If you follow Heidi’s Table on Facebook, then you will recognize some of what follows from a recent post there. Topics of food and eating are —for better or for worse— very near and dear to me. Today I’d love to bring some fresh air to a topic which can sometimes be fraught.
I’ve come a long way from the eating disordered habits of my teens and young twenties, but food, and eating in general, remains an area where I meet my edge.
A few weeks ago I binged on a pint of Coconut Bliss, a delicious frozen treat which, sure, doesn’t have dairy (something I don’t do well with) and, sure, doesn’t have refined sugar or corn syrup (which are the equivalent of crack-cocaine for me), but still: we are not talking healthy here. Agave, which is what it is sweetened with, is sugar no matter what label of good or of bad we slap on it. And it was a binge. I didn’t even kid myself when I bought it: my lover was out of town and I got it with the intent of going home and curling up on the couch to binge on Coconut Bliss and Orange is the New Black. All of which I did.
When it comes to eating well and cultivating a loving relationship with myself and with food, what comes to mind is what the parenting and step-parenting research has shown to be true for bringing up well-adjusted and balanced kids: authoritarian (rules- and judgment- and punishment-based) doesn’t work. Neither does permissive (everything and anything is OK). Both authoritarian and permissive styles can actually be quite harmful. And neither sees the actual child. (The authoritarian parent’s eyes can’t see the actual child what for all the rules and judgments in the way, while the permissive parent can’t find the child because, oh well, whatever! I don’t know… Do whatever you want, honey, it doesn’t matter… Both styles can leave the kid with a sense of not mattering much, not being seen, not to mention unclarity about their place in their family and by extension the bigger world.)
Authoritative is where it’s at. Authoritative is kind and loving and firm, wherein firmness is about loving limits. And when limits are crossed, which is a natural part of life and of growing up, then there are consequences rather than punishments.
In relation to my eating, a kind with loving limits approach might look like eating good-for-me things and preparing them in yummy ways, and from time to time eating foods that are just plain old feel-good treats (within healthy limits and provided they aren’t total crap). The feel-good-treats wouldn’t be for every day or maybe even for every week, but from time to time, yes. Maybe the loving limit for me next time with Coconut Bliss would be not buying it to eat alone, but to share with someone. Or making my own Coconut Milk-Strawberry-Banana-Frozen-Treat-That-I-Can’t-Find-A-Good-Name-For (but is only sweetened with frozen fruit) and having a big bowl of that while I watch the colorful drama of prison life unfold.
Being kind and having loving limits around food is, in some ways, harder than both the rules- and punishment-based and the anything-goes approach. It’s not automatic for me. Kind and loving limits involve mindfulness and intention, neither of which I can practice without being present (rather than checked out) which involves turning toward rather than away from myself. And when a limit is crossed such as binging on a pint of Coconut Bliss, the consequence for binging could be simply the 2 + 2 = 4 kind of discomfort of feeling bloated and icky for the night and, depending on how often it happens, my pants getting tighter and, by extension, getting dressed becoming stressful. Whereas the judgment and punishment approach might sound rather mean: what the hell is wrong with you?! After all these years, still? Really?! Followed by, the next day, deprivation. And the anything-goes approach would probably not even call it a binge.
Teen-me’s and early-20’s-me’s habits around food involved a constant back and forth from judgment and punishment (diets, deprivation, and following a binge, purging) to anything-goes (binging and compulsive eating). The sweet spot of balance lies somewhere in the middle: I nourish myself with food that my body appreciates, I get to experiment and play around with making healthy foods that are also delicious, and I don’t punish myself when I do binge.
This all brings me to a bigger question, inquiry around which has become an underlying theme for me over the years. (Is it a coincidence that the qualities I list below are the very same things I want for my clients to receive when they visit Heidi’s Table?)
What is it that I am wanting, ultimately and immediately, from a binge?
Comfort. Preferably in the form of sweetness. Gooey and smooth is good.
And what is it that you want from that?
Aside from the obvious fact that sugar just tastes so freaking good? Hmm…it’s got something to do with home. With feeling at home.
What would that be like to feel deeply and truly at home?
Comfortable. Safe. Protected. Seen… Yes, seen. Allowed to be and worthy just as I am.
And how does that feel in your body, that kind of being seen?
It’s brings a sigh of relief. Which is, come to think, another thing I always wanted from food, and particularly the sweet kind I favor to binge upon: relief.
Relief from what?
Relief from having to do it all myself, from feeling the weight of having to “make a living” on my shoulders, and relief from some huge disappointments I don’t know what to do with. Relief from anxiety and fear. I want a sense that something, someone, has my back. That I am not alone. That I am supported. Taken care of. All of that and also relief from having to figure anything out, or fix anything.
Whoa! That’s a tall order for a pint of Coconut Bliss! What would that be like in your body, this relief you are describing?
Oh, that brings another sigh. I’m relaxed. My breath is long and soft. My mind is calm.It’s about being able to rest. To fully let go. It’s like when you go to sit in a chair… You know how when a chair looks rickety or otherwise questionable, you know how when you go to sit in it (if even you do!) you can’t give the chair all of your weight but rather you hold back and are careful and tight—
Yes, I know what you mean—
Well, feeling totally supported is like sitting in the queen of all chairs, a chair that truly has your back. The queen of all chairs makes even the question of support obsolete. It’s a chair that you can plop every last bit of the good the bad and ugly of yourself into without even a thought —let alone a second thought— pertaining to support. That kind of chair.
I do not know that the next time my lover is out of town, or the next someone dies, or next time winter shuts us all in for weeks or months on end, or the next time someone I love puts their hand through a wall at the incomprehensible injustice and wrongness of the way things were, or are, or the next time I have an attack of insecurity about the ups and downs of being self-employed… I do not know that I will not then, once again, binge. But maybe just maybe I will pause first and ask:
Is this Coconut Bliss really the queen of all chairs or am I just pretending it is?
And then maybe just maybe I will find something or someone that can give me the kind of comfort, the kind of support, the kind of relief and sweetness that I will feel good about all night and when I wake the next morning.