When is a Binge Not a Binge? Um . . . wait . . . never mind.

Yeah.  Because a binge is ALWAYS a binge, whatever that means for the individual doing the bingeing.  I feel like I have to qualify that, right up front: there were times I ate thousands of calories at a sitting, but those days are gone.  But there are still times when I eat too much, too fast, because I’m so frantic to shut off the anxiety gnawing at the back of my mind.  Personally, I consider that a binge: anytime I’m eating mindlessly, frantically AND compulsively, and doing it when I’m not hungry.  Those four factors have to be present (because hey, sometimes I eat ice cream when I’m not hungry, or snack in front of the TV, and those aren’t really BINGES, at least for me) in order for me to call it a binge.  Calories have nothing to do with it.  I have binged on as few as 300 calories and on as many as . . . well, I don’t know.  I’d guess the worst one put me well into the 10,000 calorie range (at a conservative estimate), but even during my worst years that was an anomaly.

Recently I’ve been feeling pretty damn good about myself.  I haven’t been bingeing, I’ve been journaling my food without going crazy (or at least catching it before it gets bad), getting regular exercise, all that good stuff.  The only thing that I’ve been worried about is my drinking.  I’ve been drinking a lot.  Far more than I’m comfortable with.

I have to take a tangent here, back to this post on Names and Labels.  I’ve grown up around alcoholics.  I know what alcoholism looks like.  I know what the warning signs are.  I’ve been to the AA meetings and the Al-Anon meetings.  I know the drill, ok?  And I’ve been looking at my drinking, thinking, “I must be an alcoholic, because if it’s in front of me, I’ll drink it.  I drink too much most nights, and wake up feeling slightly hungover.  What is that if not alcoholism?”  But the thing is – the thing that holds me up – is that I DON’T DRINK IT IF IT’S NOT IN FRONT OF ME.  I won’t go to the store to buy a bottle if there isn’t one in the house.  I won’t even open the cupboard and go looking for the vodka (and I have a fully stocked liquor cabinet because I have people over regularly).  And the thing is, it’s not some Herculean act of will.  If it’s not in front of me, I DON’T EVEN MISS IT.  I brew a cup of tea, or sometimes a pot of decaf coffee.  I drink hot apple cider.  I drink water.  I drink diet soda.  It doesn’t even cross my mind to drink alcohol if I don’t see it. 

Well, no, let me qualify that.  If I’ve been drinking EVERY NIGHT, then for the first 2-3 nights I come home and think, “I want a drink.”  And then I remember that I’m not drinking and go find something else.  And after the third day or so, I don’t think about it anymore.  I just head for the tea/soda/water/decaf/cider.  It’s more like breaking a habit than breaking an addiction, if that makes sense. 

So that “alcoholic” label isn’t one I’ve ever felt comfortable with.  Well, I know NO ONE feels “comfortable” with it, but you know what I mean.  It always seemed like one of those things that ALMOST fit, but somehow, it just wasn’t right.  (Even when I factored in denial.)

So I started breaking it down one day, just noodling it around in my head.  I was thinking that it was ironic that I was so worried about my levels of alcohol consumption, since I’d never been worried about bingeing on sugar, and recent research indicates that excessive sugar consumption also leads to liver cirrhosis.  (I wish I could find my source for that.  I swear I had one, but I just spent 10 minutes trying to Google it, which is 5 minutes over my Google limit.)

And the lightbulb went off in my head.  Sugar binges.  Alcohol.  Alcohol hits your system like concentrated sugar.  I knew that already, but for some reason the connection had eluded me: I’m not drinking like an alcoholic.  I’m drinking like someone WHO BINGES.  My bingeing hasn’t gone away (dammit).  I’ve just switched from one substance (food) to another (alcohol).  Same compulsion, same low-grade anxiety, same type of intake, really: straight sugar.  Also the same type of reaction to not seeing it: little to no desire to consume it. 

