Your Empty Plate: When It Really Isn't About Food...

February 13, 2019

I’ve had a long and complicated relationship with food. I can’t really recall the moment I began abusing it, but I can’t seem to forget when it was used to abuse me.

There I sat on the edge of my bed, early in the morning, gathering enough courage to walk into the kitchen. At only nine years old, I knew to listen for signs of trouble, before leaving the perceived sanctity of my bedroom.    The sweet and salty smell of pancakes and bacon squeezed through the small spaces between the door and frame, just to tease me.  Over time, I’d learn to detest that smell.

When I was child, my stepfather used food and isolation as ways to abuse, humiliate and control me.  He would look for things…anything…I’d done “wrong” and place me on punishment. I could have failed a test or forgotten to turn off the bathroom light. The nature of the infraction was irrelevant (if there really was one). It was just the avenue he used to hurt and break me. The punishment was always the same, though.

I wasn’t allowed to watch television, go outside, smile, laugh, relax, have fun, spend time in common areas of the home or eat food that was considered pleasurable. Let me be clear, I wasn’t denied food.  I was not allowed to partake in the same foods my parents and younger sister enjoyed.  To make matters worse, I had to watch them eat from the next room and clean it all up, when everyone was done.

I would sit on my bed, hungry and hoping (in my naiveté), to be shown enough mercy to maybe have just one pancake.  Slowly, I’d walk into the kitchen staring at the floor, willing myself to disappear.  A cold stillness would fall in the room, as I rounded the corner into the kitchen.  I avoided eye contact with the monster at the table, but I didn’t need to see him to feel the hole burrowing into the back of my head.

I mustered up enough nerve to look on the counter and see what had been prepared.  Thick pancakes, wet with butter and a mountain of steaming bacon, lay just within my grasp. I inhaled deeply and my tongue grew watery.  But, I could tell by everyone’s heavy silence that I’d come too close to the forbidden fruits and was in danger of severe reprimand.

I knew the pancakes were just for viewing and smelling, well, for me anyway. I toasted two slices of bread and got a glass of milk, as instructed. Jelly not allowed.  I sat in the kitchen, alone, and listened as they passed the syrup back and forth and refilled their glasses with cool, sweet orange juice. I’d wait, as I was told, until everyone had finished, and, then, I’d begin to clean up.

This happened all the time. Holidays, family reunions and cookouts were the worse. I’d be forced to be ostracized and touted as an example of what happens to “bad little children” or humiliated into begging for forgiveness, beforehand, so that I’d be allowed to socialize and eat with my relatives.  It finally stopped when I was able to afford my own food, from the money I earned working at the local, fast food joint.   I wish I could say this was the only way food was misused in my life.  It isn’t but, it may have been the first time.

Since my mid-twenties, I’ve been battling a weight problem.  I fight to keep it down, but it never seems to stay there.  A month or so ago, I realized I gained allof the weight back I had fought so hard to lose, a year earlier. I felt defeated.  Embarrassed.  Ashamed. Done.

I stepped out of the shower, one day, and took a full on look at my indiscretions in the mirror.  I wondered: “How did I get here?  This isn’t me.”

Funny how, sometimes, we can find ourselves someplace without realizing how we got there.

I forced myself to take an uncensored look at where this problem started and how I’d come to this point, in life. One step led to another and the next thing I know, I am on the journey of a lifetime.  I don’t know where this will end, but I know that, even now, I am forever changed.

I posted a small note, on my Facebook page, expressing my frustration with the situation.  The onslaught of encouragement and support I received was extremely uplifting and inspiring. Some things that helped and impacted me most, came from conversations and interactions with others, who’ve dealt with similar struggles of abuse and addiction.

I wish I could share all of the advice I received, but, honestly, I still need to process a lot of it.  Here are some pearls of wisdom I seem to keep coming back to. I hope and pray that, maybe, it can help you, too.

Face Your Past

At the gentle promptings of my wife, I decided to stop running from my past.  I decided to talk about it, with her (It helps that she has a background in social work and counseling).  It was then that the memory I shared in the beginning began to get clearer and clearer.

