Soothing Myself With Food
‘When I started therapy I reckon I wanted to lose around two and a half stone (35 lb/16 kg), which isn’t a lot when you think of how much some people want to lose, but it was the heaviest I’d been for a long time and I felt miserable, overwhelmed and tired of it all. I’d always been slim, skinny even as a child and teenager. I’d put on my weight in my 20s, carrying more with each of my three children. Somehow I always managed to claw myself back, but not quite to my former slim self.
‘Over 20 years ago, when our children were small and I was coming up to my 30th birthday, my husband had an affair with someone at work. Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, and revenge I guess, I got down to nine and a half stone (133 lb/60 kg) in under four months. It was an ego boost while it lasted, but basically my heart was broken. I had all this anger around his betrayal that I didn’t know what to do with, so in the end, I just ate and ate.
’When I started therapy I was approaching my 50th birthday. I felt middle-aged and over the hill. I was also still full of anger. Fury just consumed me. It was like a big fist in my stomach and it felt like it had been there for years. The only way I knew how to calm myself down was to eat.
‘My husband and I didn’t split up over his affair. In fact, we hardly ever spoke about it. Twenty years later, when I first talked about him in my therapy sessions, I called him every swear word I could think of. Even our grown-up children knew I thought of him with total disdain and whenever I had the opportunity to put him down, or make him feel small, then I would. I was remorseless. When it had come to the crunch, he had chosen to stay with me and I was committed to being with him, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t beyond exacting my revenge for what he’d done by taking out all my fury and anger on him.
‘When I was asked if I wanted to split up with him, I was taken aback. I began to slowly acknowledge the truth to myself about how I loved the very bones of the man and how much sadness I carried in my heart that our relationship had turned out the way it had. My anger just covered all the pain I was in and the way I coped with it was to use the ways I had learnt growing up. I was raised in the kind of family where my Dad, and even my Granddad, were casually cruel to me, my brothers and my sister. I learnt very early on not to show any weakness. If I was hurting and they could see it, I’d just get more of the same. I also learnt very early on not to speak out because as far as they were concerned I didn’t matter, or they would just use it as another opportunity to slap me down.
‘Over time, I developed this impenetrable shell.
I was as loving as anything to my own kids, but if I was crossed by a friend or a neighbour, then this hard front came down and they would be as good as dead to me. In therapy I came to see that these were strategies I’d developed to get me through my life. They sort of worked, but I paid a high price as it never felt safe for me to show my vulnerability, so everyone thought I was as hard as nails.
All of my vulnerable feelings had to be swallowed down and that’s what I did with food.
‘As I worked in my therapy sessions, I learned to get in touch with and express the emotions I’d never felt safe to express before, and with that my eating came into balance. I started to lose weight and steadily got my weight down. With my husband it began to feel right to me that I showed him how much I loved him. I simply didn’t need to punish him anymore and the changes in our relationship have been remarkable and enduring. Glen is absolutely at the centre of my life.
‘My weight loss hasn’t been without its hiccups. In the last few years I’ve had some huge challenges to face that have thrown me back into some of my old behaviours and habits. My much loved sister-in-law has an inoperable brain tumour. We all watch pretty helplessly as she edges closer to her passing, which is hard to bear, especially for my brother and our extended family. My Dad survived my Mum by several years, and the last four years have been exceptionally difficult as my sister and I cared for him at his home while he fought cancer. To the end, not once did he miss an opportunity to undermine me, say something critical, or set my sister and me at odds with each other. He remained manipulative and unkind to his dying day. That makes me sad as I so wished it could have turned out differently. I think the little girl in me was really hoping right up to the end for an acknowledgement, a kind word, a gesture of love, but he just wasn’t able to give that to me.
‘These big life events certainly threw my eating into chaos for a while.
In the past I would have responded with a downward spiral of binge eating that could have led to possibly months, or even years, of weight gain. Nowadays I recognise my old patterns and can interrupt them. It doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes feel overwhelmed with everything and sorry for myself, but I also understand that while my Dad couldn’t love me, that was his loss. It was never about me. He was damaged. I understand now though that I can love me. That little girl inside of me is safe with me, and I’m never going to let her down.
‘Key to me and Glen sorting out our marriage was me learning that Glen was not the same as my Dad. When the betrayal happened I was triggered into old responses I’d learnt from my Dad. The emotional bullying, the lack of tenderness, were just learnt habits that I used to hide behind. As I got more in touch with my real feelings the more I was able to share them with him again. He made a mistake, we both know that, and he chose to stay with me so what was the point in letting it eat me up, or even fatten me up, to ruin our chance of a happy life together? My opening up to him has been the most wonderful happening in my life and we are closer than ever.
‘I’ve figured out other stuff too that used to make me feel dreadful about myself and would trigger me to emotionally overeat. Glen has times when he needs to withdraw a bit. Sort of man-cave stuff. Maybe it’s work or something else he’s trying to get his head around, but I realise now that it’s not a judgment about me. It’s his stuff and I can let him be and I’m still fine. It’s a huge relief. Also, I used to really resent that I was the family’s social secretary, holiday co-ordinator, forward planner and generally the one the buck stopped with. I used to want him to be different, to step up. The truth is, it’s not his way and I’m good at it. I’ve found peace with who he is, and who I am. When I think back to how our marriage was, it is like someone else’s life and I’m so glad it’s not mine.
‘A while back I did lose over 23 pounds [10.5 kg] and I felt and looked amazing. I’ve put a bit of that back on in the last year just because life got in my way, but I know exactly what to do to let those extra pounds go and they really can go now. If I catch myself soothing myself with food I can say to Glen, “Can I have a hug”, and he’s always happy to oblige. My life is better than I thought – better than I dared hope for.’