Why We Shouldn't Use The Word "Binge" So Freely

"Let's binge on Game of Thrones and chocolate!" A new friend said to me recently as we were making weekend plans. She had only come into my life recently, so she didn't yet know about my ongoing struggles with binge eating disorder (BED). I felt like this might be a good time to tell her, but I couldn't bring myself to put an abrupt halt to her enthusiasm.

"I've been binge-watching so many shows lately and it's been awesome," she said with a big grin on her face. I returned her smile, but I felt strangely embarrassed, like I had just tripped in front a large room full of people. I would be the world's biggest downer if I started talking about how serious bingeing was for me now, I told myself. So I remained silent.

As someone who has battled BED for years, I don't think I'll ever get used to hearing the word binge used in this context, no matter how often I encounter it — and I encounter it a lot. I hear people say it in everyday conversation, even my friends and people I work with. They pass back and forth phrases like "I totally binged on cookies last night" and "I'm gonna binge on that leftover cake when I get home." When I'm online, I constantly come across lists of "binge-worthy" TV shows that are ideal for passing the time on a rainy Friday night.

In fact, according to a Collins Dictionary survey, "binge-watch" was the word of the year in 2015. On CollinsDictionary.com, "binge-watch" is a verb that means "to watch a large number of television programs (especially all the shows from one series) in succession." Helen Newstead, head of language content at Collins, told the Guardian that this term has suddenly come to the forefront of our culture because the way we watch TV has recently changed. With access to so many different streaming outlets and viewing apps, people watch several hours of their favorite program in a row and then "discuss their binge-watching on social media," according to Newstead.

We've become a culture that loves to talk playfully about bingeing. It's become a tagline of sorts, and that makes me nervous. Have we forgotten that bingeing makes up the heart of a debilitating mental illness? That millions of people in the United States — 3.5 percent of all women, to be exact — suffer physically and emotionally from a binge eating disorder that prevents them from living normal lives?

It's the most isolating thing I've ever experienced, yet our society makes it out to be an endearing millennial pastime.

The National Eating Disorders Collaboration names two primary characteristics that make up BED: eating a large amount of food in a short period of time, and feeling completely out of control during this act of eating. Generally, a person with BED won't purge or use other means, such as laxatives or over-exercising, to make up for their overeating episodes. They will, however, harbor intense feelings of guilt and shame, which can be so burdensome that they fall into a state of depression. They may isolate themselves completely from friends and family because of how embarrassed they feel about their binge episodes. Other mental illnesses that are often linked with BED are anxiety, clinical depression, and bipolar disorder. Serious physical consequences of frequently bingeing include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep-related breathing disorders, heart disease, and obesity. But it's important to remember that just because someone has BED, doesn't mean they will be visibly overweight.

When we casually toss around the word "binge" in reference to food and entertainment, we're inadvertently stripping away the seriousness of this illness and trivializing the devastating consequences that come with it. I would even say we're glorifying the act of bingeing, like it's a rewarding (albeit, mischievous) pastime that everyone deserves to take part in after a long work week. I'm always seeing tweets on my Twitter feed about people emerging from a three-day binge on House of Cards and pizza. They make it sound funny — and it is funny, in a way — but it makes me feel wildly uncomfortable, and completely misunderstood.

Believe me when I tell you there's nothing cozy or cute about the binge episodes people with BED endure. You feel like there is an inner monster waging war against you, and no matter how hard you fight, it overpowers you and takes you to humiliating extremes of eating. It can lead to panic attacks. It can leave you in the fetal position of the bathroom floor, in a frightening, altered state of mind. There's not a single part of a binge episode that someone with BED would want to share on their social media. It's the most isolating thing I've ever experienced, yet our society makes it out to be an endearing millennial pastime.

I also feel as if our culture's outlook on bingeing unintentionally encourages individuals with BED to binge. At the very least, it's planting the seed into our brains that bingeing is like fried food — bad for your body, good for your soul — and that it can make you feel better if you've had a rough day. True bingeing does exactly the opposite of that; it makes you feel worse than ever before, and chips away at your self-confidence and your ability to lead a normal life.

"It's OK! You work hard. You deserve to kick back and eat some comfort food!" she interrupted. "I totally binged the other weekend and it was seriously so good."

Because of the desensitization around the concept of bingeing, it's become even harder to talk about BED in an honest way. For example, the last time I tried to open up to a friend (a different friend, who I've known for years and who knows about my BED) about my bingeing struggles, it didn't land very well. When we got together for a weekday lunch, I told her that I had been feeling dreadful the last few days, since the past Sunday marked my first binge episode in a long time.

"I feel like shit that I did that to myself again," I admitted to her, with my head resting in one of my hands. "I felt really sick after—"

"It's OK! You work hard. You deserve to kick back and eat some comfort food!" she interrupted. "I totally binged the other weekend and it was seriously so good."

I could tell that she wasn't quite grasping the difference between the two occurrences, but instead of correcting her, I tried to just share my own experiences. I told her that the Monday morning following my bingeing incident was especially difficult for me. I lay in bed for hours as the depressive symptoms started to wash over me, and it wasn't until the late afternoon that I got up and started my day. Since then, I'd been avoiding people and fighting sharp pangs of anxiety. But still, she had a hard time understanding what I meant.

"Seriously, girl, relax, you're allowed to pig-out on some food every now and then," she said with a friendly smirk and a nonchalant wave of her hand.

It was an awkward exchange that I finally gave up on. She truly was trying to make me feel better, but it became clear to me during this conversation that she was missing out on the seriousness of BED. She, like many others, has been programmed by social media to think that bingeing on anything, whether it's TV or a tub of ice cream, is a part of life. We've normalized the very activity that leads to fear and humiliation in many mentally ill people, and it's stopping us from potentially helping them through their sickness.

By no means am I saying that we should attach a more negative connotation to the word binge, because that wouldn't be helpful either — but I do think we should try to be a little more sensitive about how often and how carelessly we use it. Think about it this way: We try not to use phrases like "I'm so depressed today" and "She's seriously crazy" because they diminish the experiences of people with mental illnesses. We do our best to be respectful about our loved ones' social anxiety by refraining from sayings like, "Just snap out of it!" Why can't we transfer that same courtesy to those with BED? Why can't we be more conscientious of how flippantly we throw around the word binge? BED is a classified mental illness, just like clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder are, and it deserves the same attention.

I don't know if there are people out there with BED who feel the same way as I do. I would love to hear from them if they do — or if they don't. In the meantime, I suppose I could ask the people around me if they could take it easy on the frivolous use of the word binge. Because I'm sure if they really knew how hopeless it makes me feel, they would delete it from their vocabulary in a split-second.

Images: Gina Florio