My name is Ellie and I’m an emotional eater.
A few years ago, that sentence might have evoked huge shame for me, but these days it’s more like a “so what?…. aren’t most people?”
I started emotional eating very young. We were a typical family. I was the youngest of three and the only girl. From the time I was about nine years old, coming home to an empty house for a couple of hours after school wasn’t unusual. My after-school routine started to become a problem then. It was nothing for me to eat a cup and a half of peanut butter, slathered in corn syrup. I would put it in a cereal bowl, stir it up and eat it with a spoon while I watched “Three’s Company” and “Golden Girls”. Or I would hoard cookies. Mom had a very reasonable two-cookie rule; “one for each hand was all anyone needed”. But I wasn’t satisfied with two cookies. I wasn’t satisfied with six cookies. I could easily eat a dozen or more. The only thing that would stop me was a stomach ache, and even then, the moment the stomach ache began to lift I’d be back in the cookie tin.
I guess I realized I was an emotional eater in high school. At least that’s when I first tried to stop. If you’ve read my story, you know the whole bit about the chocolate bars, the binging, the Slim-Fast. It was an emotional eating nightmare that would continue, despite my most valiant efforts, for close to 20 years.
These days I’m not eating bowls of peanut butter and corn syrup to soothe my empty heart, but that doesn’t mean that the siren song of food is a thing of the past.
One night, in the not so distant past I was driving home on a Friday night. I was driving home to an empty house; AGAIN. It was a hard period of my life. An intense love affair had ended and over the course of the weeks prior I had been working with one of my trusted spiritual advisers to help me clear out the patterns that this loss was illuminating for me.
Weekends have always been a trigger for me. I didn’t know that on this particular Friday night, but I certainly know it now. As I was driving home thinking about what I could eat for dinner, I decided that a fast-food salad wasn’t a bad idea. I truly don’t think a fast-food salad is a bad idea once in a while, so that’s not the emotional eating part. On the way to the fast-food joint I also decided that a small order of fries wouldn’t be terribly detrimental to my healthy eating plan. Again, I truly don’t think that a small order of french fries is a problem, once in a while. It became obvious that it was a problem the NEXT night. Saturday night.
I don’t know about you, but Friday and Saturday nights are steeped in the energy of fun, family, relaxation and good times for me. And I was having NONE of that. In fact, I hadn’t had any of that in almost a year. I had been spending the vast majority of my time alone. It wasn’t a problem through the week. I was working, I had stuff to do, so I kept my head down and marched on. The weekends were a different story though. I didn’t realize it at the time, but every weekend was torture. Going home to an empty house, eating dinner alone, binge watching Game of Thrones and having a bath was NOT adequately replacing the love, fun and family connections I so deeply yearned for. It still doesn’t.
Enter french fries. Friday night, I was still fairly oblivious to the fact that I had reached for the fries in order to quell my loneliness. Saturday night was a different story. It started out innocently enough. I thought the salad from the night before had been pretty tasty and it seemed like that might be a good solution to my Saturday night “what’s for dinner” dilemma as well. Of course, I was resolved not to order fries this time. Having them once is justifiable, not obsessive, not imbalanced, just an order of fries, no big deal. Having them two nights in a row, that’s something completely different and I knew it, or at least my subconscious knew it.
So there I was, ordering my salad through the drive-through and then out of my mouth pop the words “and a small fry please”. As I was driving away, munching on the cold, greasy fries I thought to myself “okay, what’s going on?”
It was SOO obvious. The moment I turned my attention to the fact that I was emotionally eating I knew exactly why. Even though I hadn’t admitted it out loud to myself yet, I knew I was alone, I was lonely and I wasn’t having any fun.
I got home and plopped myself down at my kitchen table to eat my salad. As I was eating, my eye fell on a sheet of paper, with my own loose scribbles on it. They were the notes from my last session with my EFT practitioner. It said;
“There is a level of pain that comes from being alone that is intolerable to you”.
When she had uttered those words in our session I thought “okay, that’s interesting” but it didn’t really strike me as being true. Anyone looking at me from the outside would see that I’m pretty capable of being alone, and I’m alone a lot. But I’ve been doing this work long enough to know that our psyche doesn’t allow access to that kind of deep vulnerability and truth very readily, especially when you’re sitting face to face with another human being, so I was willing to explore the possibility that being alone was a deep-seated fear for me that I was in denial about.
In that moment, the truth of her words struck me with the power of a hundred lightning bolts. INTOLERABLE didn’t just mean uncomfortable or hard. It meant NOT DOABLE. God, no wonder I wanted french fries. I sat at the table and cried…and cried…and poured a bath…and cried some more.
Long story short, I did about two hours of self-analysis and EFT tapping in that bathtub about loneliness. What it meant, where it came from, how I tried to stuff it down with food and how I could feel connected instead. It was enlightening to say the least. I felt like I left 39 years-worth of hurt and rejection in that bathtub, but I got out feeling more than a little beaten and bruised by the process.
So, do I still want to eat on Friday and Saturday night? Yeah. Not all the time, but certainly sometimes, when the lonely gets too much. The difference is that now I know. Now I’m consciously aware of it and I watch for it. I recognize it when I see the impulse or hear the thought that says “you haven’t had a treat in a while, maybe you should get some chocolate covered almonds tonight”. Now that thought directly translates into, “you’re feeling lonely and unloved and you want to make yourself feel better with some food”. And you know what? Sometimes I oblige. Because the truth is, my life isn’t perfect and it never will be.
Using food to escape from our emotional issues is NEVER going to fulfil us or solve our problems, but almost ALL of us do it from time to time. My point is to make it conscious and recognize that you need to be working towards a long-term solution and becoming aware of the reasons that YOU turn to food for comfort. If you’re emotionally eating more than once a week, it IS going to have a detrimental effect on your health and your self-esteem.
I highly recommend a yearly health reset where you purposely avoid all of those “comfort” foods, not just for the benefit of your physical body, but also to illuminate where you may be turning to food to quell anxiety or calm emotional upsets. When you commit to eating a VERY clean diet for 40 days, you WILL be triggered and you will have the opportunity to discover valuable insights about yourself and how to improve the quality of your life.
So, I do my best to plan activities for myself on weekends now. I’ve gotten involved in groups and I’ve consciously made an effort to cultivate my friendships. I’m learning how to fill my life with the connections that have been missing for as long as I can remember. At the same time, I’m working through my patterns of feeling unloved, unimportant and alone and everything that means and does to me. As a result, my weekend emotional eating has all but fallen away. Every now and then I still get a “hug” from chocolate, but I let it deepen my awareness of what I need to let go of, or embrace in order to live an overall healthier and happier life. I expect food will keep teaching me things about myself for a long-time to come, and I’m okay with that.