How do you feel after sitting on the couch all evening with potato chips and soda? Lethargic, maybe? When I’ve been most depressed, it’s been me, a bed, Grey’s Anatomy and Oreos all night long. I don’t feel great. It’s a cycle actually – eating junk food makes me depressed. And I don’t mean the occasional cookie, I mean six at once or chips and queso for lunch every day, processed crackers always on hand, and no fruits or vegetables in sight. Now that I’ve done the work to clean out my system, a piece of cake can deflate my mood. And I’m not alone in this – I’m just especially sensitive. And aware.
It doesn’t take a nutritionist to see that processed foods filled with sugar don’t make you feel great. Without fiber along with it [as in fruit], your body freaks out, stumbles blindly through digestion, and sends the sugar straight into fat supply. Sugar is a drug – it’s like the new cocaine. Except kids are addicted. And the conundrum of it all is that, if you’re feeling down, sad, etc, what do you reach for? Comfort food. And anyone who’s ever had a meal in the south can tell you what that’s made of. Dairy and sugar. Regardless of the dish, it’s dairy and sugar. Even drinks – soda, sweet tea – you’ve heard it all before. It’s everywhere. And eating it – just like any other drug – seems to be an endless cycle.
Ours is a time of disordered eating. Maybe we don’t like to talk about it, but there it is. Food as comfort was passed down to me as a coping skill, along with a biologically slow digestive system and adolescent body image issues. I was bulimic for four years. If you don’t know, that’s the one where you can’t handle feelings so you stuff food over them in excess. As the sugars settle, self-loathing rolls in, followed by a purge – typically self-induced vomiting. It’s very cathartic if you don’t know how to actually feel your feelings. And I certainly didn’t.
Any addiction is a learned behavior of escapism, whether it’s sugar, alcohol, or meth. It’s your go-to – it’s what’s comfortable, familiar, safe. As much as you hate it, you come to love it, even cherish it. When you become uncomfortable, you know how to fix that. As time goes on, though, you start to realize your habits aren’t sustainable – that this one comfort in your life still makes you miserable. Its secrecy isolates you and, with food especially, it’s very easy to keep problems a secret. You can eat in the bathroom, outside, in your car, in your home. You buy a binge amount at the grocery store and excuse it with a charming smile, saying, “My boyfriend was just dying for oreos.” Whether you purge or not, that’s easy to hide, too. Any time you go to the bathroom, all you need is your own finger, maybe a pen. No one knows if you’ve had three dinners or zero and most people are too involved with their own problems to catch warning signs in a friend or family member’s behavior. Even if you do notice – what are you supposed to say?
To stop negative, self-sabotaging behavior, you first have to decide that you want to stop. Reasons vary – but it’ll usually come with realizing your own worth, deciding that you don’t deserve to be sabotaged. Most personal work begins with self-love, but getting there can be an arduous journey. If you see signs in a loved one, simply beginning a conversation will help. Just be there. Get personal. Ask the hard questions – it’s always worth it. Here are some helpful ones: How do you feel about yourself? What do you think about? How’s your heart? Even a simple, How are you? with a meaningful look. Talk about anything personal – the mere fact of your intentional presence makes a difference. Because, just as the junkie might talk to his heroin, food becomes a friend. And if no one’s noticing your unhealthy behaviors, try being your own friend and turn these questions on yourself – at least start thinking about it.
Addictions are like abusive relationships in this way – you love them, and they hurt you. But you just keep going back. To get out – be mindful. Subconsciously you’re upset, and you’re taking it out on your body. Now you’ve decided you don’t want to go to food or cigarettes every time you’re bothered, but it’s engrained behavior. Luckily humans are adaptable, and rewiring the brain is possible. A craving sets in, and your body instinctually busies itself with finding a fix. When this happens, stop. Look. Listen.
Stop. Pause in the moment. Freeze. Still your body so you can listen to your emotions. Observe and describe what’s happening. “I just got in my car at 11 pm to go find candy/chips/whatever.” Investigate. “Why do I want candy right now?” Even with quitting smoking – which I’ve also done – noticing that you actually have a craving is the first step. Chances are there’s a reason, and it’s probably something you encountered – bad news, being ditched by a friend, didn’t like what you saw in the mirror, even boredom. Okay, you’ve frozen the moment, paused yourself – now what? That’s up to you.
Choose. You get to decide whether you go on your errand or not. No one’s pointing a gun at you, no one made you get into your car. What do you want – really? Try to see past what you want in this moment to what’s actually going to help you in the long run. If you want to beat an addiction, don’t forget that you want to beat it. Keep reasons on hand if you need to, and reference them in this moment. Remind yourself of how much you start to hate yourself after you eat an entire tub of ice cream. Is it worth it? Now of course you’ll relapse, but don’t beat yourself up for making the “wrong” choice. You still made it, the least you can do is take responsibility for your actions and accept that. It takes baby steps.
In recovering from bulimia, I struggled with binging long after I stopped vomiting. But I promised myself – whatever happened – I wouldn’t purge. I would have grace with myself, forgive a binge and move forward. The fog began to clear as I slowly cleaned up my diet, seeing food as fuel instead of an event or a comfort. It was certainly gradual, but here we are two years later and, while I am necessarily aware of food, I am healthy. I practice kind habits. And they’ve become so much easier with time. And I work for that. Anyone can. You can. Without a doubt – it is worth it.