Sunday, November 18, 2007

Listen to the Hunger

Moving to the USA to attend graduate school, was a big change for me. Moving is generally recognised as one of life’s big stressors, and this move was no exception. It wasn’t just the challenge of getting used to a new environment that was problematic for me, I’d lived in Paris for two years preceding my move to the USA and so was prepared for that challenge. The thing that made the move most difficult for me was America’s racial politics which depending on one’s temperament, can generate more distress and heartache than any human should have to endure.

My sense of displacement, alienation, disillusionment, hurt and anger manifested themselves as a gnawing hunger which eating did not satisfy. This hunger grew more and more insatiable as time went on. I felt as though a huge hole had opening up in my soul and I needed to fill it to survive … to be whole. At first I would make myself little treats that I’d always enjoyed at home over conversations with my friends. I was trying I guess to recreate the warmth and connectedness of those moments. When that didn’t work I increased the quantities and when that didn’t work I began to branch out, trying one thing after another in larger and larger quantities. By the time I was consuming 20,000 calories a day in cakes, ice cream, sweet biscuits, chocolates and growing larger and larger, I realised that I was locked in a destructive cycle from which I desperately wanted to escape.

Every morning I tried to start fresh. I'd promise myself that I would not eat as I had done the day before. Sometimes I made it until 10am, sometimes noon but always I caved in before the day was over. It often started with having just one chocolate bar and that one would lead to 10 within an hour, which would lead to whole cakes, pints of ice cream, boxes of sweet biscuits etc.

Luckily for me, I happened to be invited to a party about 6 months into my binging career, where I overheard a women talking about her problems with compulsive overeating. I was not that familiar with the term then but I recognised it immediately as one that fitted my behaviour very well. I managed to catch her alone later on that evening and asked her how she managed to stop compulsively eating. She suggested I read a book called Listen to the Hunger by Elisabeth L. and gave me her number to call her once I’d read it. I got the book a few days later. It is quite a small book. Only 84 pages and I read it in one sitting as I cried and binged on chocolate bars.

The introduction read:
If someone habitually overeats, it is safe to say that person is hooked on using food to do things food cannot do. Habitual overeating is an addiction as powerful as the addiction to alcohol or other drugs. In many ways, it is even more difficult to deal with food abuse, since no one can stop eating completely. We can put alcohol and other drugs out of our lives. We do not need either substance for survival. We do need food. We must find a way to identify our legitimate hunger for food without letting it expand and absorb other hungers that need to be fed.

If whenever we feel a twinge of emotion, our first impulse is to put something in our mouths, we are misreading our inner signals. The key to getting “unstuck” is learning to pay attention to what is behind the craving for excess food. What needs are being masked or covered up by the desire to eat more? What is the hunger about?

The path away from food abuse leads out of the boredom and despair of compulsion into a many-splendored world of feeling and participation. The way out is sometimes steep and twisting, with temporary roadblocks, detours, and slippery places. It is a path to be travelled daily with all the aid and assistance we can get. Professional healers can help. So can fellow travellers. Our greatest resource – which is always available – is the inner voice that tells us who we are, what we feel, and what we need. If we will take time to listen and learn, we will slowly discover what the hunger is all about. The hunger will lead to an ever-increasing knowledge of what life is all about. We will grow through our hungers into greater understanding and strength. Each day will be richer and fuller. We will not cease to be hungry, but will learn what satisfies.
That was the beginning for me of a long and arduous journey of recovery from compulsive eating and sugar addiction to a healthy and balanced life.