On eating and rewiring your brain

They say you are what you eat ­čÖé

Hello, friends! I’ve missed writing here. Life has gotten unexpectedly stressful lately, and all my energy has gone into getting through each day, coping with things as they come up and trying to make plans for changes that will make life less stressful. In related news, if anyone knows of an affordable two-bedroom apartment in or near Boston, let me know.

Today I thought I’d write a bit about eating — eating disorders, or disordered eating — and healing from them. I’ve never been diagnosed, but I’ve definitely had times in my life when I was anorexic-ish, starving myself and exercising obsessively to lose weight, and other times when I have been unable to stop over-eating. My weight has swung up and down 100 lbs since college. I’ve written about how I learned to break the cycle of over-eating–> feeling shame–> starving myself at the shame part of the cycle here. Basically I decided to stop dieting and stop punishing myself when I overate; to do my best to eat healthy foods when I was hungry, stop eating when I was full, and to forgive myself when I did eat too much. The forgiveness, for me, was the key. When I recklessly and completely refused to feel shame for overeating, I found myself feeding myself more lovingly, and stopping when I was full more naturally.

Another thing I’ve done is to try to replace overeating with other, healthier coping mechanisms. Meditation and centering prayer (a particular type of prayer in which you sit in God’s presence without speaking) helped me to learn to be still, to quiet my mind and my hands so that I did not need the activity of eating to soothe myself. Candles, incense, and scented oils (my favorites are peppermint, rosemary, and lavender) helped to satisfy the cravings for comfort and stimulation that I often mistook for hunger. And yoga has been a wonderful way to reconnect with my body, calm myself, and exercise without the obsessive calorie-counting I used to do on the gym treadmill. I’m now at about the halfway mark in that 100lb weight swing, and have stayed there for six years. I could lose more weight by dieting, but then I’d be right back in the cycle, losing and gaining, feeling constant shame and frustration, thinking about food all the time. I’m much happier where I am, eating healthy, exercising naturally, and trusting my body to know where it wants to be.

My friend Arwen Faulkner wrote a few years ago about something called neuroplasticity. It’s the idea that our brains are rewriteable, that even programs of reaction and response learned in childhood can be changed. Arwen writes poignantly about what that has meant in her life as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She says that

Neuroplasticity involves the spontaneous rewiring of neurons, the reassignment of neural pathways. Neurons are able to strengthen well-worn connections while weakening or eliminating others. Imagine, the road less travelled, essentially disappears. A healing process, this gives us the power to literally change our minds.

You can read the rest of her essay here. I’ve been thinking about that lately, and how I’ve done just that: rewired my brain, created new well-worn paths to replace the old ones. I don’t really believe in will power in the context of eating — I think white-knuckling it can work for a time but there will always be payback. My times of extreme self control, eating 500 calories a day and burning them off plus more on the treadmill, ultimately resulted in obsessive eating and a ruined metabolism. The body is hardwired for survival. But I do believe that we can replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy ones. My brain responds differently to food than it used to. I don’t get the same intense rush from binge eating sweet or salty foods. I don’t get the same emotion-numbing effect from piling on the calories long after my hunger is sated.

You know what’s funny, though? I kind of miss it. I’ve never used drugs (illegal, I mean – I’ve used plenty of prescribed drugs for the migraines, and I live in fear of someone discovering that coffee is bad for you) and never drank very much, but I imagine being in recovery from abusing food is kind of like being sober. It’s so much better, here, on the healthy side. But, as I mentioned, the last few weeks have been very stressful. Meditation helps, yoga helps, scented things help (I am currently running a humidifier with rosemary and peppermint oil as I write). Getting outside helps, as does focusing on the moment, on what’s in front of me. Breathing exercises help, talking to friends, reading a good book, writing. I have so many healthy coping mechanisms. But they don’t give me quite the same buzz as overeating used to. They walk me through my problems, bring me to a place of peace that is deeper than the circumstances around me. And they don’t hurt my body and make me hate myself. It’s a much better way, really. But still, as I walked through CVS yesterday, looking at the giant bags of popcorn and candy, I thought of how it would feel to climb back into those bags of salt and sugar, the way an alcoholic climbs back into the bottle. To lose myself again, after all this work finding myself. And I felt a moment of regret that that escape was no longer available to me.

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I don’t really want to write about what’s going on right now, because it seems unfair to vent about my housemate when I have a blog and she (as far as I know) doesn’t. But I do want to say a few things about it:

  1. Thank God for Mark. Really. He is away right now because his mom broke her arm and he is taking care of her, and that makes the current situation even harder, but I am just so grateful to have such a kind, thoughtful, intelligent, and wise friend and housemate.
  2. I’ve had to learn this lesson over and over again, but I think I’m finally getting it: Not everything is my fault, and not everything is fixable if only I can find the perfect thing to say or do, or the perfect way of being. Some things are other people’s faults, God help ’em, and other people’s problems to fix, and all I can do is take care of myself the best I can and leave space open for other people to do their part if and when they’re ready.
  3. This is super hard when the person you’re having a hard time with is living in your house.
  4. Seriously, does anyone know of an affordable two-bedroom apartment?

