It’s 2 a.m.
I wake up and pad down the hallway to the kitchen. On the floor is a bag. Meant to be garbage. I crack open the refrigerator door for light. Fumble around inside the bag until I can feel conical shapes wrapped in gold tinfoil. Bonanza. I found the loot. It takes only a second to rip open the wrappers and start eating. But first, I pick up the chocolates, walk to the sink, and take a drink of water.
I am awake. Sort of. Sometimes, depending on my mood the next day, I surf the internet and find names for it. Night Eating Syndrome (NES). Nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NS-RED). Sometimes it is called a sleep disorder, sometimes an eating disorder.
Web MD says NES is “when a person eats during the night with full awareness and may be unable to fall asleep again unless he/she eats.”
But all I know is that in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep – Chocolate. Tastes. So. Good.
I sink my teeth into a gooey caramel center and find the golden nugget – a perfect hazelnut that crunches between my teeth. I always wait for it to start tasting bad – some people promise that if you are “off sugar” long enough it will taste gross. Or that cheap chocolate will be a turn off. I wish that were me. I am not elitist during the witching hour. Even as my brain screams no, I plunge my hand back into the bag for more.
That was last night. But it used to be every night of the year. It used to be worse.
I used to binge in full daylight and on all sorts of thing that made me sick – bread, pizza, candy. And later, after I went gluten free – gluten free versions of the same, plus rice and other pseudo-grains. It wasn’t until I started studying nutrition that I understood why I had chronic stomach aches, gas, inflammation, bloating, colitis, itching, eczema, and more. Adopting a Paleo diet helped nip daytime binging in the bud – I finally fed myself real, whole foods with nutrients that kept me satiated. I started healing and many of my symptoms went away naturally. I stopped searching for my next sugar fix.
Not during the day, at least.
The birth of a bad habit
I started eating in the middle of the night (M.O.N. is the notation I use in my food journal) when I was nursing my first child. Lack of sleep made me chronically short on energy and I would get roaringly hungry at 2 and 4 a.m. I ate to fall back asleep. My second pregnancy came shortly after the first, and my sleep stayed disrupted. I had low progesterone, depression, and serious weight gain (30kg). I ate mostly white bread and cream cheese. Real food when I could stomach it. I nursed and ate. Nursed and ate. Drank barley malt beverages to increase my milk. Ate bulgur, telling myself it was better than bread or rice. My sleep never fully recovered.
My point in explaining my trajectory is this: I have had over eight years since the birth of my first child to solidify my night-eating habits. Plus 36 years of being alive, every single one of those days involving food. It did not happen overnight. And one night of kneeling at the altar of factory-made chocolate will not blow apart all the positive changes I’ve made, either.
I promised when I started this blog that I would not focus on perfection – how many days in a row I’ve gone without binging. Or without sugar. I’m not going to talk (today) about deprivation, insulin levels, hormones, or any of the other possible reasons for why the urge to binge still hits hard. I want to separate that from the closer picture: a woman leaning over a sink eating a bag of chocolates. She is not depressed, not lonely, and has a full life. She knows a lot about food. And addiction. She likes the taste of chocolate, but not during the day. She likes it at night in secret.
Her brain is more powerful that she gives it credit for. She taught it to give in to the urge to binge.
And that is why, dear Foodling, I am confessing. Even when someone’s auntie-teyze is shoveling more food onto my plate, I have a choice. It sucks to have to admit that no one, unless you are a two-year-old Turkish child at a park being chased with a spoon, is going to shove food down your throat. Even when it is the middle of the night and it feels like sleepwalking. It would be easier to say I have a disorder. It gets me off the hook. But acknowledging I have control is powerful.
I taught myself some really bad habits. And I am un-learning them. Binge happens. Urges happen. Now, can we get back to living?
By the glow of the fridge
Rather than launch into the tools I have learned for how to cope in this post, I want to return to the kitchen at 2 a.m. My palms shake when I realize just how far I’ve gone. I turn on my heel and march to the bathroom. I do not purge. I brush my teeth. Sink into the mattress next to my daughter who has crawled into my bed. Regret can wait until tomorrow, I tell myself.
And it does. I wake up with a pit in my stomach. A fear of the scale. A fear of what the lactose and soy lecithin and unpronounceable chemicals will do to my digestion. Not all of us can learn from scare tactics and threats: this ingredient will make you sick, make you gain weight. Or maybe it freaks us out enough during the day that we don’t binge. But come nightfall, no one is watching, right?
I am sharing this because I know what it is like to go into a dark place and blame myself. I also know what it is like to emerge from that and feel good. Really good. Even if I wake up in the morning and find bits of gold-leaf wrappers dusting the counter and the floor and my heart sinks.
I did it again.
And given my track record, probably will again. But maybe I won’t. Do I really want to spend all my time worrying about the odds?
I’d like to get back to bacon. Having enough energy to do box jumps and pull-ups. Writing a book. Deep living. For just right now, let’s be proud of how far that woman at the sink has come. Maybe she eats one less piece of chocolate.
Or maybe, she takes that bag, ties it up tight, and walks it out to the garbage can. Thunk.
For one resource that helped me, check out Kathryn Hansen’s Brain over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn’t Work, and How I Recovered for Good, which chronicles her recovering from bulimia without therapy. More information about her workbook and blog can be found here.