Fed Is Best
Despite my mum’s best efforts, no amount of derision, abuse, or fear cured me of my picky eating as a child. Despite my best efforts, no amount of self loathing, shame or longing cured me of my picky eating as an adult. However; it has blessed me with the gift of disordered eating, and a seriously fucked up relationship with food. It is an abusive relationship that I am working on healing.
I am pretty sure I was born a fussy eater. I have been told I was kicked out of preschool in part because I was a “compulsive gagger” and wouldn’t eat any of the food they offered me. Most food feels wrong in my mouth, or smells wrong to my nose. When I was a kid I was forced to eat things I didn’t want, and dealt with that by swallowing things whole or throwing up on my food so I wouldn’t have to eat it. As an adult, I’ve gained agency over my food intake and as the years have gone by I found myself eating less and less variety.
The limitations I have with food have caused me a lot of shame and anxiety. Anytime food is brought up in a conversation my anxiety goes through the roof. I know that inevitably my food issues will somehow be brought into the conversation and it fills me with so much dread. The way I cope with this is humour in the form of self deprecation. “Why yes, I indeed fail as a functional human being”. “Why yes, it is indeed hilarious that I haven’t developed scurvy yet”. “I was for sure a nightmare as a child”. At this point I offer unsolicited humorous takes in the form of word vomit because I am so defensive about it.
What I fear more than conversations about my food intake is the different levels of hell that is getting invited to places where food is going to be served. One level of hell is eating at new restaurants. I will obsess over their menu for days leading up to going to the restaurant. If the restaurant doesn’t have a menu available online? Shoot me now. Once I am at the restaurant the next level of hell is entered and it is called “what is the menu not mentioning”. There is often a garnish, or some weird bullshit that people put on plates to make them “pretty” that sends me over the edge.
These surprises are often in the form of some sort of vegetable or other greenery. Unless it’s a potato or canned corn, I do not eat vegetables. Lettuce is the most repulsive vegetable I have ever experienced. It smells loathsome, it tastes disgusting, it’s wet, and I want to vomit just thinking about it. To my dismay, lettuce is often a garnish used in food. Why people think anything needs to sit on a bed of lettuce is beyond me. As a result, if lettuce is touching my food I won’t eat it because it is contaminated. I also won’t say anything. I just won’t eat the food. It’s not the restaurant’s fault and I am broken.
Perhaps the worst level of hell for me is getting invited to someone’s house for an event involving food. It is while experiencing this level of hell that I am most visited by the ghost of my mothers voice. You know that movie Carrie, where her mother utters the famous line “They’re all going to laugh at you”? Yeah, that’s all I hear in my head; but in my mothers voice. The shame and self loathing I feel about my food issues is at its highest when I am in these spaces. They are more personal, and oftentimes the people attending the event or dinner know me, and my food issues.
When I am assessing the food in these spaces my anxiety is often so high I am on the brink of tears. For me, it’s not only the food, it’s how it was cooked, and what it was cooked with. Things seem deceptively familiar but when you bite into them you find out otherwise. I tend to stick to bread and butter, you often cannot go wrong with that. If there is mashed potatoes, I am usually pretty cool with that. I have learned over the years to always eat before I go anywhere. It just makes life easier.
The biggest source of shame for me is other peoples reaction to what I’m eating, or what I have eaten. People who don’t know me look at my plate with confusion. People who DO know me, kindly ask me if I’ve gotten enough to eat. I know they mean well, I do not begrudge them because they’re just taking care of me; but it makes me feel so much shame. That voice saying “they’re all going to laugh at you” is practically screaming in my brain. I absolutely hate that I inconvenience people and cause them to have to worry about me. I feel shame and guilt when people are being kind and go out of their way to have special food for me.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. I do have people I consider to be “safe” who I trust implicitly to make food for me. My one friend is the only person I trust to make vegetables in a way that I will eat them without any issue. She makes the best Mac and Cheese ever, and it contains pureed veggies! I never feel pity with these people, like I do with others(even tho that feeling of pity is mostly in my head). I can relax and just enjoy the food and company.
I am well aware that I think more about my food issues than anyone else does. That reading my feelings on the matter may seem quite dramatic. However, I’ve been dealing with this for almost 40 years. That’s almost 40 years of being told “If you just try it enough times you’ll like it, you have to get your palate used to it”, “It’s all in your head, you’re just being difficult”, and “you just haven’t had it cooked properly”. Close to four decades of being teased, and tormented (mostly by my mum) for how I eat. I try to make light of the absurdity of it by making jokes heavily featuring self deprecation; but it’s heavy.