But this is where those labels from the last post don’t help.  It was only after I started the process of purging the “Eating Disordered” label from my brain that I was able to make the alcohol connection.  Because ED is by definition food-focused, it really didn’t occur to me to put the drinking in the SAME category as the bingeing.  Not a similar category – the SAME one.  Because in my head, it’s the SAME THING. 

So, yeah.  My personal definition of an ED just got a little broader.  Because apparently my bingeing and my drinking are not two separate things after all.  Not ED and Alcoholism.  Nope.  Just one.  Just bingeing. 

I can fix that.

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15 responses to “When is a Binge Not a Binge? Um . . . wait . . . never mind.

  1. I think that’s a little harsh. I agree that a binge is always a binge. I don’t agree that a binge is always disordered.

    It seems to me that plenty of people do plenty of things mindlessly, frantically and compulsively, and for indirect reasons like suppressing anxiety. If they know the reason at some level, and if the the behaviour works for them (for example, it is effective in suppressing their anxiety), and if the behaviour is not so damaging that it has a negative impact on the rest of their lives, then I would not call it disordered.

    Perhaps you are saying that your total alcohol intake is so high that it’s damaging you, or perhaps you are saying that a different way to cope with anxiety would be good. But you don’t need to condemn bingeing so severely in order to come to those conclusions.

  2. Well, I have a few thoughts on that. First, I didn’t feel like I was condemning bingeing at all. (I WOULD condemn it as an unhealthy behavior, but I didn’t feel like I did that in this post, even on re-reading it. I’m sorry if you feel like I did, but I don’t see it.) I acknowleged that I was DOING it, and that it’s something I’m working on changing, but that’s pretty much what this whole blog is about. I also really tried to make it clear that I was talking about myself, and not necessarily anyone else. So if I didn’t communicate that clearly, my mistake.

    That said though (since you brought it up), I think we profoundly disagree on your point. And again, I want to be clear: I’m not talking about comfort eating or even stress eating. I’m not talking about coming home and thinking, “God, I’ve had a HORROR of a day, and I need macaroni and cheese for dinner.” I’m talking about coming home, bolting through the door and inhaling whatever I can get my hands on RIGHT NOW RIGHTNOWRIGHTNOW. Or drinking whatever is there. Or going straight to the gym every night and spending 3 hours there, not because I like it, but because I can’t face going home. Or smoking half a pack of cigarettes in a frantic attempt to calm down.

    I really don’t see how anything that is simutaneously frantic, compulsive and mindless is harmless, ever. First off because if someone is doing anything in that way, they are probably doing a lot of it, and frequently. Second because if they are using it as a drug (to treat anxiety, per your example), then like any drug, their tolerance will get higher and they will need more of it just to suppress the anxiety (think of the anorectic who thinks she’ll be thin at 120 pounds, but when she gets there, feels like she need to be 110 – then 100 – then 90). Eventually, even if they don’t start OUT doing something to excess, that is where mindless, frantic compulsive behavior usually leads.

    Finally, for the sake of argument, let’s posit that someone has found a mindless, frantic compulsive behavior that is somehow harmless. Maybe they mindlessly look at pictures of puppies (I’m really not being snarky; that was the most harmless thing I could think of). But here’s the thing: if they are doing that to SUPPRESS an emotion (again, per your example), then they are becoming a walking pressure cooker. At some point, that emotion will explode all over that person (and often all over any innocent bystanders). They might be successful in suppressing the anxiety for years . . . and then start having panic attacks at 40. Or become depressed, or even suicidal. They might start having nightmares, and if they’re married to/living with someone, those nightmares might affect both parties’ abilities to get a good night’s rest. The suppression of anxiety will almost certainly cause a massive buildup of cortisol in their body, and that might lead to heart disease. See what I mean?

