Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most prevalent eating disorder in the UK. Here, freelance writer Helen Pye explains how she fought back against the disorder that had afflicted her for years – learning to love her body again thanks to a gruelling 500-mile trek.
The snow picking up pace around me shrouded the remainder of the path to the top of the mountain that hadn’t already been obscured by thick mist. The road was entirely empty except for two American women, who I could just make out battling on ahead. Each step felt like the last mile of a marathon and spots of blood bled through my T-shirt, where my 22lb rucksack had chafed the skin off my shoulder. Later that day the local authorities would shut down the route until the dangerous storm had passed. For now, we just needed to get over the top.
Learn from my mistakes: walking 500 miles on an ankle that’s recovering from an Achilles injury is not recommended. Nor is wearing literally nothing more than a thermal top in -10 degree temperatures in the Pyrenees.
A week earlier, I had bought a cheap flight to Biarritz on a madcap whim to walk the popular Camino Frances to Santiago. This is a four-week, 500-mile pilgrimage route attempted by more than 200,000 people a year, that winds across Spain and through the beautiful cities of Pamplona, Burgos and Leon, before ending at the foot of the jumbled spires of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. For me, this wasn’t merely a physical challenge but a final attempt to recover from the binge eating disorder that I had been in the grip of for years.
BED is the most prevalent eating disorder, with a 1 in 30 to 1 in 50 chance of developing it in your life. It’s also very misunderstood. It’s often dismissed as greed or a lack of willpower, or played down as comfort eating. But binge eating is different. There’s often no pleasure to be found in it: just guilt, disgust, shame, and the exhaustion of hiding it.
BED was my form of self-harm: instead of scars I have stretch marks on my hips, thighs, breasts and stomach, a physical manifestation of the self-hate and worthlessness I felt inside. And the consequences stared me in the face every time I looked in the mirror or squeezed into a Tube seat. I hated every inch of my body. I hated the way people stared at me when I left the house. I hated that I was too self-conscious to date or to travel. I hated how powerless I felt. Food was my comfort. But it was also my punishment.
By last summer, I had hit rock bottom. At my heaviest I was nearly 16 stone on a five-foot frame. I found a military-style bootcamp in the UK with a three-month “Conquer Food” programme, combining therapy to break your dependence on food with exercise to tackle the physical effects of binging. I quit my job and signed up for 12 weeks. I stayed, on and off, for 21.
At the end of the five months, I’d lost three and a half stone and was in recovery, but the camp had been a safe space where all my food was provided and exercise was compulsory. I simply didn’t have the choice to binge.
Could I do it in the real world? I’d been fascinated by the Camino since I’d watched the film The Way six years earlier and now it was the biggest challenge I could think to set myself. I would be alone, exhausted and emotional: all the things that would normally send me spiralling. If I could survive four weeks walking, in April’s burning sun and pelting rain, with blistered toes and carrying a 22lb rucksack on my back, I knew I could beat this eating disorder.
The freezing 18-mile hike over the Pyrenees was just day one. By day six, I was planning how long before I could give up, go home, and it not be shameful. Thanks to my Achilles, every step felt like a hammer blow to my ankle while a jagged shard of glass was dragged up my calf. My blood was a potent mix of Spanish ibuprofen (double the strength of the UK stuff FYI, if, like me, you can’t read Spanish) and vino tinto. Throw in hostel communal showers and a bout of food poisoning and I couldn’t shake the question, “Why am I doing this?”
Vineyards as far as the eye could see stretched across La Rioja; beautiful medieval churches welcomed you into every village and town; lush, rolling hills carpeted the region of Galicia. But the beauty just seemed to underscore the absurdity of waking up each morning to walk in pain for 17 miles to reach some abstract point that was further along in Spain. Yet returning home was too humiliating; I’d committed to the end.
Walking, naturally, is what most people associate with the Camino. It should be food. Spain’s rich, spicy, fatty fare and the places we’d stop to eat it were the heart of the Camino. Cafes would be the first stop of the day, for pastries and café con leche and to catch up with friends who’d spent the night in a different albergue. Lunch would be pintxos of padron peppers, thick crispy slices of chorizo or fluffy slabs of Tortilla Espanola. If shivering and soaked, we’d revive ourselves with a Cola Cao hot chocolate.
Every night the nearest restaurant would become a meeting place to debrief on the day with flowing red wine and the famous ‘Pilgrim’s Menu’: a heaped plate of spaghetti bolognese for starters; meat and a mound of greasy chips for mains; ice cream or Tarta de Santiago, a local almond tart, to end.
Exhausted and faced with all that food, it would be a lie to say no former habits slipped back in. But with every morning that I woke up and decided to focus on walking just for that day, something in me changed. My body that I’d hated and abused for so long was the one thing I had to trust to carry me forward.
While my walking companions chose taxis or horses, I picked the sweaty, breathless climb to the high-up hamlet of O’Cebreiro, my confidence soaring with every step. Aching deep in my bones, my feet found the strength to go forward that day when my mind almost gave up. At the top, I felt awe – for the beauty around me and for what I had just achieved. Three weeks in, it became the turning point in my body going from something I despised to something I saw value in. I had a choice: fall back to the false feeling of worthlessness that had limited me all my life or embrace this new, terrifying feeling of pride and forgive myself when I messed up. I finally understood it wasn’t wrong to enjoy food, and the freedom came in making sure I wasn’t using it to distract myself from feeling other emotions.
Twenty-seven gruelling days after I started, I stood before the cathedral in Santiago with a euphoric pride in my mind and my body that I’d never experienced before. It was unsettling: I’d spent so many years despising myself, yet in that moment I felt powerful, grateful, even in love with my body. If not with the look, for what it had achieved. That intoxicating glee is what I return to every time I feel low just by looking at the picture of me in front of the cathedral. You can’t see the blisters but you can see my smile.
In the ineffable way that experiences like that change you, the Camino has irrevocably. I felt more confident to apply for jobs, I committed to the gym and continuing to lose weight so I could feel good in my body, and I stopped wearing as much make-up, something I had done to almost apologise for my existence to everyone who had to look at me.
Recovery means difficult days, but I can assure you of one thing: throw your body a curveball challenge and it will constantly surprise you with the extraordinary things it can do. When I need to remind myself of how far I’ve come, I go for a walk, whether it’s the West Highland Way that I walked last month to celebrate a year of recovery, or just around my local park. Find whatever reminds you of how amazing your body is and do not let it go.
For getting me through the Camino, I’d like to thank Stormzy, Kinder Bueno and 24-hour Compeed vending machines. But most of all, my body, which I’m finally learning to love.
For information and help on eating disorders, visit eating disorder charity BEAT.