Eating compulsively is standing at the fridge and nibbling a bit here, and eating a bit there. Or finding the whole bar of chocolate has been eaten and you didn’t know how it happened. Or finding food in your hand and in your mouth before you know what you’re doing.
Compulsive eating is fast, instant, heart beating, do it now, quick! And then there’s THE DIALOGUE. “I shouldn’t!” “Oh go on” “But I promised myself I wouldn’t” “Yes but you went to the gym today didn’t you?! AND you’re going again tomorrow, so just relax. You deserve it.”
It’s painful. It’s confusing. It’s habitual. You don’t know another way, and so the food is eaten, barely enjoyed and is soon followed by feelings of disappointment, intense frustration, anger, shame and good old guilt.
And sometimes the urges are there all day long. “Eat something!” “No I don’t want to” “Fine, then wait. But I’m not going anywhere, I’m going to remind you to eat every five minutes until you do! And when you do, you won’t enjoy it and you’ll feel miserable. But I’ll still be here, wanting, craving, desiring, urging you to eat!”
The compulsion to eat and the desperation not to eat can become a reality that wraps itself around you and your whole life.
That’s how it was with me. I’d eat so much, so quickly. As if the speed of it would deny the fact of it. I remember balancing a mug of tea and a little tray of snacks in one hand and a bowl of cereal in the other, and then getting annoyed at how hard it was to open doors with my elbows. Shuffling upstairs in my stocking feet. Sitting down next to my computer, pressing play and watching Friends, and eating. And then the episode was finished and so was the food – and was that it? A quick run downstairs to top up the bowl of food – to keep it going. To keep what going; I don’t know. But if I stopped it wouldn’t be good, so just keep going. It feels good NOW and I don’t want this to end. And as I jumped down stairs two steps at a time, and sneaking into the kitchen hoping nobody would see me go back to eat more; there was that little me inside, a little voice: “Please don’t do this.” But no! I couldn’t listen to that. What was I supposed to do – sit there?! And do what exactly? Feel uncomfortable, in pain? Full of frustration? No way. Eating just made it all go away.
A few hours later, I’d be in bed, clutching a sore belly. It would be bloated and painful, and I’d be crying. Pulling my hood up over my head and curling into a ball. Uncomfortable in every sense of the word. I’d hate the claggy feeling of guilt that would feel heavy and claustrophobic. But then, a little ray of light would appear. Pushing the guilt and shame out of the way. I’d remember that tomorrow would be a new day. A new day full of new possibilities. I could try again tomorrow! I wouldn’t have to be a failure! I’d plan my eating day (lots of celery and cucumber) and I’d get a bit excited. I’d become who I’d want to be! Someone who can control their food. And I’d stop eating when I was full. It was so full of promise. My heart would start racing again for tomorrow to come and I could win!
You know the story. It doesn’t work out that way. It would start off hard, controlled. Fake. But keep at it anyways. No, it doesn’t feel right. Something is off. I don’t know what to do. The stress rises, I’m slipping. There’s only one thing to do in times of this kind of deep sadness – eat. The compulsion was always there.
This was many years ago. It’s been a long time since I’ve clutched my belly and cried with shame and frustration.
What I’ve learned about compulsive eating can be boiled down to two things.
- You do it because you’re in pain, and it makes you feel another sort of pain without dealing with the first, original pain.
- It’s a complete disconnect. It’s a turning away. A pushing. Not accepting.
And so the way to end compulsive eating is to take a walk on a long path. I know it’s a long path, because I’ve walked it. It looks like the opposite of the above points.
- You understand the pain.
- You connect to meaningful values. Accept. Turn towards.
I came to understand the original pain I was feeling. All the pain about who I was, how I came to be me and how I am in this world; all became understood. It took a lot of work and time and therapy.
Then I slowly learned how to turn towards the pain. I learned how to accept myself – a radical acceptance in fact. Whatever I felt – I accepted it. This was helped by learning to meditate. I went to meditation classes. So there’s the pain and the story, and here I am. Looking at it. Not having to get involved in it.
I started to build my life again, this time based on values that were intrinsically important to me – rather than separate top down values that I thought were good in a purely intellectual way. I realized nature is extremely valuable to me, and connecting to it adds joy to my life. Being thin doesn’t add anything to my life, it’s the thinking of it as the be all and end all that feels like a value – but it’s not. A value is something I can connect to everyday no matter what size my t-shirt is.
Instead of taking away – I added to my life. And it was painful. Going out, socializing, and not putting make up on. Pushing that comfort zone a bit more each time. Walk a mountain, slowly with a red face. Swim in the sea, with heart beating but with friends close by. More, more, more. I made a bright line rule: Do it, even if you don’t feel like doing it.
The compulsions. I let them be there. I ate. I turned towards it. There’s the pain. I feel it. It’s not taking over me, I’m big enough to take in this pain.
With more grit, I stopped snacking. I waited until times I’d set for myself. And then I ate, and I became aware of that horrible line that was the end of the meal (and I still feel it today). The meal has ended – does this mean I have to feel pain now?! Well, let’s see. I wait, I look. It’s okay. It’s not bad. It’s a little uncomfortable, but nothing I can’t handle. It’s a part of me, and I accept me, radically! And so this is okay. It’s okay – everything is okay.
IN THE MOMENT (Standing in front of the fridge, opening the packet…)
In those times that you are eating, pay attention. Be a bit curious. What does it feel like? Is it filling? Sticky? Weird right now? Can you be aware of the end coming? What does it feel like? You feel the desire to eat more – you’ve seen it, you’ve noticed it. There’s that little wedge now, between it and you. Now there’s a moment of choice. Do you want to carry on? It’s okay! Accept that you do! And do it. There’s now a sense of awareness – is it the numbing out that you desire?
OUTSIDE OF THE MOMENT (On the bus, laying in bed…)
Why is numbing out important to you in your life right now? How can you get help to answer that question? Can you try journaling? Every day – write down all your thoughts and feelings. Are they confusing? Do you need to talk to someone about them? It’s okay if you do. We all feel pain, and we aren’t always taught that it’s okay or how to deal with it.
You will learn to handle discomfort. You will trust that you are there for yourself. You are willing to look after yourself. Waking up is hard to do. Numbing out is so good – at the time. But so hollow and meaningless. Life goes by, and it’s empty. But there’s a part of you that knows you deserve more. You deserve your life. It’s okay to say “I want more!” and for that to mean more love, more joy, more experience.
I wish you all the best as you walk your path of connection.