Intuitive Eating

So much has happened in my life over the past month; I have been experiencing so much chaos, confusion, frustration, and anxiety. In the moments of calm; however, I have not wasted the opportunities to reflect. As we have dealt with the rapidly failing health of a loved one, those reflections have often pertained to health and wellness, especially long-term health. In a roundabout way, that has led me to the concept of intuitive eating. 

Intuitive eating isn’t a new concept to me. Being a perpetual dieter and spending a lot of time online and offline in this space, I have some understanding of it. I have a half-finished book, “The Emotional Eaters Repair Manual” by Julie M. Simon on my nightstand that talks in great length about it. That book is unfinished largely because, while exhilarating, my knee-jerk emotional response to the concept is fear and mistrust of my own intuition.

I have endured an ever-evolving eating disorder for the past 30 years. I have sought and received professional treatment for bulimia and binge eating disorder. I find myself now questioning whether the past 10 years of dieting is nothing more than a restrictive, control-based counterpart of disordered behavior surrounding food. When I am counting calories, when I am pre-planning and preparing my weekly meals and weighing out portions on my little kitchen scale, I feel like I am being “good,” like I am being disciplined and healthy. But maybe this isn’t self-care – maybe this is just another extreme. I believe I fall short of orthorexia, but I also believe that the emotions I feel when I think about having this relationship with food for the rest of my life tells me this isn’t right, it isn’t sustainable, it isn’t what I want for myself. At the same time, giving that up feels like risking the weight loss and improved overall health I have achieved thus far.

It’s scary to imagine giving up control. It’s scary to imagine learning to trust my intuition. It’s scary to think I may not be able to tell the difference between my intuitive voice and the voice of my trauma. Yet, it is equally scary to imagine being 60 years old, my mobility limited by nearly a lifetime of being overweight, tugging my little food scale out of the cabinet to weigh out one ounce of chickpeas. 

When I think about a successful transition to intuitive eating, I feel this potential for liberation. What would that feel like? What if there are no more “good foods” and “bad foods?” What if there were no more counting calories, no more weighing foods, no more refrigerator full of little snack-sized zip top plastic bags of portioned grapes or carrot sticks? What if I never looked at others again with envy at their “normal” relationships with food, if I didn’t feel like there is something wrong with me?

I have been driven by my goals to where I am now – the incessant calorie-counter, the persistent dieter, constant “pinner” of online fitspo. My weight loss journey has been driven by the pursuit of a physical ideal I have imagined for myself, sculpting the body I see in my mind’s eye. I have paid some lip service to the idea of overall mind, body and spirit wellness but, honestly, those were superficial thoughts I invented to justify my quest for a certain type of body I saw as worthy of love and respect (something I have never felt I’ve had in my life). I find myself, today, in a head- and heart-space, of wanting something different from what I have wanted before: wanting true and lasting overall health and wellness. I find myself, today, wondering if adopting a practice of intuitive eating along with a more natural, intuitive and holistic approach to fitness, emotional health and mental wellbeing might be the path for me. It’s scary. It’s exciting. It’s enticing. I wonder…

Cruise Control in a Demolition Derby

I was feeling great. My path felt clear, unobstructed. I was feeling liberated from my destructive behaviors. I was finding it easy and rewarding to follow my meal plan, I was enjoying my daily walks. I had shifted into cruise control.

I have only been back on this path since the start of the new year. This isn’t shifting into cruise control on an open highway – it’s cruise control in a demolition derby. 

A demolition derby isn’t a comfortable, safe, modern vehicle gliding across a freshly paved multi-lane interstate. It’s a junker with a punctured radiator plucked from a wrecking yard, grinding on three flat tires through mud, pounded on all sides from by junkers and flying debris. Just surviving it requires unwavering focus and determination. 

Over the weekend, I took a few hits to the core trauma. Rather than keeping my eye on the situation, rather than acknowledge I was on a dubious foundation and on a course full of potential hazards, I checked out by switching to auto pilot. I didn’t deal with my emotions or the behaviors resulting from them. I disregarded them, dismissed them as “water under the bridge.” Then I shifted, spending (wasting) my clarity walks on sort of irrelevant but feel-good topics. Unaddressed, the painful feelings arising from my negative core beliefs stewed beneath it all. That culminated in a nearly two-pound weight gain this week. 

Sometimes I think that eating is the only unproductive, unhealthy coping mechanism in which I engage but it isn’t. Distraction is definitely one of my coping mechanisms. By immersing myself in distracting thoughts and activities, I can conveniently ignore – and cease working on – my problems. Working on my issues is painful and my distractions, whether that be outfitting my bike with artistic decorations for the Spring or driving across the greater South Bay searching for Cotton Candy Manic Panic to dye my hair, feels like it gets me out of feeling that pain. That is an illusion, though. The pain is still very much there, still very much impacting my emotional, physical and mental health. 

It may sound strange, but I am grateful for my weight gain this week. It has jarred me awake, gotten me back in the present – back in the derby, my hands on the wheel, my eyes peeled for the hits that could be coming my way. 

Next Level Me

Don’t you just love a New Year? A fresh start, a new beginning, a time when it feels like the future is ripe with possibility and we have the opportunity to leave everything we don’t want behind. Intellectually, we all know that every waking minute of every day offers this – there is no reason to wait for a New Year or a birthday or a Monday or whatever arbitrary starting line we designate. But I love the magic and promise of a New Year and this year is no different. 

