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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