It's Time to Talk About it: Binge Eating and Sexual Abuse

Research shows that people who experience trauma during childhood such as physical, sexual or verbal abuse are more likely to grow up to have eating disorders and/or addictive behaviors. Big hugs to Anna, 27, who’s sharing her Real Story of recovery with us today! xo…Sunny

What happens when we're young can and does influence our eating behaviors.

In high school I didn’t have a boyfriend; I had food. While my girlfriends were out finding their first loves, I was at home with all of mine—chips, ice cream, cookies, popcorn, and bread spread thick with butter. Sometimes my relationship with food was pure bliss filled with things to love, like how delicious it was, how it made me feel better, kept boredom away, and satisfied me. But, the good times would never last.

Eating at home alone always started off as salty, sweet bliss. The comfort I found in a giant, bowl of Cookies’n’Cream and a bag of potato chips almost can’t be described in words—almost. The first few cold, creamy bites paired with a salty, crunchy fistful of chips would make my eyes roll back in my head a little. That’s how good it felt.

But, the buzz of yum wouldn’t stick around for long. Before I knew it, I’d be elbows deep in the gallon trying to breathe between huge bites and hurriedly planning what I was going to eat next, and then after that, and then even after that. Post-binge I would leave the significantly depleted kitchen rubbing my aching jaw and my ready-to-burst stomach. I’d get in bed, under the covers and swear that was the last time I would ever eat that way. And I meant it with all of my heart, until the next morning when the call of the food was louder than any decision to stop. Again, after a day full of food I would head to sleep in so much pain.

The truth is that for as much pain as the bingeing was causing, it was also numbing me to pain I had no idea how to deal with. When I was five I was sexually abused. Episodes of abuse continued until I was nine years old. Those awful experiences left me full of secrets, shame, and emotions I was too young to make any sense of. Eating the way I did kept the secrets I carried stuffed under huge amounts of food. It also kept my body safe under a layer of fat that I was certain rendered me completely gross and unattractive to boys.

I never really told anyone what had happened. I was sworn to secrecy at such a young age that it stuck, and I also thought maybe the abuse was something I caused or invited, so I kept it all to myself. Without guidance or support, the effects of the abuse were mine to carry alone, and it was exhausting. When I was 17, I started to crack under the pressure of it all. Anxiety attacks led me to therapy, and therapy got me to open up just enough to let in some healing. For the first time in my life I told someone about how I was eating and with a bit of investigation, we began to link the food to my past.

I wish I had pages of space to tell you everything about the years that followed, but just know this: with the help of therapy and support groups I’ve gone from a sad girl filled with self-hatred to a woman who has so much kind, compassionate love for the struggling girl she used to be. I can say now (without pride or boastfulness) that I love myself. I care about myself the way a parent would care about their child. I’m my biggest advocate and that is because I’ve opened up to others and let them love me until I learned to do the same. That’s why I’m opening up to you here, because every time I do I get to grow and heal a little more. Trust me, you don’t have to do this alone. —Anna, 27

Abuse isn’t the only childhood trauma that can push us toward bingeing. For me, it was my parents’ divorce. Do you think that a circumstance, event or series of events in your childhood helped shape your disordered eating?

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19 Responses to It's Time to Talk About it: Binge Eating and Sexual Abuse

  1. Shady says:

    Anna – What an ultimately heartwarming story. Thank you for sharing.

    It’s interesting for me to think about a childhood event causing my binge eating. While I was never sexually abused, I did suffer physical and emotional abuse at the hands of my father and watched my two brothers and mother go through the same. My father was not a nice man and even after he left home, at my mothers insistence, he had a negative impact on my upbringing and the stability of my childhood.

    Although, I’ve thought about that with respect to my relationships with men, I’ve never thought about it with respect to my relationship with food. It’s definitely worth giving some consideration to for me.

    • Sunny says:

      Sometimes I think that our relationships with our fathers are undervalued in terms of the lasting effects they have on lots of areas of our lives.

