I never have found success in abstinence of anything and lean hard on the side against programs which support them, especially when it comes to food. Take away the obvious problem of needing calories to sustain life and brain power, when we start manipulating our intake of them for psychological peace, all we do is mess up our mind. The mind is a powerful thing to waste on obsession with food, yet it fuels half of the controlling choices we make in life when we can’t get what we want. Take me for example, unable to curb sweets because a slice of cake is taunting and a set up for me to throw back the whole pound cake with its buttery richness that Sara Lee knew would cause me to stumble. As if that isn’t enough temptation, another part of me has to change up the scenario with salt afterward and hand pick which of the Lay’s potato chips will numb my tastebuds. Let’s not forget to mention that my sipping of a full-bodied red blend gave way to this whole marathon of eating events which is why my drinking part always chooses a jammy punch in the face to go hard or not go at all. Hence, I live out the perfect storm of eating disorder behavior not otherwise specified (NOS) and I am willing to bet so do many of you reading this.
The reason why so many people relate to food in a Not-Otherwise-Specified manner is because we have anxiety ridden internal family systems that binge and starve in cycles based on how we feel. And we all know that feelings are fleeting and especially regretful that morning after a bender on sweet and salty concoctions. But what if I told you that the SELF which is your inner spirit, really wants to lead your decisions with moderation but other emotional parts of you need reaction and response to protect from a deeper inner child awakening to past pain? Track with me here; a little you which we will call an exile, is trapped in a memory from your childhood where you first believed something negative about yourself. Protector parts came into your subconscious at the time of this childhood confusion and either reacted or responded with coping behavior. All of them work for or against each other inside of your psyche as a typical, dysfunctional family. Reactionary parts are like firefighters, wanting to alarm your internal system with starvation, binging, or a myriad of behaviors while a responsive part acts as a manager to fix how much or how little you indulged. Follow me if you will in a day in a life of Angie.
As a child I grew up in chaos and boundaries were crossed when I was three years old that assaulted my body and mind because of the seduction and sensuality that my little brain wasn’t able to conceive. Not all people with eating problems have suffered sexual abuse or innuendo but in my research of stories, almost 98% of people who struggle with eating disorders or not otherwise specified cycles of eating, have been touched or “known of” sexual liaisons that carry secretive feelings. I call all pre-mature sexual knowledge, a sex-based spirit, because one person falls victim to shame through evidence of “something icky” that could not be discussed. I personally felt disgusting because I deemed myself shamed long before I had a vocabulary to offer explanation. Therefore, I chose to eat when I was drowning out the sounds of sex in the next room. I ate after my own room had been busted in through the door or I had someone standing over me in the middle of the night. I could get lost in chips, ice cream or cottage cheese while staring at the t.v. and not recall any scenes from the show set before me. I was medicating my SELF that was deeply hurt from the atrocities of a role model letting me down. And there it was, something as simple as a person I relied on to govern me, did not, and therefore a part of me decided to never allow that pain in my heart again and it froze within the pit of my being to survive. An exile was born.
You may be asking, what does this have to do with the eating problems I have today? When we believe that someone else controlled our decision making ability through power or manipulation, we doubt ourselves. We doubt our ability to make sound decisions and trust that what we just lived through was real. How could a dad touch his daughter in the private parts? How could a mother seduce her son? How could a parent let a child cover for his infidelity? How could a cheating husband blame his child? How can sex become such an entanglement that after the deed is done, all feel ashamed? And why is food such a mediator for unspoken guilt and shame secrets?
I was hospitalized for 9 months with an eating disorder after my ex-in-laws raised a stink about my bones showing through my clothes. What’s sadder yet, is how jealous I was of the girls on the ward who were skinnier than me and bed-ridden because their skin was hanging off their bones. A mind like that is made through exiling the inner child that holds a secret while the emotions of critical part (manager), and binge part (firefighter), work to protect the exile from hurting again. So they respond and react to daily events with the continuous shame/guilt cycle into adulthood and they utilize your favorite foods, mantras, exercise regimens and abstinence behaviors to keep you in check. If chips are salty and become what you look forward to at the end of the work day, but ice cream and cookies have to be that midnight snack before shutting your eyes, a high probability exists that no counseling, recovery or evaluation process will remedy the urges until you get to know yourself on a much more intimate part-by-part basis.
