food and then by the guilt and shame that followed overconsumption.

There is a happy ending to this story.  Mollie met Paul in her late 30’s.  She had pretty much given up on finding the perfect mate but there he was.  As the relationship progressed and she knew that she loved this man, she felt she had to share this terrible secret.  His reaction was.  “That’s all????”   Mollie felt an immediate lifting of the guilt and shame accompanied by the fading of “food” thoughts.   

“It wasn’t miraculous but close.  I still had bouts but they were far less frequent.  Recently, when I was pregnant with my first child, my friends told me how hard it was to lose weight after the birth and I was scared the old habits would return”.

The baby came and the weight came off with exercise and good food choices.  The old habits did not return.  When I asked her about how she views food now, she laughed.  “Paul and I love to eat but there is balance in our lives.  We go all out when it comes to food and eating.  When we travel, we plan entire trips around the restaurants we will visit.  But the next week we ramp up our exercise and eat a little ‘cleaner’ and we get right back to normal.  The key is that it is never guilt–laden.  It’s more like a game”.    I asked if she is happy now.  “Happier than I could ever have imagined.  I have a great husband, a beautiful child and a fulfilling life.”  Mollie credits Paul’s acceptance and the experience of motherhood as the stepping-stones to her healing.

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