  2. Katie says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, Anna.

  3. Olivia says:

    Anna, I’m so glad that everything has worked out for you. Thanks for an inspiring story!

    Personally, I have never suffered from sexual or physical abuse, but emotionally I have.. My father is a severe alcoholic with anger issues. The thing is, though, he has only started drinking heavily (and consequently, being emotionally abusive) in the past two years. He still drank before that, but definitely nowhere near as much. Now, I’m only 18, so I guess 16 is still a pretty young age to be dealing with that kind of stuff, but my eating issues started before that, when I was around 14.. I guess I’m just kind of at a loss to explain why, and it frustrates me. (Not because I want to blame someone, but I think that understanding where all this stems from is essential for a complete recovery..)

    (I realize this comment has no real point.. Sorry about that, just rambling.. 😉 )

    • Sunny says:

      Hi Olivia–no point necessary! :) You know, I think that “trauma” comes in many different packages. I used to think that it was weak of me to be affected so strongly by my parents divorcing when I was 14, but I was talking to an expert the other day for my book who was saying that we always think of these big, huge things being traumatic, but that smaller, more everyday hurts and even neglect can be very traumatic too. And we learn to cope with that any way we can. Food is readily available, it feels good (at first) and it’s legal. It’s the good girls’ drug. :) xo…Sunny

  4. I have no doubt that my childhood impacted my disordered behavior with food. I was heavily abused physically, emotionally and sexually until my late teens and started binging when I was eight. I was taught to keep quiet and to not cause a fuss about anything and learned from such a young age that food was comforting. As I got older, I also dabbled in sex and drugs but ultimately turned back to food until my recovery.

    What is amazing to me is the courage to rise above all that and become a better person. Thank you for sharing your story, I know we are helping people!

  5. Kate says:

    Anna, thank you so much for your story.

    I was never sexually or physically abused, but I do think my childhood shaped how I am today. (Other family members too.) I grew up around family who tended to be emotionally distant. Lots of emphasis on appearance and how the rest of the community viewed the family, little on acceptance of who you really are. My dad didn’t really know how to relate with my sister and I (especially the bookish clumsy me who had no interest in sports).

    I was also bullied starting late in 6th grade so I spent my time trying to be as invisible as possible. When my parents divorced, I shut down. I numbed myself with food and was praised about how “strong I was.” My family was falling apart, but on the surface I seemed fine. On the inside I was a mess too and instead of telling anyone, I ate. With my dad out of the picture I had unlimited access to the fridge. Because I didn’t have any friends I had unlimited time to sit in front of the fridge.

    Its amazing how these little things shape us for good or ill.

  6. S.T. says:

    Thank you for saying that your parents’ divorce was traumatic. I always felt bad that I had bulimia and couldn’t point to molestation or anything dramatic as a child. I discounted feelings of feeling different/unpopular as a child, as well as having a guy grope me when I was already an adult–not molestation but still, an assault…

    In my 40s now, I’m exploring the feelings behind the bulimia even though I haven’t practiced it in 20 years… I still have that type of thinking that makes me eat when stressed and “feel fat” when upset.

  7. LG says:

    My home environment definitely contributed to my anorexia. When I went to counseling at 21 I thought we’d talk about food and my control issues…what we ended up talking about most of the time was my mom! She was hugely controlling and at 21, I felt like I had to “parent” my parents, calling them every day, visiting them every weekend etc. Once I put up some boundaries, I was able to make friends, identify myself apart from my mother, etc. I would highly recommend “Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” if anyone else struggles this way…also Geneen Roth’s books…and the Feeling Good Handbook helped immensly with my depression at the time.

    Anyway, my home environment and my personality type were the perfect storm for an ED!

