You are not my therapist but...
May 5, 2010 4:41 PM   Subscribe

Internal drama filter: I am moderately successful and very grateful for my life as it is. I have an awesome marriage and a beautiful home. I made it out of a fairly seriously abusive childhood with a pretty decent perspective and ways of coping EXCEPT.....

While not by any means all, a part of the abuse was around food. My siblings and I were starved. A lot. Our food was weighed and measured. We were not allowed to be hungry. Money was not the problem (although a problem, we weren't so poor that we couldn't afford food -- it was a control issue).

Another issue was around privacy. None. No doors could be closed and obviously there was a lot of sneaking around which resulted in me being an excellent hider.

So, now I'm 40. I've figured out my depression and anxiety. My obsessive behavior, for the most part, does not interfere with my life any more. I was bulimic but I've given that up along with other self-destructive behaviors.

The one thing I cannot seem to conquer is my obsession with food. I feel like I could eat 24 hours a day. I am always thinking about food. I hide food. I sneak food. I have been thin. I am overweight now and especially for my health (but also vanity) I would like to lose some weight. I am starting to notice a lot of pain and it is most likely associated with the extra weight. I have tried just about every diet but that is obviously not the problem. I know all about HAES but again, the problem is my obsession with food and the health issues.

I've been in therapy for quite a while now and I am in an eating disorders support group. I'm on anti-depressants that seem to work. None of it, however, seems to be working on this one issue. A constant preoccupation with food.

I could use a new perspective and some advice if you have it. Thanks in advance.
posted by Sophie1 to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My siblings and I were starved. A lot. Our food was weighed and measured. We were not allowed to be hungry.

This seems contradictory. When you say 'not allowed to be hungry' does that mean you were not allowed to express that you were hungry?
posted by wwartorff at 5:06 PM on May 5, 2010

Response by poster: wwartorff - yes - I meant we were not allowed to express our hunger.

stoneweaver. I did OA. 6 times a week for over 6 months. It's not for me.
posted by Sophie1 at 5:09 PM on May 5, 2010

If I were in your shoes I would keep a journal. And I would write down everything I was thinking and feeling regarding food and eating. In detail. Or for that matter anything else stressing you now, or bothering you from then. When I was not well, keeping a journal was almost literally a lifesaver.

I wouldn't do a diet. That would feed (pardon the pun) any issues you would have re control and your childhood. I think what I would do is, first, if at all possible start an exercise routine (walking, if nothing else) which would help relieve stress, and then, just give yourself permission to enjoy food.

(I remember years ago reading about war orphans, who, when rescued would steal food even tho they were getting three good squares a day. The problem was solved when each child was given a piece of bread to just hold when they went to sleep at night. They'd experienced lack in such a profound way it was hard for them to grok emotionally that they had enough. The bread was a tangible reminder that they were okay now. Take from that what you will.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:10 PM on May 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

I just wanted to say how sorry I am. This makes me terribly angry, too, on your behalf.

I can't tell how you've gotten yourself to such a healthy place but if you haven't seen a really talented shrink, I'd recommend it. You've already spotted the link between your feelings about food and your abuse . . . working with a good doctor on a history like this may help you master those emotions.
posted by bearwife at 5:26 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's stating the obvious to say you need to change your relationship to food. And I can't tell you how to do that as I have absolutely no training in psychology besides being an interested participant in the whole human experiment. And I self-medicate. And I found your quandary to be very similar to my own (tobacco, alcohol etc).

So here's something I've been contemplating. Rather than focusing on the subject of the relationship - food, for you; self-medicating for me - investigate your attachment to the relationship. What do you gain by maintaining this relationship? Where is the flow of power in this relationship? What is the embedded, once-useful, probably illogical but dominant thought-pattern that drives you to continue this relationship?

I feel for you. I have a good friend who had a similar experience. His mother was even forbidden to buy food for her four teenage sons even though there was an in-ground pool in the back yard and two european cars in the driveway. It effected him greatly through his life; 6'5 and at one stage he believed he deserved to eat no more than a bowl of rice and a can of tomatoes a day. These days, he farms and grows his own food and seems to have resolved his relationships to food security and self-worth.
posted by Kerasia at 5:37 PM on May 5, 2010

Wow, what a tough situation. :-( Sorry to hear about it.

You mention that you've been in therapy for a while, as well as a support group. To me, that you are coming to the green with this issue is a signal that the right tool for the job (therapy and/or support groups) aren't working the way they should. Have you tried a consultation with another therapist?
posted by circular at 5:37 PM on May 5, 2010

Are you actually hungry 24 hours a day? Or does "I feel like I could eat 24 hours a day" mean something other than physical hunger?

