Emily HoldenLearning to feed myself has been the most important lesson of my life thus far. 

For some, feeding themselves well is a simple, natural and effortless process.

They gently pick up on internal cues, reaching out for foods that sustain their bodies, being mindful of any feedback on what effects these foods have on the body.  Their weight usually stays within a comfortable range, and despite some periods of over-indulgence or perhaps under-eating, their body’s homeostasis kicks in to keep them in balance.  These people may well have other lessons to learn, but are blessed with a struggle-free existence when it comes to feeding themselves.

The first question you might ask is, why?  Why do some people feed themselves without effort, when others struggle hour by hour, mentally battling with themselves to just EAT or NOT EAT, as the case may be.  Disordered eating comes in a sad spectrum of behaviours – from undereating, overeating, bingeing, purging, restricting, starving, compulsive eating, addictive eating…  These behaviours come hand in hand with obsessive thoughts, and feelings of shame and inadequacy.  We suffer physically, mentally and emotionally when we can’t feed ourselves well.

I can’t really say why some people are natural eaters and others aren’t.  But I can say that by telling your story, and gently and compassionately listening to your body as you learn how to feed yourself, someone with disordered eating might find patterns and clues within their own story as to how eating became such a battle in the first place.  I needed to reclaim food as a vessel for nourishment rather than punishment.  Telling my story is a part of that process.

My story starts with loving food.  Loving it and wanting it from a very young age, say 5 or 6 years old.  Although not overweight in early childhood, I quickly developed a solid and stocky body, and by 8 or 9 I was certainly a big little girl.  I knew this very clearly, because my uniforms were always bigger sizes then my actual age, and often the biggest size you could get. I also knew this because the other girls told me I was big.

Food was a central and glorious part of my childhood.  I looked forward to parties and birthdays for the cake, the macaroni cheese (my absolute favourite), the sweeties.  Food not only celebrated, it also commiserated.  Ice cream and crisps brightened up any rainy day.

I don’t ever remember really feeling either full and satisfied or hungry.  I remember wanting food.  Wanting it even though we had just eaten.  Wanting it even though it wasn’t a meal time.  Wanting it even though no one else was eating.  It was not a physical call to eat, I didn’t know what that felt like, but a mental pull, a voice that said EAT, EAT, EAT almost constantly.

Of course, I knew even as a child that eating large amounts of food was a greedy and shameful thing to do.  When I went to friends’ houses, I marvelled at the modest portions. Pretending not to want any more, inwardly I was filled with anxiety.  This is not enough food!  I need more!  I feel achingly disappointed at this paltry amount of food!

What I craved more than anything were carbs and sugar.  As a vegetarian from the age of 5, I knew instinctively that eating animals was not a choice I could make.  But I certainly ate everything else, with a preference for pasta, bread, potatoes, chocolate, cakes, ice-cream…   Basically flour and sugar-loaded foods.  I was both aware and unaware of my overeating and my weight, which may sound odd.  Let me explain.  Having identified myself as a big girl, and an overeater, from such a young age, I had no concept of who I was without those identities.  

To me, Emily, overweight, overeater, were all synonymous.  Although I theoretically knew that other people were able to lose weight by eating less, the possibility of that happening to me seemed unfathomable.  It would be like learning Chinese overnight, or waking up with a different hair, eye and skin colour.  It wasn’t a part of my identity to be slim and eat naturally.  I didn’t know how.

I wished and hoped that magically, something would change.  Every year, as I blew out my birthday candles, at 7, 8, 9…  15, 16…  20…  I wished that I could be slim.  I wished to be smaller.  I wished I could stop eating.

Being overweight, for me, is a bit like inhabiting the elephant in the room.  You wear, outwardly, your inability to feed yourself well. Other people may have other perceived weaknesses, but you can’t always necessarily identify them straight away.  Being big, I felt immediately inferior.  Hi, I’m Emily.  Sorry I’m a bit big, you see I don’t really know any other way to be.  If I could be slim like you, I would.  Sorry.

And so, to compensate, I focused on being really, really kind.  My ability to please was perfected.  And I fed people – most famously banana bread, which is like a hug in food form.  I tried never to be moody, or unreasonable, or demand too much from my relationships with people.  I was grateful for every crumb of friendship I received, knowing full well that having a fat buddy didn’t exactly get you kudos within social circles.

And so childhood became adolescence became womanhood, although at 18 I felt far from womanly.  I wobbled my soft body along the path of insecurities, assured that I would never have anyone fancy me, never get a boyfriend, and never be one of those girls – the sexy girls, the cool girls, the effortlessly desirable girls.

Despite my insecurities, I did manage to enter a relationship with the first man who showed any interest in me.  And at 18, I left home and moved to France to be with him.  My eating remained the same, and so did my body, somewhere cosily between a size 16 and 18, soft and round.  My poor boyfriend’s, however, ballooned, almost like he unconsciously picked up on my imbalanced eating.

