I’m not going to pretend that I’ve been at my most insightful the past year or so. In fact, it has been incredibly difficult for me.
After the birth of Baby Sprout, it felt like hard hitting stressful experience after experience came at me, to levels that I’m sure I’ll discuss openly another day, but it made my postpartum depression that much more overwhelming and inescapable.
Now, I’m not saying that having postpartum depression was the best thing that could’ve happened to me—I’m not. But… I am saying that getting help afterwards—which may or may not be a polite euphemism for “therapy”—has illuminated some things for me.
I started talking about writing a book way back in ’15, because I’ve been thinking about emotional eating and the ways in which we can help people detach themselves from this habit as a practice and a source of self-soothing. I started getting uncomfortable with the idea because there were questions I just couldn’t answer. Do I really think emotional eating is so widespread, that it could reasonably be considered a source of the consistently rising obesity rates* in the United States? If so, why?
I couldn’t answer this question for the life of me…until after I started talking about my experiences with postpartum depression.
I realize that I’ve actually had depression my entire life. More importantly, my depression was kept alive and continuously fed by something I’d never considered until it was uttered by a dear friend of mine: I have excessively high levels of anxiety.
I have never downplayed the bullshit I’ve endured in my life—I’m a survivor of sexual violence (as a child and as an adult), a survivor of kidnapping, just… I am constantly suiting up in armor for battle, and coming out victorious. But my god, I am so tired of battling.
It’s one thing to train for battle, but what kind of trauma do you come home with? How do those experiences with trauma change the way you see and embrace the world? Does it make you stop embracing the world altogether? Do you preemptively fear the consequence of certain experiences going wrong? For crying out loud, does the fear of disappointment or attack or trauma make you reluctant to get up at all?
Does the fear of potential trauma make you coil up in what you know unfailingly comforts and soothes you—your favorite TV show, your favorite pint of Vanilla Swiss Almond or Ginger ice cream? And, because these are your tried and true sources of self-soothing and relief, does that make it that much harder to pull away?
Does the increasingly self-validating sense of fear turn into a situation where you avoid any and all negative feelings at all costs, no matter how detrimental? And, because the choice to recoil and keep comfy on your couch is self-validating because it successfully brings you satisfaction and joy (haha my favorite show is funny! this is so much better than being rejected out in the world!), doesn’t it also validate your habit of being anxious all the time? I mean, your anxiety also brings you great entertainment and possibly food that makes you go “ahhhhhh” when you eat it—doesn’t my brain register this as the better decision?
Anxiety is a lot of things, no doubt, but laid bare in those questions lies a reality. That is anxiety.
Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.
People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat. [source]
I have panic attacks. I finally know what they feel like. I know that they have a name. Just typing that out loud—I know what I typed, don’t mock me—makes me feel like I should be having one right now. When the palms of your hands run cold, feeling an inability to breathe deeply enough and a tightness in your chest all happen out of nowhere at the same time, that’s a panic attack.
I live with panic attacks. What getting help made me realize, is that I’ve been having them my whole life.
Once upon a time, whenever I had them, I ate. It was why, whenever my mother tried to put a barrier between me and the junky food—even going so far as putting a deadbolt lock on the pantry—I still figured out how to hack my way in. I lowkey attribute my affinity for puzzles to this; how many ways can I break in and get the junk food? If I’m good enough at breaking in undetected, she’ll just think she ate it all and I’ll get off scot free. It was, dare I say it, fun. When I learned that I couldn’t lose weight because I was still eating things I was emotionally attached to “the source of my relief from my anxiety” but trying to avoid eating them in the quantities needed to feel that relief (and failing at this), I quit the food altogether.
Once upon a time, I used to smoke whenever I felt them coming on, so much so that I started smoking on a regular schedule to try to stave them off. When the recession came, a period of time where I should’ve been having panic attacks all day every day, I didn’t have a single one. I was chain smoking at such a high rate that my body never had the opportunity to come down from the high I experienced from the last smoke.
