Battling Back From A Food Addiction Our series on addiction continues with a look at one woman's struggles with compulsive overeating. Farai Chideya speaks with Libby Bier — a food addiction counselor at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery — and "Vic," a recovering food addict.
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Battling Back From A Food Addiction

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Battling Back From A Food Addiction

Battling Back From A Food Addiction

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And now, we've got two people with experience in treating food addiction and recovering from it. Libby Bier is a food addiction counselor at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery. We also have with us a woman we're going to call "Vic". She's a recovering food addict and a member of Overeaters Anonymous. So, Libby and Vic, thanks for coming on.

Ms. LIBBY BIER (Food Addiction Counselor, Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery): Hello.

"VIC" (Member, Overeaters Anonymous): Hi.

CHIDEYA: Vic, I want to start with you, and I want to be very specific. Give me an example of a day when you completely lost control over your eating.

"VIC": It wasn't a day. It was the day before (Laughing) and that day and the next day. But anyway - OK, so I wake up in the morning, totally hung over. Dr. Lerner - Marty - described very well, you know, having lost control. So, I wake up, I feel terrible, and the last thing I want to do, I think in my rational brain, is eat because I feel so bad. And yet, I know that if I take one bite of anything, I'll be off and running. And I'm scared. I'm really scared.

CHIDEYA: Let me just ask one thing. When you say hung over, do you mean hung over from overeating or hung…

"VIC": Oh, yes, purely overeating.

CHIDEYA: What's an overeating hangover feel like?

"VIC": Well, OK, I've just woken up from a night of terrible sweats, tossing and turning because of the excesses in my gut. My head feels like it's stuffed with concrete cotton. Every nerve in my body feels like it's got acid on it. I feel completely demoralized, ugly. I'm also physically bloated. It's just like stuffed - I was dirty. I was - I couldn't fit in my clothes. I had no friends left because I was so isolated with the food.

So, there was nothing left to do but eat. And I was alone. And that's how I did my eating, alone. And I could hard - if had to be around people, I could hardly wait that they should be gone. So then, I would find some food, and I would start eating. And if I stopped eating for one second, I might remember something, some way that I couldn't handle life, some awareness of where I was at at that moment, sitting alone in a kitchen, or on the street, or whatever, just eating. And then, I would start with eating anything.

I was a volume eater. And a typical day would include several half gallons of ice cream, a couple of loaves of bread. Oh, and by the way, all the time that I would be eating - well, not all the time, but at the beginning, when I would start out eating, it would like be a break for my imagination. And I'd sit there, stuffing my face and thinking of all the great things I was going to when I got through eating. What a success I would be.

But soon, those thoughts would be supplanted because I was just terrorized by what I was doing to myself. It's sort of like having two personalities at one.

CHIDEYA: I mean - please, finish your thought.

"VIC": Well, I was going to say that part of me was screaming please stop, please stop eating. It hurts. It hurts so bad. And the other part was oblivious to the hurt, the physical hurt, because the other part was traumatized because I just had to keep eating. And I was so proud of how creative I was with my eating. Like, I would put a stick of butter on top of a chocolate bar or something like that, and I thought, oh, you're so creative, Vic. Yeah, so, you get the idea?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Yeah, I get the idea. And you're very - you know, you paint some very concrete pictures of what you were going through. And I want to get Libby in here. You know, you're a food addiction counselor, Libby. And when you hear Vic talk about, you know, first of all, what she actually consumed, secondly, how it made her body feel and third, how it made her feel as a person. It sounds like a very significant case.

But you know, how does this relate to food addiction as it affects other people - maybe people who might not be quite as severe, but who have those same feelings or similar feelings of being out of control?

Ms. BIER: Well, I think that she really depicts it - you know, she represents this picture and does a really good job. And I appreciate her willingness to do that, because that is part of the difficult thing in working with people who have eating disorders is they don't want to talk about it because it is such a secretive thing.

For people who have these urges to eat, you know, more than what they need to - and being secretive is just a really difficult thing. I'm not really sure that I understand your question completely in terms of other people because there is kind of a fine line.

And I think that Marty, who you had on earlier, I could hear a little bit of what he was saying as far as what differentiates someone who eats more than they should and food addiction. It really is when you start to have some of these other consequences that you start to face and still continue eating.

CHIDEYA: What I really meant was - it sounds to me, and maybe I'm wrong, that what Vic has been going through was an extreme case. How extreme was it? And what, you know - and you hinted at this - what makes someone an addict as opposed to a social overeater?

