Ryan Tubridy spoke to a member of Overeaters Anonymous, a group much like AA, who went from 20 stone and eating out of bins to 12 stone and connecting with his loved ones again.
Much like alcoholism, overeating is a hidden illness and addiction, and it causes similar amounts of pain, shame and physical harm, something Ryan Tubridy learned when speaking to "John", a member of the group, on his radio show on Tuesday.
John said that he started overeating around the age of six or seven when he noticed he had "a kind of obsession with food that other people didn’t have". "I always wanted more, I was always pestering my parents for more, I was never happy with what I got", he said.
Eventually, he would resort to sneaking food out of the kitchen when no one was around.
"If I was in someone else’s house I’d always try and convince them to give me food. When I’d come home from play dates I’d tell my mum they didn’t feed me so I could have more food, just little things like that."
Overeating, which can be defined as binge-eating without purging, has a long list of both physical and emotional consequences, but the most obvious one is severe weight gain. John says that looking back now he sees himself as "chubby" as a child, but back then he thought he was "the size of a house".
Coming at such a vulnerable and formative age means that John was even more self-conscious than your average teenager. Often, he was crippled by his own shame and fear.
"I missed out on a lot because I was always so afraid. I wouldn't go swimming because it involved me having to take off my clothes, this was a complete no-no. The thought of that scared me to my core."
As with any compulsive addiction, John's overeating needed to pass as nonexistent in public. When around people, like when he had dinner at home, he ate normally. But he was constantly looking for opportunities "to get away from the crowd, get away from people so I could eat".
Things only got less manageable when he got older, as when working part time he had money and more independence. He fell into a routine of coming home, eating a full dinner, hopping in the car and having another full meal in a chipper.
After this, he would stockpile food, buying "buy two or three bars of chocolate, couple of bags of crisps, couple of drinks, sweets, tub of ice cream, lots of special offers, multipacks, things like that" and bringing them home to eat.
Eating so much took a physical toll on him, too. By the time he hit his 20's and 30's he was "eating so much I’d feel sick on a regular basis. There could be days and days and days where I’d have what I’d describe as this bowling ball in my stomach, like a ball of cement, of food". At his heaviest, he weighed 20 stone.
Despite this, he lived a life that was in many ways fulfilling, exciting and interesting. "I achieved a lot, I went out and travelled the world", he says. "But looking back everything I did was tinged with this. I was only really 70 per cent there. It wasn’t the full me. I was only going through the motions, I wasn’t experiencing life."
After doing this for about two decades, John picked up tricks that he says he now knows are adopted by many overeaters, something he didn't realise at the time.
"One would be if I was in a shop I’d have my phone up to my ear and I’d be pretending it’d be someone giving me an order. Sometimes I wouldn’t go to the same shop regularly, or I might go to three shops in one night and get little amounts. For example at a drive through I’d always order two drinks, because then they’d think I was going home to bring it to someone else."
When asked what that process gives him, John explains: "It gives you some sort of dignity when you’re in that process of ordering, because I was so ashamed for so long."
Eventually, John was chatting to a friend who shared with him his experience of being a high functioning alcoholic and seeking help with Alcoholics Anonymous. The way he described his relationship with alcohol sounded an awful lot to John like his feelings about food.
He didn’t have his eureka moment there and then. It would take some years before he would commit to the Overeaters Anonymous programme, but when all else failed, he found his answer there.
A couple of years with OA have changed everything for John. Physically he totally transformed himself to a healthy weight, but the greatest joy for him comes from the relationships he can now enjoy with his loved ones.
Listen back to The Ryan Tubridy Show on RTÉ Radio 1 above.