In my posts about my journey with functional medicine, I talk about my quest to heal my digestive issues. But this is more than an outer quest in the realm of food and supplements. What I believe really lies behind these issues is not an innate food sensitivity or defective organ, but my compulsive eating habits — times of compulsively eating, without pleasure or satisfaction, only a restless searching for something to fill a hole inside me, and also some times of compulsively not-eating, when my hunger was overridden by an emotional emptiness that blocked my body’s need for nourishment. My body suffered from these, throwing out symptoms that I ignored, until finally, a couple of years ago, I started to wake up to its protests. What lies behind those compulsions? That’s the deeper question I am now wrestling with, as I struggle to figure out how to take better care of my body and its needs.
It doesn’t make sense for a body to reject food entirely. But that’s what I started to feel as though my body was doing, once I made the resolution to change my habits. I kept trying to be good, to follow whatever diet I was told by the authorities of the moment would heal my symptoms, but it never seemed to be enough. More things kept coming up, more bad substances that were present in a variety of foods, including foods that could potentially be nourishing but now had to be taken off the “okay” list because they contained starch or histamine or oxalate or whatever. I had to keep eliminating things and I started to feel that soon I’d be down to nothing The pure junk was not that hard to abstain from, once I got used to it; what was really difficult was the growing fear that if this kept going I would starve, that I would not be able to nourish myself at all.
I talked to my functional medicine practitioner about this feeling and she asked me, “Have you dealt with the emotional side of this?” And I realized that no, I hadn’t. The science about nutrients and the microbiota and the gut is one very valid and important thing, but my personal emotional life has a logic of its own. And following the “rules” determined by researchers of one sort or another was not ultimately helping me. Often they contradicted each other or formed overlapping “can’t-eat” areas that threatened to cancel out my entire diet. There must be something else to consider, that I was not paying enough attention to.
Just that nudge to pay attention to my emotional life helped. I thought, “I am not truly afraid of nutritional deprivation. The list of foods that I can eat without problems is small, but I know it is there and that I won’t starve. What I am really afraid of is emotional deprivation, of having my emotional nourishment reduced and reduced further and further until it disappears.”
I have had issues with emotional abandonment and having my energy drained in unsatisfactory relationships in the past, but I feel that I have broken those patterns and do have rich and satisfying relationships that I can trust and rely on to nourish me. Yet my body is still re-enacting this pattern for some reason. What is it trying to tell me?
Geneen Roth, whose books about compulsive eating I started looking to for some answers, says that the real issue with food is that there is something else that we have forbidden ourselves or fear that we can’t have. So we set up this game of establishing foods that we can actually have, but label forbidden and then end up binging on, leaving us feeling guilty, sick, and empty. The foods we crave can never satisfy us because they are only a stand-in for what we really want and believe we can never have.
As I keep forbidding myself more and more foods, and that never seems to resolve the problem, I have to ask: what else is it that I am forbidding myself to have?
One of the emotional issues that come up as I contemplate my dwindling list of safe foods is choice. I may be able to survive, but I don’t have many options. I am forbidding myself to make choices, it seems. I am narrowing my possibilities down and down until there is nothing to decide, no way to freely experience the richness and variety of life and from that panorama have the opportunity to pick out what resonates with me. I am confined to a very small range of options and forced to be content with that.
And where else do I feel that I have not had sufficient choice, that my options have been limited, that my life has been constricted?
When I was young, during my college years, I should have been having that experience of free choice, of exploring the richness of the world and sensing what direction I wanted to focus on. I was marvelously privileged in so many ways. I was supported to go to a wonderful college, I had no financial worries, I had physical health and intellectual promise. I had social support, too, friends to connect with and teachers to guide me. There were no outer obstacles to my doing anything I wanted.
But those darned emotions! In my emotional life, I was still imprisoned, still restricted, still afraid. I did not allow myself to breathe, to expand, to explore, to really lay out all the options in a giant smorgasbord before choosing what to put on my plate. I stuck for the most part with what seemed safe and familiar: studying English, being a teacher. What had I ever known beyond school, after all? And so I went down that path, which turned out not to be what I really wanted. But it was too late — or so I thought.
Now, I feel restricted by different things. By the need to pay the rent and put meals on the table, by my limited language skills and certification status in a country not my own. But I have to make an effort to look past these restrictions and ask myself again, what do I really want? What is my heart’s desire?
Geneen Roth says that compulsive eating is about trying to escape from ourselves. The remedy is to learn how to sit with ourselves, how to have gentle curiosity rather than raise up that instant critical voice whenever we do something that is strange or contrary to our intentions or against the so-called “rules.” To observe our feelings instead of trying to control or override or ignore them.
I am going to sit with this question, “What is my heart’s desire?” for a while, and see what I can observe. Some may say that we can’t always get our heart’s desire in this life, but I don’t actually believe that. I think that the obstacles are inside me and that it is in my power to overcome them. Openness, freedom, possibility … what will happen if I allow myself to have those things? What if I tell myself, “Yes, you can have what you really want?”