The Reality Of Being Someone Who Eats Their Feelings

by Sarah Cottrell
Originally Published: 
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I’m not the kind of mother who keeps boxes of wine in the pantry or who rolls up a doobie and lights up after the kids go to bed. (Though, I have exactly zero issues with moms who do.) And I’m not the kind of mother who rage cleans or goes to a gym or has a therapist to keep my emotions in check while I balance the hectic nature of parenthood, career, marriage, and life.

When I was a kid, we were what you’d call the working poor. My mother held down three jobs and ran our household with a cold smile. There were many winters when decent food was considered a luxury over the necessity of heat, and we ate water-thin soups and relied on school lunches to get by. I remember one day sitting alone in that drafty old house and feeling the pangs of hunger in my belly.

When I was 10, we didn’t have anything that I was capable of preparing alone, so I pulled out my mother’s beige hardcover copy of The Good Housekeeping Cookbook and flipped through the thick glossy pages in the center of the book that showed beautiful images of decadent cakes and steaming hot roast beef, delicately set up tea sets and petit fours. I pretended to eat. I envisioned my empty belly filling up with fresh, delicious, home-cooked food.

That memory plays in my head to this day as I grab for a cinnamon bun after dealing with my kids shrieking at each other during the chaos of getting ready for bed. I feel weak and nervous when I balance the checkbook at the end of the week, so I plow through half a box of grape popsicles. When I’ve had a particularly trying day at work, I reward myself and my family by ordering a pizza for dinner.

I’m an emotional eater.

Some might even point at me at certain times of the day and say that I have a food addiction. Honestly? I’m not sure I would even argue with them in those moments. When I eat like this, because emotional eating is not like regular eating just like drinking wine is not the same thing as drinking water, I am doing it to feel relief, to get high. It is not a coincidence that I am shoving carbs and sugar down my gullet rather than carrot sticks and hummus. I want to feel the rush of sugar hit my bloodstream and make me feel alive. I want to feel the carbs fill out the empty spaces of my belly and stuff me so tight I feel a food coma coming on.

I eat until I feel physically just beyond the point of full because that is the same point at which eating, for me, becomes the emotional release I am after, and sometimes if I am lucky, it feels like euphoria. It feels like getting high.

And I am not alone. According to Harvard Medical School, “about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale,” and furthermore, stress is directly linked to weight gain. In the short term, stress suppresses appetite when a part of the brain called the hypothalamus releases a flood of a hormone called corticotropin hormone. But when stress levels are not short term, “the adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat.

It is no wonder that sheroes like Jillian Michaels (I own all of her DVDs by the way) become a beacon of hope for people like me. She is known for coaching people to condition not just their bodies, but their hearts, which is the only way to truly get healthy and quit the devastating roller coaster of emotional eating. There have been times while I was working out to her DVDs that she’s yelled something into the TV about conquering my emotional demons and I sat right down on the floor and started to cry because eating is what I do to silence the emotional demons. That girl gets me, dammit.

Emotional eating, for me, spins out of control, and then levels itself out based entirely on how stressful my life is. In my family, we value health. This is a huge reason why I feel so ashamed of the way I binge-eat when my heart is hurting or my brain is fried. We never eat fast food, we teach our kids the importance of eating locally sourced, fresh foods, and we take great pains to show them healthy portions. But at night, when they aren’t looking, I’m grabbing fistfuls of popcorn or eating a quart of ice cream until the bitter taste of stress is replaced by the sleep-inducing effects of being too full.

I’m an emotional eater, not because I can’t control myself around food, but because I can’t control my emotions in a healthy and productive way. I’m not lazy. I’m not unproductive. I’m not ignorant to the benefits of a well-balanced diet. This battle is just a roller coaster ride, and I’m still struggling to get off. Like so many, I’m a work in progress, and I want others to know that they are not alone on this emotional ride.

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