Eating on ‘Auto-Pilot’ in the context of complex trauma
By Monica Catherine
Content warning: Domestic violence, eating disorders and suicidal ideation.
In therapy for Binge Eating Disorder (BED), we are tasked with understanding and tackling what are called ‘maintaining factors’. These are the factors which perpetuate the illness (keep it going in the present day), separate from causal factors (what kicked it all off in the beginning). For many suffering from BED, dieting is a major maintaining factor. Dieting encourages psychological and actual restriction of food for the purposes of losing weight.
As the body and mind experiences deprivation, it will always reach a breaking point and overcompensate for all the food of which it has been deprived, hence binging. This is a big focus of current BED therapies. Plenty has been written on the restriction and binging cycle, but for me, this is only a small part of the picture. Eating disorder therapies do acknowledge some element of trauma and emotion dysregulation, but in my experience, this is not explored enough.
To understand my illness, you need to understand me. It’s important to look at any mental illness from a wide lens that encompasses the person and their life experience. I have a long relationship with disordered eating that spans right back to childhood (and I have written about this elsewhere), but a crucial thing to understand is that at the point of diagnosis I was in an abusive relationship. I was in my late 20s, and family members had pointed out to me that I put on a lot of weight during my time with my ex-partner.
Indeed, I myself noticed that I was eating second or third helpings at dinner, and often secretly eating extra takeaway food in my car. I knew something was up with my eating and raised this with my psychiatrist and began therapy.
A few years ago, I entered therapy again, reluctant after having had extensive therapy in late adolescence for suicidal behaviour and ideation. Eventually it became clear that I had more to explore. First was that I was even experiencing abuse. The lethal combination of my ex-partner’s tactics of entrapment with my own vulnerabilities left me blind to my situation. And, of my own vulnerabilities, my eating disorder contributed to keeping me in the dark. A binge requires a single and intense focus. I would think about which food I wanted, how to obtain it, and how to hide it.
When eating, I would do so as quickly and mindlessly as I could. I experience a deep “zoning out” during a binge, we might call this “disassociation”. Then, once I had finished, I would get this bloated, sedating feeling that left me entirely too tired and sleepy to think. It’s similar to how most people feel after Christmas lunch when they are stuffed full of turkey and pudding, but far less comforting. Binging took up a lot of the mental and emotional resources I could have used to process my situation.
An atmosphere of domestic abuse is not a safe space for emotional processing when you’re the victim.
All emotions have a message, and anger tells you something unfair has occurred and gives you the energy to confront it. However, I lived with a partner who had no tolerance for my anger because anger presented defiance and challenged his control over me. If I processed and acted on my anger in his presence, I faced an onslaught of verbal abuse, manipulation and threats.
Domestic abuse has a strange way of turning you against yourself. The feeling of my own pulse in my own neck, a cue that I’m feeling angry, has become so entangled with signals of danger. This is how the abuser outsources some of the policing of inconvenient feelings and thoughts to the victim themselves.
My eating disorder kept me safe in a strange sort of way: stuffing my feelings down with food made me more compliant and pliable, and gave my partner less opportunity to abuse me.
Now that the relationship has ended and I have no contact with my abuser, I am finally in a safe space to process what I’m truly thinking and feeling. Understanding how disordered eating weaves into my story, I have learned that the Auto-Pilot mindset is integral to my experience of binging. The Auto-Pilot mindset is one where you feel disconnected from your body and the messages it sends you – both physical and emotional.
Our bodies send us so many messages all the time throughout each day – not only about what we’re feeling, but also about our hunger and satiety. Ways I would stay disconnected from eating included:
- eating quickly;
- having the television on;
- eating in secret;
- quickly hiding the ‘evidence’ of binges
Disrupting the ‘auto pilot’ pattern
The way that treatment disrupts this pattern is principally by self-monitoring. You are required to write down your every meal or snack, and more importantly what thoughts and feelings are present at those times. This is challenging for me, and sometimes I really want to lie or not do it. Yes, there are times I absolutely want to run away from treatment, but this makes sense if you understand my story. I’ve never liked the term “self-destructive”, because these moments never come from a place of wanting to destroy myself; in fact they arise from self-preservation. I didn’t binge to destroy myself, I binged to keep myself safe in really complex and unsafe situations.
Understanding this, I persist with therapy, and self-monitoring has created a positive feedback loop for me over time. I know my Auto-Pilot mindset kept me safe in the time before; but now in this moment, I can express and process my feelings with no threat or coercion.
Every time I log a meal and I log a feeling, I experience a little safety. Every time I express something to my treatment team, or fellow therapy group members, and I am treated with respect, I also experience a little safety. With this in mind, I am working towards goals of mindful eating. I am working to slow down when I eat, and to minimise distractions. This way I hope to continue building a new and more connected relationship with my body after years of disconnection.
Butterfly’s National Helpline is available for individuals experiencing an eating disorder or body image concern, and their loved ones and friends who may be impacted or caring for the individual: 1800 33 4673, via webchat or email firstname.lastname@example.org
1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732
24-hour national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.