What to do when you don’t know how to feed yourself

Last night I was talking to a friend of mine, basically doing a check in about our lives. As per usual these days my check in was largely compromised of my issues around food. I often come to her with my food woes because she has her own personal experience with disordered eating and can relate to my struggles. I was telling her about how I’ve been really struggling with my fear of sugar and carbohydrates, which has led me into a cycle of extreme avoidance and overindulgence is very frustrating. I expressed how I worry that sugar and carbs impede my weight loss and that I just want them to be completely out of my life (an unrealistic and illogical notion, I know). As a result I’ve made it a goal to stay under 25 carbs a day and I had originally intended to make this month No Sugar October, avoiding not just sugary  treats but also anything that has sugar, honey, agave or artificial sweeteners added (although the goal has changed slightly since we had this conversation). From this we got on the subject of moderation which is something that I think a lot of people with eating disorders find really difficult. I can’t speak for everyone who has an eating disorder but I have a sneaking suspicion that many of us (but not all) tend to think in binary terms– good food and bad food, fat and thin, hungry or full, fasting/restricting or bingeing. Of course there are many people who don’t fall into this type of thinking, but I definitely find myself thinking this way a lot, particularly regarding hungry vs full and fasting/restricting vs bingeing.

One of the things that’s common among people with eating disorders is that we don’t know how to feed ourselves, and I know that doesn’t really make sense to people who don’t have a personal history with eating disorders but bear with me. People who don’t have eating disorders listen to their bodies– they eat when their stomach sends signals to the brain saying “I’m hungry” and they stop eating when they feel full, and that’s about as complicated as it gets. But eating disorders are mental illnesses, so those signals are either overpowered by emotional/mental turmoil or they simply don’t happen anymore (or both). It’s difficult to follow your body’s signals when your brain is telling you to keep eating, or to stay away from food or else bad things will happen. And the longer you engage in behaviors, the farther removed you are from your body– you understand it less and less, you begin to tune out all of the things your body does to keep you from dying.

I don’t know how to feed myself. I don’t mean that in the physical, mechanical sense– I know how to use a fork and a spoon, I can get my food from the plate to my mouth without spilling, I have the capacity to chew and swallow without choking, and my body knows how to handle the process from there. But I don’t understand my hunger signals at all. For the past decade I’ve been going back and forth to two extremes, very hungry and very full. Both of those states of being involve a bit of pain– I’m sure everyone has experienced a time when they waited too long between meals and experienced hunger pains, and honestly have you truly experienced and American holiday season if you haven’t left the table “Thanksgiving Full”?– but for most people those experiences are outside of routine, not their normal. I live mostly in those extremes, I’m so used to feeling them that when I don’t feel overly full or extremely hungry I’m actually a bit confused. It just feels like nothingness, a weird gray area, and I usually feel the need to get back to the extremes even they can be painful and distracting. So that means when I eat I have a really hard time stopping before I feel discomfort. Before surgery it felt like my brain was telling me I had to eat everything on my plate or in the bag or in the container or else I wouldn’t feel okay, the anxiety would just build until I exploded. Post surgery I can’t eat that way, and I get full on much less food, but now my brain tells me that I need to keep going and get through my (measured and weighed) meal because I have to stick to the meal plan and if I don’t finish my meal I can’t eat it later as a snack. So I push through to get the full 3 oz. In both instances I felt/feel discomfort.

I also still find myself hungry. I try to combat this by keeping a schedule for my meals, but even then I find excuses. For instance, my meal plan requires that I eat 3 meals a day and recommends that I eat my first meal within 30 minutes of waking up. I originally compromised and scheduled my breakfast at 9am because I have a long commute and like to eat breakfast at work. Over the last 6 months I’ve pushed that to 9:30am, then 10am, and now 10:30-11am (on the day I started writing this I didn’t eat breakfast until well after 11am). I wait longer and longer because I figure the longer I wait, the less time in the day I’ll have to eat so I won’t overindulge and gain back all the weight that I’ve lost. Sometimes I even go to bed early so I don’t have the opportunity to overeat. I figure under-eating is better than overeating. It should be noted that the avoidance doesn’t actually work, in fact it throws me into a restrict/binge cycle (as much as one can binge with  a stomach that can only hold probably 4-6oz of food at a time). There are days where I wish that I just didn’t need to survive on food, where I could go through life just living on air because eating is such a hassle and involves so much emotion that it seems like more trouble than it’s worth. There is no normal eating for me– this IS my normal. I wonder how people can just eat food until they’re full and then not long to eat more. I wonder how people can stop what their doing and just eat when they’re hungry without putting too much thought into it. How do people eat without a schedule? How do people eat without counting calories? How do people eat carbs and not combust?

I’m not saying these ways of thinking are normal in any way, I’m simply saying they are the ways I experience this world. My relationship to food is shit, and no, surgery didn’t fix it. So now here I am, I’m 26 years old I still don’t know how to feed myself.


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