The weight of this has caused me to become even fussier as the years have gone on. I struggled with being interested in anything. I guess when you eat the same combination of 10 foods over almost 4 decades it becomes boring and unappealing. With no intervention, my disordered eating became worse and worse.
Rarely does anyone notice that you have disordered eating when you’re fat. Rather, I was constantly being told by doctors and random people that I needed to eat less. When I lost weight because my mental health was in the toilet and I almost completely stopped eating? I would be complimented and told how healthy I looked. People would use micro aggressions, or open hostility to make sure I know that they disapprove of my food choices. All of these things made it easy to hide my disordered eating and let it get a good grip that slowly eroded how much I ate. Until the start of the year when it was no longer sustainable and as usual, my husband stepped in.
The months leading up to January, and after were pretty dark for me. I was not looking forward to turning 40 as I had convinced myself I would not live to see it. Coping with the knowledge that I would have to live beyond 40 was a weight I was not sure I could bear. I was sleeping way too much, and eating way too little. In hindsight I was willing myself out of existence. It wasn’t intentional, and it was a gradual shift from my usual eating habits. As time moved closer to my birthday nothing appealed to me. The thought of eating made me want to vomit. When I did eat I would only have a small amount, often losing interest before I finished.
One night while doing the usual dance of Jonathan trying to feed me dinner; and me not wanting to eat he said to me in frustration that I was starving myself and he hated watching me do so. I told him I was doing no such thing and he was being dramatic. It stayed with me though. While I have zero qualms with doing harm to myself; but upsetting my husband? Unconscionable. I started doing research and finding people who also have food issues like I do. Feeling not so alone in my struggle; but not feeling hope that I could find a solution.
Through this research and learning about other people I was introduced to the term Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). When I started researching this I realised that is what I am dealing with. I figured if there was a word for it, then there must be research and a possible solution. One of the managers in my office is a dietician; so on a whim I reached out to her and asked her if she knew anyone who could help with ARFID. It turned out she DID know someone and sent me the information for this duo of a therapist and a dietician.
I admit going into this I was sceptical. How the hell could anyone help this broken mess of sensory issues and trauma? However, I have had a handful of appointments now with my fantastic Food Therapy Duo (FTD) and they have changed my life. They helped me realise that when I started my therapy journey over a decade ago I just focused on my trauma, and mental illness and finding out how to untangle that mess. Then I learned to manage my mental illness and trauma, and how to be mindful of my emotional and mental state. The one thing my journey has not included is how to be mindful of my body, and make sure it has what it needs.
Being mindful of my body was never something I would have thought to put in my mental health tool box. It was never a tool I thought that I could even use. My food issues have been a storm cloud over my head my entire life. My mother was relentless at making sure I knew how much of a disappointment I was because I wouldn’t eat like a normal person. This set the tone for the rest of my life and my relationship with food.
Maybe if society didn’t reinforce the way my mum made me feel about food I could have challenged it. However, there is so much morality tied to food that I didn’t stand a chance. Even though I don’t care about my weight, and dieting is never something I’d consider, I still beat myself up about what I was eating … every single time I would eat. It would fill me with so much self loathing. I KNOW it’s “bad” food. I KNOW I eat worse than most people’s toddlers. Trust me, no one knows more than I do how bad my diet is. No one hates me more than I do because of what I eat.
It is an absolutely helpless feeling. I want to eat these gorgeous meals with all these amazing flavours. I would love to go to a restaurant and try some of those meals on the menu that in theory sound amazing. I watch cooking shows and marvel at these amazing creations that I would be so thrilled to try. But I can’t. No matter what people think, I do not choose to be this way. I am not trying to be special or weird. I’m just defective.
If I try to eat something that doesn’t fit what my body is willing to eat, it will be violently rejected. The likely scenario is that I will smell it, or see that wet food is touching dry food, or notice the texture, or a myriad of other things and I will feel physically ill. If I tried to get it to my mouth I’d most likely gag. If I happened to get it past my lips, I would throw up and the ghost of what it felt like in my mouth would haunt me for days. Making me feel randomly nauseated even when I am not even eating. I am not being dramatic. I don’t care if you believe me. This is the reality I face.
The weight of the judgement from society, and my own personal hang ups have hindered my ability to eat with any regularity. For so long I’ve lived in this fog of low energy and constant exhaustion I thought was due to my medication. People always like to offer the gem of advice that if you just ate healthier you would feel better. That healthy food was the key to satisfaction and a better life. It was never a door that I thought I could unlock so why even bother trying.
