Medicating tragedy with food

by Christine on September 13th, 2010

filed under Christine's Life Updates, Eating Disorders

Last night I slept poorly. I had a nightmare that played out in slow-motion. As many times as I woke up, tried to clear my head, and drift back asleep, the nightmare would pick up right where it left off. The worst part is that the nightmare was a replay of real-life past events.  There were real people, real sounds, real smells, real textures. I woke up for the 10th and last time in a pool of sweat, clutching my sheets tightly and breathing quickly in the beginning stages of real panic.

I jumped out of bed, eager to leave that nightmare behind as quickly as I could. Bad news confronted me nearly immediately – something I don’t want to get into at the moment.  I retreated; I stepped into the shower, sat down on the floor, and cried as I let the water pour over me.

Afterwards I found yet another dead chipmunk in the house; another one of my cat’s kills. A ridiculous parking ticket was glaring at me from the kitchen counter. Then traffic was backed up on the highway, making me late to work.

It’s not even 9:30 a.m. and already it’s a bad day.

I’m having a terrible time shaking the bad memories away, getting the nightmare to go back into its safe compartment of my brain.

My instinct in instances like this have always been to reach for food. I went to the grocery store this weekend, so my cupboards are well-stocked. As I sat on the couch staring at Good Morning America, I kept a running inventory of the food that I could scarf down before leaving for work: canned soup, vegetables, crackers and cheese, peanut butter, omlettes, a bag of candy corn, cereal, rice pudding, etc.

“No,” I said. “That’s not the answer.

Maybe I was thinking about food as a way to distract me from the too-vivid nightmare I just had.

On the way to work I went into the corner store and saw all the Twinkies and ho-hos and Little Debbie’s staring at me. But I said no.  I passed  a Dunkin Donuts, and I felt the urge to go there pulling me like a magnet. But I said no. I passed a McDonalds; I don’t even like their breakfast food, but I was dying to go through the drive-through. No.  I passed three more independent coffee shops. I tried rationalizing a purchase: “A small coffee with cream and sugar would only be about 200 calories. You can afford that,” told myself. No. “A donut is only 150 calories, you can afford that!”  No.

Instead I clutched a pre-packed baggie of green grapes to me like a little girl with her teddy bear.

When I logged into the computer at work, I read Patrick’s blog. He asked, “So, I guess that means we ought to avoid disappointment, right? No, hardly. We need disappointment to become better. Today’s failure is the foundation for tomorrow’s success. Disappointment ought to be given due focus, learned from, and then focus returned to the dream.”

Well, I guess my nightmare didn’t exactly involve a disappointment so much as an all-out terror, and one that I was completely helpless to avoid.  I was a child when it happened, a child! However, despite the nuance in syntax, I think the point remains the same. Not just disappointments, but even real-life tragedies can mold us into better people. Tragedies and horrifying experiences can allow us to be empathetic, sympathetic, and caring people. Plus, when “survival mode” kicks in, it demonstrates just how strong we are as individuals.

Yesterday I came across the blog of a woman named Audrey from Barking Mad, who, coincidentally, lives only a few minutes from me. In a profile in a Woman’s Day magazine article, she writes:

I was sitting against the plush black leather of the limousine as it carried me away from the grave of my 2-year-old son, Joshua, who had been killed days earlier after being struck by a pickup truck. Yet all I could think about was food. With bitter tears running down my cheeks, I closed my eyes and pictured the platters of roast beef, creamy mashed potatoes and assorted pastries that my friends had lovingly set out at the wake. I imagined piling my plate with as much food as possible and swallowing all of it, pushing the pain down as far as it would go. The more I thought about food, the less I thought about seeing those precious brown eyes of Joshua’s closed forever.

Some people cope with the loss of a child by turning to alcohol or drugs. My drug of choice was food. When Joshua died, I was 40 or 50 pounds overweight. In the 20 years since, I have “comforted” myself to nearly 400 pounds.

Read the whole article here.

Like me, Audrey isn’t just dealing with a disappointment; what she is dealing with is a profound tragedy. Like me, Audrey self-medicated those emotions with food; perhaps it takes a lot of fuel to push those memories and thoughts into its appropriate compartments in the brain, I don’t know.  Perhaps food is a distraction; perhaps its medication; perhaps it’s just the need for sensation after the numbness that comes after a profound hurt.

Everyone deals with a tragedy, at some point, in their life, whether it’s the loss of a parent, a child, a pet, or some other trauma. Tragedy is one of those things that is quintessentially human; everyone will experience it at some point. I suppose it’s a matter of how you channel that experience that defines you. Will you allow the tragedy to hold you back? Keep you from your goals? Will you allow it to desensitize you, make you immune to other peoples’ hurt and suffering? Will the wounds of your tragedy make you so sensitive to the suffering of others that you never allow your own wounds to heal because you are constantly adopting the pain from others?

In Patricks’s blog, he referred his reader’s to a post by another blogger named Jody. She writes:

Is living in the past destroying the present and the future? Can we take power from within to overcome this? What are the lessons learned?

