Ask for Help

Recently, I was interviewed by a talk show host from a military radio station. She wanted to know about emotional eating during stressful times. Like deployment, she said. Like sending your husband off to war and not knowing if he’ll come back. She said that military wives feel as if they need to hang tough and buck up since, despite their hard work at home, they’re not the ones fighting the war.

She said that although women on their own find themselves having to do the work of two people, they believe they can’t ask friends for help and support because everyone’s in the same boat: stressed, exhausted, and alone. So food becomes their pleasure and solace. It becomes a way for them to have something that’s all theirs. Then she mentioned that Fritos were her comfort food and that nothing but the entire bag would do.

“How is that working for you?” I asked. “How well do Fritos provide comfort, love, reassurance?”

“They work,” she said. “For exactly five minutes.”

For the five gleeful minutes before she starts to eat — those five minutes when it occurs to her that, Oh goody, I can open up a bag of Fritos — she has something to look forward to, something she knows will give her a bit of peace. And then of course there are those other 30 seconds — the first few bites, when everything disappears but the crunch and the salt and that soothing feeling of something filling the mouth. But then the magic of the Fritos disappears, and soon she feels terrible about herself for eating the entire bag.

“So what would happen if you didn’t eat the corn chips?” I asked.

“I’d walk around feeling exhausted and drained,” she said.

“And — the million-dollar question — what if you decided to give yourself something different, something pleasurable that wasn’t salty and crunchy? What could that be?”

Even if you’re not a military wife, I’m sure you’ve asked yourself this question. And the usual answers — take a bath, take a walk, take a nap, soothe yourself with music — don’t seem to cut it, especially with children underfoot and/or a life with many challenges. From that vantage point, it’s easy to feel that eating is the only option. So what’s a girl to do?


A girl can think again. And look harder. There is always at least one thing you could do besides eating, something that would take better care of you than food does. (How do I know this? Because food is a physical substance, and a physical substance can only fill physical hunger. It cannot — and was never meant to — provide the things that only other people can provide, things like love and contact and comfort.)

I asked my radio host why she wasn’t turning to her neighbors for help. Why, if they were all in the same boat, couldn’t they support one another by trading off child care? She said that asking for help was just not something they did.

“Why not?” I asked.

The only answer she could give was, “Because.”

That would be a fine answer, I said, but only if you were perfectly happy and didn’t want to change. Only if you prefer to keep using food as your drug of choice. If you want to change your relationship with food, you need to change the way you think and the way you act.

We all want to change the way we eat and, of course, change that number on the scale, but we don’t realize that wanting to change what we do with food means changing what we do without food. And often that means taking a risk. Breaking out of our routines. Doing something we’ve never done before. Questioning beliefs we’ve taken for granted, such as “I am supposed to do this alone” and “Asking for help is a sign of weakness.”

Think about the events in your life that send you running for the Fritos. Is one of them a situation in which you believe that you are not supposed to ask for help? If you didn’t eat in that moment, but decided to ask for exactly what you need, would you still feel that need to eat?

Giving myself permission to ask for help is a process I’m still trying to master. An example: A few years ago, I was in New York visiting my mother  had just had complicated back surgery. When the doctor told us that she’d have to undergo another procedure six days later, I was scared — at her age, more general anesthesia was something she didn’t need. And since my usual pattern is to believe that the first sign of discomfort signals catastrophe (a sore throat equals throat cancer), I knew that I needed to fly to New York immediately to be with her.

My husband, Matt, was about to leave for Canada to attend the funeral of a cousin. He asked if I would like him to come with me instead. “No,” I said, “go and be with your family. I can handle this myself.”

Each day, I would leave the hospital exhausted and depleted. I’d head around the corner for a cup of soft-serve “diet” ice cream (if you can call a bland, tasteless, cold, low-carb, low-fat mixture that you eat with a spoon ice cream). Then one day, I talked to a friend who said, “And why exactly did you tell Matt that he didn’t need to come? Wouldn’t it be wonderful for you if he were here? Wouldn’t you be less inclined toward cold, tasteless concoctions if he flew here to join you?”

And the answer was yes, yes, yes. Just thinking about Matt’s coming to New York relieved and comforted me. Yet even though we’ve been married for 20 years, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could ask him to come. My unspoken belief was that it’s OK for me to ask him to change a tire since I can’t do it myself. But if I am merely anxious, tired, and frightened, if it’s not a life-or-death emergency, I should be able to tough it out and buck up on my own.

Haven’t I learned by now that it’s all right to ask for help? Yes, I have learned that, but I don’t always remember. If only we learned deep lessons right away, learned the first five times, learned the first 50 times, or even the first 500 times. So this time, I learned again. I realized that the courageous move in this case wasn’t handling things on my own. It was calling him and asking him to come and be with me.

