Are you eating your words?


Photo by Maria Molinero

People with eating disorders get a bad rap.  Behavioral addictions are somewhat of a mystery to society and are very often viewed only as character flaws.  This results in a sort of collective ignorance and judgmentalism which further damages those who are the victims of it.

Like other addictions, eating disorders are rooted in shame.  Unlike other addictions, people with eating disorders MUST continue use of the abused substance – food – in order to survive, thus adding a layer of complexity to the recovery process.  Discovering and understanding some of the reasons behind emotionally-driven eating patterns can be a powerful first step.

If you are constantly fighting with food, consider this; you may be eating your words or somebody else’s.  Addictive behaviors begin with an unmet need and are frequently paired with a sense of having been victimized.  This victimization can be physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, marginalization, and discrimination — something which resulted in a sense of powerlessness.  Abusive words, whether your own turned against yourself, or those of somebody else are often at the heart of comfort-eating.  However, many with weight-loss issues and eating disorders can tell you: Comfort eating is rarely truly comforting.

Overcoming an eating disorder is so much more than simply developing healthy eating habits.  It is conquering emotional pain in order to begin building a new, positive self-image.  I once saw a talk show where a young lady had been told by her boyfriend he was going to leave her if she didn’t lose weight, citing health concerns.  She literally worked her tail off, losing over 150 pounds.  He then said he couldn’t bear to look at her because of the loose skin.  In another case, a man lost weight after excessive criticism from his wife.  As he become healthier and gained confidence, other women began to compliment the wife on her attractive husband.  Was she proud of him?  Unfortunately, no – she felt jealous and became even more critical.  What really happened here?

For anybody who has struggled with weight issues, these stories are not surprising.  Not only is your own identity closely linked to your body image, but others often build their self-worth through attachment to another person – perhaps even to you.  The boyfriend and wife in these anecdotes had boosted their own self-image by being critical of the overweight girlfriend and husband.  In essence, their threats were a bluff — they didn’t really want their partners to lose weight – there was far too much to be gained from feeling superior.  If you’ve ever suffered a relapse of poor eating habits, you may have encountered the twisted glee of somebody who said, “I knew you’d give up.  You’ll always be fat.  Losing weight is too much work” or something similar.  Learn to ignore them.

There are multiple, complicated facets to eating disorders and the psychology of weight loss, which is why we often start a weight-loss plan only to fail, start another, and on and on.  If this is happening to you, it may be whatever course of action you’ve chosen is only addressing one piece of the puzzle.  For instance, losing weight might help you feel and look better, but it won’t make an abusive relationship less so, or resolve memories of childhood neglect or abuse.  Try using a holistic approach to recovery, one which includes addressing those triggers which push you towards food.

If you are setting out on a new weight-loss journey, it may be both surprising and painful to find there are people in your life who are less-than-supportive.  Do it in spite of them.  There may be echoes of critical voices past in your brain, and perhaps even your own self-criticism.  Do it in spite of yourself.  Get yourself a binder for your new adventure.  Include articles and pictures which motivate you, healthy recipes you’ve tried and enjoyed, and write down any negative self-talk you catch yourself doing.  You might also write down negative input you get from others.  Write it down then write your counter-attack.  Resolve firmly to make these changes for YOU— not to please others — and pledge to yourself to never, ever give up.

If you fall of the wagon, jot down the thoughts or events which precipitated the step back, then forgive yourself.  Tomorrow is a new day.  Expect resistance and find local or online groups where you can find and give support.  You can do this.  You can do it even if nobody cheers you on.  Start by taking captive those thoughts which make you want to eat, and replace those eating words with fighting words – words which motivate you to stay in the fight not only for your health, but for your happiness.



Rule #2 for reducing anxiety


Brazos Bend State Park, TX (LB)

Like an ocean tide, depression ebbs and flows with the potential to unleash a flood of unwanted thoughts and feelings at any moment.  During low tide, life is pretty sweet.   During high tide, even the anticipation of doing something fun with people we love can overwhelm us.  Depression is inconsiderate in its timing, and I typically find myself feeling worst on the days when I need to be at my best.

Depression is truly the horse’s hindquarters.

Life goes on in spite of our emotional tides, but we don’t have to miss out on it.  Even when going through a rough patch, if you know your limits (Rule #1) then you already know you can do anything.  That means you can also alleviate some of the anxiety around less-than-desirably-timed socializing with a little planning.

Rule #2: Always have a Plan B.

Choose a strategy or develop your own.  The point is to find something that works – something to alleviate the stress of socializing when your depression is at high tide.  I typically use one of the following:

The exit strategy

The fail-over

The no, but

The exit strategy is a time to leave, plain and simple.  For example, you want to attend your young nephew’s birthday party, but know being around a crowd of children is a bit more than you can stand right now.  Plan on going for an hour or two, but also plan an activity for later – something flexible – and use that as your reason for leaving.  It can be as simple as shampooing your hair, but if being at the party is making you anxious you can say, “I need to be somewhere at 6:00” and leave.  You don’t have to say where you need to be, and if you are enjoying yourself, stay.