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How are you all doing? I’ve missed you. What have you been up to lately? What are some of your coping mechanisms, healthy or unhealthy? Tell me here, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

You are not alone, I promise.

Love,
Jessica

 

 

On banishing shame, or how I found and ate three day old rice under my covers and woke up the next day free

Photo by OzRocky

Photo by OzRocky

Sometimes I eat a late night snack in my bed. I used to have much bigger binges late at night, sometimes eating the equivalent of an additional one or two meals. The best thing for my body, for my sleep rhythms, for my emotional well-being, is not to snack after 9pm. I sleep better when I don’t, and I wake up feeling somehow clearer, less foggy, not retaining water from the salt of last night’s snack. Sometimes I manage not to late-night-snack, but often I don’t. I have gotten really good at not keeping things in the house that lend themselves to mindless snacking — chips, candy, salty things, big bags of things. So when the urge does come I can only eat what I have — an apple or a single-serving yogurt. That’s all well and good, but when I’m tired and medicated (I take my migraine meds a couple of hours before bed) sometimes I still manage to overeat. Even bread can be a temptation. I crave something I can put in my mouth, bite after bite. I crave the dopamine stimulation of salt, the busy-ness of my hand going back and forth from the bag to my mouth.

Some nights I still eat too much. But as I’ve written before, it’s not overeating that perpetuates eating disorders. It’s shame. Do you remember my three rules of eating? Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, forgive yourself when you don’t? That last one, forgive yourself when you don’t, is the absolute most important. If you forgive yourself, that day is over, that binge is over, and you get to wake up a normal human being on a normal day. You can feed yourself a healthy breakfast, plan a healthy lunch and dinner, enjoy the taste of the food, the nice full feeling in your stomach, and the energy the food gives you. That night you might overeat, or you might just eat an apple, or even just go to bed with no snack at all.

If you don’t forgive yourself you wake up, not just foggy and bloated, but angry and in caloric debt. You try to force yourself to eat smaller meals, you punish yourself with bitter thoughts; you furrow your brow at your reflection in the mirror. You don’t feed yourself lovingly throughout the day, so when you get to the night you are hungry. You dislike yourself. Guess what makes you feel better while at the same time validating your self-castigation? Half a loaf of that raisin bread you were saving for breakfast. Shame begets shame. Forgiveness begets healing.

I have gotten really good at forgiving myself. I think that is the only reason that the 50+ pounds I lost a few years ago has stayed off. Sure, I could probably lose another 30 by breaking my rules, by not eating when I’m hungry, by turning my shame into the fuel to beat my body into submission. I’ve done that before, and it works, for a little while. But then the weight comes back, and, like the demon in Jesus’ obscure parable in Matthew 12, it brings back seven of its friends with it. Better to welcome the one demon you have, gently allow it space in your life without giving it control over anything. And maybe you will find that that demon was just you all along — wonderful, imperfect, adorable, multi-faceted, dearly loved you.

Something funny happened this past weekend, that showed me just how far I’ve come and just how good at forgiving myself. I went away for the weekend, and got back Monday afternoon. I didn’t have the energy to cook dinner, but I remembered that I had some leftover rice and planned to eat that with frozen veggies. But when dinner time came, I couldn’t find the rice anywhere. It wasn’t on my shelf in the fridge, or my housemates’ shelves. I asked Mark twice if he had eaten it, and he denied it. Then I remembered that Friday night I’d had the late night snacking urge. Nervously I pulled back the covers of my bed, and found it there: A Pyrex container of rice. It had been in my bed the whole weekend.

>Five years ago I would have felt that sick feeling of shame in my gut. I would have immediately begun spiraling into hateful thoughts towards myself. I would have thought that the rice represented a deep, secret, fatal flaw, that it confirmed that I was abnormal and broken. What kind of person loses rice in their bed? What was wrong with me? In an effort to purge and punish myself I would have thrown the rice into the garbage disposal and eaten only veggies for dinner. Three hours later, hungry and full of shame, I would probably have overeaten again, salt and sugar, something bad for me.

Do you know what I did this time? I laughed. I told Mark where I’d found it, thereby depriving the shame of oxygen and snuffing it out. Secrecy is oxygen to shame, did you know that? And I checked that the rice was still good (it was!) and heated it up with veggies and I ate it. I was hungry, so I ate good, healthy food, and I ate until I was full. I forgave myself, and I fed myself.

Friends, forgive yourselves. Feed yourselves. You are good and whole and loved. Yesterday is over, it does not get to make demands on us today. Go to sleep forgiven and whole, wake up to a new day, and feed yourself.

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Love,
Jessica