I was thinking some today about emotional pain, and it’s connection with binge eating and other addictions. The common belief is that addicted people use their substance of choice to numb themselves to pain. In the past, this belief was reserved primarily for users of alcohol and drugs; but now binge eating, overeating, shopping, gambling, pornography, and even texting and facebooking are often considered addictions that are used to numb out pain. 

     In therapy, I indeed learned that I binged to avoid pain; and for a long time, I believed that was true. It’s certainly true that a side effect of binge eating and other addictions is temporary distraction from pain and numbing of emotions. However, that’s usually not the primary motivation, and most addicted people know – at least at some level – that the temporary avoidance of pain isn’t worth it and only makes things worse in the long run. 
     Moreover, the addicted person doesn’t always consider the numbing of pain to be a positive side effect. When I go back through my old journals, I find evidence that I didn’t want the temporary distraction that binge eating brought. I found a journal entry from 2001 where I jotted down: “I want to feel everything. Not full. Not fat.”  I wanted all the emotions in my life; I didn’t want to “push them down with food,” as my therapists suggested I was doing. At any point during my binge eating, if someone would have offered me the choice between 1.) being free of binge eating and feeling every bit of the pain in my life OR  2.) continuing binge eating and avoiding some feelings temporarily; I would have chosen option 1 without any hesitation. 
   Yet, I reported time and time again to myself in my journals, or to my therapists that my episodes of binge eating were because of this or that painful event or feeling. It never felt quite right to me, and I eventually realized that it wasn’t. I kept binge eating because I had developed a habit and I felt powerless against my urges; and believing that eating was a way to cope with pain only compounded the problem. 
     I began thinking about this issue tonight while my husband and I were watching the Monday Night Football pregame show. There was a story about a former quarterback whose son committed suicide; and after that horrific tragedy, the quarterback buried himself in alcohol. I can’t even imagine being in this man’s situation, and the incredible pain he must have endured, and still endures day after day.    
     Did the alcohol make this man’s pain go away?  Likely not.  But, did the temporary distraction seem worth it to him at the time?  Probably.  So, in effect, he was choosing to drink to temporarily avoid his pain. I would never judge this man, or anyone under such emotional duress for their choices; and I do not deny that there can be a similar dynamic at work in some cases of binge eating. Trying to get someone undergoing such extreme emotional trauma to avoid acting on their urges to binge would likely be a losing battle. They would not want to stop because the temporary distraction is what they feel they need. 
     This is one of the reasons why I say in my book that I unquestionably agree with therapy on one thing – that the first step in recovery is wanting to recover. However, this statement is a little redundant because most people who don’t want to recover aren’t actively seeking therapy or recovery. It’s usually only after the person realizes that the temporary numbness isn’t worth it that he/she seeks help for the addiction. Might the emotional pain then need to be dealt with in therapy?  Absolutely. Nevertheless, once a substance addiction forms (for whatever reason), the urges will continue to arise; and I believe, need to be dealt with as a separate issue.  Dealing with emotional pain doesn’t necessarily make the urges for the substance go away.    
   Even though addictions and eating disorders might sometimes develop as ways of dealing with severe pain, we can NOT treat all eating disorders and addictions that way. I believe assuming that everyone who binges does so to cope with pain – no matter how minor or severe – does a disservice to many.    

7 thoughts on “Pain

  1. I just wanted to say that I’m now in the process of reading your book for the second time in a month and it has (and is) helping me immensely. I have ALWAYS felt that my issues with binge eating and purging(laxatives)had been the result of a ‘habit’ that I formed on and off over the years that also began with calorie restriction at a young age. I was a dancer (ballet) from ages 5-24 and a very slim figure was ideal, so I restricted in an effort to maintain that ideal even though it wasn’t necessary. I’ve always been slim and had a fast metabolism, there was no need for dieting. All hindsight mind you. 🙂

    I want to thank you. I feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel for me finally. I can’t express my gratitude enough for sharing your story and what you’ve learned. I’ve dealt with some form of this since I was about 13 years old (I’m now 35), sometimes stopping for many many months at a time, even over a year a couple of times and different things have led me back to binging. Most of them very innocent like binging on Sunday because of a hangover a couple times in a row…that would lead me into months of binging, 2-3 times a week. Though I’ve always felt as though this became a ‘nasty habit’ I never had the scientific proof or information to back it up, and would fall victim to my subcortex and it’s mis-firings.

    My last binge was Friday 10/7, last week. I lost a whole weekend to that binge. I canceled a dinner event Sat eve that my fiance and I had been excited to attend for months and man, I felt like a real asshole. I don’t want to lose any more time on this. I feel like I finally have a viewpoint that has given me an edge and I may just be able to let this thing go once and for all and be able to observe these urges through to there passing instead of acting on them. It makes so much sense, I’m just blown away. Thanks again from the bottom of my heart. I know I’ve rambled but I sincerely appreciate your efforts.

