From my earliest memories food was always there. I see my nana serving meatballs, me polishing off an entire plate of food and getting 50 cents, walking to the new Haagen-Dazs for a vanilla cone. Food was there when people weren't. Food was there when we had to move again.
Food was there and eventually it began to keep love out.
I used to be the kind of person who lived to eat. I couldn't wait to get home from school to make myself a bowl full of brownie mix and eat it, raw. As I kept gaining weight, my bingeing became secretive. I'd tiptoe into the kitchen, quietly open the cupboard, take a handful of cookies, and then run upstairs to my room.
But everything got much worse when I went away to boarding school.
In that accelerated academic environment, I experienced a new level of stress. It was the first time in my life that I wasn't good at something, that I wasn't a star. So I ate.
At times I couldn't shove enough food into my mouth and often raided the vending machines in my dorm, buying candy bars and cookies, devouring packet after packet.
Bingeing haunted me throughout high school, college and into young adulthood.
Initially, food was comforting and provided relief, but ultimately, after eating too much, I'd feel physically ill and then emotionally berate myself. I'd begin a diet and exercise program, succeed for a while, and then something would swing me invariably to the other side and I'd binge, undoing weeks of hard work.
Graduating from college, I was a good 50 pounds overweight when I wandered into a bookstore in Cambridge one day. There I discovered what cracked open for me the mystery around my eating disorder, Geneen Roth's book, When Food is Love. It awakened a desire to delve deeper and I began re-thinking my relationship with food.
Reading it, I suddenly saw that I'd been using food as a substitute for love. "Food was our love; eating was our way of being loved. Food was available when our parents weren't ... Food didn't say no. Food didn't hit. Food didn't get drunk. Food was always there. Food tasted good ... Food became the closest thing we knew of love."
Roth's philosophy is that when we deny ourselves, we want even more. That rebound is fierce and just takes over.
So I stopped dieting and began to follow her plan.
Eating whatever I wanted was a dream. I spent hours concocting recipes. Eating only when I was hungry and stopping when I was full was much harder. That required me to feel my body which meant I actually had to be in my body.
I'd spent so many years hating it, why would I want to be in my body now? It was the enemy -- ugly and fat. I was ashamed of it. Yet I knew this was part of my healing. I had to be willing to be present in my body and not emotionally run away.
Over time, I have come to see that this is the only way to heal, by being fully present.
It felt great to "listen to my body" but the problem was that I couldn't sustain it. Sometimes, I'd be triggered by stress, fear, anger, upset, annoyance, anxiety, you name it, and I would binge. That was when I realized I had to go deeper. I had to go into some of the emotional triggers that were causing my desire to eat and begin to change myself from the inside out.
To completely release food and go from living to eat to eating to live, took me three years. Three years of uncovering my triggers and beginning to love myself.
And here's what I learned:
1. Food isn't the problem. It's the symptom. The problem was that I felt like there was a giant hole inside of me that needed to be filled. I had to learn how to fill that hole with love -- and that started with ME, with self-love.
2. Control. When I ate, I felt out of control, like life was unmanageable, too scary and I couldn't deal with any if it. Food was like the anchor. When I dieted, then I was controlling food and obsessing over it. Either way, it was about control or the need to be in control. It was only in the act of letting food go, surrendering it, that I could be free.
3. Being Present. I used food to run away from my here and now and to numb myself to negative emotion. When I allowed myself to be present, I had to feel everything. And to my surprise, it didn't destroy me. Instead, it enabled me to heal.
Food was my primary drug of choice.
But I think anyone who has struggled with addiction can relate. After all, the truth is that we eat or drink or drug because we feel inadequate, unworthy and unlovable. When we're willing to look underneath the surface, we can discover the truth of who we are and the real healing can begin. It might not be easy but if I could do it, anyone can. All you need is the willingness, the desire to change your life. And I promise, you're worth it.
Shakti Sutriasa is the Founder of DecideDifferently.com, a personal development company committed to empowering people to live more connected and fulfilled lives through coaching, counseling and workshops. Her unique approach combines modern psychology and spirituality to support people who are seeking positive change and self-transformation. Shakti is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and has an MA in Education. Learn more at DecideDifferently.com.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.