Do you remember the movie, Sixth Sense, where the little boy saw dead people? The ghosts where gruesome and tormented him constantly, sneaking up on him day and night. After unsuccessfully trying to convince the boy they weren’t real, his counselor suggests that maybe he should just ask the ghosts what they want.  The boy does this and realizes they just wanted help and, although their appearance was unsightly, it was the result of the trauma they’d been through.

My memories were just like that.  They terrified and haunted me and showed up whenever they pleased. I tried to ignore or stifle them, to no avail.  But, when I was courageous enough to ask them what they wanted, I was able to see the pain of a little girl, just wanting to be loved, protected and included.

Now, instead of running to the nearest taco truck, I can sit and listen to the little girl inside of me.  If this is something that resonates with you, consider getting a licensed counselor to walk you through this process.  The little girl or boy inside of you is worth it.

Fast and pray (hear me out…)

This was interesting for me.  A good friend of mine confessed that he struggles with overeating.  I admit, I was super surprised because he is ridiculously fit and a disciplined eater.  He told me he uses fasting as a way deny to his flesh, control cravings and focus on God.

Here’s where it goes a direction I never saw coming.  I tried to fast.  I have fasted before, without issue.  I could not do it.  Could.  Not.  I wasn’t even fasting from food in general, just carbs (which I have done before, mind you).  I thought: “Oh, my gosh.  I’ve gotten worse!!!”  After my complete meltdown on the bathroom floor, which included all the verses to “Why God, why???”, I regrouped and refocused.

So, I decided to fast from an activity:  busyness.  I (like many of us) have a never ending list of crap to do.  Between buying a new house, selling our old one, starting a new job and ending the old one, I’m busier than a mosquito in a nudist colony!

I took an hour (no matter what else needed to be done) twice a week and sat down to talk to God.  It was then that I had a devastating realization.  As a little girl, I was told to be quiet all the time.  When I tried to raise concerns about the way I was being treated, I was hushed or punished into silence.

As an adult, when memories of the past arise and I use food to stifle my emotions, I am still shutting that little girl up.  I am not allowing her to speak about the injustices that happened or how it made her feel.  I am not validating her pain or even acknowledging her presence.  I am enjoying my pancakes and bacon, while she sits alone in the next room and does the hard work of cleaning up afterward.

Wow….

Food Ain’t for Feelings

I say this in my head all day long.

When I reach into the fridge, after reading a text from a family member…

“Food ain’t for feelings, Lynnette.”

When I am tempted to buy that chocolate cake for dessert, because “I had a rough week”…

“Food ain’t for feelings…”

When I have to deal with a co-worker, who has a 5th degree black belt in manipulation…

“Food ain’t for feelings!”

A very wise and dear friend said this to me, and I’ve held it close to my heart, ever since. She gently reminded me that using food to deal with my emotions is not a healthy or even functional coping skill. The relief I get from food is temporary and is always followed by guilt and excess weight.

She went on to explain that other things are for feelings like: exercise, prayer, meditation, talking and journaling.  I couldn’t help but notice I was doing all of those things in the year I lost weight, and I was doing none of them when I gained it back.

She’s right. Food ain’t for feelings…

I really don’t want a plate of food, and, if I’m honest with myself, I know that.  What I want and what I am really hungry for is: love, acceptance, inclusion, protection, acknowledgment and validation.

If you are struggling with food addiction (or any addiction), I hope today’s blog has been of some help.  If you have been a victim of abuse, I urge you to find a licensed professional to help you through it.  There is such a stigma in society against seeking help for mental health issues, when the truth is, we all should have regular visits, because…life is hard.

Here are some questions for you to consider as you go on your journey:

  • If you were to fast, what would you remove or refrain from? For how long? Why?
  • Are you running from something in your past? Are you ready to face it? Who will you enlist to help you?
  • What food/addiction do you turn to, when you are upset? Why?
  • If “food ain’t for feelings”, what else could you do to address your emotions?
  • Most of us know food is not what we are really after and that we’re using it to fill a void. That being said: What are you really hungry for?

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