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Sedating Yourself With Food: Why?

Dr. Whoo and I seem to be in the same place at the same time — we both struggle with our weight because we’re using food for something other than sustenance. We use it to manage stress. Overeating is, after all, a wonderful sedative. It soothes the savage beast and all that. And it really works. I’ve probably saved my marriage and my job and kept from killing my kids and my husband by sedating myself with food.

In Dr. Whoo’s case, the sedative of choice is pasta. In my case, anything edible and not growing mold, but preferably bread or pretzels with something fatty, either cheese or Nutella would do just fine, thank you. Mother’s little helper never tasted so good.

What am I sedating with food? Frustration, irritability and anger that results when conflicting priorities build and I have to make choices I don’t want to make. Sleep or get the work done. Help my kid with her homework even though its 10 o’clock and the first time I’ve sat down to relax all day. Ignore the email inbox while I finish patient charts. Or tackle the email while the charting builds up. (The two tasks can never both be completed in a single day, I am convinced.) Or once again finish seeing my patients for the day only to turn and face the ever growing pile of lab and radiology results and phone calls that came in while I was in office hours.

Bad Internet connections also makes me overeat if I’m trying to get work done. By the time the dam website loads, I can head to the kitchen and shove in a handful of something.

During the 11 weeks I spent losing 33 pounds in a controlled research diet, the option to sedate my frustration and anger with food did not exist. It was an interesting little experiment in dealing with life. I have to say I occasionally cheated during a particularly stressful evening with a little piece of pretzel dipped in nutella (hopefully Charlie, the study PI, is not reading this blog post…), but overall, I learned to cope without the food. It also happened to be a rather quiet time in terms of conflicting responsibilities.

Now, almost a month later, I find myself turning back to food. It may be that this has been a particularly stressful time – I’ve been working with a colleague to get a grant written while seeing a full load of patients and doing all my usual administrative work in my department. Not to mention trying to be a good mom, sister and wife, hosting a dinner party mid week and performing with my chorus.

Thankfully last weekend was a quiet one, and I even got in a 12 mile bike ride on Saturday. Which did not stop me from hitting the pita chips and cheese party leftovers that same night when I couldn’t find the ideal breast cancer knowledge tool anywhere in the literature ( a slow search because the library connection was slow) and needed to come up with something to write in the grant to explain how we were going to measure that variable. I headed to bed at 4 am feeling lousy.

Sunday I awoke at 10 and made the smart decision to head to the office, where the library’s internet connection was fast and there were no windows to remind me that it was a gorgeous spring day and I was working.  I also happened to be away from any kitchen and my daughter came with me to do her homework, so no guilt was involved. I actually got a huge amount of work done, and more importantly, I made it through the day without overeating.

That meant that night, instead of feeling guilty, I felt elated. I had written several important parts of the grant (which my collaborator may trash, but that’s okay, she’s better at this stuff than I will ever be), caught up on chart work and even posted a quickie blog post. My daughter got caught up on her homework and started a big project.  Not to mention that while she and I were working, Mr. TBTAM had done the spring garden cleanup on the roof! I felt literally high thinking about all that we had accomplished that day. The frustration of the grant writing was over, the garden looked wonderful, and to top it all off, I did not have that cloggy brain that I get when I over eat. I felt physically great.

And then I had one of those “a-ha!” moments.

I realized that while stuffing myelf with carbs and fat quite effectively sedates the frustration, it also squashes the joy for some time thereafer. Joy, is after all, a feeling of euphoria. Or as it has been so beautifully said — the unbearable lightness of being.

It’s hard to get that feeling if you are stuffed to the gills, your tummy bloated out with post carb gas, your post prandial brain plugged with the glue of sugar and your anger at yourself mounting because now you’ve lost momentum and gained back the weight you worked so hard to lose. True, you are no longer anxious. But you’re not capable of happiness at that point either. You’re too busy feeling lousy. Or at least I am. And that lousy feeling can last a lot longer than the frustration would have lasted if I’d just lived through it.

Don’t ask me how it took this many years of living to realize this, but I have.

Now of course, the question is this: How do I remember it the next time I find myself reflexly heading to the kitchen while waiting for the Internet to load? Or my daughter to finish the math problem before I review it? Or the feeling to pass when I look at my calendar and realize that I can’t do it all?

That my friends, is the question.

*This blog post was originally published at The Blog that Ate Manhattan*

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