When Food Is Love

Geneen Roth, When food is love: Exploring the relationship between eating and intimacy, Penguin Group, New York, NY, 1992.

pg 1:  I thought I wanted to be thin; I discovered that what I wanted was to be invulnerable.

pg 2: …I am speaking of intimacy, of surrender, trust, and a willingness to face, rather than run from, the worst of myself.

The wonderful thing about food is that it doesn’t leave, talk back, or have a mind of its own.  The difficult thing about people is that they do.

For both men and women, the focus on food provides a distraction from underlying issues of trust and intimacy.

pg 3: Eating is a metaphor for the way we live; it is also a metaphor for the way we love.  Excessive fantasizing, creating drama, the need to be in control, and wanting what is forbidden are behaviors that block us from finding joy in food our relationships  And some of the same guidelines that enable us to break free from compulsive behavior–learning to stay in the present, beginning to value ourselves now, giving the hungry child within us a voice, trusting our physical and emotional hungers, and teaching ourselves to receive pleasure–enable us to be intimate with another person.

pg 4: The focus on weight provides a convenient and culturally reinforced distraction from the reasons why so many people use food when they are not hungry.  These reasons are more complex than–and will never be solved with–willpower, counting calories, and exercise.  They have to do with neglect, lack of trust, lack of love, sexual abuse, physical abuse, unexpressed rage, grief, being the object of discrimination, protection from getting hurt again.  People abuse themselves with food because they don’t know they deserve better.  People abuse themselves because they’ve been abused.  They become self-loathing, unhappy adults not because they’ve experienced trauma but because they’ve repressed it.

pg 15: Compulsion is despair on the emotional level.  The substances, people, or activities that we become compulsive about are those that we believe capable of taking our despair away.

I felt it first as a child.  I didn’t have a name for it then.  It was the feeling I carried inside my body that my world was about to rip apart and there was nothing I could do about it.  No one I could talk to about it.  No way of preventing it, no way of making anything better.

pg 18: I wanted her to tell me that our world was not going to fly apart at any moment and that I could stop trying so hard to be good.

Compulsion is despair on the emotional level.  Compulsion is the feeling that there is no one home.  We become compulsive to put someone home.

We didn’t want to become compulsive about anything.  We did it to survive.  We did it to keep from going crazy.  Good for us.

pg 19: Compulsive behavior, at its most fundamental, is a lack of self-love; it is an expression of a belief that we are not good enough.

pg 22: If Trina could not get her grandmother’s love, she would steal her food.

pg 23:  Love and compulsion cannot coexist.

Love is the willingness and ability to be affected by another human being and to allow that effect to make a difference in what you do, say, become.

Compulsion is the act of wrapping ourselves around an activity, a substance, or a person to survive, to tolerate and numb our experience of the moment.

Love is a state of connectedness, one that includes vulnerability, surrender, self-valuing, steadiness, and a willingness to face, rather than run from, the worst of ourselves.

Compulsion is a state of isolation, one that includes self-absorption, invulnerability, low self-esteem, unpredictability, and fear that if we faced our pain, it would destroy us.

Compulsion leaves no room for love–which is, in fact, why many people start eating: because when there was room for love, the people around us were not loving.  The very purpose of compulsion is to protect ourselves from the pain associated with love.

pg 24:  It is my belief that we become compulsive because of wounds from our past and the decisions we made at that time about our self-worth–decisions about our capacity to love and whether, in fact, we deserve to be loved.  Our mother goes away and we decide that we are unlovable.  Our father is emotionally distant and we decide that we need too much.  Someone we are close to dies and we decide that there is no reason to love anyone because it hurts too much at the end.  We make decisions based on our pain and the limited choices we had at the time.  We make decisions based on how we made sense of the wounds and what we did to protect ourselves from being more wounded in that environment.  At the age of six or eleven or fifteen, we decide that love hurts and that we are unworthy or unlovable or too demanding, and we live the rest of our lives protecting ourselves from being hurt again.  And there is no better protection than wrapping ourselves around a compulsion.

pg 25: The decision to be intimate, like the decision to break free from compulsive eating, is not something that is given to you.  Intimacy is not something that just happens between two people; it is a way of being alive.  At every moment, we are choosing either to reveal ourselves or to protect ourselves, to value ourselves or to diminish ourselves, to tell the truth or to hide.  to dive into life or to avoid it.  Intimacy is making the choice to be connected to, rather isolated from, our deepest truth at that moment.

