By the time my mother's faltering voice informed me "Nana passed away," I was already working my way through a second breakfast. I tried to stifle tears as I comforted her before getting off the phone and resuming my meal: two seasoned pieces of avocado toast, with egg and cheese. I wasn't hungry. The oatmeal I'd eaten only an hour before was filling. But when my mother texted, "Call me right away," I already knew what she needed to tell me. I called her twenty minutes later, after making myself more food.
It was Father's Day, 2015. The last time I'd seen my grandmother was two weeks prior at my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary party. Her cancer was nearly bowling her over, and she could hardly get out of bed without incredible pain. Though she'd managed one dance with my grandfather at the party, her health quickly faded and she was hospitalized and sedated for the week before she died. Those seven days of fresh grief drove me to eat and drink in a numbed stupor that would ebb but eventually, increasingly, flow for months after. What I didn't know then is that my grandmother's would be the second of four deaths my close-knit family would endure over an 18-month stretch of time.
Six months before my grandmother, my cousin Joseph, who was more like an uncle, died suddenly and unexpectedly, from illnesses no one knew he'd been living with. Seven months after Nana, my Aunt Minnie died. And three months after her, my father's stepmother, my last living grandmother, also passed away. For more than two years I didn't—and couldn't—process the death of any one person. I was still anticipating another one. In the absence of certainty, I sought the familiar and guaranteed relief of food.
"Grief is a very acute state of being emotionally overwhelmed. What we do is look for something to soothe us. And food is the very first thing we learn to seek out for pleasure," says Melainie Rogers, CEO of Balance Eating Disorder Treatment Center. This sort of response to emotional trauma isn't at all surprising to her; the tendency to reach for comfort food is attributed to our brain chemistry. Where it becomes an issue is if the pattern of reaching for food continues past the grieving period. "Grief is very natural and temporary," Rogers says. "If it goes on, then there's perhaps an underlying issue that's been triggered."
My relationship with food has been fraught and complex for most of my life, but it intensified more than ever during those 18 months. Throughout many years of my weight yo-yoing through high school and college, I distanced myself from my body, which I felt I'd lost all control of. "[In situations like these] one can't follow the body's signaling of how many calories the body actually needs," Rogers says. "We have an internal regulatory system that keeps us in weight balance, but these stressors represent that the system is out of whack."
With time and distance from my personal stressors, I thought I had conquered the urge to eat my way out of painful emotions. But old habits began to resurface in 2013, when we learned of my grandmother's diagnosis, my father's second cancer diagnosis three months later, and my subsequent move across the country for graduate school.
During the summer of 2015, a couple of months had come and gone since my grandmother's death. At dinner with friends one night, the song "Ain't No Woman Like the One I Got" rang through the restaurant's speakers. It was the song my grandparents danced to at their anniversary. I lost it in the middle of the restaurant and for several minutes more in the bathroom. When I rejoined my very concerned friends, I forced a smile onto my face and tried, with little success, to shift conversation back to light and fun. When the waitress made her rounds, I ordered a hefty dessert. Once home, I ate again.
The morning my mother delivered the bad news, I wondered to myself if grieving would make me lose my appetite like it did for other people. For a brief moment, I thought that if there could be a silver lining to this tragedy it might be my shrinking body. Of course, what actually happened was that I ate. And ate. As all of this unfolded there seemed to be an inverse relationship at play: In the face of loss, I gained. Time passed, someone else died, and my body grew, becoming a visible archive of each late-night ice cream binge, every delivery order snuck past my roommates so I could eat ashamedly and privately in my bedroom.
Rogers explains that "eating is linked to pleasure centers in the brain. For anorexics, they receive a dopamine response of feeling better when they don't eat. For binge eaters or compulsive over-eaters, they receive dopamine responses from eating beyond satiety. You don't have a choice of how your brain is wired." She says "most people don't know that it's an illness [to binge or overeat]. They think it's a matter of willpower. 'He or she just let themselves go.' Actually, there's a compulsion behind the eating. The problem is we assume it's a willpower thing, which is exactly what you don't want to do."
In 2012, two years before all of this happened, before the deaths and the diagnoses, I had convinced myself of exactly this—that my body and my struggles with food were problems I could master with discipline. Through no small effort, I lost fifty pounds over the course of eight months. Yet what I thought was a testament to my strength and newfound control was an 'achievement' fueled by all the wrong motivations. People responded to me differently. I became visible in a way I hadn't experienced for a really long time, and I both hated and craved the attention I received.
Anyone who has walked through life in two starkly different bodies knows all too well the kindnesses showered on the smaller among us. And the rewards I was getting, in the form of praise and flattery, allowed me to temporarily set aside difficult emotions I still wasn't acknowledging.
When I was thinner, I hadn't scratched the surface of why I reached for food each time I was upset or happy, or experienced any real depth of emotion. I didn't have to. My excessive exercising and measuring were met not with concern but approval. I hadn't addressed the behavior, only sought out different fixes. In dealing with the deaths and subsequent weight gain, that same avoidance was in effect.
During our conversation, Rogers stressed the importance of addressing those difficult emotions head on. "Our tolerance [as a society] for extended grieving is pretty low. We're savvy enough to know that when we lose someone that there are high and low moments of grieving, but we're not sympathetic when it goes on longer than a few months. This often makes people feel more ashamed because they feel like, 'I should be over this by now.'"
So often I've been told things get better with time, but I think what people really mean is that time brings with it a resignation, an acceptance of life as it is now. I doubt I'll ever fully stop feeling the loss of any of my family members, but I'm in a healthier place now and have learned that recovery, like grief, doesn't necessarily run along a linear progression. Healing now is being present in the midst of the sadness and the cravings when they hit, and acknowledging their existence, before allowing them to pass.
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