So far I’ve been writing about recovery with a kind of long-ago-and-far-away detachment. As though disordered thoughts and behaviors are all in my past, and I am now a totally relaxed, happy, enlightened eater. I still have not-nice thoughts about food and my body, but for the most part, it’s true that things are great!
It’s also true that I ate a whole bunch of cookies at two o’clock this morning.
When I was dieting hard, I used to wake up in the middle of the night pretty regularly. Sometimes I’d stay hungry and miserable and go back to sleep. But more often, I’d get up and binge. My “favorite binge memory” (to use a bizarre and problematic phrase) is one such eating episode. I methodically, compulsively ate three dozen almond cookies. Even though I ended that binge feeling overfull and ashamed, I also felt a sense of having done something right for my body. I had been under-fueling, and especially under-“carb-ing,” for months. The little animal inside me had clearly had enough of this nonsense, and it woke me up to forage for something calorie- and carbohydrate-dense. Getting up and binge-eating, in that situation, felt like my healthy biology taking over. My animal-body was not willing to let me destroy it.
That same force woke me up last night: “Hey, mammal! You need fuel!”
Shit, I thought. I don’t want to get up and snack. But I wasn’t just feeling “snacky.” Shifting positions in bed and adjusting my blankets only made the hollow, growling feeling in my stomach more noticeable. I was going to have a hell of a time getting back to sleep without some food.
Cookies popped into my mind. There were a couple open packages in the snack cupboard, and I went straight for them. That action alone seemed a little suspicious.
This is kinda binge-y.
I took some cookies out of their impossibly loud, crinkly bag and ate them. My cells sang sweet hallelujah. “Ohmygod yes, carbohydrates, thank you!”
I thought about having just a couple of cookies and going back to bed. But my hunger was full-meal-sized. I crunched through more cookies. It felt so good to eat, but so bizarre—and a little wrong—to be standing in the dark kitchen, satisfying my hunger with a large portion of “junk” food.
Am I…binge-eating? Is this a binge?
I wondered if, like being hungry, binge-eating was like being in love: “If you don’t know, you’re probably not,” as Geneen Roth says. I had done these exact actions while definitely binge-eating, but this didn’t feel the same. Was I just in denial? Was there a difference between binge-eating and waking up hungry and eating a bunch of cookies in the middle of the night?
The obvious difference between a binge and a midnight snack, in my mind, is the sense of lost control. While I ate more food last night than I probably would have if I’d been sitting down in daylight, I never felt like I couldn’t stop eating. At one point, an old thought flickered through my mind: “As long as I’m eating cookies, I might as well have a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter…” But it was trivial to recognize that thought as nonsense. For one thing, I didn’t actually want peanut butter. I wanted to eat cookies and go back to bed.
Another moment gave me pause and raised the “this is disordered behavior” flag: about halfway though my “meal,” my partner coughed in the other room. I felt a pang of dread. What if Rob wakes up and catches me?! I thought about rushing to clean up and scurrying back to bed.
They’re just cookies. I reminded myself. You’re not doing anything wrong! I was hungry, I needed and wanted a snack before going back to sleep, I chose cookies, the end. I wasn’t acting in alignment with my goal of eating mostly nourishing foods, but so what? (And if I walked in on my partner eating cookies in the middle of the night, I certainly wouldn’t judge him for it!)
Despite the temporary fear of “being discovered” and the smattering of shame over choosing boxed cookies instead of…anything else, really, I feel confident saying no, I did not binge last night. I ate when I was hungry; I paid attention to my craving and ate exactly what I wanted; I didn’t eat past the point of feeling comfortable; and I didn’t sink into the quicksand of moralizing about food.
Rerouting my thoughts in the middle of the night wasn’t too difficult. But not letting my midnight snack shape today was harder. There was lots of mental back-and-forth: “I should skip breakfast.” No, no “should.” I will eat when I get hungry again. (I ended up with a smaller, later breakfast than usual, because of where my hunger and satiety were.) “I should work out this morning.” Nuh-uh. It’s a rest day. (If I hadn’t eaten a bunch of cookies, I definitely wouldn’t be looking to add exercise to this busy day.)
My digestive tract was not amused, and it let me know with a miserable morning bathroom experience. I couldn’t shake the thought that I was getting “what I deserve.”
When I emerged, my partner was worried. “Any particular reason for that?”
“No, not really.”
That is a fucking lie.
One thing I promised my partner last year when I decided to really, actually recover was that I would not lie to him anymore. I would not parade around going, “oooooh, look at me, I’m so recovered!” while still engaging in disordered behaviors.
I mentioned not sleeping well, and being at a certain point in my cycle, both things that tend to upset my digestion. Shame crept in the longer I stalled. By now, our daughter was awake and playing, so I continued the conversation via text.
Me: Cookies at 2:00 AM were probably not a good decision. But it wasn’t a middle-of-the-night binge!
Me: I had the old neural pathway of “what if Rob catches me eating cookies?” But I was like, “if Rob wakes up and comes out here, I’ll be all, ‘Want a cookie?'”
Him: I took out the trash this morning and noticed the wrappers, which made me remember the noise in the night. I was all “Do I mention this? Was she bingeing? What’s the supportive thing to do here?”
Me: You are, by FAR, the best and most supportive partner.
Him: I’m sure trying.
Me: I woke up very hungry and thinking about cookies. I decided to eat cookies. As per usual when I eat something previously on the “bad” list, I started to feel bad, but I decided fuck that, they’re just cookies, the end.
Him: Where’s the emoji for “huge sigh of relief”?
And that is what my binge-eating recovery really looks like, right now, today. It’s messy. It can feel pretty roundabout, as evidenced by the fact that I took a four-minute snack and turned it into an almost 1,200-word essay. It’s a wordy process, built mostly on talking to myself and fact-checking the voices in my head.