For those of us who are used to waiting for someone to bring love to our lives, the discovery that being intimate is a choice that we make at every moment is as close to magic as anyone ever comes.

pg 36: We learn very early that a fundamental part of us–our hunger–is out of control.  We learn that if we are to look and live like normal human beings, we must be forever watchful of the wild hunger inside.

But this belief is only a smoke screen that distracts us from the core issue: the areas in which we never were and never will be in control.  The areas that have to do with loving and being loved.

When we become intimate with someone else, we love control.  We lose control of how long they stay or if they leave, how they feel about us, how we feel about things they do or say.  We lose control of the effect that loving them has on our lives.  We become vulnerable to loss, pain, death.

pg 37: Rather than experience the loss of control that loving brings, many of us choose to feel out of control about something that is within our control: the food we eat–or don’t eat.

The issue of control–over our actions, our feelings, other people’s behavior–is central to any compulsion.

pg 43:  Being selfish was the same as being bad.  Being selfish must be the reason she didn’t love me, I thought.  I grew up with the belief that I wouldn’t be loved if I thought about myself.

pg 44: But underneath the wrapping was an awful knowledge that who we were, who we really were, was not lovable.

Every time we eat compulsively, we reinforce the belief that the only way we can have what we want is to give it to ourselves, that unless we are in control of our nourishment we will go hungry.

(compulsive eating) has come to symbolize all that is wrong with us: that we have needs and that we have the arrogance to actually provide for these needs ourselves.  Every time we use food compulsively, we trigger the hopelessness of learning that meeting our needs means we will never, ever be loved.

pg 47: This means that if we are ever to feel loved, we must rely on someone else for that love.  And as soon as we begin relying on others to fill us, we feel the need, the urgency, to control what they do and say; the reflection of ourselves in their eyes becomes critical.  They must love us a particular way, say things in a particular manner.  They must love us the way we would love ourselves if only we were allowed.  They must become what we define as loving so that we will know we are loved.  They must do everything our parents didn’t.

If we believe that we don’t deserve and therefore cannot give appreciation, respect, and tenderness to ourselves, then we will try to get these things from others–even if we have to humiliate ourselves in the process.

We become what is commonly referred to as “controlling.”

Because the only way I knew to get what I wanted was to give up what I wanted and hope that someone else would give it to me.

…yes, Geneen, yes, you have a right to need, to want, to ask, to have.  You don’t have to be ashamed any longer.  You can bloom now, it’s all right.

pg 49: …being close and feeling real pleasure are terrifying to her and so she uses her weight to keep herself at a distance.

We become frightened of intimacy because our intimate experiences were frightening, not because we are incapable of loving.  If we are ever to deeply love ourselves–or anyone else–we must first examine why we are frightened.  We must go back to the beginning, re experience (or perhaps allow ourselves to feel for the first time, since when those feelings first arose, we pushed them away) the rage, hurt, fear, betrayal, loss of what it was like to be a child we were, a child in our family of origin.

pg 50: As if my job were to keep his walls from crumbling so that mine could remain intact….If we had allowed ourselves to feel the reality of the situation, we might have been unable to walk, talk, or otherwise function.  We might have literally lost our minds.

…we give ourselves the illusion of power in an otherwise powerless environment.

However, what served us well as children hinders our growth as adults.  If we continue to believe, as I have, that we can be in control of the beginnings and endings of things, we will be constantly frustrated, disappointed, and confused.  We will not have  soul-satisfying love in our lives.  By operating under the illusion of power that was never, and can never be, ours, we will totally miss the opportunity of owning the power that as children we did not have and as adults we do have: that of taking good and loving care of ourselves, making ourselves happy.  It is not our job to be in charge of anyone but ourselves.

pg 51: We will never be children again.  No one, nothing can ever hurt us that way again  Only a child is defenseless and totally reliant on those around her to protect, affirm, and love her.

