April 15, 2018

Broken heart

For as long as I can remember, my relationship with food has been defined by a feeling of being either in or out of control. Measuring my calorie intake, exercising a lot, being restrictive with my diet, sleeping a lot and generally being virtuous? In control. Anything else? Out of control. It’s a simple distinction but impossible to maintain in practice. This leaves me, most of the time, feeling out of control and anxious, occasionally culminating in cold sweats and panic attacks in the middle of the night or on the changing room floor.

It’s taken a long time for me to realise how disordered my relationship with food is, and to unpick why I struggle so much in this area. Unsurprisingly, it’s a story that takes us back to the very beginning.

When I look back at my young childhood, I remember scrambling to keep up with my two older brothers at the dinner table, in the pursuit of equality and fairness; if they could eat it, so could I. Then, when I became old enough to know that my body was different to my peers, or “fat” as the lovely children at school pointed out every once in a while, I learned to hide my food consumption. Sometimes I would get home earlier than anyone else and binge, sometimes my best friend and I would sneak treats up to my bedroom, away from judging eyes, and sometimes I hid biscuits in the pockets of my dressing gown to eat after my parents had put me to bed. One thing I remember very clearly though, is feeling the need to hide, and feeling ashamed of myself.

As I aged, this shame continued, eventually causing enough emotional disruption for me to talk my Mum into letting me do Weight Watchers with her, when I was in year six (11 years old). This was my first experience of restriction, and it felt delicious (pun intended). I can’t remember much of the detail of that diet, I probably lost some weight, only to put it on again a few months later, but I do remember that sweet sensation of finally being in control—a feeling that I’ve since spent my life chasing.

As life continued, diets came and went as regularly as hairstyles, and as my weight continued to creep up the scales, so did my sense of shame and failure.

I have often found it difficult to discern with any level of realism what my body looks like to those around me, allowing me to eat or not eat as much as I like, depending on the result I’m aiming for at the time. This trick has allowed me to carry a bullet-proof faux self-confidence even at my heaviest, and a total lack of perspective when my eating habits and weightloss descend into the obsessive territory that often ends in disordered eating.

As someone whose weight has changed more frequently than the season, I have often been asked by well-meaning individuals whether I’m an emotional eater, to which I have always delivered a resounding response: “NO”. There goes the ol’ shame again.

But also, never once when feeling depressed or hopeless have I reached for a biscuit; I’ve never binged my way through a cake to fill the empty hole in my stomach from heartache or stuffed myself sick on pizza to forget my troubles. In fact, I have found the opposite to be true. For me, during tumultuous times, my instinct is and has always been to stop eating. Parents’ divorce? I lost one stone in a month. Breaking up with my first boyfriend? Two stone in two months. Mental breakdown? One stone in two weeks. So how could I be classified as an “emotional eater”?

But the inverse is also true. Whenever my mood slides upwards, so does my weight. And these aren’t the only two emotions that are closely linked to my food intake. Feeling stressed? I eat. Feeling accomplished? I treat myself. Feeling guilty? I restrict myself.

And the emotions don’t just stop there. Clothes feeling loose? Jubilant. Clothes feeling tight? Panic. Weight goes down? Pride. Weight increases? Anxiety. Then panic. Then cold sweats in the middle of the night. Then excessive exercise, increased appetite, more weight gain. Then hot flashes, skin prickling, mind racing, dissociation. Then despair, hopelessness and eventually depression.

What I mean to say is that my relationship with food and eating is entirely emotional, and it always has been, deeming my historical response to that question wildly inaccurate. I suspect this will all feel quite familiar to many of you. And what I’ve come to realise is that, if the way that I interact with food is classified as a “relationship”, then this one is at best, toxic.

The problem is, that until very recently, I assumed that everyone’s relationship with food was like this. That is, until, a close friend confided in me that she had never considered food as either “good” or “bad”, never associated it with causing harm or being damaging for her body and didn’t spend much time worrying either way. This totally blew my mind. Unemotional eating? What would that be like? How would it be to not expend a disproportionate amount of emotional energy on an activity that is very difficult and damaging to avoid. On a ritual around which our society bases the majority of its social interactions?

Well chaps, I’m delighted to tell you that, with the help of far too much introspection, overanalysis and obsessive thought loops (in addition to discussion with my therapist, who specialises in eating disorders), it turns out that such a scenario isn’t just possible, it’s entirely achievable.

The first step is realising that if you allow yourself to respond to emotions with food, you are relinquishing any semblance of control that you may have, because, as we know, emotions are, by their very nature, constantly fluctuating. They peak, they trough, they chop, they change, they leap and they spin. The problem with this is that if there is one thing guaranteed to keep your weight stable, it’s consistency, routine, habit.

The second step is understanding that worrying about eating will not lead you to make healthier choices, develop better habits or help you to reach your goals. It is my experience, in fact, that spending all your time worrying and thinking about food makes you want to eat more of it, a behaviour rooted in cold, hard psychology. This is because anxiety and negative self-talk can produce a stress response in your body, which is both psychological and physiological in nature; you feel the need to eat more, and when you do eat, increased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, lead you to store more fat. Basically lads, this is a lose, lose situation.

Now that you’re armed with these facts, it won’t surprise you to learn that the same friend I mentioned earlier eats freely and without many restrictions, and seldom feels guilt about gaining or losing a pound here and there. She maintains a relatively stable weight, and has never found herself classified as “unhealthy” in terms of her weight. In fact, she’s bloody gorgeous.

The point I’m making is that if you, like me, dedicate time, energy, sanity and precious beads of sweat to thinking, obsessing, talking, worrying or panicking about your weight, assuming that it’ll help you reach your goals, you, my friend, are mistaken. You are in extremely good company, with the majority of the female population, but you are mistaken. So what is to be done?

Well, I am clearly far from an expert in this area, but I would advise starting small. Try to stop yourself from labelling food as “naughty” or “nice”. Try to remind yourself that if your weight increases that it can decrease just as quickly. If you feel anxious or in the grips of panic, try to interrupt that negative feedback loop by reminding yourself that the best way to achieve a positive relationship with food is to spend less time thinking about it.

And if none of that works, remember that you are beautiful. Beautiful in your imperfections. Beautiful in your inconsistencies. Beautiful in your struggles and beautiful in your own original and individual way. Anything else is just white noise—switch it off.