Pretty much every night, for 46 years, I woke up in a semi-hypnotic state and ravaged for food …
Sometimes I ate foods that were frozen while standing in the kitchen. Other times I ate foods that were raw that shouldn’t be eaten raw. I ate in my bed while in a sleeping position. I ate on the couch, soiling the cushions and pillows. Plates, forks, and napkins were not part of these meals, and crumbs would be left all over the house. My father once caught me eating a box of Ritz crackers and a whole salami. The next day he commented that I appeared like a wounded animal. I felt that way inside.
My home life as a kid was often toxic, unpredictable, and frightening. My entire immediate family had an obsession with how much a person weighed. People who were overweight were viewed as a subhuman. The unspoken message was that maintaining a low weight was the most important aspect of being human, and I, of course, was overweight. The resultant anxiety I felt was temporarily soothed by these private orgies of food, so all my plans not to eat dissolved each night in a half-conscious frenzy of consumption.
I tried various ways to manage what I thought of as my own troubling idiosyncratic behavior: I read self-help books, joined weight loss groups, listened to CD recordings, joined exercise programs, got hypnosis, and tried most every fad diet. Some of these attempts temporarily reduced my symptoms, but my weight and eating patterns always came back.
I did have a hint of the solution: my sleep-away camp, which could not have been more different from my home environment. There I became part of a vibrant spiritual community that nurtured my soul. This stable and loving environment allowed me to live without fear. Mountains, lakes, and trails were the context for this healing. The spiritual path would become my core strength. But it was long time coming.
I was doing research to find help for another family member when I finally discovered that my condition had a name: night eating syndrome (NES). Eating disorders specialists were making real progress in providing care. I attended an open family support group at a local eating disorders center. At that first session I had a strong sense that I was finally in the right place. The following day I called for an appointment to be evaluated.
The program encouraged me to incorporate a spiritual component into my healing, and I joined two spiritual communities that in many ways emulated the camp experience of my childhood. I gained support and friendship from the other members. Meditation, yoga, services, chanting, singing, and dancing also nourished my life.
A sleep assessment proved invaluable. It turned out that nose drops that I had been taking were causing me to wake up during the night. Something as simple as replacing the drops led to improved sleep. An overnight sleep study provided additional information, with implications for my treatment.
I also learned to speak to my family and a few select friends about the elephant in the living room. The missing food and the telltale crumbs were very annoying to my husband, but I was too ashamed to talk to him. But finally, we talked this through together, which lessened my feelings of shame and gave me greater support. Step by step, my symptoms decreased, until one amazing day when they were all gone. It has been six months now, and the night eating has not come back.
I shared my story at an Eating Disorders conference, and several people approached me to let me know I was telling their story too. With tears in their eyes, they thanked me for giving them hope. I’m writing this because I want to reach out to others who are also suffering. Hopelessness can be transformed into hope and optimism.