  8. Kiersten says:

    My eating disorder was definitely a result of events in my childhood. My parents got divorced when I was about 7 and after that everything went downhill. I was very withdrawn and showing signs of depression before I entered middle school. Once I was in middle school I was going through an awkward and chubby phase. Kids made fun of me all the time. They told me I was fat and ugly. To add to that, I was growing up in a family that had negative body images and were obsessed with their own weight. My relationship with my father got worse over the years and really bothered me. There was a lot of dysfunction between the rest of my family- drinking, anxiety, depression, constant fighting. There were numerous significant events throughout my childhood that, I believe, led me to my eating disorder. I think my parent’s divorce was the starting point to all of it though.

  9. Sophie says:

    Hi everyone,

    Long time lurker, first time commenter. Anyway…

    First, to Anna, thank you for sharing your story. It takes a lot of courage to speak about our traumas, and when we share our stories, we often give others hope and speed along the healing process for ourselves. So thank you.

    I can kind of relate to your story. When you said, “In high school I didn’t have a boyfriend; I had food. While my girlfriends were out finding their first loves, I was at home with all of mine—chips, ice cream, cookies, popcorn, and bread spread thick with butter. ” I can completely relate.

    Sitting here bringing my thoughts into words I’m realizing that I perhaps need to share my own story, and maybe look for some advice or help from some of you. Not maybe, but need to. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to diverge from Anna’s story and I guess see what someone else can make of this. After reading all of the posts on this website I suppose I could say that my reasons are a tangled web of everything that’s been psoted on here.

    Anyway, I’ve had several major periods of disordered eating in my life, the first beginning around age 12-14 (bingeing followed by dieting), 15-17 (bingeing followed by fasting), and 18 (bingeing followed by bingeing). I’m now 19 approaching 20 soon. I had a brief recovery period last summer (May-November), slipped back into the hole in December, and emerged from the cave in March and am once again continuing my goal of self-respect.

    But anyway, and I can see as I type that this is going to be kind of long, so I apologize, but I really need to get this out. I was never abused as a child, at least I don’t think so, but I was yelled at by my mother on a daily basis from about 5-12. Simple things – not doing my laundry, cleaning my room, failing to premeditate her expectations, etc. I was a stubborn, ADD child who was (and still is) content on just doing my own thing regardless of what other people said about me. I was an otherwise very happy child and had a very happy homelife otherwise.

    But when I was 12, I decided that I wasn’t going to fight anymore. Before then I’d yell back or hold my ground, but around 12 I decided it wasn’t worth it anymore, that my opinions and view about things didn’t matter, that I wasn’t going to be able to stand up for myself or change her mind or make her happy regardless of what I did, so I just stopped fighting. And started controlling everything I could (once a fairly disorganized child, I became OCD and hyperorganized, reveling in throwing things out and organizing). I also started bingeing. I now see this as partly as a way to anger her – since around 11 she’d been pestering me to diet, a lifelong yo-yo dieter herself. I think she only had good intentions, though, but that didn’t translate to my perception. This was despite the fact that at 5’2 and 115-120 pounds, I was a healthy weight and very active in sports. It was also a way to express my emotions. I ranted to my friends about her, but nothing gave me a sense of relief quite like a high-fat, high-carb binge. I gained about 20 lb.

    Around 14 or 15 I started dabbling in extreme diets, and can remember many, many days of not eating/eating very restricted calories, then a binge following, etc. I still wasn’t fighting back, and was stuffing my emotions back into my body with pieces of bread whenever I got the chance.

    I had my first kiss at 15, a few months away from 16. I was insecure, and thought I was grossly fat (though only 10 pounds up from my age 12 weight), and was entirely confused when a boy showed interest in me. But, a week after he kissed me, he decided he didn’t want a relationship. Being confused and upset about the entire thing, not to mention continuing to ignore my own instincts, I went along with what I saw as a youth-cultural norm and “hooked up” with him on a regular (multiple times per week) basis. He later told me (last summer) that he was actually in love with me and didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to understand it, but to my impressionable brain this meant one thing: he only wanted my body, he did not like me as a person, he never would like me as a person, the only thing that guys will ever like about me is my body and physical things I can do for them. Eating, then fasting, became a way of life, a way of dealing with this “reality.”

