Friday, April 5, 2013

Hungry Ghosts of the Food Kind

Today I walked into a Weight Watchers center. I hadn't even put it on my "to-do" list or personal goals. In fact, I can't imagine losing weight at all. Yet, like an alcoholic who knows that the obsession with their favorite substance is ruining their life, I blindly made my way.

I told Partner at lunch that I thought I was going to go sign-up.

In the past, I had all kinds of reasons not to do it. Money. Time. Hormones. I already know about good nutrition and self-care. Don't I teach it myself?

Walking through the door felt incredibly scary. I was in the midst of wrestling with my demons, yet had enough sanity to continue walking and forced a smile. But deep within I felt shame. Deep shame and sadness. I wanted to cry. How did I get to this point?

My confusion has to do with food and my relationship to my self and the world.

My story line goes something like this: I grew up on a farm where "if we had nothing else, we damned sure had food." Another message: food is love. Survival at the physical and emotional levels seems to be the theme, even though I am about as safe as anyone could be at this time in my life.

I gained weight beginning in early childhood. I did my first Weight Watchers as a teenager. I've been teased about my weight from my earliest days. I've never been thin, but even when I was in a healthier range, my head was always in "fat girl" mode.

When I was in my 20's, I started to see a counselor to cope with the stresses of life. After several months into counseling, this brave person brought up my obsession with food. I worked at a health food store. Tried to fix healthy meals. Nutrition wasn't the issue. So, I was encouraged to study my eating habits.

A few weeks into self-observation, I found myself at home with two small crying children and feeling incredibly overwhelmed. I grabbed a pack of rice crackers, turned the rocking chair facing the corner of the room (as if to put myself into time out) and sat eating those dry, tasteless wheels as if they could somehow help.

This incident really helped me get in touch with my stress-eating response. It wouldn't be until just a few years ago that I actually felt a deeper connection to my condition. I lost weight and had a more balanced approach to eating for a while.

As I approached my 40's and now 50's, I simply didn't need as much food to live. At some point, I gave up trying to keep my weight down. Food brought me pleasure. At the same time, I felt like I was losing control of my own life.

I found myself overeating again and didn't seem to be able to stop. I was uncomfortable. I was aware I was doing this, but kept at it and decided to observe whatever arose.

One day in particular helped me gain understanding. As I ate and grew fuller, there was a point where the distention/pressure in my mid-section crossed over some kind of line. It was like an adrenaline pick-up. I experienced it as release. I could relax now.

Almost immediately afterwards, I realized that overeating caused some kind of relaxation response, I had a realization that this tight feeling felt like self-hugging. The bands of tissue, ribs, skin, or whatever else felt like tension, literally, held the "me" that was needing self-soothing or whatever I took for love.

It was an insight that, while useful, didn't really change anything. I did practice compassion for myself and others who use food to self-sooth. But, I continued to creep up the scale.

So why go to Weight Watchers now?

In trauma work, therapists talk about what happens once a person finally feels safe enough to "thaw" from their helplessness of the trauma. Is it possible that my life is finally "safe" enough or that I have enough pieces of a foundation for moving forward? Or am I just so miserable, that I feel that I cannot tolerate this self-abuse anymore? It just isn't worth the distorted pleasure that keeps tricking my brain into more eating.

Having a financial safety net that didn't exist earlier is helping me overcome the cost of paying for support. Then there have been the horrifying moments of seeing my naked self in the mirror. Or worse yet, after my father-in-law's death, I developed a crack in my skin under my belly fat. It took a week to heal. I was mortified. I was one of those fat people.

This is such a tender place. If you see me, don't scare the "me" that is afraid by talking too loudly or slapping me on the back for encouragement. Should I fail at this, it would just add to the shame. If I am "successful", then there are a whole host of problems around identity that worry me. And besides, what is failure or success when what I really just want is to live my life?

If you feel moved to share your hungry ghosts stories, whisper them to me - we don't want to give them any reason to stir up trouble.