What’s really been eating me?

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.

flatlay photography of white ceramic bowl
Photo by Anna Tukhfatullina Food Photographer/Stylist on Pexels.com

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?

stainless steel sink drainage
Photo by icon0.com on Pexels.com

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.

person holding letters
Photo by Vie Studio on Pexels.com

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?

heart hand on shallow focus lens
Photo by Jasmine Carter on Pexels.com

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?”

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15 thoughts on “What’s really been eating me?

  1. If you can pardon the apparent (but unmeant) insensitivity in this choice of phrase, Lory, you have certainly offered us food for thought. I do really need to consider the points you raise and not give an immediate summative response, but thank you for putting your own thoughts into words.

    1. These are just my personal musings, Chris. It helps me to articulate them on the blog as a way to try to figure out what I think. Thanks for being there as a listening ear, and if you have any further thoughts I’m always interested to hear them.

  2. Lori, thanks for opening up to us. Like Chris says, thanks for all you gave us to think about. I will be interacting with your post by myself. I am reminded of that great book that helped me a lot to understand the relationship between food and emotions and general well being. I may come back with more comments. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you so much Silvia. So glad to have you here. Please remind me, what is that book you mention? I don’t remember if I saw it on your blog already. I’m definitely interested in more good reading on this topic.

      1. My pleasure. I went back to my archives and I found it in the books read lists. I loaned it and lost it, but I had to reorder it which I did today. There’s a 4th edition and many journals and other spins around it. It’s THAT relevant. It’s Intuitive Eating, coauthored by two expert ladies who have seen thousands of people in their years of practice. We all do emotional or disregulated eating at some point in life, and I feel like I need to read it again because it’s life changing-if you want it to be. I love their holistic approach. I have my small knowledge from my own family, and what I have seen around. Eating is very interconnected to our health but we treat it in the West very analytically or pragmatically, while there’s a lot more to it, and eastern cultures and worldviews have different and rich contributions to this and other things -I am thinking about Marie Kondo and her more comprehensive approach to tidying which we have reduced to a cleaning activity. I am rereading Intuitive Eating and I hope to continue the conversation.

        1. Great. I can request it from the library and will look forward to when it comes in. I was just thinking about Marie Kondo and how when I started tidying it really did upend my life! So true that in the west we tend to detach and compartmentalize everything but really it’s all connected. We’ve got to figure this out or we are sunk. I still struggle but I have enough experiences now that I should not need reminding. Old habits.

  3. I so appreciate hearing from people who are willing to put in the hard work to make the best of life, Lory. Not everyone is so keen to make the inner discoveries about themselves that you lean into. So they also don’t benefit from the insights that you are gaining about yourself and your relationships. For those of us who follow along, we can gain insights about ourselves too as we read of your journey. Our relationships with food can be so complicated. I have lots of untapped areas to uncover in my own relationship with food.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Lisa. I’ve just been told by someone else that I am unusually introspective. That has great benefits but can also go too far … it has tended to cause me to ignore or overlook the importance of the actual outer world, which includes my own body. As in everything one needs to find the balance. Food is such a good way to practice that because it is literally the bridge between our outer and inner world. So here’s hoping for some good practice in the near future.

  4. Oh, Lory, I feel this so much. I’ve also been trying to figure out what it is that I need and want. I don’t seem to be able to articularte it the way you can, but I’m rooting for you to untangle those complicated knots.

    1. Thank you Jean. Your support really matters and makes a difference to me. Sharing my thoughts on this blog over the last 9 years has been a part of my healing process too, as I know I’ve said elsewhere before.

  5. I admire the level of thoughtfulness you are putting into your quest to find an answer to your health problems. Few of us give much thought to what we’re eating let alone why we eat the way we do

    1. I was very thoughtless for a long time … too much eating that was just coping with stress. Fortunately I’ve found some other ways that don’t make me sick. So the eating habits can get an overhaul!

    1. So glad you found it helpful. Everyone’s story is different but we can learn from each other too.

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