I’ve been exercise-minded for most of my life. It’s something I’ve spoken about repeatedly in past blogs. Moving my body with purpose every day is not just easy for me to talk about, it’s fun to do. I’m an advocate for the lifestyle and its myriad benefits.
But there’s a dark underbelly, so to speak, that keeps me from being the picture of health I so desperately want to embody, no matter how much purpose my movements have. This underbelly has many names. You might have heard it called compulsive overeating. Binge eating, perhaps. What it is has come to be to me is something like “full emptiness.”
Full emptiness is a whole mood, with a lead-up that whispers into existence almost apologetically. And trust me, I don’t want to brag, especially about this, but I’m a bit of a connoisseur in the ways of the full emptiness. I was a compulsive overeater long before I knew that it had a name, or that I wasn’t the only one who did it.
But I digress. While I can go long periods of time without an episode, I continue to suffer from it decades after my first experience. The most recent episode was last night, and the lead-up was due to a combination of things – a personal tragedy here, coming to terms with a different professional life there – that built up a lot of intense feelings over several weeks. By yesterday morning, I knew it was coming.
And by last night, it was over.
As long as I can remember, I’ve had a long fuse that either blows up with me raging OUT about something super unimportant – “WHO LEFT THIS LIGHT ON!?” – or in stuffing my feelings DOWN, like paper towels in a bathroom trashcan, until I eat my kitchen to the point where the only feelings I can identify are those of being too full to feel.
And when I say “eat my kitchen,” I mean eating anywhere from two to six to…more than six…thousand calories in a very short amount of time. And it’s usually stuff that I don’t think about eating normally. Last night, it was mostly Nutri-Grain bars and some kind of chocolate fudge Pop-Tart. After that, a couple of giant peanut butter sandwiches and a bunch of those sweet and salty nutty bars for good measure. Stuff that had been in the house for weeks, stuff that I’d normally never think twice about.
The foods that are chosen are rarely about the foods themselves.
Full Emptiness: The Beginning
I don’t remember exactly when it started. I do remember asking my dad to put locks on the kitchen cabinets when I was a teenager. I remember eating all the Oreos that my brother had in his room, then picking my sister up from elementary school and taking her to a nearby town to go to the mall before he got home and found out (like, why did I not just tell him? He was NINE, and much smaller than me.)
When I was 19, I ate a couple of pounds of chocolate the day after Valentine’s Day, and then checked myself into a hospital inpatient program focused on depression and eating disorders to try and understand why I was doing this to myself. I ended up sneaking all the packets of peanut butter from the coffee and breakfast area on my floor one night, but still checked myself out a week later, thinking I was probably fine because I lost five pounds in that seven days and only had “that one” incident.
For a long time – decades – I told myself these episodes happened because I denied myself too much culinary pleasure day-to-day. Or maybe because I just really, really loved sugar. And both of those things can be true, but there is something far deeper to uncover with compulsive overeating. It’s not really about food at all. (And have I mentioned enough that it’s not even GOOD food most of the time!?)
In the time I’ve spent in this cycle, there are two things that remain the same. First, I can’t seem to stop once I start. And the more I eat, the less the culinary choices matter. I’ve eaten stuff I don’t even like. I’ve eaten stuff I love. I’ve eaten stale chips. Cereal I would normally never touch. Whole packages of cookies that didn’t belong to me, which, after the aforementioned incident with my brother’s Oreos, led to me going to buy more and replace them before the other members of the household woke up and discovered they were missing. And that’s happened more than once.
…before the other members of the household woke up.
That’s the other thing. Almost without fail, these episodes happen late at night. When nobody else is awake to see it.
Because like, how many of us want people seeing us do something we’re not proud of? It’s way easier for the people in our lives, whether primary, secondary, even tertiary, to see us as having an enviable grasp on life. Like, way easier. I long for a time in which I can feel smug about how well I adult. A time I walk into a room boldly, yet approachably, and hear the whispers. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely walked into some rooms amid whispers. But, like, I want these to be stuff like:
“Who IS she?”
“Wow, she totally has it together!”
“Now THAT’S a responsible adult!”
You know what I mean.
And it’s interesting that every time I have a good stretch, an adult-y stretch, my inner child or asshole or whatever jumps out and whispers to me, hey. Hey. It was a rough week, how about we have a whole box of *insert dumb food here*
Why am I talking about this here? It’s because sometimes it’s important to say the quiet part out loud. If we don’t talk about the hard things, how will we hope to get through them? If we don’t understand that we’re not alone in our struggles, how will we ever feel connected? This year has brought me amazing things, and one of them has been my coaching and weekly food therapy group. Forming this group and leading these sessions every week has been an amazing balm on my soul. But starting to take baby steps in the right direction doesn’t just make a problem go away. This being human business is a work in progress. And if we all got it right from the moment we identified a problem, well – how incredibly boring would that be? Could we really appreciate happiness if we were just happy all the time? Who even knows. Possibly if we really could be happy all the time, conceivably we would have made great strides that enabled us to appreciate said happiness all the time. I’m just spitballing here. The point is, we’re not really there yet.
While the full emptiness may still be rearing its ugly head, I’m grateful to have finally got to a place in my life in which I’m willing to talk about it. I’m grateful for a circle of support so welcoming that I CAN talk about it. And while I don’t hope that you’re experiencing the same thing, I do hope that, if you are, you understand that you have a loving circle of support here. I’m here to listen, and I promise I understand.
In the meantime, and no offense to the fine folks at Pop-Tart, the chocolate fudge ones just aren’t my thing.