Being fat adds another layer to this. If you’re fat, you can’t possibly be starving yourself right? I knew my nutritional intake wasn’t what it should be; but if you’re not becoming like an emaciated supermodel from the 90s clearly it can’t be that bad right?
If you thought “wrong” you would be correct. I was not fine, and it was indeed bad.
It turns out that this constant fixation on “healthy eating” is a load of shit. I mean sure, I won’t argue with you that eating healthier foods would be better for me. However, my amazing FTD has taught me that an adequate amount of food helps you feel better. Not being in starvation mode helps you feel better. It’s like the argument that is constantly raging in the breastfeeding community. The reality is, fed is best.
My dietician (A) has me eating four to five times a day. Not necessarily meals; snacks included. She has helped to dispel the guilt I feel about what I am eating. She refuses to attach morality to food. Having someone with her knowledge tell me that what I am eating is fine. No judgement. No side eye. Just permission to eat within my limitations. Has been freeing in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before.
I often have two meal replacement drinks a day to help ease the anxiety of coming up with meals. Before when I’ve thought about using meal replacement drinks I would get so much shit from people about the sugar content, the calories, etc. A says they are okay, and fine for me to have so everyone else can suck it.
I now have a snack bucket that I pick from during the day. It has candy in it; but it also has cashews, and dried blueberries. A says this is fine, and even made reccomendations. It has really curbed a lot of random eating I was doing during the day of things I didn’t really want; but needed something to eat.
Now when I go to eat, rather than hearing my mum’s voice berating me for my food choices. I hear A’s voice telling me it’s okay. That I need to eat. What I am eating is morally neutral. I am okay.
My progress hasn’t just been with actually eating. My therapist (J) has done an amazing job adding balance. Talking to J has helped me so much. One of the biggest revelations so far has been when she started to talk to me about inner child therapy. After that conversation I spent so much time reflecting on what she said. I realised that when my dad came and took me from my mum when I was 11, that I left a huge part of me behind that day.
I abandoned that vulnerable, emotionally distraught, lonely child in order to a self protective mode of being feral, angry, and reactive. With my psychiatrist I addressed and soothed that feral angry, reactive part of me. I made peace with her. However, I never really addressed that vulnerable, emotionally distraught lonely child that I was. I left her sitting on the stairs in my mum’s old house. I abandoned her so that I could keep myself safe.
That house, those stairs, and rooms are where so much trauma happened, especially revolving around food. That little girl has been holding that weight, and trying to keep me safe for decades. I never offered to help share that weight as an adult, with adult reasoning. I have allowed so many of my food issues to reside solely within my inner child’s narrative, rather than the mature knowledgeable narrative I could provide as an adult.
With this realisation I’ve been working on healing that relationship and taking on that burden. I have been actively trying to change the dialogue I have with myself about food. I am learning to be mindful of not only my mental health; but my body and what it needs. By being more mindful of my body, it has made it much easier to be mindful of my mental health. I haven’t had any major depressive episodes in the last month. It is such a joyous feeling to have energy, to feel like you’re accomplishing something.
I know I am nowhere near “cured”. I have more work to do. However, I have faith that my FTD will be able to guide me to a much healthier relationship with food. To give me more tools and suggestions on how to reach my food goals. How to heal the trauma I haven’t dealt with that surrounds food.
I feel like my issues with food are the last vestiges of control my mother has over me. This journey I am on is not only healing my relationship with food; but also silencing her voice in my head that constantly mocks and hurts me. While I obviously wish I hadn’t gone so long starving myself and harming my well being, I am glad it has brought me to where I am now. I am excited to see where this journey goes, and what I am able to accomplish with support.
I still haven’t been to any social gathering where food is involved, so we shall see how that plays out when I do go. I am hoping that these new tools will help me feel less anxious about being around people when it involves eating. Maybe I can just eat my bread and butter without feeling ashamed. Maybe I can look at the food offerings without that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach reminding me of my inadequacies. Only time will tell.
What I DO know is that I need to eat. I need to add protein to what I am eating to make it more substantial and filling. I need to not judge myself for things I have no control over. I need to be brave and work with my FTD to branch out with what I eat.
If you are reading this and identify with how I feel, or have food issues of your own… Please eat. Please believe me when I say food has no morality. That you are allowed to eat whatever you need to in order to nourish your body. If that is eating PB & J sandwiches, french fries and nutritional drinks, then more power to you. Do not listen to people who are not professionals in nutrition and health tell you what you are doing is wrong, or that you must eat healthy in order to see any benefit. That’s just not true.
Most importantly, please take care of yourself. Remember, fed is best, even for adults.