    Side note: please note that I’m not talking about RELIEVING anxiety (or any other emotion), but specifically about suppressing it. Personally, I suppress emotion by eating, but relieve it by going to the gym. (Which is why I can down half a gallon of ice cream or half a bottle of vodka in a sitting, but it would never occurr to me to spend 3 or 4 hours at the gym.) But behaviors that are mindless, frantic and compulsive are rarely (I’d say never, but there’s probably one person out there I’d be wrong about) about relief. They are almost always about suppresson.

    So I have to disagree with the idea that ANY bingeing, for any reason, is ever constructive or even harmless. But I reiterate that it’s the MINDSET that makes it a binge. If I eat 4,000 calories at Christmas dinner because I want to taste everything, and Christmas dinners in my family last for 3 or 4 hours, that’s not a binge – at least, not the kind I’m talking about. But if I come home and inhale a box of cookies so fast that I can barely remember doing it? That’s DEFINITELY a binge, even if they were low-calorie cookies and I only ate a total of 400 calories.

    I really don’t think that the “binge” mindset is ever harmless in the long term (even if there were a scenario where it would be harmless in the short term).

  3. Holy crap! I just wrote another post in the comments! Whoops! (Classic Marste right there, though. God forbid I be concise. LOL)

  4. Marste – there’s nothing wrong with writing another post in the comments! You had something to say, so you said it! And personally, I happen to agree with you. I just couldn’t possibly say it as eloquently as you.

  5. Ha! Thanks, BL!

    I should add too, that there are times when mindless, frantic, compulsive coping is the best of two bad choices: if you’re so jacked in the head that you’re either going to binge (or whatever) or put a bullet in your head, then by all means PLEASE binge. But don’t imagine that makes bingeing a *good* choice. It just makes it a *better* choice, and I still maintain that as soon as you’re strong enough to deal with the underlying issues causing the behavior you should.

    (This post – the one about ED vs. suicide – talks about my experience with that.)

  6. I really identify with this Marste, as usual 🙂 Alcoholism is like a frigging family heirloom in our family. My Dad’s side of the family have been drinking themselves into early graves for generations, and I have been reminded frequently how much I resemble one of the family who drank herself into ruin and then gassed herself in her car. I’ll put aside the point they could’ve found me a better role model to compare me to, but I digress.

    I think the drinking thing is so seductive because it’s so much easier to justify than eating, if you are known for your eating problem. Drinking seems something so many people do when they are unhappy, and I’m forever hearing colleagues wax lyrical of how they put away a bottle of wine after a row with a spouse. Very few openly admit to devouring a weeks groceries in an hour, although I’m sure it happens.

    Plus it never seems as violent as the frantic cramming down of food. When I was drinking heavily, I used to tend to slow quickly after the first glass, and almost kid myself that oh well, just one more to finish off the bottle..blah blah.

    Ho Hum. Better watch out for that too 🙂 I wonder what other ways I’ll find to not deal with my feelings? Sneaky maladaptive coping mechanisms 🙂

    Lola x

  7. I have been reminded frequently how much I resemble one of the family who drank herself into ruin and then gassed herself in her car. I’ll put aside the point they could’ve found me a better role model to compare me to, but I digress.
    HOLY COW! I can’t decide if that’s horrifying or hilarious! Maybe a little of both. Gotta love the family, don’t you? *grins and rolls eyes* Either way, it made me laugh out loud at my desk. 😀

    And I TOTALLY agree about drinking being more socially acceptable than bingeing. Let’s face it, if you drink a lot, you’re Fun to Hang Out With, but if you put away a week’s worth of groceries, you’re just Weird and Mental. Terrific observation.

  8. I see a new tangent appearing! Over-drinking is perceived as social. Over-eating is perceived as anti-social. Interesting. I had a big phase of getting drunk alone at home and I’m convinced it was partly because I wanted to recreate the feeling I got when I was out and the life and soul of the party (the opposite to how I felt when I was in my flat on my own).

    But from a physiological point of view, I was almost definitely drinking because I wasn’t eating enough. I needed energy, and my brain “let” me have the alcohol, because it was cool, but not the food.