While I don't doubt some of the issues you have with food stem from your past abuse, if you have been eating poorly, that isn't helping. Some things you eat will make you hungrier for various reasons, and if you are hungrier you will need will of iron to avoid eating more. Worse, if you eat the thing that's making you hungrier to try to satiate your hunger, that obviously won't help. What is your diet like? If you are eating a lot of refined carbs and/or processed foods (including fast food), my experience is that doing so will make you more hungry than you would otherwise be. I am much more sated on much less food, and lose weight, when I eat a wide variety of nutritious food made at home from good ingredients.

I hesitate to recommend a weight loss plan to someone who has been bulimic, but you might want read about Seth Roberts' "set point" hypothesis of weight gain and loss. The easiest place to find them in is his book, "The Shangri-La Diet," but you can Google up an overview easily enough. You don't have to do his diet (which isn't really a diet), but I found his ideas helped a lot of the pieces fit together about why I got hungry when I did, why certain diets had worked for me in the past, and why I was obsessed with food. And I found his plan virtually eliminated constant hunger and food obsession and helped me lose weight. It doesn't do all the work for you, but when you are not constantly thinking about food, it is a lot easier to make healthy choices.

Another possibility is the antidepressants. Some of them have a documented side effect of weight gain. I would definitely check with your prescribing doc on that.
posted by kindall at 5:38 PM on May 5, 2010

First, let me say how sorry I am for what you went through. That sounds awful and you seem to have processed through a lot of (literal) trauma very well. Add me to the people who are angry at your parents for being so very very abusive.

Since you're already doing the therapy things I'd suggest, it occurred to me as I read this that something like Meridia might be helpful to you. I'm on it now for weight loss and though the weight loss itself hasn't been dramatic, what it DOES do is make it so that you aren't constantly thinking about food. You are still hungry, but not as much, but it sort of frees you from that constant mind-noise that you're talking about. FYI, though I have about 30 lbs to lose, I am not "obese" if you look at me. And if you've dealt with bulimia, they may not prescribe it for you. It's a controlled substance with a lot of restrictions. My guess is that there are other meds that might do the same thing, though, that you might want to ask about.

Best of luck to you.
posted by FlyByDay at 5:40 PM on May 5, 2010

Are you working with a trusted physician as well as your mental health support? There could be health issues at play (just luck-of-the-draw stuff as well as the result of being nutritionally deprived during critical developmental phases) that are contributing to the food obsession, and if that's the case, you may need a multi-pronged approach to dealing with it. It sounds like you're already working really hard on these issues, and it would suck if you're being hindered by something like a goofy thyroid or insulin resistance.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:02 PM on May 5, 2010

Best answer: I think I understand a bit of what you went through, and maybe some of what you're going through, and out myself as the asker of this anonymous question. There were some great suggestions by mefites in that thread, but I particularly liked the suggestion to eat three cookies a day, *every* day.

Food was always an issue for me growing up. It was always controlled, and I find that as a 30 year old woman now, it's frequently on my mind (and has been since I was a kid). Planning, thinking, wondering what people think, what judgments are going on whenever I eat anything, or order anything, hiding sometimes, adding, subtracting, rewarding, restricting, and so on. It's exhausting, and I don't know how to eliminate the obsession entirely.

I've been skinny, I've starved myself and exercised upwards of 7 hours a day so that I could be a magical 100 lbs, I've had my sister e-intervention me with my other siblings recently, that they're concerned about my weight (I've been a steady 150 +/- a couple of pounds for the past 10 years or so, and lived in a major city without a car for the past several years), and I've understood that my sister's e-intervention was also about her own messed up ideas of food and weight, that she needed to confront me that she's worried about my health. I've forgiven and moved on, and since that incident and the posting of that question about a year ago, I've forgiven myself.

I think there's a lot of things that led to this self forgiveness.

First, acknowledging that my fucked up perceptions and habits are not because I'm doing bad things, but because I was treated badly (and you were also treated badly).

Second, I needed external reassurance of this. I'll admit that part of posting my question was to honestly ask for advice, but part of it was to ask "so this part of my childhood was fucked up, yes? Am I correct in thinking so?? Other parents were not like this??"

Third, food is fucking awesome and delicious and amazing. I have one south-asian parent and one italian parent, two great culinary cultures, and my palates need to be stimulated. It's in all of us, but for me it's just downright genetic. Food is enjoyable, and it's not a sin to have sustenance make you joyful.

Fourth, I do want to be healthy. This doesn't mean you have to sacrifice #3. It also doesn't mean I have to give anything up. A little of this, a little of that.