…we try to protect ourselves from feeling our past, and in so doing we never allow ourselves to claim the present.

pg 52: I am in the process of taking my childhood room apart.  And with each feeling I touch, cry about, and put away, each memory of fear, each experience of loss, the walls are crumbling.  And I am setting myself free.

pg 60: My mother was in the house and miserable–or no one was home.  There seemed to be only two choices: live in chaos or be abandoned.

pg 61:  The point is not the taste or the texture or the smell of food; overeating is a means to give ourselves what we believe we deserve.

Compulsive eating is a dramatic restaging of the suffering and/or violence that we witnessed as children in our families.  Our relationship to food is a microcosm of all that we learned about loving and being loved, about our self-worth.  It is the stage upon which we reenact our childhood.

pg 63: As long as we are obsessed with food, we always have a concrete reason that explains our pain.

pg 65: Without drama we would simply be ourselves, and that is not good enough.

pg 66: Often, we saw people most alive–their eyes lit, their bodies in motion–when they were frightened, angry at each other, or in a crisis.  And if, when we were in a crisis, we received the attention we longed for, we learned that being our everyday selves did not soften the hearts of people around us.  We needed something extra to awaken their love.  A little excitement perhaps.

…I wanted to be real sick.  I wanted my dad back…

pg 67: If our reaction to events or feelings is “Oh good, this will get his/her attention,” it is a sign that we believe we can’t get what we want by being ourselves.

We create drama by externalizing our pain, by making things hard between ourselves in relationships instead of being honest about how hard it is inside ourselves.  When we are not honest about the internal conflict, we stage an external one.  We create drama because we are afraid of what would happen if we held still.  We create drama because we are afraid of revealing ourselves.  Creating drama protects us from being intimate.

pg 68: Intimacy brings with it tenderness and humor, companionship and affection, but it also demands that we relive the most agonizing moments of being a child.

pg 69: We unconsciously decide that we would rather eat and be protected, or occupy our time with The Search, or find fault with our present relationship, than go back to the vulnerability of childhood that intimacy brings.

pg 70:…giving up your protection from pain, for when you protect yourself from pain, you protect yourself from intimacy.

…in being close, you are thrown back to the time when you decided that being close was too scary, so you folded in on yourself.  When you go back to that time, you give yourself the opportunity to be a child again, but this time with the power of an adult.

…giving up drama…without it we don’t know what to do…if we lived in family environments in which we felt that things were just about to fall apart, or always in the process of doing so, if we lived with emotional or physical violence, if we lived with abuse or neglect, then what is most familiar and therefore most comfortable to us is discomfort.  We are suspicious of things that are easy, fluid or comfortable.  Without theater, we feel as if we are missing the essentials of being alive.  And in fact, we are.  We are missing the drama that defined being alive in our families.  We don’t know how to be alive without it.

pg 71: When something is hard, we know it is worth doing.

If we are comfortable with struggle and suffering, then we will choose partners who are not attracted to ys, who are alcoholics or drug addicts, who are incapable of making a commitment.  Or comfortable as we are with struggle and suffering, we will find a way to suffer in even the best relationships.

Peace and contentment are feelings that take practice to achieve.

For those of us who as children felt as if standing still meant being smashed, being content is perceived as a threat to our survival.

pg 72: “You don’t get to have both, Geneen.  You either learn to change your internal dialogue to one of respecting yourself now, as regular and unromantic as you sometimes are, or you live in great swoops of emotion, always afraid that the moment the dust settles, people will see the ‘real’ you and reject you.”

pg 92: The fantasy of the taste of M&Ms is more enchanting than the taste of M&Ms.  The fantasy of being thin is more powerful than being thin.  The fantasy of spending your life with a partner who is unavailable is more exciting than spending your life with someone who does not love you.

We are not attracted to people who are tender with us; rather we attract relationships that repeat the wounds of the past.

It is not the Ralphs and the workaholics and the married men we want; we want the love we didn’t get from our mothers and fathers.

When I stopped trying to make the wrong person stay, and began allowing myself to feel the pain and anger at the person I wanted to stay–pain I spent thirty-five years trying to avoid–I stopped making scenes at airports.

