On Food & Feelings

I have no idea if anyone out there can identify with me, but I have a weird emotional cycle that has repeated itself several times throughout my adult life. (And no, it’s not the one that just happens to roll around on a monthly basis.) The first time I circled through it, it was pretty extreme. I was flying along fine and dandy and then BAM. Motherhood. It was a priceless gift, obviously, and one I am truly thankful for every day, but also one that sent me into the worst emotional tailspin of my life. I look back at even that nosedive, now, as gift, because it forced me to sort through so much baggage I didn’t know I was carrying, and it was the catalyst for the ever-increasing freedom I can live in now. I processed through wounds, unhealthy mindsets I had held, I forgave, identified emotional triggers, set up boundaries, and put some healthy habits in place. But since then, I’ve had a few “mini” repeats of the same cycle. In my earlier days I would have beat myself up about these progressively shrinking “repeats”, but one of the things that indicates I’ve grown is that I’m just thankful I’m learning to recognize it sooner and sooner.

I probably won’t ever be completely rid of this cycle. As we all know, this world is broken, and that just makes life hard sometimes. If the brokenness doesn’t affect us, I’m not sure we’re actually human. My prayer is that I become stronger and stronger, more and more centered in God, and that when the brokenness bumps me I waiver less and less each time.

What does “the cycle” look like, you ask? Well, the first couple times around, I went from stress to feelings of disappointment, inadequacy, and hopelessness, to eating my feelings, to barely being able to get out of bed, to self-loathing, to pit of despair depression, anxiety, and frequent panic attacks. There may be one or two steps in there that get slightly mixed up, but that’s the general trajectory. The first time around, things were pretty complicated, and I didn’t realize there were so many tangled up feelings and harmful beliefs jamming up the works. Thankfully, the next couple times around, I didn’t actually fall as low on the downward side, and started working my way back up to the top before I got to full-blown depression/anxiety-ville. At this point in my life, I may not even get to feelings of hopelessness before I recognize something is not right, and take active measures to restore emotional health.

Please try not to draw judgmental conclusions from the fact that both these containers are empty. In my defense, the hummus was almost gone when I got it out of the fridge.

But here’s the hard truth about where I am today: I’m eating my feelings again. As I sat at my kitchen table, it hit me. I saw my hand in the open bag, reaching for another one, and I sat up straight, realizing that something is greatly amiss on my insides, and needs my attention. I felt the immediate temptation to comfort myself by saying things like, “At least it’s just pretzels & hummus instead of Doritos and cookie dough like 5 years ago!” (As if hummus is morally superior somehow since it’s more of a grownup food and not generally eaten at Jr. High lock-ins.) Or the even less helpful: “At least it’s just Mt. Dew instead of hard liquor or cocaine like some people.” I hate that one even more because the air of superiority is just out of control. We’re all fighting hard battles, and I’m just feeding the brokenness by unsuccessfully propping myself up with judgmental comparison. It’s an ugly, ugly thing to do. Resist the temptation at ALL costs, friends.

So, the question is, what do I do now? Well, before I address that, I want to talk to those out there that are in the “DD zone”. (That stands for Depression & Doritos zone. Get your mind out of the gutter.) The first step is to reach out for help. I could tell you all the other steps (exercise, get a good rhythm of sleep and sunshine, etc.) but if you’re anything like me, those things will be WAY too overwhelming without help. So, talk to your trusted people first. I was incredibly blessed with a group of committed, trustworthy friends and mentors when I went through all this, and I will very literally say that I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.

I also talked to a professional counselor, and I HIGHLY recommend that you put down all your classic excuses and do that. It’s expensive, it’s emotionally draining, and unfortunately in some circles it still carries a stigma, but it’s WORTH IT. Do it.

And don’t automatically refuse medication. I’m not sure why some people need it and some don’t, but I just know that God is kind and medication is a kind provision for some. Yeah, maybe it’s not a great idea to run to it first thing, but it can be a gift. Make decisions about medications in the counsel of a variety of people: your spouse, wise and trusted friends, professional counselor, and medical professional. Do your best to listen to the still, small voice inside you. But just be aware that at some points in our journey, that inner voice tends to get drowned out by self-criticism, fear, and irrational paranoia, so listen to the wise voices around you, too.

And now, for the people who maybe aren’t quite in the “gobbling down cookie dough and Xanax” phase yet, but who may need a few pointers from a fellow struggler about ways to maintain emotional health. (By the way, that should be all of us, because, like I said, broken world. We all get emotionally bumped. It’s cool, we just gotta learn how to deal.)

I have daily practices, weekly practices, and monthly/quarterly practices. Dangit. Even as I type this I’m realizing I haven’t been faithful with these lately. The one I’ve been really consistent with is the daily: I wake up before my kids to pray, read Scripture, and sit in the presence of God. If I don’t do this, I die. Or I become a monster. It’s just the way it is.

Secondly, I usually try to take time every week to get out of the house by myself. Sometimes I just need space and distance from people so I can come back and love freely and openly again. I also have to be selective with what I do while I’m out. Shopping is draining and emotionally complicated and horrible. So I usually go to a coffee shop or a park and read and journal and write.

Thirdly, every few months I go out to a retreat center to be alone with God for a whole day. I cannot stress the importance of an ENTIRE DAY away for me. My soul needs that recharge bigtime, and now that I think about it, I need to get one on the calendar pronto. Silence is something which goes against every grain in our culture and our lives, and it is also absolutely crucial to our spiritual health.

So tonight, the kids are in bed, and what do I want to? I want to plop my booty down on the couch, turn on some Gilmore Girls and eat chips and popcorn and ice cream and not pay a lick of attention to my soul. But what am I going to do instead? I’m going to get down on the floor with my Bible, my prayer book, and my journal. I’m going to pray. I’m going to ask God to show me what’s going wrong with my insides. What am I feeling at my core? What am I not seeing correctly? What have I not forgiven? What do I need to change? And I’m going to get quiet and listen. I will pour out my heart, sit in the presence of God, and write furiously in my journal until I am confident I have a renewed perspective and a healthy heart. And I will also maybe eat a small, controlled portion of ice cream and read. The end.

Wherever you are emotionally, just take note and be aware. And then take care of yourselves, friends!