And to look within is scary. Few people slow down enough to pause and ask it’s internal psyche what it has to say. In fact IFS Psychotherapy was launched with the intention to do just that because talk therapy stirred up hopelessness when people discussed their relationship to food. For a majority of people, the reasons why they did what they did were baffling and judged by parts of themselves who couldn’t choose to follow a plan. Food logs became rules to eradicate tempting treats in hopes of discipline and will power to aide in the solution. Exercise was either limited or implemented due to the severity of distraction from the real pain, all the while, judgments were placed on SELF if he made one mistake and then it was back to the drawing board.
Eating problems are manifestations of pain just like drugs, sex, exercise or alcohol because when they aren’t moderated, they can fluctuate our dopamine, endorphin, and serotonin levels which substantiate addiction over time. We do what we do because parts of us believe we have too, which is why polarized parts judge us and demand we stop the action. Addiction however, is always a by-product of something much deeper that our exiles have already lived through and want desperately to be freed from. Abstaining from anything further pushes the exile into captivity without a chance to be released from it’s perceived prison.
It is mandatory that we stop the performance and let the healing begin. The problem for me has been trying to abstain from behavior that is monitored by so many different parts of myself, that I feel even more shame should I re-lapse because I’m judging the behavior as if it defines SELF. Without addressing the complexity of parts, we are persuaded to judge our SELF through the mistake. There is no amount of white-knuckling, performance based, striving that will stop an emotional inner child from eating its way into numbness or escape. Don’t get me wrong, it is so small that the exile only knows what it lived through, but the protector parts that manage and fight fires are always hypervigilant to make sure you don’t stir up the pain of the little one again. And yet, every protector has its own reasoning for doing its negative job that we judge about ourselves. Once we get to recognize that a “bad behavior” really is acting out of an expected response based in the past, we get to update it of current healings so our internal system can integrate.
This is the eye-opening journey that I have embarked on because after years of therapy and not seeing progress in my daily life, I finally relinquished the rule of deeming myself an addict, problem, reject or encumbered person. I learned that quantum physics was a thing, and that what I speak matters. In all my meetings at Overeaters Anonymous, I couldn’t grasp the need to curse myself as an addict because I had received so much healing in other areas that indeed offered moderation where once seemed impossible. To say that I would always have eating issues made no sense to the parts of me that didn’t define themselves through weakness or limitation.
With my old ways of doing things I may have beat myself up and demanded that I start all over from scratch the following day, but that never worked because the pain of my exiled child within, erupted in shame. Consequently other parts that felt like I had failed, dog-piled with further accusation and I relinquished hope of reform and gave into temptation for weeks without any mental relief. This is common with all-or-nothing cognitive distortions that deem the whole person as either good or bad. For years I would “fall off the wagon” only to fast a few consecutive days so I wouldn’t despise myself. However, in IFS we realize that our brain is complex and made up of many parts that contribute to behavior which eradicates the polarization within that either loves or hates ourselves. Breaking a fast from sweets no longer became the end of the world once my abstinence part unburdened its strict need to control the consumption of chocolate and took on the quality of grace instead. A new perspective arose after I fasted sweets for 21 days and dropped the ball on day 22. Amazingly, the grace part of me wanted to remember the 21 days of consecutive success and encouraged my SELF to pick right back up where I left off. My system had noticed the sequential growth and abstinence wasn’t leading it anymore. I had already walked out in victory for 21 days without a binge and claimed it as a milestone in my recovery. I picked right back up with day 23 regardless if it broke chronological demands and realized the stigma of needing a clean slate was absolved.
My daily life can acknowledge that I indulged too much the night before but ask what firefighter part of myself needed to do it? I can ask for space from being belittled and berated from manager parts in hopes of planning a new outlook of continuing my days abstaining. I am not defined by the consecutive days but by the number of days I have success.
Therefore, my internal family grows daily in trusting SELF to align with heaven and stop falling backward into religious thinking. Religion isn’t about what people think it is, it is about a law that demands our cooperation or else we are judged for our wrongdoings, and this harshness is what we as humans suffer with internally. We are weak, and admitting our faults means accepting that faith is waiting to strengthen our inner SELF for the good of our internal family. I can pick back up right where I left off because I am not defined by my mistakes. I am working my life out according to the ability to heal all that was damaged when I was little, and my hope for a better adulthood is founded on knowing why I believe the all-or-nothing mentality helped me as long as it did. Somehow and someway, I am responsible for re-parenting that lost child within that believes food or the absence of it, will medicate the pain. And that is a process worth getting to understand by loving all the different parts of me.