The other morning my sleep was interrupted by the sound of a biscuit tray crushing under the weight of my unconscious body.
Yes, I had rolled on top of food in my sleep.
Yes, I fell asleep caressing a a chocolate chip-biscuit.
And, yes, this has happened before.
When I came to, I found myself lying between the aforementioned biscuit tray and a scattering of sesame seeds: the final remains of last night’s cream-cheese bagel. Instantly I felt the weight of regret, or maybe it was the feeling of sugar and dairy products struggling through my digestive system. Either way I felt unwell and I had an all-consuming need to clean the crime scene.
I am an emotional eater. I always have been. In my experience, emotional eating is not as tragically hilarious as Bridget Jones makes it look. I do not hunch over an ice-cream container theatrically singing broken-hearted romantic ballads alone on a Friday night. Instead, when I emotionally eat I will approach my kitchen trembling, eagerly searching for something to fill the void, to drown the stress, to silence the worry. If there is nothing available I will cry. I get angry and blame others for the fridge’s lack of appetising options. On happier occasions where there are snacks to be had, I will lovingly assemble them to ensure maximum enjoyment upon consumption. And just like an animal after a successful hunt, I retreat to the privacy of my room to relish in the glory of my meal.
Obviously, food and emotion are powerfully linked for me. This may explain why my favourite game to play is, “If I could eat anything in the world, what would it be?” (patent pending). This game allows me to escape to different parts of the world, visit old friends and relive memories; just how the act of eating food has allowed me to escape for years.
As a general rule, the happier I am, the less likely I need to find comfort in what I eat. When I am feeling stressed or worried an insatiable hunger is triggered. A whole range of concerns can result in this reaction: an assignment that I do not understand, or a persistent source of sadness and stress I carried unattended for years. Eating through this pain was a way of soothing the burning hole of constant worry and allow me to keep things repressed for just a bit longer.
Of course weight fluctuation is a significant downside to repressing my emotions in this way. If all the photographic evidence of my existence were placed on a timeline, the objective bystander would be able to tell when I was most upset based solely on these visual aids. From the age of 13 I have battled with fluctuating weight, and when I say fluctuating weight, I mean a slow weight gain with the occasional season of weight loss sprinkled in here and there. This self-soothing method, coupled with my plummeting self-esteem, made looking in the mirror, shopping, wearing togs and deciding what to wear, emotionally taxing tasks. The possibility of crying always loomed large.
When I was 22 I started my fourth year of law school. Despite experiencing some of the most stressful years of my life, I had achieved the goals I had set out for myself. Although victory was sweet, it left me asking if it was worth the cost every time I found myself locked to my chair riddled with anxious thoughts and missing out on opportunities to enjoy myself. Instead of giving this question the power to start a quarter life crisis, I used it as a springboard to reclaim control over my life. I had finally realised hoarding food in my stationery drawer to get me through my international public law exam was not a healthy life choice. It was not a bit of fun. Instead, it showed my inability to handle stress in a productive, healthy way.
Emotional eating was not a part of my personality. It was simply a method I had adopted to function on my bad days. Unravelling the habit took a lot more than avoiding my go to snack foods. It took a consistent effort to ask myself: “Are you hungry or sad?” “If you are sad, what about?” “Now you know why you are sad, is there anything you can do?”
Sometimes I could answer these questions easily. “No I am not hungry, I am bored from studying contract law all day. Instead of eating, I could go for a walk outside or have a coffee with a friend.” Others days, the answer was more complicated. In order to answer these questions I found myself trying to open boxes I promised myself I would never unpack. Asking myself whether I needed another Nutella sandwich could trigger tears, anxiety and anger. Out of all the boxes I had to unpack, there was a particularly big one, a traumatic event that occurred when I was 16. While I unpacked this box with the help of a qualified and understanding therapist, I realised not only was this event traumatic, it was where my habit of emotional eating got out of hand. In order to address emotional eating, I had to deal with the trauma. Without the support and words of affirmation from my family and closest friends this would have been impossible.
I also learned to deal with my anxiety in a healthy way. I adopted a routine that incorporated things I loved into the monotony of the day. While this seems obvious, it was not to me. By doing things I loved food was no longer the only highlight in my day. I would go to my favourite cafe with my sister, watch a movie with my mum or go on a walk with my friend. These breaks consistently showed me there was life outside of my anxieties.
I even started going to the gym. I know I sound like a preachy health guru, but when you take the time out of your day to drive to the gym, wear Lycra in public, sweat and get uncomfortable, it is inevitable that you will start to appreciate your body. That appreciation ultimately turns into self-love. When I unlocked this achievement, my attitude towards emotional eating really started to change.
Self-love is an amazing healer. It makes you revisit things you would rather forget, it motivates you to address harmful embedded behaviours and gives you the desire to never turn back. My self-love saw me go to the gym regularly, wear jeans in public after five years and allowed me to be disciplined enough to really think before I opened my mouth to eat on the bad days. Self-love also ensured that watching my eating habits did not become a fixation, but rather an extension of my desire to be healthier both mentally and physically. Self-love helped me make bravely acknowledge my shortcomings as well as other people’s but prevented me from beating myself up my errors in judgment. Self-love is responsible for my new obsession with yoga and allows me to have treat food days with no guilt.
In short, self-love transformed my ability to cope with stress and my everyday life has changed as a result. The fact my weight fluctuations have stopped and every week I get closer to looking more like the Madison I know from years past is a lovely bonus.
The other day when I woke up sandwiched between my midnight snacks I had taken a step backwards. In the name of self-love I did not beat myself up. Instead, I took a deep breath and asked myself “What made you so sad last night that you went to bed with confectionary?” After discarding the evidence of my midnight feast, I put on the kettle and made a cup of green tea. Nothing like a detox to undo a night of bad decision making.
I will probably always suffer with the urge to eat when I am sad. However, I know it will not be due to a habitual desire to bury myself in food. I am now armed with self-love, an appreciation for my body and an understanding of how to deal with my bad days, so there is no need to turn to the kitchen cupboard for therapy anymore.