When I gave up smoking—because recession, because broke—I practiced yoga and went for daily walks instead. I didn’t even have a mat—I did it on the hard-ass floor. I finally got my hands on a spare $7—yes, money was that tight for a young business owner—and ordered a mat from eBay. The panic attacks faded away. Between my exercise routine, my regular walks, work, and my family, I was keeping busy in ways that helped me decompress healthily when my anxiety built up. I’ve taken to comparing it to a glass: a glass can only hold so much before it starts spilling over. Taking time to decompress regularly and get ahead of that mental breakdown helps empty the glass so that it can hold more water in the future.
I look back over the past three years and ask myself, how in the hell did I manage to gain so much weight around/after my pregnancy to begin with? Didn’t I have all this figured out by then? No, definitely and obviously not. I’ve known the data on women, black women and childbirth for a while, now. I was terrified—I’d already had fertility issues, my husband and I were trying for what felt like forever to get pregnant, and my pregnancy was marked by levels of anxiety so high that not a single move I made was carefree and spontaneous. I was the most methodical, calculating pregnant woman ever.
But I was also terrified. And it spilled over into my postpartum period, and every move I made was so full of fear that I…stopped moving. I’d stopped eating all day because I couldn’t leave the bed, and then my husband would bring dinner home and I’d overeat because, by that time, I was starving. Does breastfeeding help with weight loss? Absolutely—breastfeeding is the reason why I didn’t gain even more weight.
I’m on my way to getting back to my old self, though. In more ways than one.
Some of the research I’d uncovered has made it clear: one of the greatest predictors of whether or not a person will develop postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety is whether or not they had either condition prior to pregnancy. I’d never considered this as my reality because I’d never given either condition a second though at all.
I tell this story because I believe people need to understand the ways in which an increasingly normalized condition like anxiety impacts much of our lives. I have not gained control of my anxiety—I acknowledge it as a part of me, an occasionally unruly child who makes me stop what I’m doing, and give it my full attention until its tantrum stops. I can no longer eat, shop, or sex it into non-existence. I cannot run from it and hide by diving nose-first into a bag or box or pint of whatever you crazy kids are eating nowadays.
We self-soothe because that’s what we’re told to do. It’s the engine that keeps our economy running. Feeling bad? Buy something! Eat something! Just don’t not spend that money.
Our collective anxiety as a country is toyed with as a means of governance and advocating for public policy. We manifest out of thin air all kinds of anxiety about poor people getting too much money to not starve, and it’s manipulated into turning us all into Scrooge McDuck. We’d rather abide by our anxiety about food stamp users as opposed to ask questions about why it’s so much easier to strangle their food sources (and their community’s economies, if we’re being real) than to enact and enforce the policies that would protect us from another anxiety-inducing recession.
(Yes, I’m going to go back to talking about food stamps and affordability again, too. I’m feeling more like myself, now—I’m going to go back to talking about a lot of things.)
Anxiety governs our purchases—you don’t want to have the most poorly-manicured lawn in the subdivision, do you? You don’t want your kid to fail, do you? You want to keep up with the Joneses, or do you want everyone to think you’re—gasp—poor?
Anxiety governs our grocery shopping habits—do you over-purchase, as if you are only comfortable with an overstuffed fridge, because you remember the feeling of an empty fridge? Do you then wind up overeating because hell, it’s all there anyway and you haven’t quite mastered the feeling of self-control? (Don’t feel bad—both of those are me on some days. Balance is hard.)
Anxiety also becomes addictive—do you have friends who always have the tea, and you can’t wait to get a warm cup of it because you love a good story? In fact, let me put this one differently—gambling. The anxiety of the bet, the allure of the win, the hope of winning again, the bells and whistles with the perfect chord sounds engineered to create a wondrous atmosphere that you can lose yourself in…and the window-less decor that makes it hard for you to keep track of how long you’ve been there? That’s how anxiety becomes addictive…and profitable for others. For you, it just leaves you broke.
I don’t have all the answers—I just have a gang of questions that I’m trying to answer. Like, what is anxiety? What triggers it? And, damn it, why me?
I hope you’ll hang in there with me as I try to answer them.