My body is constantly surprising me. When I really listen, it tells me that its needs are often different from what I expect them to be–they are different every day. I am not like a car that just needs gas and oil and water and I will go along happily. There is not a daily routine I have found that I can just follow and have my body respond positively. When I look back, though, there is often reason, there is often rhyme.
I have noticed that when I am not hungry, but for some reason I feel expected to eat (so food doesn’t go to waste, or because I am at a restaurant, or I have just cooked myself a delicious meal, or this is the only time in my day I have scheduled a break to eat), I find myself eating faster just to get the eating over with. I often don’t really even taste the food, and I certainly don’t enjoy it.
Sometimes in these cases I will even end up eating more than I would otherwise because I have no access to my “hunger-ometer”; it has been overridden, and therefore, the only direction that I have about when to stop eating is from my mind. “Ok, Lily, that should be enough food. You can stop eating now.” And because I am already doing something that is overriding my body’s requested/expressed needs, I am feeling anxious. And in the past, my go-to cure for anxiety has been… you guessed it, eating!
Eating because I am full also used to show up in scenarios like this one: I have eaten too much and feel stuffed and yucky and fat. All of a sudden, as I am having this uncomfortable experience of being over-stuffed, I have the thought, “Oh, I’ll be ok, I still have a half a chocolate chip cookie in my bag if I need it.” Need it for what?! What kind of bizarre program am I running in which my remedy for feeling stuffed is to eat a half a chocolate chip cookie, in which my answer to feeling stuffed is to eat more food?!
I realize that what my mind probably means when it thinks, “I will be fine” is that it has somewhere to escape to. It has some way to escape from feeling whatever uncomfortable thing it is experiencing that it doesn’t want to experience.
When Geneen Roth talks about why we eat compulsively, she suggests that it is because we either don’t want to feel what we are feeling, or don’t want to know something that we already know. In that half a cookie I could count on a moment or two of numbing relief, allowing me to escape from the actual experience I was having in my body. Eating it would allow me to check out of the present for a minute. The problem with this strategy was that once I had finished the last crumb, there I was, still feeling fat, and even a little bit more stuffed than before.
What I have finally begun to be able to do, though, is to be willing, little by little, to allow myself to feel what I am feeling. I have begun to realize that even super-uncomfortable feelings are not an actual threat to my well-being. While I used to perceive the act of feeling my feelings as a mysterious danger zone to be avoided at all costs, I now have practice in just being with them. I often can let them pass through me, breathing, and find myself still intact, and often in awe, on the other side.
What I know to do in situations like last night is to breathe. I know to sit or to write and to let myself sort out whatever craziness I have gotten worked up about. I know that the best thing to do, when I feel like I could eat everything in the whole house, is to pause. To take a minute or five or 30–however long it takes for me to slow my nervous system down, to get out of fight or flight mode, and to get clear about what I am actually experiencing. I can now recognize this kind of ravenous hunger as emotionally based, because no matter how hungry my body ever gets physically, it never imagines needing to eat more than a few courses before it will be satisfied.
My my mind, or whatever is in charge when my body isn’t running the show, is the one who thinks, feels, that it could eat everything in the house, and more, and even then is worried that it would still feel that emptiness inside or that perceived lack of the ability to get its needs met.
When I am, “so hungry I could eat a horse”, I ask myself what I would actually like to eat (assuming I haven’t already served myself a hunk of horse) and I prepare myself a meal. When I feel hungry enough to eat my whole house, and everything in it, I do my best to sit down and breathe. I have a glass of water, I get out my journal, or just simply sit, and I ask myself what it is I really want. What is my heart or my body really yearning for? It is my guess that there aren’t, in fact, many human bodies who would think that they actually need a whole house full of food to satisfy their physical hunger. It is only our emotional appetites that can feel that large.
This evening’s conversation with my “inner eater” went differently than it had the night before:
Lily 1: “Are you hungry?”
Lily 2: “No, yes, I don’t know. I just scarfed down a whole plate of dinner and I don’t feel satisfied.”
L1: “What would you like?”
L2: “Ice Cream”
L1: “Really? Is that what your belly wants? What your body wants?”
L2: “No, and it’s not even really what my mouth wants. It’s what my mind wants and I’m going to have it anyway.”
I serve myself a very small bowl of ice cream – Neopolitan, heavy on the strawberry cause that’s what flavor there is the most of in the carton. I take one bite. It makes my tongue cold and it’s not really that good or satisfying.
I put the bowl down and do something else for a minute. I can’t stop thinking about it, though, the sweet taste lingering on my tongue. I consider dumping it down the drain and brushing my teeth.
