Why do I eat things that are bad for me, things that don’t support my efforts? Why do I eat so much? So often? What triggers me to switch to a sort of auto-pilot state of frenzied consumption, in which my conscious self truly doesn’t wish to participate?
I think everyone can agree that eating can be a corporeally pleasurable experience. A bite of something that tastes good is physically gratifying. Even anticipating that bite can cause physical reactions of salivation and tummy grumbling. That is universal. It’s a given. What happens when you live a predominantly unpleasurable existence, when you live with depression and anxiety?
Depression has been a near-constant for most of my life. I had my first thoughts of self-harm and suicide at age 12. I have experienced depression in levels varying from disinterest and disengagement to debilitating apathy and suicidal fantasies. At some point (a very early point, I imagine), I subconsciously learned that the pleasurable sensation of eating something gave me a few moments of alleviation from the constant sadness or nothingness. Sure, the enjoyment only lasted as long as the food lasted but it was relief, a brief time of feeling pleasure; a brief time of not feeling pain.
In writing this, I caught myself wanting to label the feeling “happiness” or “comfort” but happiness and comfort are soul-deep emotions. Food doesn’t and can’t provide those. It can only provide the pleasurable sensation we are physiologically hardwired to experience when eating calorie-dense foods. It is easy to mistake that sensation for happiness or comfort when you don’t know or remember what those things actually feel like. I truly believe that’s what happened with me, that I began to associate those experiences of something tasty on my tongue with happiness, emotional satisfaction, and comfort. My life had little actual happiness in it for many years – party due to my external circumstances and the trauma I was experiencing/had experienced and partly due to my as-yet-undiagnosed and untreated bipolar depression.
I liken it to taking pain medicine for an injury. Pain medicine doesn’t mend the injury, it only provides temporary relief from the pain of that injury. The injury is still there. The injury could even be exacerbated by the use of pain medicine if the injury is compounded by further activity during the alleviation of pain. Food doesn’t cure depression, it only engages the mind elsewhere for brief respites. The effects of eating, particularly overeating or eating unhealthy foods, can actually compound the depression by adding excess weight to the body, in my case leading to morbid obesity.
When I had my success in 2010 I had two things working in my favor.
1. My healthy diet and consistent moderate-to-vigorous exercise regimen altered my brain chemistry, releasing endorphins and dopamine, physically relieving my depression symptoms.
2. The process of losing weight was a pleasurable experience. It made me actually happy to have support, to weigh-in and see progress, to shop for new clothes and see my body transformed in an exciting and gratifying way.
The urge to relieve sadness with food was gone during this time, making it easy to adhere to healthy meal plans and remain motivated to exercise. Then my world got turned upside down. My weight loss stalled when I reached the limits of what my current efforts could achieve. I lost my job and I lost my support system, leaving me feeling alone and insecure about my future. Depression and anxiety returned and, because I never addressed the emotional or psychological issues behind my previous behavior, I had no healthy coping mechanisms and I resumed using food to provide momentary relief from my mental health disorder.
I feel like there are now two important tasks for me to begin work on. The first is to begin to identify pleasurable activities I can use to interrupt bouts of depression and disinterest. So far, I have considered jigsaw puzzles, online games, adult coloring books, physical activity, playing piano, window shopping, spa baths and mani-pedis. The second task is to continue to explore the evolution of my relationship with food because there is more much still to be unpacked. For instance, the subconscious process of briefly alleviating depression by eating eventually became habit, a ritualized compulsion regardless of the level of depression or anxiety I was experiencing and that is something to explore and understand. Nevertheless, I feel like this was a significant realization today. It makes sense, it rings true, and that gives me hope of overcoming it.