When food is a feeling.
Bill Bruzy (previously published in New Texas Magazine)
Food is rarely just food. It can be a satisfaction, a struggle, a hope, a statement. It’s an identity, a philosophy, a salvation, a drug, a good thing and a bad thing. For the most part the feelings we have around food are in a range that does not cause us difficulty. We like something, or we don’t. We feel full, or empty. We identify with meat and potatoes or haute cuisine.
We can all relate to feelings about eating too much, or having something we don’t want pushed at us. Remember ever being in a struggle with your parents over a vegetable? You might have sat for an hour staring at your plate with three sprigs of broccoli on it refusing, like some political prisoner, to give in.
We’ve all eaten something that seemed like a great idea, until we ate it. That ice cream or cheese cake we snorted in front of the TV felt good for a microsecond. Then we wished we hadn’t eaten it. All of this is quite normal.
And consider how food is love. Think of a new-born infant. Close to the first thing that happens to us in life is we receive love while being held and fed, safe and secure in our mother’s arms. It’s no wonder we sometimes get food and love confused, our earliest experience was of love and food as one thing, one event, one full-filling.
In addition to our personal relationship to feelings and food every society has meanings attached to food and weight. Impoverished societies often value obesity. It means you have a lot in a place it’s hard to get a lot. Rich societies value anorexic waifness because it means you have control in a place it’s hard to get control.
But our feeling lives and how we play them out with food can, under some circumstances, amplify and take on a life of their own. From a rather benign mixing of food and feeling we can descend into a small feedback loop of fixing feelings with our food. And if the feelings are too deep, too big, they need to be addressed as feelings and worked with as feelings. No amount of food, or control over it, can fix our souls. The simple truth is: food is just food. Feelings are feelings.
In westernized cultures we become particularly vulnerable to trying to fix feeling with food and other substances. We materialize feelings and live with a paradigm that says the way to fix feelings is through chemistry. Antidepressants, herbs, marijuana or chocolate, it’s all the same idea. We don’t go after the feelings directly but we go to substances, be it food or drugs, that effect the pathways of the feelings and try to fix the problem with the paradigm. Unfortunately the paradigm is part of the problem.
An eating disorder is, most simply put, a concerted effort to fix our inner lives through controlling our food and weight. It is an effort that gets out of hand and ultimately doesn’t work. There are a wide variety of these doomed strategies, these eating disorders. They range from a long-term life threatening battle with anorexia, which is very rare, to using food as an emotional coping skill, which is very common.
Anorexia grows from a refusal to eat in an attempt to lose weight, ultimately to gain a feeling of control in a situation where we perceive we have little or none. Usually beginning in early adolescence a child might hear some negative comment about their weight and go off dieting. Dieting, and dieting to cope with life, is almost universal among young women and it’s becoming more and more common among men. Most individuals who experience this distress simply grow out of it. But some don’t.
Those who continue the downhill slide lose weight and hit a “magic number,” their goal on the scale. They feel better, but only for a short time. That’s because the real feelings, the self-esteem problems, an over-controlling environment, lack of confidence and unresolved issues from the past, are never addressed. Those issues lay like dormant insects coming back to life as soon as the short victory passes. If the person has the right constitution (very controlled) they lower the magic number and regroup in a more restrictive diet and exercise regime. At some point the starvation takes on a life of its own and the person is just along for the ride. Body image disturbances grow and the person has no real concept of what they look like or what is happening to them. All they know is they have to lose more weight. That’s where intervention (hopefully much earlier than that) is essential.
Bulimia, the binge and purge disorder, has a similar emotional basis. Binging is comforting, mood altering, distracting, and can also develop a life of its own. Many young people experiment with binging and purging just they way they do with drugs. It can even be a social thing. Most grow out of it. Some don’t.
When it gets out of control the behavior becomes cyclic and after the high from the binge and purge a self loathing sets in and the cycle of trying to fix bad feelings with food begins again. That begins to happen over and over at regular intervals of hours, or days, or during stressful times.
