Sunita Pattani realised her problem was out of control when she woke up one morning to find her husband was leaving her. "He said to me, 'It's not that I don't love you, but I can't be with you anymore. I don't know how to help you and I can't watch you doing this to yourself,' and then he packed his stuff and was gone within half an hour. I was just in shock. It was like somebody had moved the earth from beneath my feet."
Pattani wasn't ruining their life together by taking drugs, or having an affair, or making crazy demands on their relationship. She didn't drink, or gamble and she wasn't abusive. But she was suffering from a disorder that often goes unrecognised, even by its sufferers. Pattani had binge-eating disorder, or BED. Even though it is less well-publicised than its destructive companions, anorexia and bulimia, BED affects the highest proportion of the population around three per cent.
For Pattani, it began gradually. She dieted in her teens and when a diet failed she would fall off the wagon and indulge in sugary treats, but she maintained an average size 12 figure. Then, when she was 26, her nan passed away and she dealt with the grief by bingeing. The over-eating can be extreme, with sufferers consuming up to 20,000 calories in one bingeing session. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence's guidelines state: "People have episodes of binge eating, but do not try to control their weight by purging. A person with BED may feel anxious and tense, and their condition might have an effect on their social life and relationships," but this does little to encapsulate the feelings of isolation and self-loathing that the disorder engenders.
Annemarie Louw, the unit head at the eating disorder treatment centre, Montrose Manor, says: "Binges lead to feelings of guilt about losing control, and the individual wakes up the following day thinking they should starve themselves as punishment or compensation for the binge the night before. This cycle accompanies strong feelings of being in control while not eating and guilt, shame and low self-esteem when bingeing."
According to Emmy Gilmour, an eating disorders specialist and the clinical director of the Recover Clinic, secrecy and isolation are common effects of the illness. "Binge eating encourages you to isolate, because bingeing fuels that sense of shame and paranoia, and if it goes challenged, people feel they need to shut themselves off from the world. I meet a lot of women who have lived with binge eating into their forties or fifties and never tried to seek help.
"We are treating several people who are coming to therapy without their husbands' knowledge. Many sufferers describe the illness as an addiction or compulsion, and there is evidence to support the theory, showing that binge eaters' brains produce higher amounts of dopamine, a 'reward' chemical, when they eat.
But to consider the disorder as a purely physical illness belies the emotional trauma. A misunderstood element of this complex illness is that people who haven't experienced it tend to think a love of food and lack of discipline is the main cause. "One of the things people don't consider is bingeing is not just a reward, it can be punishment. With all these challenges, it's easy to see why Pattani chose to bury her head rather than confront the problem.
(Emily Jupp/The Independent)