I remember how good I had felt the other night when I left a large puddle of melting ice cream on my plate. How satisfied I had felt. How clearly the moment had arrived when, all of a sudden, my physical hunger was satisfied and I had no desire to eat anymore. My experience tonight is different. I am trying to fill some perceived need that both my body and mind know could never be satisfied with ice cream, even gallons and gallons of it. And I don’t feel willing to take the time to slow down and listen to what it is that I really crave.
A conversation between me and myself at 8:30pm this evening.
“Ok, what would you like to eat?”
“Baked squash with butter, and cottage cheese.”
“Hey look, there is still a little birthday cake left, and I’m sure there is ice cream too. Do you want some of that instead?”
“No thanks, I just want squash and cottage cheese.”
“What? Are you sure? Are you Lily? What did you do with Lily, the sugar addict I know?”
“I’m still Lily, I just don’t want any cake or ice cream right now. My belly wants squash. And cottage cheese. And maybe a few cashews. Why is that so weird?”
“Well… If you don’t know what I’m referring to, it’s not even worth getting into it with you. Geez. And you didn’t even think about eating the cake yesterday even though it was on the counter all day long!”
“Yeah, ok, maybe I’m a little different from before. I’m not sure why. I think it’s just because there isn’t anything that I am not allowing myself to have, so therefore I can just listen and feel for what I want, and not be distracted by the no-nos beckoning to me. And I think I am just more committed to feeling good than I have been before. Not to looking good, or acting good, but to actually feeling good. And that means only putting things in my mouth that I want in my belly…or, you know what I mean.”
“That’s so cool. I’m excited to hear more about how that works out for you. Please keep sharing!”
“Thanks! I will. It’s really exciting for me too. I think it’s making a difference that I am owning it too, instead of denying that there’s an issue. I’ve been noticing what a difference naming things has been making. It’s showing up everywhere in my life – as soon as I am honest about something and tell it like it really is in that moment, it is able to shift. Sometimes even 180°. Life is so cool. And I’m really looking forward to enjoying my days without being run by my relationship with food and eating. There are so many other interesting things to think about and explore. Don’t get me wrong, thinking about and playing with food are still some of my absolute favorite things in the whole world, but they aren’t my only favorite things. I like cookbooks too. And gardens. And recipes. And photos of my lunch.”
“Those things all have to do with food.”
“Hmm. Well, I guess I do like food a lot. And I like it even better now that I can distinguish it from other things. Like, when I know that I am hungry for squash, not just for sleep or companionship. It’s so fun to live life being clear; what amazing joy and freedom is available now that food is food, and love is love again.”
I know, I skipped a few days. I wrote them in my journal, and rather than continuing to put off posting again until I have the energy and interest to type them up, I am going to skip to today’s entry, to real-time.
I have started going to bed or laying down whenever I find myself wondering if I am hungry or not. Cuddled cozily under my down comforter, between my flannel sheets, I feel safe. Any phantom hunger pangs brought on by anxiety or boredom or other emotional or mental disturbances seem to float away when I give myself permission to take complete and utter care of myself. Then, from the depths of my downy nest, I can tune into my body and ask it what it wants. “Are you hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Would you really just love a nap and that is why you are reaching for the jar of nuts, or the leftover birthday cake?”
Post nap, I check in with my belly again and can very clearly feel that, yes, I am hungry! It is such a victory to be able to sense and know for sure that I am hungry. My body wants food. After many years of using and confusing all sorts of other cues with physical hunger for food, I am beginning to recognize and distinguish this feeling again. There is no doubt in my mind or in my grumbling tummy. It’s time for lunch. So that is what I shall give it!
It’s the first day of my moon time today, the beginning of my womanly cycle and I find myself craving rest and comfort. After lunch, I sit at the table and read one of my favorite cookbooks for a while, The Healthy Hedonist by Myra Kornfeld, and then I acknowledge that really all I want to do is go back to bed.
There is nothing like sitting in the sun on a Saturday afternoon, sipping a cup of turmeric tea (my new favorite hot drink, aka, “Creamy Mug of Warming Deliciousness”), and then crawling into bed to take an afternoon nap. Especially a second afternoon nap.
I tear open the small yellow package of danger and pour seven uneven, egg-shaped, multicolored morsels into my left hand. Peanut M&Ms have been an obsession of mine since I was young. Even now, even when I know that the candy coating will cut my tongue, the non-organic peanuts carry pesticides and toxic mold, the chocolate keeps me from sleep in the wee morning hours, the sugar erupts tiny red craters on my cheeks, even still, they are like good, old friends.