My mother came through her second surgery and was healing well. Matt arrived, and my consumption of cold, tasteless foodstuffs ended (though I did eat some delicious lemon ice cream for dessert one night). Turns out that my radio host and I had a lot in common. In order to stop using food for comfort, we had to risk doing something uncomfortable.

So, go ahead. Take a risk. Do something differently. Keep learning, as I keep doing, that if you want to live the biggest life you can, asking for help is sometimes the bravest thing you can do.


Join the conversation below.


25 responses to “Ask for Help

  1. Good afternoon!

    In the past, when I’ve started something new involving my health, EVERYTHING else in my life must be in order: my home must be clean, my car must been clean and organized, my desk (at work) must be spotless, and nothing else should be weighing heavily on my mind. Isn’t that interesting – WEIGHING.

    Then, in typical Mary Beth fashion, I would begin, only to fall apart because the home didn’t remain clean, nor did the car, or the desk, and things began weighing heavily on my mind.

    Last week, I started Weight Watchers. I’m on Day 7 (I lost 3.6 pounds last week); so far, so good. Guess what: my home is not clean, my car is not clean (but it is organized), my desk is definitely not spotless, and I have tons of things weighing heavily on my mind (although they are positives, rather than negatives). I find it so interesting that I have started this new regimen without everything “in place”, and I’m succeeding.

    I get it, there will be difficult days, but it is so refreshing, enlightening, perhaps cathartic, that I can make progress when things are “out of place”. Striving for progress, not perfection, really does make sense.

    Thank you, Geneen, for enriching, enlightening, and educating me.

  2. Hello, Geneen.

    FYI: I’ve lost 50 pounds in the last 5 years or so.

    I am repeatedly inspired by reading your book, “When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair”. (I think I gave copies to 7 different friends.)

    Just when I am feeling smug because I’ve got it all figured out, I read something from you that answers a question I didn’t know was getting in my way. Like how difficult it is for me to say “thanks”.

    Many, Many Thanks.

    Rose M. Hendrickson

  3. Just right at this very minute…….risking to ask for what I need. It is absolutely scarey and dips into the fears~voids~helplessness that began the eating to comfort, fill, take “care” of self from thr git-go.

  4. Wonderful piece! Very helpful thank you.
    I loved the question on how long the comfort of food would last. That will help me for sure.
    And what would happen if you didn’t eat the item – a way of tuning into the real emotional issue rather than avoiding it!

  5. Great article – except in asking for help, you risk being told “no.” So instead of being tired and depleted, you’re now tired, depleted, and disappointed. Not sure if there’s anything to mitigate that, but I think fear of disappointment is a big reason we don’t ask for help in the first place(and end up eating the Fritos!).

  6. Thanks so much for another beautiful newsletter; I always read them with interest! I hope the military wives find ways to team up and band together to help each other through the dark moments. My question always seems to be the same when I read the newsletters: what to do if you really, truly don’t have anyone you can talk to or connect with? Food is definitely a poor substitute for a friend – but what if it’s the only friend you’ve got?

  7. Does Geneen ever travel abroad to do retreats? I’m in the UK and would love to do retreat in person but coming to the US is not possible for me . I have tried the online retreat and organised it with a few others to share and support yet still I’m caught in the habit of thirty years of binge eating. I’m sure many people here would love to do it.
    So i’m putting in a request and would like to contribute to it happening if it were possible.

  8. Geneen,

    I am so moved by your work. It is my good fortune to have a sane relationship to food, but your insights are so useful and deep that I read each and every blog and find something useful there about how I relate to my emotions. Thanks for the wise reminders. It makes me * almost* wish I had an issue with food just so I could justify joining in on one of your retreats! 😉

    Warmly, Marianna

  9. But what about those without someone to ask, or who have asked and everyone we might dare ask is busy at the moment or cancels. In an era of texting, insets this and that that all happens from a keyboard without human contact, maybe the thing we just really need is human contact. For example I heard a mom today on a talk show and her and the talk show host agreed voicemail is so yesterday. No one listens to them so they had to learn to text. What when the whole Workd feels crowded, but there’s not a human available anywhere. (But there is food, always food). I’m not making excuses to choose food, but just realizing a lot, how empty my very busy world can be and fairly confident I’m not the only one feeling this isolation that can trigger eating. Situations like spouse of a military personnel or a mid-life divorce or an empty nester, or aging person whose friends are passing or ca no longer get out. Well, you get my point.

