Not Bread Alone: Weight, Wait and Regulation

When I first heard of Chef Jose I felt a surge of excitement, awe and longing. Jose Andres, born in Spain, and immigrated to the US as a young man, soon made a name for himself as a celebrity chef, opening several highly acclaimed restaurants and winning prestigious awards in the highly lucrative world of gourmet food. Certainly, in the Bay Area, food is almost at the status of a religion. In 2010, perhaps having his fill of money and adulation, he founded the World Central Kitchen, established to feed masses of people left hungry or displaced by some sort of large-scale disaster, be it a natural or political one. He sets up  traveling kitchens providing free meals to large numbers who need it. Hunger itself is a form of trauma, let alone the trauma of hurricanes, wildfires, war or crazy immigration policy. My longing was to grab my husband, drop everything and go join his team. I even found he has a local team right next door to me here in Oakland. Of course, I wouldn’t do that. But the idea of helping the traumatized in that way grabbed me hard for a minute. Admittedly, one of the things that makes me happiest, is making food for people I love. I realized that only in the past few years, and probably it has not been true much longer than that.

 

A Rocky Road

 

Like many survivors of childhood trauma and neglect, I have a long and troubled history with food. Starting when I was a little girl, for whatever reason I did not like meat, and it became a power struggle between my mother and me, with my occasionally being spanked with a serving spoon. I was known early on as a “bad eater,” and I was. My parents had their own wartime history with food. I remember our dad talking about when he first came to this country and saw the bounty at Safeway, he could not believe how much food there was in the store! He simply could not stop drinking milk, because he could. My mom used to always say “Mahlzeit” before we ate. (My little sister thought it was “mouse-ite” or something rather cute!) That is German for “Enjoy the meal,” which I really never could. To this day I feel a little spark of anger in my belly when someone says “Bon Appetit” or some such, remembering the regular unpleasantness of mealtimes. 

By the age of 12 I had a full-on eating disorder, being severely anorexic. At 5 feet 2, I weighed 79 pounds, and in typical neglect fashion, no one really noticed. By then I had taken over much of the cooking for the family which was a way to control what we ate, and also gave me an excuse to be jumping up and down from the table during mealtime, so what was going on with my own plate might be less obvious. It was 1967 so anorexia was not recognized, nothing like the household word it is now. When I finally collapsed and could not even walk to the bathroom, I got attended to, but mostly with anger, blame and coercion. The nightmare that went on for decades ensued.

 As with many survivors of trauma and neglect, food becomes another form of the “dilemma without solution” identified in attachment theory, where the source of comfort and the source of terror are the same, be it the parent or the food – most likely both. In reality the comfort sought by the child in both forms, and in general, is regulation. The desperate attempt to calm the agonizing hyperarousal of the nervous system. Ironically there was something calming about the numbing of starvation. I do remember the mild state of euphoria and power I had when I was 20 and embarked on what I called “the Long March” which was a 14-day fast where I literally took in nothing but water. I felt somehow super or sub-human, but definitely different if not special. That is one I remember, but I am sure I felt it long before that.

 I have always bristled when I heard people who struggled with their weight, envying anorexics. First because it is such a relentless and devastating tyranny. But also because my 12 year old anorexia slid amoeba-like into a new form, I am not sure when. Suddenly I became compulsively driven to eat. It was terrifying. I began a routine where I ate sparsely through the day, but after dinner and washing the dishes, when everyone in the family was in bed, or where were they? I consumed between half a gallon and a gallon of ice cream, standing up and straight out of the cartons. I guess my parents kept me supplied, I don’t remember. But I could not stop. Each night, completing my routine, completely numbed out and bloated, I stumbled off to bed. In the mornings, I would get up and secretly run twenty miles in the dark, also a compulsion. The peril of gaining weight being the whip. I stayed on that merry go round, probably until I discovered alcohol which had a similar numbing/regulating effect. So, anorexia was no free ride to thinness for me.

 

“As with many survivors of trauma and neglect, food becomes another form of the “dilemma without solution” identified in attachment theory, where the source of comfort and the source of terror are the same, be it the parent or the food- most likely both. In reality the comfort sought by the child in both forms, and in general, is regulation.”

 

A Mixed Bag

 

I became a waitress as a way to earn money for college and graduate school. I was really good at it, discovering that if I got a lot of saliva in my mouth, and a sparkle in my eye when describing a pricey special, I could get people to order whatever I wanted them to. In that way food was an ally. In my activist days I became a cook in a community cultural center and restaurant that supported refugees and exiles from Latin American dictatorships. I cooked ten-gallon pots of soup, and learned all kinds of Latin specialties that I still love to make. And it was an opportunity to lend my preoccupation to something socially useful.

At a young age I became very interested in the interface between body and mind. I knew my terrible eating obsession was a confused tangle of both. I just had no idea what to do. The simple recipe of “eat less and exercise more” was surely not the answer. And the worst of it, was how my mind was always crowded with thoughts, worry, anticipation, terror, hope, fear and self-hatred about food and weight. It really was 24/7, and so boring, not to mention the shame and loneliness, and utter waste of time of the secret world, and of being constantly “on the run.”

 

“And the worst of it, was how my mind was always crowded with thoughts, worry, anticipation, terror, hope, fear and self-hatred about food and weight. It really was 24/7, and so boring…”

 

What Is To Be Done?

 

 So what is the answer? I will start with the “ending.” I can joyfully say I have a wonderful, pleasurable, healthful and spacious relationship with food today. I only think about it when I am deciding what kind of cheese to make this weekend or appreciating something delicious I just ate. I am grateful that I can eat whatever I want and it is not a struggle to know how much is enough or too much. I remember seeing people like that with envy and despair, and thinking “that will never be me.” Kind of a “homestead girl” I make all the bread and butter and cheese in our house. I aspire to grow vegetables but I have not quite cleared the time for that. 

 How did this happen? As with every other aspect of trauma and neglect healing, the magic is regulation. I believe the winning elixir is a healing attachment relationship, in my case with a truly wonderful therapist, and regulating modalities of therapy also. I did “everything” but I do like neurofeedback best. I am not saying neurofeedback is a “cure for eating disorders” nor would I tout any non-evidence-based solution for anything. I know there are some neurofeedback providers who specialize in eating issues. They are an often-seen component of the constellation of trauma and neglect symptoms, so one must search out the trauma therapists that have a somatic modality to offer, (but one should do that anyway!)  

The third major ingredient, I must add, is time. Because most of these conflicts go back so far, and neglect often goes back to preverbal ages, this rewiring does not happen in twenty sessions, unfortunately. My healing journey took maybe four decades? Oy vey, I don’t want to tell you it will take that long. Most of what we now know about the brain and about regulation emerged since the 1990 decade of the brain. And I know I am not the only one devoted to speeding up the process of healing.  

 I discovered cheesemaking at the ripe age of 63. I am 66 now. It bit me like a bug, out of nowhere. I found it to connect me to people all over the world, and across time, all of whom discovered that letting milk “rot” in effect, makes a glorious, nutritious food that enables fresh milk to last longer. I feel connected to cows, goats and sheep, and all milk producing females. And cheese is a living thing, requiring regular attention and care like a pet. 

Perhaps most valuable of all, is that it has taught me to wait. Not passively. But taking the time, doing the daily practice of care, and waiting months for it to be ready, or at its best is the lesson. It is a hard sell, but like the work of healing, it is well worth the wait.

Meanwhile, I think I will go send Chef Jose another donation!

Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. This is a favorite of mine, a Cuban song sung by Silvio Rodriguez.

He calms down his “locuras” (craziness”) by eating olives.
 
 
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.