They rattle into my hand, three brown, two orange, one green and one blue. I toss the crumpled wrapper behind me into the trash. It lands atop a banana peel, a couple of carrot tops, and some shards of glass from the mason jar that previously contained my healthy dinner option. By now, the sweet little devilish egg-shaped candies are sticking slightly to my hand, leaving blue #27, and red #3 on my warm, moist palm. They don’t melt as fast as chocolate chips do, when gathered on the palm on the way to my anxious mouth. In this way, M&Ms are better suited for the methodical hand-to-mouth habit that I find so often I turn to for comfort. Sometimes I am not aware of what is happening, until I “come-to”, finally conscious of that familiar softness of finger tips meeting lips.
I noticed it tonight. Even with olives, or maybe especially with olives, those juicy, drippy morsels that require an extra suck and smooch to keep fingers clean. It’s funny to think of the comfort foods I created during childhood. Black olives eaten out of the can, one after another, fingers in the can, fingers in the mouth. Peanut m&ms. Smartfood popcorn. “Healthy” jalapeno cheese puffs. Red Hot Blues tortilla chips with Temptee whipped cream cheese. The list goes on.
There are only six now. The first chocolate covered peanut disappeared into my mouth earlier as I reached behind my seat to throw away the wrapper. What IS it about the hand to the mouth action? What is it about the feel of finger tips to lips? All focus on the task at hand (no pun intended). The world slows down for a moment. The fact that I don’t have a home of my own is now not a worry; my empty belly and a heart that yearns for connection are, in this short moment, forgotten.
The problem with this tactic is that the worries and emptiness are still there as soon as the ritual is through. The hunger, physical and emotional, is not gone. I have either stopped because the food is gone, or because I have noticed that my stomach is beginning to feel ill. Or, more recently, I have begun to stop because, all of sudden, I wake up. Something gets my attention and reminds me that I am already whole. That the desperate hunger which I am feeling is often not, in fact, a function of an empty belly, nor of a current lack of ability to meet my needs.
It comes, instead, from programming. From an old program I created as a child, back when I wasn’t always in charge of my situation. When I didn’t have a say, or didn’t know I had a say about my circumstances, back when the only choice I thought was mine was whether to eat, or not to eat. And usually there wasn’t a question.
Food has been the substance I turn to for comfort since I was a baby. Yes, I know, that is normal. We all do that. We feel sad, tired, etc. and mom gives us the boob or the bottle and everything is better. But somewhere along the way, I think I missed an important transition. I bypassed the fork in the road where I would (eventually) discover that I was now responsible for my well-being, and with that responsibility came the freedom to make choices about things in my life that I hadn’t felt free to make before. Missing that rather important discovery, I continued as a young adult, a teenager, and then a 20-something, to believe that when I needed comfort, food was the best option, the one and only thing I could count on.
The m&ms are still sitting in my hand. I don’t particularly want to eat them any more, and now I am not sure what to do with them. This is a common issue for me. I have a strong dislike of wasting food, so I often find myself disposing of food into my mouth when no alternative storage options are presented. I think in this particular instance, though, I will send the m&ms to join their wrapper in the trash. [I am reminded of one Christmas when my boyfriend and I had stopped eating sugar and he was about to throw away a plate of homemade cookies, all the way from his grandmother in Germany, and I stopped him, saying what a waste it was, and why didn’t he bring them into the folks at work. “Lily”, he said, “if you had a bag of cocaine and you had just quit your habit, would you bring it into your friends at work so it wouldn’t go to waste?” Good point.]
I used to be desperate enough that I might later decided that I “had to have those m&ms” and would find myself carefully picking them out of the trash. I think I have made some progress, though. I am better at breathing these days, and I don’t think it will be a problem. The glass shards would be a good deterrent — in case I am tempted.
Sometime in the last few years I realized that now, as an adult, I am in charge of my life. That may seem like a rather obvious realization, and one that maybe could have come a bit before I turned 30, but I think that even though I knew I was responsible for my life, I hadn’t yet discovered the freedom that comes along with the perceived weight of that responsibility.
I love the notion of responsibility as access to change. The idea that when I take responsibility for some part of my life, I am claiming my power and the ability to take action. Then, instead of responsibility acting as a vehicle for blame, unwillingly driven by me, the guilty victim, it is the cargo vessel for change. When I take responsibility for my life, I now, all of a sudden, have a say in how it goes. I make the shift from victimized driver to powerful captain.
When I slow down for long enough to remember that I am driving my own bus, I get present to the fact that I always have a choice about my next move. I think I need to say that again: “I always have a choice about what I do next!” When I remember that, I can allow myself to take the time to get present to what is really going on. What am I really feeling? What are my actual needs? What is the most effective way to meet these needs? What will be the effects down the road from whatever action I choose?