And fifth, what I've started doing since I posted that question, is eat more delicious meals, and less snacks. For so long, I had tricked my mind into thinking that if I had super healthy meals - like steamed veggies and brown rice and little else, then I could gorge on peppermint patties and it would balance out. It was kind of a messed up way of thinking. But maybe it's "ok" because I was still getting "good" stuff into my diet regularly. But in doing so, I miss out on a lot of delicious flavors. So instead, I'll opt to make some cheese-filled tortellini with some stir fried veggies, tossed in a generous amount of olive oil, or pesto and red pepper pizza (and yes, with cheese), or Indian okra and rice with delicious garlicky and buttery naan. A spinach omelet (with a yolk!). Maybe even topped with a little asiago. Sometimes I'll have the super fiber bread made with like 423 types of grains, but sometimes I'll have a sweet, sugary mango. And sometimes I'll have ice cream, too.

Food. Flavorful food. Food that stimulates my tastebuds and senses, that makes me happy, has some good-for-you things, and isn't fat-free. But it's real food. And I am learning, at 30, that I like real food. Food that requires chemistry. IT'S SCIENCE!

Aim to have your health be well - blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and even walking is good for your circulation and joints. Diets are bullshit for the long term.

For me, living in the extremes perpetuated my obsession with food and weight and all that stuff. And I still delve into the extremes sometimes of super-healthy and junk-binge, to be honest. But there's a lot of great things in between those poles. I'm learning to enjoy the middle ground of food, and the more I do so, the more I find my obsession waning. Slowly, but most certainly.

Best of luck. I do not know if this kind of line of thinking will help, but please know that you're totally not alone in your efforts to conquer your obsessions with food after suffering abuse as a child.
posted by raztaj at 6:05 PM on May 5, 2010 [13 favorites]

Perhaps a change of type of therapy might help. You didn't say what sort of therapy your therapist practices, but perhaps trying CBT if you aren't already could give you a few more tools to help with this particular issue. Also, although I never did any work with hypnosis in my past life as a therapist, so I can't speak to the efficacy of it, maybe that would be worth a shot, as well.
posted by thebrokedown at 6:08 PM on May 5, 2010

If someone tells you not to think of a white-faced monkey what do you think of? A white-faced monkey, although you may have never thought of one before.
As long as your brain is filled with your food battle it will continue on. Displace that affection with a stronger one. One habit for the other.
It seems when one is obsessed with something the way you are, it is like fighting a chimney sweep, the harder you try not to think of it the blacker you get.
Think through how you choose to think about food. Write it on a card if you need to. Then when the thoughts come about food, dismiss them because it is already thought out. Then choose to think about your new affection.
Personally I have found that this works. Take it a day at a time.
God bless you.
posted by srbrunson at 6:20 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would like to second the question about whether you are actually physically hungry.

I grew up in a food insecure household. (We didn't have enough money, so I sometimes went hungry.) As an adult, I am financially stable. I eat voraciously now. Part of it is that I just physically like food. But often times, when I find myself in situations where there is ample food, but no opportunity to eat it later (For example: buffets, dinners at other people's homes, goodies people bring in to work), I stuff myself beyond the point of physical comfort. I've realized it's because on some level I'm still afraid that there might not be enough money for food tomorrow. I also feel guilty because somewhere out there is another little girl who's hungry like I was, and if I waste food, I'm being ungrateful for what I have.

I'm not exactly cured of this habit, so I can't exactly give the best advice, but I will say that sometimes to snap myself out of this, I will consciously stop and ask myself two rational questions:
1. Is there REALLY a chance that you will go hungry tomorrow? You have a steady job and thousands of dollars in savings. No, you will not go hungry again in the immediate future. It's okay. There will still be food tomorrow.
2. How does stuffing yourself at a buffet help anyone else? Whether you eat it or throw it away, it does not impact anyone else.

I also have a friend or two who is privy to my problem, and when I am out eating with them and am too full (and can't take it home), I will sometimes get their permission and reassurance that it's okay, I don't have to eat the whole thing.

Best of luck. I know how hard this problem can be -- food cannot be avoided.
posted by unannihilated at 6:47 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some friends have succeeded in controlling their eating through OA 90, but they weigh and measure their food.
posted by doncoyote at 7:02 PM on May 5, 2010

Best answer: I have never faced your problem and I offer my sympathy for going through that. The one thing that will invariably piss me off without fail is interferance with giving a hungry person food when food is available. The closest I have ever come to the kind of treatment you have recieved is food being withheld as punishment, but that was minor, infrequent and not repeated after a while.