The problem with fantasy is the greatest benefit of fantasy: it prevents us from living in the present moment.  But the present now is different from the present then, and while it is true that in the present, people still get sick, leave, and die, it is also true that the present is where hearts are opened and love enters.

pg 108: The one-wrong-move syndrome is a description of what happens when something or someone triggers the feelings that we never learned words to describe.

pg 109: …when your childhood was torn apart and you haven’t given yourself the opportunity to grieve for the lost years, you see life through the lens of “torn-apart.”  You see that life is not kind, life is not safe, you can’t count on anything.  When something is easy–a relationship, a situation–you feel as if you are overlooking something and better not begin thinking that this is the way it will continue.

pg 110: We must go through the past to live in the present.  Through, not beyond.  Through, not above.  Through, not out of.  Speaking, feeling, crying, raging, laughing, being fearlessly honest about the past.  I this way, the present becomes itself, nothing more.

pg 115:  I am terrified that the decision to trust myself is permission to binge in disguise, and that the conviction that I can eat what I want is the basis of the worst trick I have ever played on myself.

pg 116:  If I pile enough food on top of the shame, maybe I won’t feel it any more.

pg 117: “I am undoing twenty-eight years of brainwashing, of being told that my hungers are bottomless and that I must be vigilant in my attempt at controlling them.  I am not spineless; I am not devouring.  I do not need to be afraid of myself.  I can–and will–trust myself to embrace what is life-giving and dismiss what will destroy me.

pg 123:  The first step in healing is telling the truth.  When you tell the truth, you acknowledge your losses.  When you acknowledge your losses, you grieve about them.  When you grieve about them, you let go of defining yourself by how much and how badly you’ve been abused.  You begin living in the present instead of living in reaction to the past.

pg 124: I was willing to admit feeling helpless about something I did–eating, for instance–but I was not willing to feel helpless about something outside of myself.  There wasn’t any point, I reasoned, in letting myself feel sad or angry or lonely if I couldn’t do anything to make it better.  I decided to allow myself only feelings I could do something about, feelings I could find a place for in my body, feelings that would be acceptable to my mother and my father.

pg 128: …growing up in an abusive family is more harmful than the experience of living in a Nazi concentration camp.  Whereas victims in a camp can identify the enemy, form a camaraderie among themselves, and know in every fiber of their beings that what is happening to them is horrible and unjust, children from abusive families are put in impossible situations: they must remain unaware of their suffering.  Because of their dependence and because they are innocent and tender, children adore the people who abuse them.  The hatred, mistrust, and rage are directed inside toward themselves, not outside toward their parents.

pg 129: Grieving means telling the truth to yourself about what you have lost.

Most of us lie, pretend, or hide because we learned very early that revealing ourselves creates distance, whereas pretending and hiding foster the illusion of intimacy.

pg 131:  You cannot forgive anyone with whom you never got angry.  Grieving can seem like a full-time job, and with a family to care for, work to report to, and a life that demands our presence, it’s hard to believe that we can make room for something as big as grief.

pg 133: The more I move the dark side into consciousness the less pull it has on me.  I don’t like mucking around in the pain, but I’m willing to do it because it’s the only way I know to become whole.

My mother never allowed herself to acknowledge the suffering she felt as a child.  My father isn’t even aware that he suffered.  Instead of expressing their pain, they passed it on.

pg 134: It seems to me that suffering becomes a banner when you spend your life reacting to it instead of acknowledging it and letting it go.

pg 144: At some point in my life, I have to move from being the child of a drug-dependent mother to being a woman who is connected to the source of her own vitality and who is responsible for the ways she chooses to ignore it or express it.

pg 147: Once you experience even the palest glimmer of self-love, it becomes increasingly difficult to feel comfortable in relationships where all that exists is the pretense of love.

pg 161: In letting go of blaming myself for her pain, I had stopped blaming her for mine.

pg 171: Healing is about opening our hearts, not closing them.  It is about softening the places in us that won’t let love in.  Healing is a process.  It is about rocking back and forth between the abuse of the past and the fullness of the present and being in the present more and more of the time.  It is rocking that creates the healing, not staying in one place or another.  The purpose of healing is not to be forever happy; that is impossible.  The purpose of healing is to be awake.  And to live while you are alive instead of dying while you are alive.  Healing is about being broken and whole at the same time.