Ms. BIER: Sure, and to be honest with you I don't really think Vic's case is too far from most of the cases that we work with here at our center. I don't know if maybe Vic - if she has been in treatment, if she could speak to maybe some of the other people that she knows, but her case really does just seem like one of the - if I can use the word normal cases that we see here quite often with someone who truly has food addiction. It is this severe. And I think that kind of helps us see that line between those of us who do splurge and have some extra cookies one night as opposed to somebody else who does a lot of planning and has a lot of anxiousness in being able to find time to eat alone.

CHIDEYA: Vic, was that a critical part of what you were doing? Is eating alone - you mention, you know, not waiting - not being - being eager to get people out of the house so that you could get back to eating. Was it really a secretive behavior?

"VIC": It was. It was - you know, I've given you a sketch of how it was in the latter years. When I was younger, I would have these binges or benders, you know, in the evening, or on the weekends or something, but my life wasn't bankrupt. But by the end - but even then, my benders, my binges, were in secret. Typically, I would carry the food into my bed and eat it in bed after everybody else was asleep.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about recovery. You have been in recovery for sometime.

"VIC": Yes, 17 years.

CHIDEYA: So, what does that mean to you? And how has it changed your life? What does it mean to be in recovery and how have you changed in those 17 years?

"VIC": Oh, wow. I would like - I'm almost crying when you ask me that question because it's like - it's release from a self-imposed prison. It's - oh, my gosh. My life is completely, completely changed. It such a joy.

I mean, you know, even when I was a youngster - I'm 66 now - even when I was a youngster in college, I remember waiting in the cafeteria line and just people I hardly knew would say to me, don't you ever smile? You know, oh, you wear such a frown. And I hated hearing - you know, what business did those people have saying that to me?

And now, after - and that continued a lot. I was not a pleasant person to be around, I think, and I affected other people. And now, I walk down the street and perfect strangers that - I pass people by and they're smiling at me. And when that first started happening, I didn't know what was going on. And then I looked in a car window - you know, to use it as a mirror every once in a while - and I would notice that I was smiling. And so, people - and I wasn't, like, smiling particularly at those people, it's just that I was beaming and they could see I didn't want anything from them. And so, they would smile back at me.

CHIDEYA: Mm hmm.

"VIC": And that's how my life is now. You know, the people whose lives I touch, I no longer bring out the worst in them.

CHIDEYA: Yeah or in yourself. But Libby, what - you know, when you talk about being at institute for addiction recovery and being a counselor, what are some of the things that you tell your clients to do or ask them to do?

Ms. BIER: Well, I like that Vic is talking about her recovery and paints a really beautiful picture of what someone can have. And so, you know, we really talk to them about a lifestyle change. It' really difficult when someone first comes in with their eating disorder or food addiction, and so one of the first things we have them do is meet with a dietician. And we start looking at what are their - we call trigger foods, those foods that are the most frequently used for binging.

And then we try and remove those if we have anything like that. And for the most part, because we do treat for food addiction, our foods aren't going to be those types of foods, but there may be some that still can be a trigger for them.

So, we first start looking at defining what is abstinence, what is a relapse, because, for someone who has a food addiction, they're in constant interaction with their drug. We have to have food to sustain us and so it's a really important thing to be able to define what is abstinence? You know, what will recovery be? So that they can define it and not feel guilty for eating any food because a food addict, unlike an alcoholic, can't just abstain from their drug completely.

CHIDEYA: So, when it comes down to it - I'm going to ask each of you this - is it important to deal with this as a serious addiction for America, where we have so much obesity? And you're going to have to, unfortunately, just wrap it up very quickly. Is it important, Libby?

Ms. BIER: I think it's absolutely important. I mean, you know, overeaters present with moderate to severe obesity, with an average binge eater probably being somewhere about 60 percent overweight. And I see that there's this trend. I think we need to be aware of how, you know, there's lots of different addictions people throw out there. I think that we all just need to be aware of these things, that there is a potential for this, because food is something that we often use as a coping skill. And it can become very dangerous.

CHIDEYA: Vic, do you think it's important for other people to know about this?

"VIC": For other people to know about?

CHIDEYA: About the importance of treating food addiction.

"VIC": Well, that's why I volunteered to be on this program, because I really like what I've heard about this on this program today of the description of the food addict. And for me, the vehicle for recovery was Overeaters Anonymous, a 12-step program.


"VIC": And I think that by being on the air, you're performing this service.

CHIDEYA: Well, we're going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you, Vic, and also Libby Bier of the Illinois Institute.

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