If you've been a compulsive overeater for most of your life, and then you suddenly stop overeating compulsively, it won't be long before you figure out why you ate compulsively for so many years.
If you have made a true commitment to stop abusing food, as your vision clears from all the excess calories and chemicals poisoning your system, you'll remember what you used to know: Life is scary! Life is sad! Life is irritating! Life is humiliating! Life is unfair! Life is so hard that sometimes you can hardly stand being a part of this world! Love makes it all worthwhile, but love hurts, too! In my case, there are times when every thought or memory leads down a dark or devastating path. Even memories from more than forty years ago can make my cheeks burn with shame, or my heart ache with loss and regret. And it's not just my own life that gets on my nerves. The people around me--family members, friends, strangers--make me mad, refusing to behave as I wish them to (which would be acting in a way that causes me no discomfort and requires no effort on my part). Even people in the news in positions of power on the other side of the earth (I'm in Japan) make me hyperventilate in rage and frustration.
I'm much, much too sensitive, even when I'm overeating and my senses have been dulled with my drug of choice--excess food. But when I try to live in the world without this sedative, I am even more painfully sensitive and find it very hard to accept the facts of life. I understand that sensitivity can be a good thing, especially when it fosters empathy, which often leads to good deeds and makes the world a better place. But my sensitivity, in its present form, highlights my weakness. I can't stand evil and darkness, but instead of mustering the will, energy, and courage to fight against these, I have simply sought to drown them out by overeating, and this just leads to a vicious cycle of feeling pain (hatred, sadness, bitterness, unworthiness, etc.), overeating in order to cancel the pain, feeling heightened pain from having ignored the real source of the initial pain, overeating in order to cancel the heightened pain, and on and on into infinity.
Instead of fighting, it has been my habit to ignore disturbances or to use substances to quell every discomfort. A few weeks ago, I mentioned to a SparkFriend that I had been eating uncontrollably and drinking alcohol every night over the summer. Her reply was something like this: "So, Carolyn, you've been struggling?" At the time, I thought this was simply a sympathetic acknowledgment of the pain I was going through and a kind invitation to unload. When someone is going through pain, we all assume that the person is struggling. But I think we forget that it's possible not to put up a fight, that it is possible simply to roll over and accept passively whatever is happening. When there is a crime scene, for example, the police always check for signs of a struggle. In some cases, because of circumstances beyond the victim's control, it's impossible to struggle. In other cases, a victim might consider survival more likely if he or she refrains from struggling. In most cases, however, the natural response to any kind of threat is to struggle against it, no matter how much strength and courage it takes to fight for survival.
But for many months I didn't struggle against what the self-destructive part of me was doing to the part of me that wants to live. I had simply been complying with every self-destructive impulse to eat or drink, even when eating and drinking were truly making me feel sick and sleepy all the time. I've never been tempted by drugs, cigarettes, gambling, or other addictive substances or activities, but eating and drinking compulsively had always been part of my bash-myself repertory. Whenever any emotional disturbance came into view--usually in the form of frustration with my husband, who thinks I came to Japan just to be his cook-chauffeur-shopper-errand runner-housemaid-groundskeeper
-editor-secretary, or worry about the two of my adult children who suffer from depression and anxiety and sleep problems, or dismay about my twin sister's need for a kidney transplant in the near future and my responsibility to fly over to the US to see what I can do about that, or fatigue at making so many trips to go check on my ninety-year-old father-in-law at his house a three-hour drive away. With all this pressure swirling in my head, I would start thinking about beer or pizza or chips or cake. Or can't-face-it naps. And because of all the stress I perceived I was under, I felt it my right as an adult to spend one or two hours every night tamping down all the feelings building to explosive levels inside me. Everything was beyond my control, I thought, and the feelings that went with this state of affairs were unavoidable, but I could make them magically disappear for two hours every night when I drank beer and mindlessly shoveled junk food into my mouth while watching the news of the world on TV. A perfect storm--an out-of-control me in an out-of-control world!
So no, dear SparkFriends, I had not been struggling at ALL, just giving in to every single food-and-drink impulse that popped into my head, and paying the price with a different, ultimately deeper kind of anger and fear.
It was only when I started to feel really unhealthy--dizzy, in fact--that I knew my time was up and that if I did not change, I could not expect any quality of life in my waning years (I'll be sixty-one in December), especially as my mobility has drastically declined in the past two years. The message was clear--procrastinating was no longer an option. The scale was about to hit 175 pounds, and isn't that what PRO-FOOTBALL PLAYERS weigh?! One of the most memorable and treasured compliments I ever received was when I was a freshman in college and had dieted and exercised my weight down to 115 pounds before taking a job as a counselor at a girls' camp for the summer. When I became friends with the camp nurse and told her that until recently I had been overweight, she looked at me and said, "Carolyn, I can't imagine you being any way except petite and feminine." Now in my early sixties, I regret not holding on with all my might to the image of myself that delighted me when I heard those sparkling words. I regret all the years I've been very overweight or obese and suffered from a lack of confidence, oftentimes falling into despair. My body shape is changing in what feels like an irreversible way, with my stomach hanging over my belt and the fat on my back jiggling for the first time in my life. This is new and different and alarming, but this problem is still solvable. It's not too late! It's time to struggle!
So I've been abstinent and sober for more than two weeks now, and I'm feelin' all the feelings, and I can report that they're not all good. But they're certainly not all bad! And guess what--a happy ending is highly possible, and it just might cancel out the grief I feel at the loss of all the years between the time when I was called petite and feminine, and now, when I feel more like a linebacker than a ballerina. The spirit can triumph, you know, even within the inevitable limitations of the body that aging brings. With my gray hair and wrinkles and rolls of fat, I've had moments of near-bliss, when I envision my freedom from excessive thoughts of food and alcohol, when I remember the way I was a long time ago when I was eighteen, and maybe as far back as when I was about five years old and never thought about food at all except for when I was hungry. About fifty-five years of too-much-information and cultural input later, I can't completely forget about food between meals. One reason is that obsessions take time to conquer, and the other reason is that it's my role (which I usually don't mind because I'm good at it) to grocery shop and cook. But a new world is opening up, where I am redirecting my thoughts--away from self-flagellation and an excessive focus on food to the question of how I can properly use and enjoy the time that's left to me on Earth.
I'm getting out of prison, and it feels good, though I know there'll be bumps in the road just outside the gate. I'll write about that next time, but for now, I am confident that if I just take this I-can-face-the-truth attitude of strength and integrity with me wherever I go, the rest of my life will be better than anything I've experienced so far.