When I first realized I was an emotional eater, it was during a walk with my daughter in Miami. I’d lost about 50 or so pounds by that point, was eating as much raw and fresh produce and lean protein as I could afford (which, honestly, wasn’t much), and started listening to e-books as I walked with her. (We had a habit of “collecting” the neighborhood children who’d decide they wanted to walk with her too, and it was funny-slash-annoying listening to children talk to each other in gibberish-slash-Spanglish.)
The excitement that came with finally achieving some semblance of weight loss success was keeping me busy. I was excited to work, excited to play with Mini-me, excited to cook, excited to go for our daily walks. Even if I had something to be sad or stressed about, I wasn’t thinking about it for long enough to feel like I needed to silence my emotions with food.
But eventually, I needed to come to terms with it, and that happened accidentally.
A friend send me a zip file full of e-books and audiobooks to help keep me busy, and inside of it was—I know y’all are tired of hearing me praise this book—The End of Overeating, by David Kessler. And I remember listening to this book, not realizing it was about emotional eating, and thinking to myself “well, I do that… and that… and that definitely sounds like me…wait…is he listening in my kitchen or something?…WTF…wow, he’s singing my life with his words..
Before I knew it, it was clear: part of my inability to control myself when it comes to food had to do with the fact that I was abusing it—I was overeating to overcompensate for the anxiety, stress, and sadness I felt in my life, and an integral part of my weight loss success would be me addressing that and finding ways to burn off that energy and those emotions. Anything to avoid using food to do it.
It worked. I kept busy by reading like a complete and utter nerd. I stayed active. I developed interests and habits and hobbies that kept my idle mind from wandering into the pantry where the goldfish were. I was beating my emotional eating. I was winning.
But then, pregnancy happened. Make no mistake, no matter how difficult the pregnancy was, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I wasn’t even particularly hormonal or stressed out, and I didn’t even overindulge on the food front, having only gained maybe 15 pounds during the entire 10 months (which was surprising, because I certainly had my fair share of pints of ice cream #dontjudgeme.)
What I did have, after giving birth, was my post-partum depression.
I’m not going to rehash what I’ve already written about the experience, because it was so difficult to discuss that I couldn’t even proofread it—I cried while writing it, and reading it is equally painful. (Luckily, the #bgg2wlarmy is so awesome.)
However, there was a part of me that didn’t understand. Why was I one of the lucky (and I use that term loosely) few to be exposed to the joys of PPD? Would I have it forever?
I did some reading. (Because, again, nerdy.) What are the symptoms of PPD? How does it make me feel? What should I expect?
In doing the reading, I slowly came to realize something I think I’d been hiding from myself my entire life:
I didn’t just have post-partum depression. I’ve had depression my entire life, and only used food to mask it.
I read those symptoms for post-partum depression with interest, then with curiosity, then with shock, then horror, then confusion.
Those visions I was having? The blood, the guts, the gore? I’d always had visions of seeing the worst, except instead of falling down the rabbit hole and watching the vision get worse and worse like I did with PPD, I’d soothe myself with food.
That emptiness? The numbness? I’d felt that before. I’d felt such a genuine disconnect with the world that I felt like I was almost in isolation. That was a void I used to fill… with food.
That hopelessness that I used to feel every now and again? I was used to that. I floated in and out of that feeling. I used to make that feeling go away with… food.
That indecisiveness? That inability to commit to anything? I’d always experienced that. It’s a feeling I used to quiet… you get the picture.
What makes post-partum depression unique is that it is not only worsened by the hormonal shifts that come with carrying a pregnancy to term and potentially giving birth to it, but—at least, in my case—it can also be exacerbated by the fact that childbirth is an experience that ultimately leaves you firmly planted in one spot. Even if you had the desire to get out and go—which, for many of us, we don’t… I certainly didn’t—you can’t be too mobile after having given birth. You’re going to have to stay put a lot more, if for no other reason than the baby needs rest. Also? You have to heal.
For me, acknowledging that I may have very well had depression all along and was using food as the tool to cope with the stress and anxiety and sadness was a mind-blowing realization. Don’t get me wrong—I was always clear on the fact that, no matter how much I tried to convince myself of otherwise, something was wrong. I tried to hide it, ignore it, not focus on it, and so on, and so on, so that I could at least put on a bright face for the public. But to know that what I’m experiencing now is essentially the same as what I experienced before helps me understand the tools I need to defeat it.
If anything, it puts me right back at the moment when I first recognized I was an emotional eater. It forces me to remember what it was like when I first stopped using food in lieu of healthier coping mechanisms. It humanizes me—I’m no more broken than I was before. In other words, I’ve been here before and I’m going to be okay.
You can’t fight any battle unarmed. That’s something I learned the hard way the first time. You need tools. What tools would I use to fight my natural inclination to be—and stay—a couch potato? I used to be such an optimistic person—how would I work to reclaim my natural positivity? How would I manage stress? My type-A tendencies tend to overwhelm me–how would I prevent that before it has the potential to drain me? My natural response to frustrating situations is to quit and give up and go watch TV—how would I become more of a focused problem solver and less of a flight risk? What are my plan Bs when my plan As are thwarted by the presence of a super active toddler?
Figuring these things out, finding solutions that seamlessly fold into your life is part of why therapy is so important. And, though it doesn’t fit in my toolbox, this is also why medications can be important.*
You have to be armed. You have to be able to pinpoint situations where you feel compelled to react poorly, and prepare yourself to handle them—and yourself—with care.
Now, I talk myself into getting up and caring for myself. Now, I know how to talk myself into getting up and going to the gym. Now, I take the time and effort to nourish myself and make sure I get some fresh air. I am far better armed for the war, now knowing precisely what’s going on inside of me—I’ve been here before, I’ve fought this fight before, and I’ve won this battle before.
It starts with recognizing that some things have to get done, regardless of how I felt. So, those days when I didn’t feel like washing my face or my hair, didn’t feel like changing clothes, and would just sit there all day thinking I was doing something noble by playing in bed with the baby instead of taking care of myself? Those days are gone, and I can tell. My scalp is healthier now, my skin no longer has discoloration and spots everywhere. I can see my shift towards more proactive self-care in the way I look, but I can feel it, too.
Now that I know this about myself, I feel free. These feelings may always be a part of me—it seems like they always have been, regardless of whether or not I acknowledged it—and I did learn how to handle them before… which means I will learn how to handle them again.
(I’m that 1% who can be turned paranoid and even more depressed by something as basic as ibuprofen, y’all. It’s so bad. You know how you see the commercials for prescription strength laxatives, and it’ll say “Side effects include suicidal ideations,” and you’ll say to yourself, “for laxatives?” Yeah, they’re referring to people like me.)