On a cold night a few years ago, I sat in my boyfriend’s basement holding my abdomen tightly. With wonder, fear, aching sadness and triumph I let myself feel the empty, heavy hollowness that resided in my gut. He looked at me with questioning eyes, and I said, “I just realized that nothing I eat will make the pain go away.”
I had been in therapy for several months. In the privacy of a nondescript office building I eked open the door to my emotional self, formerly trapped for so many years. By the grace of God I had finally admitted to myself that I had an eating disorder, and that I needed help. Anorexia nervosa, they call it. Hungry and proud, I called it. Eating only raw vegetables and a meager protein shake each day allowed me to run far, far away from the overweight girl that nobody liked (or so I thought). Being thin and being in control of my body meant feeling special, loved, admired, accepted, finally accepted. Everything was okay and nobody would hurt me as long as I ran my 3 miles a day and abstained from animal products and chewed my kale. But I was all wrong, of course. And so I began connecting the dots of my emotional puzzle, filling in the image that, deep down, I knew was there all along but couldn’t quite make out.
I ate to feel full and I ate to feel loved. I ate to feel normal and I ate barbecue ribs, chocolate cake, beef stew, broccoli salad, granola, grapes, kefir, toast with cheese and butter, breakfast cereal, egg salad sandwiches, chips, spinach squares and Chinese takeout before bed. And I ate them in huge quantities, not tasting, not feeling full, but hungry so starving for that emotional fullness. My almost permanently distended stomach was an object I loathed yet sought to ignore because it was too painful to acknowledge. Other people could eat all they wanted and not get fat, so why couldn’t I? Familial emotional manipulation encouraged me to “Eat now or you’ll be hungry later!” “Oh won’t you have some more?!” “Have another piece of pie!” while nodding and shaking their heads and moving their lips saying sometimes people just get fat and some stay thin. it’s genetics…. she’s healthy, she’s normal. I knew something was sour, but couldn’t express it or understand.
Since I was young I had been disconnected from my food. We often ate nourishing, home-cooked meals of love which just as often went rotten from familial dysfunction. I ate because I was told, and because it was there, and because it was better than feeling empty and sad. The artificial fullness from consuming plants and animals masked my inner emptiness. When one of my favorite dishes was served, I did not savor the tastes or relish the textures; I ate and ate with frightening urgency, fearing what would happen once it was gone. The emptiness, the hunger, the sadness would return. My overeating continued into my teens and early twenties, even when my food choices improved and I lost weight. It didn’t matter if I was eating an enormous salad or a bowl of soup or a slice of fruit tart – I would keep putting food into my mouth until I could eat no more. The concept of natural fullness simply escaped me. I constantly thought about food and how it would taste and feel when I finally could eat again. I pored over food blogs and magazines, salivating over and savoring the make-believe delicacies that taunted me from the pages. I took endless photos of my food and pored over those too.
I did this even beyond that illuminating night in my boyfriend’s basement. But since then, I have been working endlessly inside my head to unravel my tangled-up emotional past and re-weave it as a fluid garment of correctly-ordered passions and desires. After attempting several restrictive diets to heal myself of a mysterious illness [more on that later!] I grew tired of the constant food porn on Instagram and charismatic bloggers and cookbook authors and obsession over a new way to get your greens in for the day. A few weeks ago it finally hit me that I wanted no part of this food-worship, this misconstruing of things we eat into gods and more. I sat at the kitchen table, eating breakfast with Blaise and watching him pick over his liver meatloaf and strawberries. I chewed my organ meat realized with a start that -gasp!- I was full. But there’s still some left on your plate! my mind cautioned me. You better eat what’s on your plate! If you don’t eat it all, you’ll be hungry later. I set down my fork and thought for a minute, masticating these warnings. Well, I thought. If I get hungry later, I can always eat more. What’s so scary about being hungry? Liver meatloaf won’t make me happy, nor will these strawberries. Let the hunger come.
And since that morning, I haven’t been overfull. I have been pleasantly full, maybe even a little under-full, but always nourished and satisfied. I no longer fear the short stretches of time between meals, or the way my belly will bulge over my shorts after eating lunch. Correctly ordering a powerful thing in my life has restored a peace, self-satisfaction and empowerment that I never knew was missing. Never again will I eat out of boredom, sadness, happiness, stress, or fear. I’m done with emotional eating.