. . . and semantics.
I stand with my hand on the refrigerator door. I’ve stood here hundreds of times. Motionless except for my breathing. Hoping for the phone to ring and pull me away, or for the invisible, magnetic pull of the refrigerator door to magically reverse and push me away.
An impulse has pulled me down the staircase and deposited me here. I know if I open the door, I’ll find the brick of Jarlsberg, the jar of toasted pecans, the sliced turkey and/or stuffed olives. There are also bagged baby greens and baby carrots in there, “conveniently prepared” produce, which I won’t even see — unless I decided to dip the carrots in hummus or peanut butter. There are also organic apples. Which I likely won’t acknowledge. I know that.
A year ago this time, I might also have considered the leftover pesto tortellini I’d fed to my husband and son the night before, but I avoid grain-based carbs now. I haven’t lost the capacity to reason and control myself, but I’m having an “eat” impulse, and it’s pulled me to this place again. And I stand and breathe, thinking nonthoughts and fragments. I didn’t arrive here because of hunger in the gnawing sense. But whatever took me here is real, if illogical. I know it well. Over the past seven years, we have become familiar friends. I know too that even if I override the “eat” impulse in this moment, I’ll probably wander back here in a half hour.
If you were to look at my larger life, you could find unresolved emotional conflicts, unexpressed angers, jealousy, general anxiety, all kinds of emotional untidiness. Popular magazines regularly admonish us that if we are eating in the absence of hunger, we’re eating in a misdirected attempt to quell or numb emotions. I think this is poppycock. I refuse to blame my emotions for this regular meditation that happens in front of the refrigerator door and sometimes ends with me walking away, other times with a quick snack (Barbara Berkeley calls them “Grab and Go”) and other times begins a 600-calorie “binge,” which only takes minutes more to complete than a Grab and Go. Actually, three “Grab and Go” episodes in a morning equals one binge. It’s all the same.
As I stand here, I may feel some anxiety or foggy-headed disjointedness, but it is rare that I run to the refrigerator in a smoking rage or at another emotional peak. If emotions are related to this moment, then cause and effect are unclear. As I have explained before, I think rather than our emotions causing us to eat irrationally, it is more likely that the endocrine that wants my body to restore one of its lost pounds – that insinuates an “eat” impulse into my subconscious – does its work, in part, by causing the foggy headedness, which leads to general anxiety and difficulty solving problems. The same popular magazines that admonish us not to be emotional eaters try to tell us that eating won’t help us with our emotional problems. But they are wrong, and on a gut level we all know this.
I know that if I eat something, or even have a mini-binge, often I may then start making progress on projects and relationships that were stalled by emotional dishevelment. My fogginess passes when I eat. You know this too. Sure, eating won’t resolve all your work conflicts, for example, but you’ll be more cogent in a staff meeting if you’re not subconsciously distracted and annoyed by hunger or “eat” impulses. Eating won’t repair a broken marriage, but a clear head makes talking to your lawyer more productive.
What are emotions? Emotions aren’t outside forces, pushing us to eat. They are chemical reactions within us, in a complicated conversation with us. We experience them as sensations in our gut, within our chest wall, in our tear ducts as they heat up, and under the surface of our flushing skin. They may start as thought fragments, and then develop into paragraph litanies. We experience other emotions as tingles in nether regions and private places. Prickles on our neck. Others gust through us as vague cloudbursts. Sometimes we go numb and we want to feel emotions, but we feel abandoned by them. And when that happens, I’m just as likely, maybe more so, to take my stand in front of the refrigerator door as I am when in the throes of an emotional crisis.
Emotions are little endocrine surges in our bodies. Recipes of hormones and other chemicals. Many are also associated with eating and weight. Serotonin is central to our pleasure response, and it is also activated by certain foods. Cortisol is associated with stress, and also weight retention. That said, should we try to solve weight issues by resolving emotional issues first?
I think it’s both impossible and unproductive. Emotional issues will continually resurface. New emotional issues present themselves every day. We simply can’t stay ahead of them. But we can deal with them better if we’re not hungry or pestered by “eat” impulses. The most productive thing we can do is try to unbraid the strands that connect our emotions and our eating. Acknowledge that there is a relationship (with unclear cause-and-effect), but surgically separate them like Siamese twins. Deal with weight issues as a fascinating scientific experiment. Deal with emotional issues by drawing on inner wisdom and the wisdom of others.
This past summer, I was talking to a friend in late-stage cancer. Her doctors had advised her to stay ahead of her pain, take a pill at the first hint of the onset of pain. Don’t let it get a foothold! I was struck by this, because I had mentally been using the same technique for my weight management. I talk about ice skating on a single blade at the edge of hunger. I stay ahead of hunger, by just an edge, generally in 300- to 600-calorie bursts that give me three to six hours of satiety at a time. I learned how to do this by twisting and manipulating the principles of intuitive eating, and that’s another blog post trying to happen.
For this blog post, I’d like to end on the following thoughts. Emotions are ENDOCRINE, internal chemicals in conversation with us about the state of our human interactions. They come in degrees of intensity. Pain is ENDOCRINE, in conversation with us about our state of wellness v. disease. It also expresses itself in degrees of intensity. Hunger, and, to a lesser degree, “eat” impulses, are ENDOCRINE – our body’s chemical conversation with us about the state of our energy needs and our fat stores. Emotions, pain, hunger, eat impulses are all examples of human conundrums that may share common endocrine chemicals, but CAN be dealt with separately, and, for sanity’s sake, should be. I’ve said it before: we drag our conundrums through our lives like anvils on chains. It is much easier to drag anvils one at a time rather than tying them together and dragging them as pairs or groups.
Where was I? Oh: hand on the refrigerator door. I breathe, then mentally count my calories thus far in the day. I look at my watch. I think through the tasks of the day. I have some mindless filing I need to do. I walk away from the refrigerator. “See ya in half an hour, Friend.”