In mid-December I discovered a new-to-me podcast: Bad Bitches Losing Weight with Melissa Ronda. I began binge-listening, furiously taking notes, and thinking, “damn, this woman totally gets me.” I’m sure the podcast will feature in future entries, but I wanted to talk about one episode in particular today. “WWNLMD?!?” The title is a play on the WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) bumper sticker phenomenon and the acronym stands for “What Would Next Level Me Do?!” The episode talks about getting a clear picture of what the evolved version of yourself looks like, how she thinks and acts, how she shows up, what she will and won’t tolerate and then checking in with yourself when the need arises, asking yourself what would next level me do in this situation? For instance, maybe you want to eat something counterproductive to your goals, you ask “would next level me eat this?” 

Over the next few weeks, I did a lot of contemplation and journaling defining the next level version of myself. I was all-in. I could see her in my mind’s eye: I knew what she looked like, how she did hair, what she wore, what she listened to, how she would act in situations. I got a crystal-fucking-clear picture of wo I wanted to be. As a New Year’s Resolution, I created a list of 13 defining qualities of next level me (fully anticipating this list will grow and evolve over time). On January 1, I hung my nifty, designy “Next Level Me” sheet on the refrigerator and, at first, I was on it. Bam-bam-bam, check-check-check, checking off these qualities and focusing on being this version of myself. Of course, over the following weeks I started slowly taking my foot off the gas and emotionally detaching from wanting the things on the list. This is kind of crazy, right? Why would I not want this? These are really awesome qualities on this list. Why grow complacent about those desires? Why would they stop feeling less important than having king cake and chocolate parfaits? At first, I didn’t really realize how much I had detached from the wants on this list and when I did finally realize I had detached, I didn’t really ask myself why.

I think, intuitively, my focus had shifted. Instead of spending my afternoon “clarity walks” (I’ll touch base on what a clarity walk is another post) having these detailed conversations with myself about “next level me”, I had started deep-diving into my emotional issues. The conversations with myself were really difficult but liberating ones about core trauma and core beliefs, about my relationship with food and how it was defined by those traumas and beliefs. As I was having these conversations, the desires to partake in behaviors that didn’t serve me subsided – I stopped being tempted by things in the house like cookies or cupcakes. It wasn’t about strengthening resolve or will-power, I simply stopped needing to eat to soothe emotions. This feels like a very clear, very strong indicator that I was right to trust my intuition on shifting focus, that this work is healing my heart. As I work through all this, I think – and I am theorizing here – this is going to allow me to circle back to the “Next Level Me” list in a more sustainable way. It is as if something in me knew I wasn’t fully ready for that list until I cleared some clutter, some stumbling blocks out of the way. 

As I tackle these emotional issues, I think the best route forward is to look at the list more deeply. When I first discovered I had strayed from the list, my solution was, “well, maybe I should journal about each item on the list and define it more clearly.” I don’t think that’s what I need to do – I think I know the definition of each item on the list, I had a very clear picture of it when I put it on the list. The best path forward is to journal on why I put each item on the list. There has to be a reason, a damned good reason. I don’t have to define “clean eating” for myself, it’s not a new or confusing concept. But why is “clean eating” so important to the vision I have of the best version of my future self… so important that it’s the first item on the list? Why is leaving my comfort zone and handling my shit so important? This is something worth some seriously peeling back of the onion. That next level version of myself is not at the bottom of a list, she’s at the end of a long, arduous road of introspection, understanding, accountability and work.

Exploring My Relationship With Food

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 began to associate those experiences of something tasty on my tongue with happiness, emotional satisfaction, and comfort.

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. 

A Return to Blogging

From the beginning of my journey, I have been focused on my weight. I talked a good game about self-care, about fitness, about motivation, about all sorts of things but every ounce of my drive was measured in pounds on a bathroom scale. Turns out, this may not be the best way to go about this. 

I took time off from blogging – about 19 months – and I made the decision to do that for a number of reasons. The first reason was that I felt obligated to generate content on a regular basis, which put me in a position of trying to write when I had nothing meaningful to say. I read some of those posts now and have to refrain from rolling my eyes as a few range from pretentious to banal. The second reason I stepped away was a nagging case of imposter syndrome. Who am I to dole out weight loss advice when I have never actually reached my weight loss goals, when I struggle as much as I do? I felt like a fraud, like I was all self-righteous talk without the results to back that up. The third reason I stopped blogging was that this blog really doesn’t have a large readership and it often felt like I was screaming into the void. Seriously, my own family didn’t even read this. 

Why on earth would I come back now? Most simply put, things have changed. 

I have started, for the first time in my journey, to really start digging deep into my emotional issues. I recognize that this is not a weight loss journey but a transformative journey of body and soul. I recognize that, until they are addressed, the issues driving my behavior will continue to reemerge and hinder my progress. It isn’t enough to want to lose weight. My weight was never my problem, it was a symptom of my problems. I wear my trauma on my body, like an anchor tethering me to my past. 

I have been doing a lot of thinking, a lot of talking to myself aloud, a lot of journaling trying to learn about the roots of my behaviors. I have been examining my core traumas, looking back in time to identify when coping mechanisms were adopted and patterns emerged. Looking inward doesn’t feel like enough. I feel the need to engage in the cathartic practice of writing my discoveries down. This is the deep dive. The peeling of the onion. The unpacking of baggage. I am the cartographer of the roadmap of my life. I write when I have something to say. I write with brutal, painful, potentially embarrassing candor without any hope or expectation of inspiring anyone. Finally, I write for an audience of one: myself.