    AND at Christmas this year when I couldn’t eat much, I was PACKING away the alcohol because quite frankly it took the edge off my hunger.

    So it’s satisfying sugar cravings too (albeit for slightly different reasons)

    TA x

  9. I like how Lola called it a family heirloom. (alcoholism).

    Thanks for your comments earlier. For visiting my blog.
    Nice to ‘see’ a new face.

    Wanted to recommend the book to you based on above:
    Drinking: A love Story by Caroline Knapp

    I will def check out the books you recommended when I stop talking to my wrinkles and boobs and knees.

  10. TA, I think that’s exactly why I started drinking at home, too. I was trying to recapture that happy, social feeling of being out with my friends.

    But it does definitely have a physiological factor, too. (SUPER-long sentence alert!) There is a LOT of “anecdata” out there (and recently, there have been a few studies done that seem to back this up, though it’s too early to know for sure) that recovering alcoholics are more likely to become sugar-bingers than “normal” people, and that recovering binge eaters (who usually eat high amounts of carbs – I mean really, who binges on protein?) are more likely than “normal” people to become alcoholics. They think it has something to do with the way our brains process the sugar chemicals: apparently both sugar and alcohol release the same brain chemicals, making both addictions pretty hard to kick completely (because it’s too easy to substitute one substance for another without realizing it). Whew! That was convoluted, but hopefully it makes sense. 🙂

    Hi POD! Definitely do check out the books, if you have an opportunity; I found them SO much more helpful than the Louise Hay books. And Carolyn Myss would even advocate talking to your body parts! Ha! I’ll for sure check out the book you recommended. It sounds like something I should probably read right about now. *wry grin*

  11. Amazing timing on this post. Or at least in my reading of it! I binged last night. I’ve never really done that. Not in that rabid, anxious searching of my cupboards, must-find-and-devour-all-carbs-and sugar, kind of way. It didn’t start out as a binge, it started as a sandwich. And I never had an unhealthy amount of food in front of me. It was all spread out over an evening. So it didn’t resemble what I believed a binge would look like. But afterwards, it definitely felt like one. Even after a PBJ Sandwich, a Grilled Cheese Sandwich, a bowl of home-made Fried Rice, 3 small chocolates, about 5 Jaffa Cakes and numerous cups of tea, I wasn’t sated. And what truly scared me was that I still felt like I could eat more.

    I’ve always been an emotional eater, but this is nothing like what I’ve felt before. It may not sound like a crazy amount of food, but I certainly felt crazy eating it. I’ve always had issues with junk food and confusing hunger signals but this is something new…

  12. Yeesh. I’m sorry to hear that, Shivers. I know EXACTLY how uncomfortable that feeling is, and like you said, it really isn’t so much about the amount of food consumed as it is about the mindset. *hugs*

  13. There is a LOT of “anecdata” out there (and recently, there have been a few studies done that seem to back this up, though it’s too early to know for sure) that recovering alcoholics are more likely to become sugar-bingers than “normal” people, and that recovering binge eaters (who usually eat high amounts of carbs – I mean really, who binges on protein?) are more likely than “normal” people to become alcoholics. They think it has something to do with the way our brains process the sugar chemicals: apparently both sugar and alcohol release the same brain chemicals, making both addictions pretty hard to kick completely (because it’s too easy to substitute one substance for another without realizing it).

    in my experience — hell yes. Great post, great comments. xo

  14. Great post and great comments is right. Thanks for this.

  15. Hi Sarah! It seems to be true from what I’ve seen/experienced, too. It’s funny: when I stopped bingeing so much and so often, my alcohol consumption went WAY up. Another member of my family joined AA and quit drinking, but then started going through a 10-pound bag of chocolate chips (from Costco) every week. We swapped disorders! *cracks up* It’s only funny in a morbid way, I guess, but that’s my sense of humor. 😀

    Thanks, AE. Glad you stopped by. 🙂

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