    Oh, and keep writing, I’ve gleaned a lot of useful info from your blog as well. 🙂

    ~Kristi – From Phoenix! 🙂

  2. and I can’t spell – *their* passing, not there. Clearly some sort of type A personality disorder going on here as well… I kid, I kid.
    Thanks again!


  3. Thanks so much for writing. Your message means a lot to me, and you certainly did not ramble. I’m so glad the book makes sense to you and has given you a light at the end of a tunnel. I truly hope you can put the bulimia behind you for good, and not lose any more time to the habit.

    It’s great that you already have experience with quitting for long stretches of time; you probably have a bit of a headstart in that way. Now, it will be a matter of staying aware, and disregarding those thoughts/feelings that have lured you back to the habit in the past. I think going back to the habit “innocently” is very common. After long stretches of time, it’s easy to start thinking that one more time wouldn’t hurt, or maybe it wasn’t such an awful habit after all. But if you recognize those thoughts – no matter how innocent they sound – as the neurological junk that they are, I hope you’ll be able to prevent any more relapses now and the weeks, months, and years to come. I think one of the most freeing aspects of this approach was that I got to stop worrying about relapse, because I knew that *if* my brain misfired and produced an urge to binge sometime in the future, there was absolutely nothing that could make me pay attention to that urge or act on it.

    I hope the weather is finally cooling down in Phoenix. My family and I actually moved to Georgia a couple months ago (I need to upate my bio). It’s the closest we could get to family and still have a job! We are enjoying it so far, but there are some things about Phoenix that I do miss (not the scorpions in my house though!).

    Your second comment was funny:-) I do that all of the time.(send additional messages to correct my misspellings)

  4. I’ve been suffering with it for a year now. Therapy hasn’t helped, nothing helps. I got desperate, researched and found your book last week. How funny that I am studying psychology and received an A for my research proposal on the most effective treatment of bulimia nervosa? It is a habit, I’ve thought this for months. I smoke, it’s no different. I cried today when skimming your book for reasons I will mention.
    My healthiest weight was when I loved life and had never thought about a calorie and din’t know what carbs etc meant– was 118- and I was radiant– naturally a health nut I loved eating well and didn’t obsess, just enjoyed.
    I grew up in Metairie Louisiana with one older sister
    I am 5’4 with blonde hair and blue eyes
    I have always been a writer and have vowed to write about this win I conquer it.
    I’m jumping the gun but I feel like I’ve found a woman, like me, who knew she had to find an answer that was unique to herself.
    I hope to finish your book soon and am curious as to where you went to high school in LA, I went to Cabrini in Mid-City New Orleans. Are you familiar?
    Alyson Mitchell

  5. Wow, it’s amazing how much we have in common.

    Yes, I’m familiar with Cabrini. At first when you said Cabrini, I thought of St. Frances Cabrini, which was right across the street from where my grandma lived from 1951 until the day she evacuated for Katrina (Holy Cross is located there now). I forgot there is also a girls’ high school named Cabrini. I remember playing your school’s softball team! I actually grew up in Slidell and went to Pope John Paul II. I used New Orleans as a reference in the book, because who knows where Slidell is, right? 🙂

    I truly hope the book can help you. I know how awful it can be, especially when nothing seems to help. Please write me anytime(

  6. Kathryn, I recently stopped therapy after 2 years of treatment, hoping it would stop the binge eating (which it did not). We did a lot of work on coping skills, childhood issues, feelings of sadness, neglect, loss. It was extraordinarily painful and I know it not only did not stop the bingeing but likely contributed to it. There were times that the therapy was so painful that I knowingly binged just to feel something else! And if I had a dime for every time I said to my therapist, “Hey, I came here just to stop bingeing. Do I really have to do all of this therapy?”….. Just goes to show you. I do regret the time, money and emotional pain I experienced all in the hopes of stopping bingeing when, in fact, the answer is so simple. Thank you for your book, your insight and your courage in sharing it all, Kathryn.

    Mary in Los Angeles

  7. Thanks Mary, I appreciate you sharing your experience here.

    I think if individuals(eating disordered or not) seek therapy for the purpose of addressing and trying to heal painful issues, then it can be a highly beneficial process. However, when people seek therapy specifically to stop binge eating; and then are put through a painful process like you described that doesn’t lead to a cessation of binge eating, it’s very sad. Especially because there is no proof that healing past hurts and overcoming emotional issues and pain from the past cures binge eating.

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