When we realize, as a one- or three- or ten-year-old, that we are too vulnerable for the world in which we find ourselves, we plaster our bodies with protective casts and we draw pretty pictures and we write our names and we let other people draw pictures and write their names, and by the time we are grown-ups, every single inch of the cast is jammed with color and we’ve gotten so used to the feel of it and so attached to the drawings we’ve made that we forget that our bodies are underneath.

When we realize how painful this cast is, weighing our bones down and restricting our movements, when we realize we’ve outgrown this childhood form ad don’t need it any more, the task of sawing it away seems so immense and so painful that we don’t know whether we should bother.  Especially when we notice that almost all the people we know or see are walking around in their cast.  And everyone is so busy admiring, even envying someone else’s cast that we wonder if we are imagining things.  Maybe this really is my skin, we say to ourselves.  How could they all be so happy with their bodies covered in plaster?  And we feel as lonely as we did in childhood.

Compulsive eating is the cast, not the wound, although most people don’t believe that.

pg 176: The first step in change for a compulsive eater is acknowledging the desperation–realizing that the choices they make on a daily level are about living or dying–and making the choice to live.

We become compulsive about food because we have something to hide.  Something we believe is worse than being fat or eating compulsively.

pg 178: The choice is exactly the same for all of us–alcoholics, drug addicts, cigarette smokers, compulsive eaters: Do I want to live while I’m alive and embrace what sustains me or do I want to die while I’m alive and embrace what destroys me?

pg 181:  She began using overeating as a way to gain access to her feelings instead of as proof that she was worthless and would never get it right.

It is the difference between kicking a child who is in pain or rocking her.

Most people kick because they’ve been kicked and they don’t know how to do anything else.  They feel that being kind to themselves, using their pain as a guide, is self-indulgent and cannot possibly lead to change.

pg 182: Hate does not heal anyone, ever.

pg 196: As long as it was only the potential of a relationship that I was in love with–the images, the illusion–I didn’t have to be vulnerable.  Like putting my life on hold until I got thin.  Nothing counted until I got thin because once I got thin, everything would change.

A woman came to me after she lost sixty points on a diet and gained seventy pounds back.  She was furious that being thin wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.  Without the Dream-of-Being-Think happiness when she was fat, she had nothing standing between her and being fully alive.  And she didn’t like it.

pg 197: Real pain happens when you take away what’s standing between you and being awake.  It’s the gritty pain of growing yourself up.

It’s the pain of shaking off what you’ve taken on and isn’t yours so that you can step into the shimmer of a life that is yours.

The pain of a compulsion is not real pain.  Neither is the pain of being with an unavailable or abusive partner.  I don’t mean to say that you don’t hurt, only that the hurt is piled on top of the deeper, truer, hurt.  there is original pain, pain of loss loneliness, sorrow, fear.  And there is the pain you create to distract yourself from feeling loss, loneliness, sorrow, fear.  There is pain and there is pain on top of pain.  Healing is about opening the wound and letting it heal from the inside out, exposing it to wind and sun and time, not piling bandages on it and screaming each time your skin gets caught in the adhesive tape.

Relationships are a process of facing, then stripping away, the layers you have constructed between you and allowing someone to make a difference to you.

pg 198: I used food and I used people.  I called the food part compulsive eating and I called the people part love.  I used both of them for the same purpose: to avoid feeling my fear, my shame about being myself, my hopelessness about being alive.

pg 199: A relationship is not about finding peace by being with another human being.  It is about making a commitment to maintain contact and not run away when your partner is a mirror for the hardness in your heart.

The question is not when or if you will meet someone you love; nothing will change when you meet the love of your life except that you will have met the love of your life.  The work begins when the infatuation ends.  And the question is not how glorious it will be to wake up with a warm body beside you and have someone to go to the movies with and celebrate holidays with and go to your parents’ house with and be yourself with  The question is what will you do when it gets hard.  How can you trust someone when you’ve never learned to trust yourself?

pg 205: When food is love, love is hard and lacquer-shiny.  Love is outside of you, another thing to acquire and make yours.  When live is love, there is nothing standing between you and your breaking heart.  Love moves you.  And that is good.

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