This morning I was reading a recent post by The Persistent Platypus, “It’s ok to feel your emotions.” She got me thinking a bit, because I’ve been working on expressing my emotions instead of drowning them with a bag of kettle corn. See, when you have food issues, it’s almost never actually about the food, or your weight. It’s about the emotions and feelings that express themselves through the voice of the eating disorder.
I’ll give you some examples: Feeling sad? No, you’re fat. Disappointed in yourself? No, you need to lose weight. Someone hurt your feelings? No, you need a cupcake. Feeling stressed? No, you’re starving….or, more accurately, you need to eat EVERYTHING, RIGHT NOW. Even though you may not be physically hungry, something inside you is yelling, shouting, demanding, SCREAMING for a box of cereal, a large pizza, chocolate, ice cream candy bars chips EVERYTHING ALL OF IT NOW NOW NOW
It’s not about the food.
When you live with an eating disorder, or food issues, your mind translates uncomfortable, painful, confusing emotions into a language you’ve spoken since birth: food and your weight.
It’s not about food, and its impact on the scale – and it never really was. But, like some bizarre outer-space Babel fish, this is how your brain translates emotion. It turns it into something you recognize and are accustomed to handling. It may not be healthy, but it’s familiar and comfortable.
It’s what you know.
In the process of going through therapy and attempting to get well, I’ve experienced a strange phenomenon: My food issues have a very strong, independent voice. It’s almost like a separate entity living inside my head.
It’s been there for so long (over thirty years – yes, longer than some of you have probably been alive, rub it in already!) that the Voice and I have developed our own secret language of sorts – it’s been so long since I’ve heard my native language that when I experience an emotion, I only know it in the Voice’s language, and struggle to find the words that others would understand. And the words don’t make much sense to anyone but the Voice – and me:
Anger is interpreted as “you’re fat. Quit eating.”
Sadness translates to needing sweets.
Loneliness is deciphered as emptiness, which in this language, means “need to binge.”
Decoding stress is tricky, as it has multiple meanings; its true meaning is modified by one of the emotions above…the pairing of the modifier transposes the actual definition. It can mean any of the above, or one followed by the other. Much like English, it’s hard to define directly; all of the rules have exceptions.
I’m working on rediscovering my native tongue. It’s slow going. It’s like trying to rename colors – imagine, after years of saying that your favorite color was orange, now having to say it’s blue, even though “blue” looks like what you’ve always known as “orange.” Or imagine having to switch the words “beet” and “chocolate.” Or “hot” and “pickle.” You get the idea.
But I’m making progress, somewhat. I have, at least, begun to recognize when the Voice is using the wrong words. This week, I spent three days eating my feelings. In one evening, I devoured an ENTIRE BOX OF CHOCO CHIMPS. (Side note: What am I? Five? CHOCO CHIMPS?!?)
On Wednesday, after most of the box was gone, I recognized that I was upset about something. (I hear all of you out there rolling your eyes and saying “well, duh.”)
On Thursday night, I figured out what it was: The hubs shared with me that on a recent trip to a home-improvement store, he parked next to a person who had a bumper sticker on his car that he didn’t like – it was, of course, in conflict with his beliefs. So he decided to confront the guy on his way in. He told him, “You know, you have some really stupid stuff on your car.”
This apparently bugged the crap out of me.
First, the obvious. Which is (cue sarcasm font): Eyeroll. Yes, dear, you sure told him. I’m sure now he’s going to know the error of his ways, COMPLETELY do a 180 on his opinion, and probably burn his car so no one else has to see it. All because a random 6’4″ dude confronted him directly.
Second, I don’t want a bully for a husband. I married a decent human being, not a bully. And the hubs was actually bullied as a kid, so you’d think he’d know better. Plus – regardless of the sentiment – would he want someone to approach ME like that? (Okay, his answer would be, “I’d like to see them try.” Fair enough; I can hold my own. But our kids? Our mothers? NOT OKAY.)
Third – one of my favorite quotes as of late is, “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” (Credited to Paulo Coelho.) You don’t change anyone’s opinion by telling them that you don’t like it – we have teenagers, so he should know this from fairly recent experience. Being a jerk to someone with a different opinion only causes them to justify holding onto it more strongly…namely, because they DON’T WANT TO BE LIKE YOU.
Lastly, the hubs and I disagree on a lot of things – namely, spiritual things and political things. (We agree on pizza toppings, so we have THAT going for us, I guess.) But I suppose, if I’m honest with myself…I don’t want him to express or FEEL that disgusted, dismissive emotion towards me.
There. There it is. In my native language.
Now I can put the food down. For a little bit.
As of late, I’ve begun to recognize the Voice as a type of parasite. Why? Because she needs me. She feeds off me.
Without me, she will cease to exist.
That’s probably why she’s fighting so hard to stay alive.
I’ve noticed that, right after a more successful therapy session, that I sort of relapse for a day or two…sometimes a week. The Voice is fighting – hustling to be heard, wrestling for relevance.
Struggling for survival.
But so am I.
And, while I’ve managed most of my existence cohabiting with the Voice, I think it’s time to serve her eviction papers. Like any eviction, it’s a long, complicated process, wrought with setbacks and delays. But if I keep fighting the good fight, eventually I’ll have my space back. I’m looking forward to redecorating – letting in color and light and making the space my own.
We all have our automatic default responses to unpleansant thoughts or feelings. I’ve long noticed that many mental illnesses have such misinterpretation as you decribe in common. In OCD, the way to cope involves compulsions, in ED food, and so on. We do well to learn more useful habits, but it’s far easier said than done, isn’t it? – Greg