    I started hooking up with other guys, too, and thinking that if other guys heard about other guys hooking up with me, they’d find me attractive. I never saw myself as attractive unless other people told me I was (and to this day still very much struggle with this). I think it has something to do with the fact that I was always told as a child/preteen/teen that I was “above” dating, too smart for that, shouldn’t waste my time with boys. (My mother still to an extent expects this of me.) I wasn’t ever supposed to be “attractive,” just a brain with a body as its vehicle.

    When I had just turned 17, I allowed another “friend” of mine that I had really fallen for to drunkenly take advantage of me. I know recognize this as rape, since a drunken person cannot give consent. This was the first and only time I’ve ever really had sex. I’m afraid that he gave me an STD (something I’ve never told ANYONE – not even my doctor, she doesn’t know about the rape. I don’t want to make her sad, but I know I need to tell her and might do so this summer). I’m afraid that the fact I’ve been raped and might have an STD makes me even less desirable, that no man will ever find me acceptable and that I will be vile and disgusting forever.

    When I was 18, I sunk into a severe bout of anorexia and ended up trying to kill myself. This ended up bringing up a lot of repressed emotion at my mom, and I let a lot of things out. Two years later, we have a good relationship now, I’m happy to report. I also haven’t starved myself since then.

    Wow, I don’t even know what I’m really trying to get at here. For the past two years of college I’ve kept myself from guys, I don’t flirt, I don’t give them anything back when they are friendly, I keep everything strictly friends. I’m terrified of them, that they will either find me unattractive, discover my past and find me disgusting, or try to take advantage of me. I’m scared. But I don’t want to wake up in 50 years and still be scared, with nothing to come home to but a baguette and a stick of butter.

    If you’ve made it through this, thank you for reading, and if you have any advice or anything…please…I need it. I want so much to be better and be a whole person again.

    • Katie says:

      Sophie, thank you so much for sharing. I sincerely hope you will let the caring professionals (or amateurs) in your life continue to help you. It sounds like you really like your doctor, enough that you worry that telling her the truth of your experiences will make her sad. It makes me sad that you are struggling with this alone! The staff at your college counseling center will be very eager to help you (continue to) sort through your sadness, shame, and anger. Keep fighting the good fight! You have been through a lot.

    • It sounds like you’ve been through a lot. Keep going. You aren’t struggling alone. People will be there for you. Thank you for sharing. [:

    • it takes time says:

      I’m sending love and hope your way. Thank you for sharing your story.
      It took me awhile to recover, but it was worth it to feel like I do today.
      I feel normal, confident and am happy most of the time.
      There are still bad days and problems, but I can deal with them more
      logically now. For me the biggest hurdle was recognizing and recovering from low self esteem.

    • jill says:

      Hello. Wow well done for sharing you’re story.
      This litteraly describes my life story, I’m sitting here with tears rolling down my face. It’s identical to you’re past. I am currently a 3rd year varsity student who has had binge eating on and off.To this day I push boys away. Every time I think I am over binge eating, I just disappoint myself by slipping back into the habit. I don’t even know what normal is anymore, but this YouTube channel by the site selfactualised organisation, has recently helped me gain perspective. All the best. The struggle is real. But we can do it. You are not alone. Stay strong and the past is in the past for a reason.