My suggestion to redo your relationship with food is to become involved with it. Grow your own, go hunting, at the least learn how to cook really well. Gardening has theruputic value all its own and nothing gives you a closer connection to your food than producing, preparing, and cooking something you have grown through the sweat of your brow. I have a very deep respect for my food after growing a small garden (about 300 sf-and growing larger every year as I learn how to do it) and successfully (and legally) hunting for my own meat (several hundred pounds total). It changed my relationship with food to a certain mindfulness about it that I never had before (and my Dad was farmer). This may or may not help you-but it will probably not hurt you. Even if you don't have a yard to cultivate you can grow a lot in a window box and some people are doing amazing things with hydroponics in a window. A lot of cities have community garden groups you can join and rent space. If you are interested there is a lot of ways to get into hunting for not that much money, send me a private memail and I will talk to more about it if you are interested. Whatever you do good luck and don't give up-we are all works in progress.
posted by bartonlong at 7:16 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sophie1, my heart goes out to you. And to you, raztaj. I hate parents who do things like that to their kids, and if I were Jehovah or Zeus I'd be liberal with the thunderbolts and smiting.

LynNever suggested a doctor checkup in addition to the therapist/OA/other stuff, and I agree. You want to be sure that there are no underlying physical issues like insulin resistance (which complicates appetite issues).

And looking at upping your physical activity levels vs. trying to cut back on food or go on a diet is a good idea. For a low-impact, surprisingly calorie-burning workout, try swimming; it's easy on the joints and burns quite a bit of energy (and is fun in the summer, too!).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:09 PM on May 5, 2010

FWIW weight gain is a listed side-effect of anti-depressants.

Other body conditions when approaching middle age can make it hard for the weight to come off -- adrenal fatigue and thyroid come to mind.

Have you considered increasing your physical activity as a way to decrease the preoccupation with food? Not necessarily being a gym rat or training for a marathon (although, whatever floats your boat!); i was thinking of things like yoga, NIA, swimming, regular walks ... exercise is a natural anti-depressant, anti-anxiety-ant and appetite suppressant. Best of luck, and please give yourself credit for the long way you have come!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 8:21 PM on May 5, 2010

My heart goes out to you. You're really strong and I admire your insight in being able to tell your story so well.

I don't think people should have to fight the thoughts in their head. I also think you can turn a negative about yourself into something positive. In fact, I know you can do this, because I've done it my own life a few times. So, I suggest thinking of ways that you can turn your obsession with food into something positive. Do you like to cook? Can you invent new recipes? Crazy funny ones? Maybe you can blog about food, or teach someone else what you know.

Also, think of eating healthy as what you eat, not what you don't. Eat an orange, and don't worry about the potato chips you crave. You deserve nutrients. Maybe you need the vitamin C in the orange, and maybe you need the salt in the potato chips, too.

As to losing weight, I agree with everyone who suggested exercise. If your ultimate goal is to be healthier, exercise will help even if you don't lose weight.
posted by zinfandel at 8:38 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would prioritize developing a healthy relationship with food over losing or maintaining weight. Stop dieting and start trying to eat healthier. (Not less, healthier.)
posted by callmejay at 7:07 AM on May 6, 2010

Are you familiar with the work of Geneen Roth? Her books (particularly Feeding the Hungry Heart, which has lived at my bedside for years) helped me see a different way of relating to food and beginning work on the emotional hungers I was stuffing away with food.

You are so very much not alone in this. I grew up with a remote alcoholic father and a mom who focused on controlling my food intake because she couldn't control my dad's drinking. I've been a binge eater and a food-sneaker since grade school. It's only in the last few years that I've come to a fragile and still-new peace with food and body, but it's possible.

And I am startled and my heart is pounding just as I type that it's possible, but it is.
posted by catlet at 8:12 AM on May 6, 2010

When I said "eat healthier" I didn't mean something like "more fruits and vegetables." I meant that if you want some ice cream, have some ice cream. Don't deny yourself for 3 hours and then eat a gallon of it. Don't eat nothing but chicken breasts and broccoli for three days and then gorge on pizza and cheesesteaks. Try to learn to eat "normally" before you start trying to cut calories (or fat or carbs) or eliminate certain foods from your diet.
posted by callmejay at 8:56 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I thank you all for your words of advice. I appreciate them all. I hope to someday be at peace with all of this. I am definitely working hard toward it. While exercise is sometimes painful, I do it - but I also need to up what I am doing. I have read Geneen Roth (and quite a library of other books on the topic) but all of them seem to encourage something I haven't yet managed to internalize. I also do grow my own food (and I can quite a bit of it) which makes me giddily happy. While I don't think I'll be hunting anytime soon, I seriously appreciate the offer.

Taking this to the green was really about gaining some fresh perspective as I have felt very stuck lately. I am going to come back often to look at responses so if anyone has further responses, please keep adding them.

Thank you so much.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:09 AM on May 6, 2010

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