I started what would become an almost two-decade long struggle with food and my body in middle school, around age 11. Most of the struggle in the beginning manifested in sporadic guilt and regret: In my mind, I berated myself for the so-called roll of fat over my Gap jeans that preventing me from tucking my shirt in (God, did I ever want to tuck my shirts in like the other girls did), and I obsessed over the way my arms looked in tank tops — a “dangle” making me feel like I may have some kind of aging disorder. Yet, most of this struggle only resulted in half-hearted attempts at restricting my food to all-veggie salads and sandwiches made with diet bread and before-bed calisthenics routines and an occasional Jane Fonda workout video.
But as I made my way through middle school, the struggle became more and more real: I started to notice how my friends were able to consume an entire bag of Doritos, wash it down with real Coke (not Diet Coke), top it off with a pint of Hagen Das and not show a slight bloat in their incredibly flat stomachs. I began to feel horrible at sleepovers, regretting the hangover the next day from a night of pizza, ice cream, chips, cookies, and cake.
On the outside, I never had a “weight problem” and was always visually pretty average. My struggle was deep, deep inside. And it wasn’t about being fat or about being pretty or about fitting in. It was about feeling out-of-control.
Here is the thing about that time period: Despite the internal monologue berating myself, I still ate fairly normally, eating when hungry and stopping when full.
It wasn’t until age 14 that I began to eat compulsively. A combination of the transition from middle to high school with my first real heartbreak sent me head first into a carton of vanilla fudge ice cream. These episodes were different from the occasional over-eat-athon with girlfriends at a sleepover. When the hunger switch inside me said “full,” I kept going… like driving a car and watching the speedometer lean all the way over — I pushed the peddle further to the metal.
Oddly, I felt powerful while binging. I felt a freedom I didn’t feel in my day-to-day life. Yet, after each episode, I was left helpless and empty, despite the filled-to the brim murkiness in my belly.
Over the course of almost two years, I put on 45 pounds. Then something shifted for me… I no longer felt powerful and free when I binged. I felt horrible, I felt like I was violating myself, hurting myself, like I hated my self… yet, I didn’t hate myself and I didn’t want to do it any more. With the promise of college to take me out of my small town, I saw that a wider world was waiting and I didn’t want to be stuck in my wall of food, missing out on it all.
So I stopped… with the help of a book by Geneen Roth called “Breaking Free From Emotional Eating.” I learned about the powerful tool called the hunger scale, and I started to watch and listen to those numbers instead of the ones on my bathroom floor.
And my weight evened out, and I lost the compulsion to binge.
But this isn’t a personal essay about how I cured myself of compulsive eating.
This is an essay on the connection between writing and self-love, writing and compulsive behavior. There is a connection to writing somewhere in this adolescent experience of mine. If I were to create an analogy, I don’t think it would fit perfectly but it goes like this: If writing is to eating, then compulsive writing is to compulsive eating. In other words, if writing is nourishment to my soul as eating is nourishment to my body, then it is possible to turn that act of nourishment into an act of destruction, as I did once with food.
Writing was, for many, many years, a natural expression and expansion of myself, my soul, my thoughts, my force field, my energy.
The way I feel about my writing now is so very reminiscent to how I felt when binge-eating stopped feeling powerful and free and started to feel limiting, horrible, and self-destructive.
The natural ebb and flow of my hunger was disrupted by my misuse of food. I remember one day I woke up and thought, instead of going to school and dealing with the pressure and stress of ninth grade with all of its uncertainty, newness, and heartbreak, I could stay home in my bed and eat… anything. All day long. I could taste and chew and fill and never have to feel the sadness and depression of loss that I was carrying around (starting with the sudden death of my grandfather, followed by a painful break up, and the ending two close friendships). If I just keep eating and tasting the tastes of delicious sweetness, I won’t have to feel a thing ever again!
Or so I thought.
When it didn’t work, I had to stop. I wanted to stop. I was more than willing to figure out how to eat normally and healthfully again. So I began to listen to the signals of hunger and fullness, and my eating began to be rhythmic and predictable and feel good and normal. I stopped obsessing all day long about it. Sure, my mind would wander and do what it did, but I became so grounded in my own hunger urges and needs and queues, that the chatter in my brain didn’t matter to what I actually did in terms of eating. My soul and body took over the chatter in my brain, and I started to trust myself .
When my writing didn’t catch fire in the industry as I thought it would years ago, I just wrote more and harder and faster because then I didn’t have to face the pain of loss, disappointment, and heartbreak.
Geneen Roth talks about how food is just food and not love. It is not power or control either. Food brings you the ability to be nourished, and it keeps you alive. The same can be said about writing, yet there is a break down in this analogy — writing can bring about change, and it can bring about love. It can also bring about hate, fear, rage… because writing is art. Art has power, has the capacity to be powerful. But writing is not love. Writing is not worth. When I write compulsively, I take away my own power, my own self-trust, my own authentic voice.
When I use writing to avoid emotional struggle and pain, when I use it as a weapon against myself, when I go at it with a rawness that no longer feels healing, writing is just as bad as compulsive eating, gambling, or drinking for me.
Yes, something so good can become so bad if you use it to avoid emotional distress and pain.
When I began to eat based on internal and natural cues, I started to remember that I used to do that, that before puberty took hold of me, before I started to be afraid of my feelings, I would do a lot of things without too much obsessing and worry.
Today, I don’t eat to avoid pain. I don’t eat to block things in my life. I eat for hunger, flavor, and taste. Eating is enjoyable, but when it is over and I am full, I move on and live. There is no struggle.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve stopped writing compulsively and have started to listen to internal cues about what I love to write. I love writing this piece. I love helping my clients write. I love writing freely or writing for a purpose or writing on a deadline.
I hurt as I sit here and write this. I hurt about my manuscripts that sit in my computer and that are not agented and that are not considered by editors. I’m sad about my books that sit in my closet and not in the hands of readers. The difference is, I allow myself to feel all the hurt and pain, and I don’t write to avoid it. I accept the pain of rejection, of “no,” and in that acceptance, I find my own yes, my own pleasure for writing.
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Thinkstock photo by Steve Mason