  10. Kasain says:

    Hey, I wanted to let you know that I really appreciate y’all sharing your stories, and now I kinda feel the need to share my own, especially because, until now, I hadn’t ever realized that eating constantly for months and then barely eating at all for months was actually an eating disorder, I just thought that was the way I was. I was sexually abused when I was about 6 years old (it’s hard to remember exactly, I had shut it out of my memory for a while) and still suffer emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of my mother. Thankfully I found a wonderful man who loves me the way I am and I’m finally getting away from this negative environment. I am 20 years old and was blessed (or cursed) with a very high metabolism, so from 5th grade through 8th grade I was teased relentlessly for being smart and short and way too stick-like. I had no boobs, no nothing, I looked like a skinny boy with a big nose right at the time that girls are getting really vicious towards other girls. I finally “blossomed” between 8th grade and 9th grade so I thought I’d be good to go… unfortunately my dad got seriously injured in Iraq and when he came home, with anxiety and panic attacks, my mom decided to divorce him. The divorce was a major struggle, both sides of the family relied on me, a just-turned-14 year old girl that was entering the scary and academically competitive world of high-school, and it lasted for a year with awful custody battles and shouting matches and social workers… it was such a huge stress that me, a straight ‘A’ student, had a 21 in my geography class and I actually failed a semester of one of my other classes. Needless to say I caught crap for that too, so when my mom would yell at me for not working hard enough in school and not guessing what she wanted me to do around the house before she ‘had to ask’ and for not caring enough about my appearance, I realize now that I found comfort in food. Food was good to me because it made me happy, and I was always scared about being too skinny so I had to eat, I had to eat more and more to hopefully gain enough weight to just look normal, and because I thought that I had to eat and because I liked eating I never thought that it was a problem that I would eat non-stop from the moment I got home from school to the moment my last bit of homework was done and I could finally fall into bed. I guess I thought that because I never got “fat” and that I was finally a “healthy weight” that eating all the time was just something I had to do so I could be healthy, but eating until my stomach hurts and still trying to eat more, feeling like I’m always hungry, feeling like I may never just be content with what’s already in my stomach, I really hate it. I hate having such strong cravings for food that i can taste them and smell them and having that overwhelming urge to just eat and eat and eat when I know in my mind that I can’t fit all that food in my stomach but I have to try because it tastes so good and it’s bad to waste food. Now that I finally recognize this problem I know I’m gonna need to seek help, and try to avoid all those foods I love (like sunchips and soup) that make me wanna eat more and more… I can’t believe that I thought that I was just fine when something like this was just staring me in the face, thanks to reading your post though it finally made me really look at my eating habits and realize that yeah, that really is a problem, and it’s probably not good for the little baby in my tummy either. Now I’m even gladder that I’m moving, it gives me a chance to refresh my life, my fridge, and my cabinets to include healthy foods that are okay to eat a lot of, and to keep out the foods that make me want to binge. I am definitely going to need to have someone else come with me when I go grocery shopping (like my fiance) and I now think of it as a good think that I won’t have my own car for once, because I don’t know how many times I’ve suddenly driven to the store in the middle of the night for a box of Oreos. Thank you so much, I’m so glad I have finally found out about this before it was too late to really help myself, I want to be a good role-model for my kids and living an unhealthy life-style isn’t on my ‘be a good role-model’ list, so thank you, thank you so much.

  11. […] triggers for those of us who’ve fought eating issues: Teasing from kids in school, verbal or sexual abuse, possible addiction to certain foods. HealthyGirl.org readers, what do you think yours were? […]

  12. Caroline says:

    Thank you for sharing your story!! It truly resonates with me on so many levels! I was sexually abused from ages 5 till 11. This past year and half I confessed in therapy of the abuse which ultimately lead me to an inpatient stay at a mental hospital. My suicide attempt, self-harm, restriction, bingeing, and overall self-hatred was all due to my abuse. After recovery and 6 months self-harm free my tendencies to binge have becoming increasingly more prominent. My therapist and I are deciding whether or not a hospital will provide me the support and facts to help me overcome this obstacle. I was wondering if you could offer me any tips or advice that helped you defeat your eating disorder. Thank you again for sharing; I know how difficult it is to open up.
    Thank you!!

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Sunny Sea Gold

About the Author

Sunny Sea Gold is a media-savvy advocate and commentator specializing in binge eating disorder, cultural obsessions around food and weight, and raising children who have a healthy body image.