I had many "aha" moments when I was recovering from an eating disorder. The first—and possibly most memorable—came on a Sunday morning.
I had spent the previous night like I had nearly every night for the past year: knee deep in junk food, lost in another binge. Each night, I’d get under the covers, almost fall asleep, when this thing would come over me. It was an uncontrollable—trust me, I had tried everything I could to control it—urge to eat Pepperidge Farm Soft Baked Chocolate Chip Cookies. In a seemingly dissociative state, I’d grab my keys, head to the gas station down the road and buy a box. Still in my pajamas, still with the white pimple cream on my face, I’d tell myself that I was just going to have just one cookie, but I’d end up eating nearly the entire box…followed by raw oatmeal from the jar, frozen bread from the back of the freezer, ANYTHING I could get my hands on.
On that morning after the binge, I remember sitting on my bed staring at the sole remaining cookie. I couldn’t understand how this little thing had such control over me. I had gone 18 years as someone who could eat one cookie and stop, so why, night after night, was I eating nearly a dozen cookies—and then continuing to gorge myself to the point of physical pain? I was convinced I was a sugar addict. I believed if I could just lock myself away in a room, away from anything sweet, I would be able to get a handle on this food thing. But even when I tried that—many times—night after night I ended up in the same spot: at the local gas station, in my pajamas with the zit cream on my face, buying the same cookies.
A couple of days later, I finally “gave in” and went to see a therapist. I asked her for a magic cure, something to help me steer clear of chocolate chip cookies. She kindly yet forcefully informed me that there was nothing wrong with the cookies. I was not a food addict. Instead, I was someone who was in emotional pain, and the cookies—whether I believed it at the time or not—were taking care of me. Eating the cookies was my attempt to comfort myself during an incredibly stressful time in my life.
It was never the cookies' fault.
My experience is something we've probably all seen in one form or another. Whether it’s been someone who is facing eating disorder or a friend who is a compulsive dieter, a family member or ourselves, this person is convinced that the food is the issue. The thinking goes like this: if I can just get a handle on my love of sugar, my “addiction” to baked goods, or rid my kitchen of carbs, I’ll be okay. Once I figure out how to stop eating this and only eat that, my life will improve. If I stick to this diet, I will be "good."
When you develop an eating disorder, the belief that food has a magical power over your life controls your life. Your world gets divided into “good” and “bad” foods; everything in life is suddenly black and white. When you’re binging, food is the enemy. You believe if only you were stronger, you wouldn't "give in" to the cookies, and you’d finally feel that sense of control over your life that you so desperately desire. And when you’re restricting what you eat, you feel victorious over the food. You are fueled by a false sense of security that your life is finally in your hands.
But the truth is, it’s never about the food.
Someone develops a food obsession, and eating disorders are born, when an individual lacks healthy coping mechanisms. Food becomes the focus when we’ve experienced trauma or challenging experiences in our childhood that we haven’t yet processed. Our world becomes divided into “good” and “bad” foods when we feel overwhelmed by emotions that seem just too big to understand, and we haven't yet learned how to effectively manage these emotions. Or, we attempt to control what we eat when we feel that we’re lacking efficacy in some aspect of our lives.
What I realized in subsequent therapy sessions, and I now understand today, is that once you unmask the core issue, the cookies no longer interest you. Once you learn that it's okay to feel sad, that you can comfort yourself through difficult life transitions and challenging emotional states, your obsession with food just melts away. The space in your brain that was once occupied with thoughts of what you can and cannot eat becomes occupied with life's myriad facets. A dozen cookies turns back into eating just one because you now have the tools to cope with whatever life throws at you. It doesn't mean you never fall back into old patterns from time to time, but for the most part, you never obsess or think about what you can and cannot eat. At all. Like, ever.
Eating disorders are sneaky because they can take over your life seemingly overnight, and they can trick you into thinking they're all about food. But underneath that obsession will always lie the core issue. Having the willingness to see if there's something behind this food thing and seeking help can be scary, but learning new coping skills, embracing the messiness of uncomfortable emotions and the grayness of life is. so. worth. it. Once you realize that the power that the food once held is really your power, life opens up, and you'll see: beyond being a delicious treat that is yours to enjoy whenever you crave it, the cookie will always just be a cookie.