Few people are aware of the meaning or purpose of their eating patterns and tendencies; most simply parrot back what they have been taught about the reasons they have addictions or compulsions, including, "I medicate my feelings," "It's an unhealthy way that I have learned to care for myself," "It comforts me," or, perhaps most commonly, "I'm screwed up; something is wrong with me." Discovering the meaning and purpose behind our eating patterns requires something most people, as well as many counselors, simply ignore -- the patience and love of a naturalist where moral assumptions and ideas of health are temporarily suspended so that empirical and discoverable details can be observed. The patience and love allows one to carefully and respectfully gather critical, but often ignored, information about the personal and cultural history of the user, the rituals they engage in surrounding the food, the qualities of the food they desire, and the feelings or state of mind they experience upon eating.
Consider a student that attended my university class, Addictions and Dependencies. He told the class, quite vulnerably, how upset he was about being overweight and how much he ate. In exploring the history of his eating and weight gain, he recalled that he and his twin sister, at about eight years of age, went to visit their grandmother for a summer visit. They both gained a lot of weight that summer; he never lost his. That was 30 years prior to our conversation. While some may think this detail is irrelevant, uncovering these background stories is like finding gold, bringing understanding and self-love to the healing equation -- something always sorely needed. In essence, it allows people to see themselves as more than a problem, but instead a human story in a web of relationships, feelings, and struggles.
Another important detail is the specific food a person most desires. Thus I asked, "What did you eat there?" "Bread." In fact, he still had a particular affinity for bread. Continuing my investigation of the empirical details related to his bread eating, I asked, "When do you eat it?" "Whenever I feel unhappy or am faced with tasks, like doing homework, that I don't like." He especially loved eating bread at night when he felt alone and wanted something comforting before sleeping. Wanting to know more about the rituals and nuances or preparation, I learned that he would make toast, sour dough and cinnamon were his favorites, and when the bread was finely and evenly browned he put butter on it immediately so that it would melt just right. One could say that he was a toast connoisseur. Even as he was talking about this ritual, he smacked his lips, his eyes sparkled, and his wonderful smile lit up the room. It is these kinds of details that allow the investigator to empathize and really feel into the person's experience - what it is really like for them. In doing this people feel further understood and a sense of the "hunger" begins to come alive. This "hunger" is critical if you want to understand what is deeply moving people to eat.
Next, we want to help the person "dream" -- use their imagination to make a deeper contact with the part of them that eats. I asked this man, "What kind of person are you that loves this bread? Do you have an image, a memory, or a recollection of a person who is like this?" He had an internal image of Wimpy, that Popeye cartoon character who sat at the eating counter saying, "I would gladly pay you on Thursday for a hamburger today."
This image allows us to go further by helping the person dream or imagine more into the character. "What's life like for Wimpy?" I asked. "Wimpy is sad," he said as his smile faded. "He can never get enough." (We have now entered the realm of dreaming and imagination. Tracking a person in this way can open the door to unexplored feelings, needs, and states of mind the person may be searching for.)
Many people, including this man, would see the "Wimpy" part of himself as something to get over -- a greedy, financially irresponsible, depressed soul that overeats. But actually he doesn't have enough of what he really wants and needs. Wimpy is trying to get what he wants, but to date his wants and needs are expressed by reaching for bread. If we are going to help him eat less bread, then we need to respect Wimpy who really doesn't have enough of something. We need to help him figure out what that is and what stops him from reaching for it.
At this point in the investigation it is critical to find out the ways, beliefs, and self-criticism that stop a person from reaching for what they really want. If we don't make these censors more conscious and help the person stand up against them, the person will likely find substances and behaviors that unsuccessfully meet their needs and desires creating a cycle of hunger, then reaching out, and then dissatisfaction -- the essence of an addictive pattern.
In this case, the man believed he should be satisfied with what he had. He said that a "glass half-full" mentality is best; otherwise it is hard to be happy. This belief led him to try to accept what he had in life, however, this same belief acted like a censor, as if he said, "Be happy with what you have; your needs and desires are what make you unhappy." In most areas of his life, including his work, relationships, and his free time he controlled himself and tried to be reasonable, telling himself that he should be satisfied with what he had. This belief masqueraded as a spiritual belief, which served to disavow his hunger for pleasure and real happiness. He thought that this attitude was a more mature, more reasonable one and that eventually it would lead him to a deeper and more "evolved" happiness. He had not considered the fact that he had a voracious appetite. His belief that he should be happy with what he had served to deny his sadness and his hunger.
The truth was that like Wimpy, he wasn't getting enough. What did he really want? A life as delicious as a perfect piece of toast.
The rest of our conversation was an exploration of what it would be like to feed his profound hunger -- eating as much as he wanted with a palate geared toward maximum pleasure, not only in his bread eating, but in his life. He said happily that he was considering living life as if he had an insatiable hunger. "For what?" I asked. "For life and all the things I want it to be," he retorted. He is now applying what he learned in his 30-year course in bread eating to his job, his relationships, even in class where he seems to be asking a lot more questions and grabbing considerably more of my attention on breaks and after class is over. To my satisfaction, mostly, he is practicing not being satisfied with my teaching either, asking more and more of me each evening!
Wimpy, the bread eater, taught me yet again that some things bear fruit slowly and ripen hidden from our intentions, our goals and methods. While thirty years of eating bread seems like a long time, a practice that is certainly unhealthy, it is not without reason. Perhaps it is not even that long.