My then-boyfriend decided to go on a diet, having gained a lot of weight during the 2 years we were together.  Having never dieted, I thought I’d give it a try.  I was amazed to see a kilo drop every week for a whole summer.  I settled into my new size 14 body, feeling more confident and happily receiving compliments from my university friends.

I learned to feed myself the French girl way, which is basically eat as little as possible.  Low calorie yogurts.  Salad.  Mineral water.  These all seemed pretty pathetic compared to the diet of patisseries and cheese I had been eating before but I knew that the minute I started eating what I wanted again, I’d put on weight.  And so now I knew a new fear: fear of going back to being fat again.  This fear has yet to truly leave me.

Size 14 gently became a size 12, and my new body could do things it had never done before. It could jog.  It could go to an aerobics class.  It could wear normal sized clothes.  It could get looked at by a guy across a crowded bar.  It could even get chatted up.  My self esteem started to gently climb, especially if I had a nice, well fitting outfit, make up and hair done, and several Long Island Ice Teas inside me. I was working my way up the ranks of the cool girls.

I found myself single, and for a short while chasing guys seemed to replace my obsession with food.  I remember feeling generally quite balanced in my eating for a few years – treating myself occasionally, knowing I needed to keep my calories down as much as possible, doing sport when I could – I navigated these new waters of feeling attractive, available, and free.  It was fun!

I don’t remember really having any bodily cues as to when, what and how much to eat. It was very much a mental calculation of what I really craved versus the healthy choices I knew I should eat.  There was a constant, gentle tugging between the two.  I would say that many women spend their entire lives this way – mentally battling out those two opposing teams, healthy vs unhealthy, virtuous vs greedy, slim vs fat, not enough vs too much.  Although bearable, it’s not much fun.

I don’t know exactly when my gentle struggle became a much deeper, darker fight with food.  I think it came from a place of isolation, loneliness, and shame about telling people that I really did not know how to feed myself.  At this point, I really don’t know how to tell my story without somehow feeling outed, exposed, and vulnerable.  Safe to say, my periodic overeating spiralled out of control, until I thought I might actually be going mad.  I engaged in self destructive behaviours around food that made me feel manic, ashamed and slightly insane.  By day, I tried my best to be a shining example of humanity – pleasant, friendly, and kind, completing tasks with efficiency and ease.  By the evening, on my own, I felt compelled to eat.  My rational, conscious mind was no match.  I failed to reform again and again, despite many promises to myself.

Although I did try to reach out, I couldn’t quite own up to the truly manic nature of my eating. It felt like a betrayal of the strong, capable woman I was trying so hard to be.  Hypnotherapy hadn’t helped.  Juicing hadn’t helped.  Moving to a new place didn’t help. Moving in with my partner didn’t help.  Things got better for a while, but within a few weeks, the manic eating would return.  I felt utterly hopeless.

I had never identified with the slimming clubs some people go to, or indeed the labels of anorexic or bulimic which may have taken me down a different path to get help.  But when I heard about food addiction, something clicked.  I felt truly powerless to stop my binges, and when I felt compelled to eat, I rarely had a choice to stop.  It mirrored so perfectly the experience of an alcoholic or a drug addict that I decided to join a 12 step programme for recovering food addicts.

The 5 months I spent on the programme were perhaps the most transformative and heart achingly painful of my life.  I felt raw.

For 5 months, I ate only what was agreed with my sponsor, which was 3 simple weighed and measured meals a day.  Any digression from this counted as breaking my abstinence, which means going back to day 1.  After 90 days of continuous abstinence, you can then share at meetings, and take a more active role in the group.  I never got my 90 days, slipping up by licking a spoon, going out to dinner, or eating an extra piece of fruit.  The FA (Food Addiction) food plan is also completely free from flour and sugar, which create a physiological addiction response in the body, similar to cocaine or alcohol in others.

In FA, I discovered hunger.  Raw, burning, empty hunger.  In FA, I discovered my dark side. Mood swings, anger, irritability, exhaustion…  Under my blanket of overeating, I had never really allowed these difficult emotions to truly take hold, as I gently swallowed them down with a large dose of yogurt and granola (another favourite treat!).    FA taught me what it means to sit with yourself, in pain, in an ocean of feeling, with no food to buoy yourself up.

So when you stop eating, what’s the alternative?  How do you soothe yourself when your drug of choice is taken away?  

The alternative, for me, was learning to care for myself better. Learning to embrace my imperfections, and be more open with people about my struggles.  Expect less from myself, and from others too.

Caring for myself today means staying, as best as I can, flour and sugar free.  Although I am no longer in FA, I take with me the knowledge that I can enjoy eating more when my food feels safe. And processed, addictive foods don’t feel safe to me anymore, as when consumed often they only create a mental state of craving I’d really rather not go back to.

Caring for myself today means taking time to buy, prepare and eat the foods that make my body and mind feel well and stable.  It also means resting, meditating, and doing yoga. Above all, it means forgiving myself for not knowing how to feed myself.  It means forgiving myself for not always eating what I need.