  10. As usual it is great to know we all have food as a source of many emotions . At present I am traveling and walking a lot. Despite KNOWING this is good , I overeat at each meal and feel awful . Love to hear from you . Thank you

  11. Dear Geneen, you are brilliant!
    Thank you for sharing all your insights and wise counsel. Eating disorders are a lifelong battle..constant support is necessary.
    Wishing you well always, pls never stop,

  12. Thanks Geneen i really related to this. My nephews and nieces are coming over to visit today. Yesterday, brother called me and offered to drop them over but i told him i would leave work, then go pick them (total distance of about 70 km to pick them and get home) yet all along i was worried on the time i would get home and make dinner.. I really needed the assistance, yet declined it when it was offered. I believe it is an attempt to ‘remain a super mum’..long story short my sister, whose kids i was to pick also offered that her husband could drop all of them as they reside in the same direction and this time i accepted and shared with her what a relief that would be for i would be home in time to make them dinner.Indeed, i need to take a risk and ask for help where i need it.

  13. One of the biggest triggers for my emotional eating is feeling like there is no one I can ask for support. Sure, my husband will open a jar for me, and if I ask often enough, he will fix a broken chair. But he would NEVER offer to change his plans if I were feeling scared or low. His priorities are his own interests, and only when they coincide with mine do I benefit from his companionship.
    And my women friends? Far away, or busy, or burdened by troubles of their own…
    The Doritos are right there, and they don’t judge me for being blue.

  14. Hi Geneen, you may never read this but I want you to know that when you talk or write to us out here, it is as if you are speaking to me and that you really get what it is I do with food. Recently my awareness about what I eat has taken a step forward…I can eat what I want, I can pay attention to it and I can decide if that is hunger or something else. It has taken awhile but it is happening. I don’t think i will ever find anything you write that does not speak to me. Thank you so much. You have really learned alot and I appreciate that you share it with such clarity. Carole

  15. Wow – I see I am not alone. When I made my original comment, I thought, “Oh…this is going to sound so pathetic, but there really is no one I can turn to…” , but it seems like many people here have this problem! I wonder – is there a forum board on this very site for people to turn to each other? Also, this must be a wide-spread problem – isolation and lonely despair. That is a sad thing to contemplate, but I really feel for everyone here writing about it.

  16. Wow-
    I never realized the imprint that my early years as a military wife left on me. I was already eating disordered when I became a military wife, but the isolation.. That is a pattern that I still carry- 25 years later.
    Thank you for holding up your light so that we can see the way out of the dark. It is so nice to not feel so alone.

  17. Well. This is so difficult. Because right now I feel immobilized when it comes to asking for help. You see, I did exactly that and got crushed. And I know that I did things that were part of the crushing like going on a rant. That the other person got triggered by what I was saying and doing but right now I don’t care. My heart feels like it’s broken and I am wrapping it in a snuggly and protecting it. I feel raw and vulnerable and so sick of grieving the end of my marriage. I am so sick of feeling sad of doing things I don’t want to do like buying only healthy foods because I am exhausted so much of the time. So I eat healthy to give myself as much care and energy as I can. But I don’t like it. And I am so sick of hearing, You don’t have to like it.
    Crying… it’s never the “right Time” so I don’t cry. Since I have read all your books I remember the woman who said that even though she’d lost the love of her life she couldn’t cry. She was afraid she’d fall apart if she did. And even though I know that’s a crummy reason for not crying and invalid my “baby”heart is convinced the show must go on and I can’t mess it up by crying. Just like asking for help. No; I’ll ask for help when I’m not this raw and vulnerable. This person I spoke about earlier was someone I trusted. When I told him how angry I was with my husband for not returning a second set of keys (to my apartment) and dismissing me when I asked for them back, He told me I should pray for my husband. “Why would I do that?” I asked, clearly miffed because I hadn’t asked for advice. It then turned into a battle. “You have to, ” he insisted. When I said, “I don’t want to,” he told me I was angry and bitter. I turned away from him, wracked with pain. Not only did I feel crappy about meeting with my ex, I felt branded and judged. I know, I know. It’s just one person; I shouldn’t shut down because of one person. “Shouldn’t”? whenever there’s a “should” or “shouldn’t ” in my self-talk I know I am not listening to the part of me that longs to be heard, accepted and loved. So where does that put me now? I guess I will call the Crisis Center and talk; this time more carefully. I will not speak without reservation becaus after all it’s a time-limited conversation; thirty minutes max. And taking one tiny step is the beginning of being able to trust again. It’s either that or food. And I already know where that takes me.
    Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you for this article!

  18. I have to ask – what do you do when you do ask for help but the person you ask says no? Because I realized in reading this post today that I am overwhelmed so I asked for some help from someone and they said no. So I am back at square one. It is one of those tasks that only certain people can do and my one and only said no.

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