I wish I knew the answers to this. This morning, with the raw hurt of my nightmare too recently behind me, I’m not sure that I DO have the power to overcome the memories. I’m not sure what I’ve learned from this in the years since it’s happened; considering my recent obesity, I’m not sure that I’ve learned any really valuable lessons or used the experience to make me a stronger, better person.

I can say that I HOPE someday these memories will:

1.       Make me stronger physically and emotionally

2.       Make me empathetic to others

3.       Give me the fortitude and resolve to make myself a better person

4.       Help me to overcome my disordered eating patterns, rather than serve as an enabler for disordered eating

My question today is this: How do you transform a disappointment or tragedy into something positive? I don’t think wishing and hoping for it to be true is enough…so how does one achieve this?

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  • Angela

    Your posts always “talk” to me. Thank You!!!

  • Jacquie

    I have been struggling with this question since May 11th of this year, the day my dad and brother-in-law were were killed while sitting at a red light on their motorcycles and were hit from behind by a driver who was texting and not paying attention to his driving. This was a 39 year/old man too…not a teen like most people assume.

    So far, the only positive that I can come up with is that my husband, who was with them but made the light and was waiting on the other side is that 1) he wasn’t sitting at the light with them and 2) he didn’t see them killed. Other than that, I try to tell this story, without crying my eyes out, begging people to throw their cell phones in the trunk when they are driving. My family, will never be the same again. My sister is a widow at 45 with 2 children all because a 39 y/o man needed to text while driving.

  • Allanmklein

    I have some awesome California grown cabbage, that when ingested will led you sleep like a baby, through the night. If you need some…

  • Karen

    I wish I had an answer for you. I struggle with it myself. Safe hugs for you.

  • Barking Mad

    Hi, my name should be correctly identified as Audrey, as I am the one who wrote the piece which was featured in Woman’s Day magazine.

    I think you have identified some things that are issues when it comes to emotional eating and think you addressed it beautifully.

    Best of luck to you in your continuing life-long heath goal!

    Audrey from Barking Mad

  • Ewa Bialkowski

    Thank you for visiting my blog.
    Gosh, I wish I had answers. Food is a drug for me so I have to watch my every bite. Last few years have been quite a challenge in my life and the only way I managed not to regain 90+ lbs I had lost was by keeping only healthy stuff in the house. So we don’t have anything white flour, no sweets, no canned soups and such. If I want to pig out I either have to cook or eat raw. I cannot imagine gaining weight on raw cauliflower. :) That does not solve the whole problem but helps a lot. You know, there are also those healthy nuts just begging to help me when sadness hits.

  • Bonnie

    Unfortunately I gained 60 lbs when my mom passed away, so I did not transform the tragedy into something good. On the plus side, I didn’t lose myself in grief and could function at work and as a parent to my 2 daughters. I’m ready now to lose that weight and then some in honor of my mother and myself.

  • Patrick

    Christine, sorry to hear you have a nightmare that visits and causes you to to wrestle with bad memories, trauma even. Your question has me pondering a different question as a means to try and answer yours… “is there positive to be had from all disappointments/tragedies?”

    I want to believe the answer is yes, but my black & white nature tells me no. Thus, for most, the answer is likely yes. Some tragedies are down right horrific and I can’t imagine the good that could come from them.

    When I was a young adult two friends of mine were killed in a drunk driving accident. What good came from that? I sit here & try to find it but cannot.

    Well, maybe this is a stretch, but myself having endured the pain of that loss did come away from it with a new respect for not drinking & driving. In no way was my new respect worth the price they paid for me to get it. Ridiculous to think so, but in looking to answer the question that is the best I can come up with.

    My father passed away in 2003 in a manner that was completely unnecessary. For nearly 2 decades prior to that he lived his life in a way I shall just label as ‘wrecklessly’. From this I witnessed several examples of poor parenting, poor man’ship (is that a word); that I keep close at hand when making decisions. It sucks to be blunt, sucks to have to have it be my father and his disappointments which formed my better judgement. While I do look up to him in some ways, in too many ways I look down to him; and that is not the way I think it ought to be. It sucks. Again, I don’t think the price paid by him for my learnings were just.

    But we control only so much, you, & I. When stuff that sucks happens to us, what are we supposed to do? This is where I go black & white, I guess it is a defense mechanism for me. We can, in your words, let is hold us back; keep us from our goals; become insensitive and / or inattentive to our own pain? Or we can do the opposite.

    The right answer is easy, do the opposite. But that doesn’t mean choosing and living the right answer is itself easy. If it were why would your nightmare be there? Why do I become detached & distant for periods when I allow myself to fixate on why my dad was the way he was, what I could have done different to have him not be who he was?

    So, having cobbled all of that together, I think what we need to do is just promise to ourselves to keep trying and do the right thing by us. Be conscious of the past, be wary of the old pain and the new pain the past can cause us still if we allow it to do us harm to ourselves in trying to cope (e.g. binge, etc.). And talk about it with those closest to us, lean on our spouses, siblings, whomever we confide in for strength when the dreams, when the detached & distant periods, are upon us.

    And if we are lucky, we just may emerge as better people despite the difficulty of those dark experiences which we deal with.

    Sleep well tonight!