A Long Road to Recovery from Binge Eating Disorder

Marisabelle Bonnici is a pharmacist. Between 2008 – 2010 she lived in the Netherlands reading for a masters in Toxicology and Drug design, she returned to Malta and bought her first business at age 27 – a village pharmacy which she owned between 2013 and 2018. She has battled binge eating disorder for most of her adult life. In 2017 she started her journey to recovery from her eating disorder. She realised that her life in the pharmacy was aggravating her eating disorder, so she decided to sell her pharmacy. She lost a total of 50kg, started working out and learned to listen to her body’s needs. In the meantime, she got certified as a Holistic health and nutrition coach and intuitive eating coach and started a course in eating disorders. She has also recently learned she is suffering from Celiacs disease and is now in the process of learning how to tackle this auto immune disorder. She is now organising workshops and coaching people in their journeys and restoring their relationship with themselves and food.

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As I look back on my photos from my childhood and teenage years I realise that back then I was not fat, obese or ugly. Unfortunately, the other kids in my school decided to pick on me. I loved studying, always did well in exams, I used to play an instrument, I loved drama and I was a high achiever, but this somehow bothered them. As a teenager, I used to get called Fag, ugly, fat, and 4 eyes. Those nicknames hurt me but I never wanted to give the kids the satisfaction of seeing me cry. So I used to keep my head high and ignore them. When I went home it was a different story, I used to drown my anger and sadness in food. Food made me feel good! Food tasted good and food never insulted me. As the years rolled by I kept using food as my refuge For years, I tried to convince myself that I had two problems:

  • Problem #1 was my willpower.
  • Problem #2 was my weight.

That’s all there was to believe — because those were the messages out there, from magazine covers telling me how to lose 7 kilos in 10 days to people promoting diet programs and powders promising miracle weight loss or salt that you can add to your food that will make your hunger disappear. I have tried all of these things. Today I realise that with all the money I spent on weight loss solutions I would have been able to fly around the world twice.

For years, I told myself: “I can do this; I can drop all this weight that I’ve carried with me since childhood — since I started binge eating at age 9.”

As a university student, I was sick of being the only one not able to find sexy clothes, so I went on an extreme diet. I did not eat for around 3 months – I lost 30kg in 3 months. My friends could realise something was wrong though because every time we had a birthday meal or any sort of activity nothing would touch my lips! I would not even have water. They even had a nickname for me which was the ‘Nazi’. I hated that nickname – it’s really not a nice thing to be called. But looking back it made loads of sense. I was starting to develop the early signs of Anorexia as well.

After several months passed though I had no sense of food freedom or how to properly fuel myself. I was so restrictive with my diet that I’d be deprived of basic nutrients. In order to find equilibrium, I’d binge on foods I had previously eliminated, like chips – I spent so many months believing they were bad that when I decided to eat again, I consumed so many French fries I would have been able to feed a town for a week. I would literally overeat, like an animal about to hibernate, without control or a touch of mindfulness. It felt good to do something private, without inhibition, and to let myself eat these foods that I had deemed off-limits. But I’d eat to the point of discomfort and lethargy.

Not soon after the binge was over, the guilt and self-loathing would set in. I felt shame for having no control, and I’d just pray and wish that my actions could undo themselves.  It was a vicious cycle, and I was full of despair, low self-esteem and complete and utter helplessness.

Soon after the weight start piling back on and I would often try to diet again, but any time I started a diet (which felt like every day), I failed. This made me feel like a failure. I blamed myself. It makes sense that I was so hard on myself. Society tells us that anyone who is overweight is lazy and has no willpower so we often tend to take it out on ourselves.

Back then, Binge Eating Disorder didn’t exist.

Well, to be clear, binge eating (the act of bingeing in itself) existed, but we didn’t know that it was an eating disorder that could be treated — or even what to call it. It wasn’t until recently (2013) that binge eating disorder even had a diagnosis.

Binge eating disorder in childhood is real. As are other eating disorders like ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), also known as “extreme picky eating,” it is an eating disorder characterized by highly selective eating habits, disturbed feeding patterns or both. It often results in significant nutrition and energy deficiencies, and for children, failure to gain weight. We need more awareness of eating disorders in children.

Every time I tried to start a new diet – whether it was a gym package, cutting out carbs, eating vegetarian, I always ended up in the same place — in a shameful, self-loathing spot — where nothing changed and the only way I thought I could feel better was to get back to binging. Then, of course, I felt worse. This continued for years. As all of this took place, I just felt like something was wrong with me.

I could never understand how I was able to do a degree at university, get a diploma in music, get a master’s degree, master 4 languages, learn photography, and then be conquered by a cupcake?

It didn’t make any sense.

I tried to make myself feel better. I called my problem “grazing.” Then I called it “compulsive overeating” or “food addiction.” I even tried something called “mindful eating” in hopes it was the answer. But there was no way that someone (me) who didn’t ever feel full could find a healthy spot in which I would want to stop eating.

It wasn’t until I had lost another 18kg and I went on a binge rampage that I googled my symptoms and figured out it could be Binge eating. I did not find much help in Malta. I spoke to psychologists, physicians and did online research, read articles, studies and books.

I learned that binge eating disorder was a biologically based eating disorder that had gone undiagnosed for decades. Binge eating disorder is both under-diagnosed and yet the most prevalent eating disorder. In fact, there are 2.5 times more people with binge eating disorder than with anorexia and bulimia combined. So why aren’t we talking about this more? Why aren’t we out there raising awareness?! Well this is my mission – I want more people to know about and talk about eating disorder so those who are suffering in silence can be helped.

Some of the symptoms of binge eating include:

  • Frequent overeating, at least once a week for three months
  • Eating more rapidly than normal
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating alone because you are embarrassed at how much you are eating
  • Feeling disgusted, depressed or guilty after eating
  • Eat large amounts even when you are not hungry

This wasn’t about my willpower. It wasn’t about weight. It wasn’t about my nutrition knowledge or the fact that I did not exercise enough.

Binge eating disorder is a real diagnosis with real treatments. That needs real experts to deal with as with any other mental health disorder.

It is good to realise that binge eaters aren’t always overweight; people with BED come in all shapes and sizes. A binge on carrots and a binge on cake is still a binge. There are people who binge on low-calorie food so they will not balloon up to 140kg, like I did, but the disorder is still prevalent, and this is why we need to raise more awareness.

Binge eating disorder isn’t controlled by willpower or dieting but rather by learning to build a healthy relationship with food.

Losing weight with binge eating disorder doesn’t mean that you’re cured. I have learnt that recovery is possible if I take the steps necessary to get there.

I’ve learned to retrain my brain to react differently to food cues. I’ve taught myself to shut down the voice in my mind saying things like, “I’m doomed for failure” or “I look horrific.”

This is the work of recovery.

In the days where binging was all-consuming, I really would have benefitted from a program that thought me how to retrain my brain When we are willing to acknowledge that binge eating disorder is a real illness, we can also be willing to do the work necessary to beat it. This is why I have started working as a coach and furthering my studies on disorders.