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.
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