Plan B’s are not meant to deceive, but rather provide some flexibility around inflexible people.  If people know about your depression and are supportive, then they will most likely understand the need to minimize your visit.  However, we all know people who view depression as a self-indulgent pity party – the exit strategy is for them.

The fail-over is a substitute, and especially useful at mealtimes.  Have you ever beaten yourself up for burning dinner?  In the grand scheme of things a minor offense, but there are days when the smallest mistake triggers a litany of self-deprecating statements from Lobespierre (my depressive brain):

“You can’t even do THIS right.”

“Once again you’ve disappointed everybody.”

“Any idiot can cook…except you.”

I have learned to silence those negative voices by keeping two things on-hand at all times; biscuits and frozen somethings.  When a new breakfast recipe goes wrong, I may be disappointed in my inability to channel Julia Child, but I’m NOT feeling guilty or stressed over it: I just make biscuits.  When dinner is an epic fail, I fail-over to mini-frozen pizzas.

Pick something you know everyone likes, keep it on-hand and off-limits.  Tell the kids it’s your Plan B, and everyone will be cheering the next time you burn dinner.  Well, maybe not, but at least there will still BE dinner, and you can spare yourself the mental beating.

Finally, the “no, but” strategy is the proposal of an alternative which suits today’s tide.  If going to a dance club is beyond your current limits, offer a “No, but I could meet you for coffee later.”  This way you acknowledge your friend’s invitation, confirm you want to spend some time together, but choose a setting you can both enjoy.

Depression does not mean being doomed to a life of Plan B’s, but when circumstances feel beyond our control, Plan B’s give us choices, and choices empower us.  You will feel better, the tide will go out, and you will dance again.

NEXT TIME: Do you  feel like you absorb the stress of people around you?

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Rule #1 for reducing anxiety


Adams Beach, Florida (DB)

We all know somebody who accepts invitations only to beg off at the last minute.  It may be you, and it has certainly been me.  Different areas of my brain disagree about my social life.  There are times when I’m doing quite well and can socialize with the best of extroverts.  However, there are also times when each day is a struggle and I find myself canceling appointments, feeling as if I’ve disappointed myself and my friends.

The ‘well’ part of my brain optimistically accepts invitations on my behalf, telling me, “Yes, you can be a social butterfly!”  Then my depressive brain begins its negative incantations:

  • It will be crowded…lots of people you don’t know
  • It’s a late event – you’ll be too tired
  • You have nothing decent to wear
  • Blah blah blah

Do you say things like that to yourself?  My brain is littered with the carcasses of dead social butterfly dreams.

What makes these negatives so easy to accept is their ever-so-slight ring of truth.  Now, a couple of things actually are true about me; I get nervous in crowds and — thanks to thyroid cancer — I have chronically low energy levels.  Over time I can learn methods to ease my social anxiety, and even learn to maximize my energy, but what to do right now to avoid another butterfly death?

Rule #1: Know your limits.

Does having anxiety or depression mean you should become a recluse?  On the contrary, a little self-awareness can help you make appointments you will be able to keep, thus reducing your anxiety and guilt.  My hope is someday we will all feel well enough to accept any invitation which comes our way, but if you aren’t quite there yet, try asking yourself two questions:

How am I doing today?

How have I been doing lately?

One of the frustrating things about depression is its unpredictability.  I’m sad to say pride, embarrassment, obligation, and guilt have all kept me from simply admitting “I don’t feel up to this” at one time or another.  Instead, I forced myself into going out only to spread my misery to the people I care about.  To those who say I was just feeling sorry for myself or being selfish, I say: You don’t get it and this blog may not be for you.

We can probably all think of an occasion when a friend talked us into breaking out of our shell for a while and we ended up having a great time.   This is the ‘today’ aspect of Rule #1.  Some days we feel more willing and able to take a chance.  The key is in recognizing those days as well as admitting to ourselves when we just aren’t feeling it.

Please don’t believe you are doomed to staying home and missing out on important events, but rather believe you have a choice, and choices empower us.  Our limits are ours to control.  As we learn new ways of coping with depression and grow stronger, our limits can be expanded.  This is the ‘lately’ aspect.

Have you heard the phrase “play your cards close to your chest”?  It simply means be cautious.  When you’re going through a rough patch, play your calendar close to your chest.  In other words, only commit to what you feel able to do.  No more over-promising and under-delivering – just do what you can.  When you feel more inclined, try scheduling farther out.  YOU choose!

Circumstances don’t care how we feel, and some events are compulsory, or not attending would make us feel worse.  How can you make the best of being a reluctant attendee?  That will be next week’s focus: Rule #2.

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