Purging by the way, isn’t just vomiting. People also purge through exercise (a favorite of male bulimics) and use of laxatives and diuretics. Purging is very destructive medically and the use of diuretics and laxatives is a very difficult area of medical treatment.
There was, until recently, no recognition of compulsive overeating in the bible of mental health disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. But more recently we have criteria for Binge Eating Disorder. Essentially binge eating means consuming a large amount of easily ingested food, like ice cream, cookies, chips, and doing that on a regular basis, and feeling bad about it.
Don’t go running off to your mental health professional if you can identify with binging or restricting or wanting to get rid of something you’ve eaten by exercising. It’s a common human experience. But, if you have a lot of distress around it, or find that you can’t make choices about the behavior. If it occurs often and interferes with how you function in your life, or you have a lot of debilitating shame attached to the behavior, well then consult someone who knows.
Other signs of problems are odd rituals with food (don’t let the peas touch the potatoes, or chop everything into little bits), disappearing after meals (to purge), or extreme weight loss or gain. Hiding food in anticipation of binges, isolation and depression, over-focus on body image and exercise can be signs. Also look to someone’s language for clues to an eating disorder. Often people will say “I feel fat” or talk incessantly about food, recipes, or supplements, leaving room for little else in their awareness.
There are other, less noticeable, and much more common problems. Reactive obesity, or reactive binge eating, is a very common problem. Usually considered more of a male problem it also happens to many women when they go away to college. Moving away from home, facing independence, dating, career choices, identity issues, and living with strangers, create a high stress situation. Frequently people will eat, and even binge, to alleviate stress. A person with healthy coping skills and reasonable self-esteem and familial support will, after a period of time, start to feel a measure of success and build more confidence. As the deeper coping skills kick in the binging will disappear all by itself and the weight will return to normal.
But if our coping skills aren’t enough to meet the level of stress we encounter we may not just get over it in a natural fashion. Cases of sexual abuse, severe losses, traumas, can overwhelm our defenses and coping strategies. We can get lost in the attempt to use food as a coping skill and the problems, the stressors, the losses, the trauma, go unresolved.
But as much as losing control over food can be a problem so can gaining control. Like a lessor version of anorexia a syndrome called the Thin-Fat Syndrome is quite common. It’s about maintaining an unusually low weight but not going into an anorexic free fall.
A typical person with this syndrome would be someone with a high set point. Set point, by the way, is a person’s normal and natural weight given a reasonable diet and moderate exercise. Some of us are naturally heavier, some lighter, in the same way some of us are taller, some shorter. A person can stay below their normal weight through overcontrolling their diet and exercise. Actually it’s a disorder but if it could be bottled and sold it sounds like what everyone wants. Except for that same emotional paradigm problem, the feeling dimension is damaged and never gets healed. I guess you could think of it as successful misery, never too bad, but never really okay.
This disorder happens in people who don’t feel good about themselves. They worry about being out of control and worry about how others see them. They more than worry, they have anxiety, constant anxiety (although you might not see it on the surface, they tend to look good, very good). They are frightened and insecure about life. They control others, control food, control what they can, to feel more secure. It might look successful on the surface but it’s a rigid, unhappy place to live.
Although there isn’t room here to address this area of recovering there are a couple of thoughts I’d like to share about it. First, there isn’t as much objective reality to food and weight ideas as we would like to believe. Certainly living on a diet of candy bars and scotch is less healthy than a diet recommended by The American Heart Association. But more subtle differentiations in carbohydrate balance with protein, animal protein versus vegetarian, seem to be more a matter of individual constitution than species wide facts.
We have a strong belief in diets and spend a fortune every year on books and programs but diets don’t work. That’s part of the paradigm problem. 95% of people who go on diets and lose weight will gain it back in a short time. Life style changes over a long period of time are the healthiest way to deal with our food and weight problems. And if those problems have too much emotional distress attached to them the distress needs to be addressed as an emotional and psychological set of issues. Food is just food, and yes, we have lots of feelings and ideas attached to our food. Every culture does. That’s normal. But just remember, food can never fix a broken feeling.
Bill Bruzy is a writer and counselor in Austin, Texas.