I am hungry. My belly is growling. I am tired. A little thirsty, too. I am about to arrive back home after traveling for a month. I am not sure where I will be living for the winter, and I have chosen to stay with my parents tonight which means I will be entering the dynamics of the place where I grew up — the place where I spent so long using the now-dysfunctional program called, “food = comfort”. I will be preparing and eating food in a strictly vegetarian kitchen, the diet my family has followed since I was young, so, while there, I won’t necessarily be able to keep the promise to myself to eat what my body wants.
And yet, even as these circumstances cause anxiety to rise in my body, I still have a choice. As I start my car and drive off the ferry onto the island I call home, I am reminded of that choice by the faint rainbow of colors still painted on my palm.
Thursday, November 1st, 2012 was the first day of my current project to heal my relationship with food, to break free from my patterns of emotional eating, and to create a body in which I love living!
It was sometime in the late afternoon on this particular Thursday, when I ate the last gooey, sugary bite and realized I had managed to consume two, full-sized almond snickers bars in the short span of a couple of hours. The last time I ate even one snickers bar was probably over five years ago. Snickers bars were the candy of my youth. I was a vegetarian, and they were one of the few candy bars which didn’t contain either gelatin or egg whites. I’m not sayin’ they were healthy, but they didn’t break any of my family’s dietary rules (beside the sugar!), and I absolutely loved them. Somewhere along the way, though, I became so sensitive to sugar that they were way too sweet and I gave them up. I can’t say I never looked back…
After a whole bunch of experimentation with food and diet over the course of the last 15 years, I have finally figured out a way of eating that makes me feel good in my body and mind. Even so, I continue to re-test the validity of these specific dietary choices over and over and over again. And I keep getting the same result. Yes, I know, insanity. And yet I don’t think I am necessarily less sane than any other emotional, hormonal (ie; I have emotions. I have hormones.) 30 year-old woman. So what is going on?
I am not sure if I will ever find a definitive answer to that question, but for the duration of this month-long eating experiment, “Project Freedom”, and hopefully for the rest of my life, I am making a commitment to learn how to trust myself with food.
Here are a few of the tools I plan to use on this part of the journey:
- The Eating Guidelines. Geneen Roth has started referring to her eating guidelines, as “what love would say to you if love could speak”. “Honey”, love would say, “eat when you are hungry, eat what you want, and stop when you’ve had enough.” “Sweetie, take some time. Eat in a relaxed environment. Don’t feel like you need to sneak your food. And please, my darling, eat with enjoyment, gusto and pleasure.” I was introduced to Geneen’s eating guidelines when I was in my late teens, struggling with learning how to listen to my body, and they have continued to make a tremendous difference in my life. In the beginning most of the guidelines seemed impossible to follow. And I still find myself “waking up” to find myself eating while driving, or walking, or eating more than I want, or eating something I think I should eat but don’t really want to eat. But, as I was reminded today, the guidelines are suggestions for traversing the journey called life. I am not going to get my eating taken care of, and then move onto the rest of my life. Instead, my success with the guidelines is an indicator. When I find myself unable to follow them, it is time for me to check in with myself and see what is going on. I am no longer attached to the belief that they are impossible. In fact, I am sure that following them will make possible what I want for my relationship with food and my life.
- Writing. Asking myself questions. Being curious about my experience. Whenever I am not sure if I am hungry, I will have a dialogue with myself until I get sure. I am excited to record all the parts of my journey including the yummy food I choose to eat (stay posted for photos and simple recipes), and the creative alternatives to emotional eating that I come up with. I will journal every day and do my best to post something here most days. I am also keeping a daily log of what I eat, what I feel, my intention for the day, what my body wants, etc.
- Participation in a weekly, group coaching call on “becoming irresistible” with Be More You. Homework for this call includes making goals and taking actions towards my dream of finding a life partner, as well as being in touch with other women for support and guidance, and offering the same in return. Not to mention becoming irresistible along the way.
I am committed to healing my relationship with food primarily for the freedom and self-love and trust it will provide. Although I am not thrilled with my current pooch of a buddha belly, the possibility of finding my natural weight is a fabulous bonus. I am excited to listen to my body as it tells me what it needs to be nourished and healthy and to find its “right” size.
For the next month, I plan to record my experiences and findings as I explore what it feels like to bring focus and commitment to this area of my life, and also be willing to share it with others. The reason I have decided to finally record and share a part of my journey is this: As my favorite life coach, Martha Beck, says, “my story is all I have to give, which is why I keep writing it down”. Although my experience with emotional eating is not necessarily the part of my story I feel most proud of, I offer it up with the intention that it will be useful to others who are facing similar challenges and are reaching for the same goal of healing their relationship with food.
Please feel free to leave comments if you are so moved (I would love it!), and if you have questions I will do my best to respond. Thank you for joining me on this journey!