Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Fear, food ... and finally, freedom

I started eating when I was 10.

I must have eaten before then, but I have no memory of any food passing between my lips before I turned ten and started to plan the next opportunity I could eat something. Sure, I remember meals -- meals of fresh sweet corn and home-made pickles with my grandparents, food so fresh you had to dust the garden dirt off of it before you cooked it. I remember pan-Asian spreads of barbecued pork, snappy spearmint leaves and plates of tender rice paper at my father's family's home, meals with so much food that each family would leave with a packed grocery bag, double-lined and tied at the top in a knot that would be pulled so tight from the weight of the leftovers that it had to be cut open when we got home. I remember cafeteria food at school -- rectangular slices of flat pizza which I inexplicably loaded with additional salt before cutting into twelve square bite-sized pieces with my dull knife and fork. All this I remember with no sense of taste, because it happened before I really cared about it all.

When I turned ten, though, I remember realizing that food was good, food filled you up, food made you feel full and happy and safe. I remember looking forward to each meal, then to snacks -- later I would begin planning out snacks days in advance, even without knowing whether or not I'd actually be hungry. If there was food at school that someone had brought in to share, I had some, even if I had just eaten a full meal. Years later, if a colleague's work meeting ended with leftover bagels or cookies, cheese or fruit, I'd snag some to munch, no matter what time of day or what my own stomach told me it needed.

That was the problem. My stomach was mute. Every now and then, it would send up a weak signal that it had had enough -- other than that, it seemed indifferent just how much I crammed into it. What I listened to was something else -- heart or brain or mouth, it kept telling me I needed more. And it wasn't a blood sugar problem. It wasn't that I was too scrawny and wanted to become voluptuous and curvy -- it wasn't that I hated myself and wanted to sabotage my own attractiveness. It was that I was afraid.

*** *** ***

Here's how most people know they're hungry. A few hours after their last meal, their stomachs are empty, and begin to send signals to their brains. "Hey!" they shout, through nerves and synapses and bloodstreams and brain cells. "Wanna do something about this situation you got down here? We're empty!" Acid begins to build up in the stomach -- acid that can cause rumbling very soon. In a matter of time, the acid builds to uncomfortable levels, and begins to etch away at the stomach lining, slowly but surely. With nothing else to digest, it's just doing what it's supposed to do.

Here's what happens when most people get scared. At the onset of a sudden traumatic or alarming event (say, a voice is raised in anger, a hand is raised in violence, an item is thrown in rage), the adrenal glands atop each kidney ready the body for self-preserving behavior by flooding the bloodstream with adrenaline. This is the famous "fight-or-flight" response -- you get ready to either run for your life or duke it out to protect yourself and the ones you love. It's an age-old response, and it's very compelling -- there are numerous examples of people doing superhuman things when caught up in the chemistry of this powerful moment. One of the side effects of that influx of adrenaline, though, especially if you don't use it up through vigorous activity, is an increased production of stomach acid. And what do you know -- stomach acid doesn't care WHY it was released into the stomach -- it just knows it was. So it starts searching for something to break down and process. In the absence of food, that good old stomach lining will work just fine. So if you're afraid all the time (say, when you're ten or fourteen or twenty-four), turns out that the easiest way to treat your stomach pain is with food.

At some point, food became safety to me. Not only did it keep me from hurting, it was the only way I indulged in anything. My reward for any kind of achievement was always food (think about your own life -- birthday cakes, graduation parties with groaning picnic tables of barbecue and potato salad, work get-togethers catered by Italian restaurants ...). So it really shouldn't have surprised me that I was tied up in eating in ways that were deeply ingrained, but completely unhealthy.

A few weeks ago I started a new eating program. With the help of a national weight loss program, I'm eating smaller, balanced meals three times a day, with healthy snacks in between. I like the program. It's working for me. I'm shedding pounds, feeling stronger, working out like a fiend three to four times a week, eating healthy, feeling better in my skin. And yet I think about food a lot, missing foods that are definitely not on the plan (like French fries, and movie popcorn, and big, juicy burgers with cheese and bacon and guacamole). I imagine it will take some time before I'm able to completely decouple what I eat with how I feel about eating.

God willing, I'll get there. Freedom from that connection between eating and comfort is near. I just have to work for it.

1 comment:

Fearful Symmetry said...

good for you on the diet! (Although you don't look overweight to me)
::commences giving of moral support::