The Mindfulness Trap

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Last week, a few of my favorite Internet people started a post-Easter “reset.” There was a lot of talk about “no sugar.” “X number of days without sugar.” Getting back “on track.”

When I saw this sprout up in my online space, I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to participate in. And yet… There was a little seed of a thought in me that said, “Maybe I should be more mindful of the treats I’m eating.”

Daily chocolate—specifically, a Seattle Chocolates truffle bar split with my partner after our children are in bed— was one of the cornerstones of my recovery. Good-bye, restriction and “fear foods!” Hello, abundance and eating for the pure joy of it! Over time, as I got more comfortable with the idea that sugar was not sloughed off the skin of Satan himself, and my desire to eat for pleasure was not wrong, my sweets consumption increased. Half a truffle bar in the evening was a given, but I also added a little dessert after lunch most days, and sometimes even had a Girl Scout cookie or two as my morning pre-workout snack. And I loved it! I felt great! But with all the post-Easter “no sugar” discussion, I wondered if maybe I should…you know, pay attention to just how much I was eating.

I explained it to myself thusly: I’m not “buckling down” or “dialing in,” I’m just getting more mindful of how much sugar I’m consuming. Yeah. That’s it. I’ll practice mindfulness.

That’s when things got a little shifty. I didn’t leap headfirst back into old dieting behaviors, but the needle slid over to the “Warning” side of the disordered-eating dial. Call them “pre-behaviors”: sneaking food; hoarding food (i.e. buying a bunch of discounted Easter candy with no immediate plans to consume it); feeling hungry, imagining what I’d like to eat, and then trying to talk myself out of my choice with a lower-sugar, “healthy” substitution.

A few days later, I was eating chocolate—and only chocolate—for dinner. Not in an out-of-control binge state (it was a conscious choice), but with a certain amount of lower-brain “oh no, what if she tries to take our chocolate away again?!” urgency buzzing in the background.

True mindfulness around food is a beautiful thing. Focusing my awareness on the present moment when choosing, preparing, and eating food is one of my favorite ways to come back to myself. To respect my body’s ever-changing needs and preferences. But using “mindfulness” as my “in” with the sugar-reset crowd was me trying to have my cake and eat it in a diet-mindset too.

I’m not suggesting people abandon thoughts of eating to feel their best. I acknowledge that there are more nutrient-dense pre-workout snacks than a cookie. I even have places in my food and beverage consumption that I’d like to “work on”—by which I mean be more truly mindful and possibly even reduce a bit. (When my daughter was having trouble sleeping, I got into the habit of drinking a lot of coffee. Her sleep is better, but my coffee consumption is still high, and it’s starting to affect my sleep and wellbeing).

Language can be sneaky, especially for a person like me who loves words and wordplay. “Mindfulness” is a pretty healthy-sounding word, but when it’s used as a tool to self-inflict uncertainty and shame, it’s not healing; it’s diet-speak in disguise.

“I got it on the first try!”

My mother often tells the story of how I learned to tie my shoes. I was five, and very stubborn. I was determined to learn to tie my shoes once and for all. I struggled for most of a day to get my laces to do the loop-circle-pull thing that my parents made look so easy. It was a miserable experience. My loops never held. My circles didn’t quite go around. I pulled…but things unraveled.

Finally, after trying and failing and trying and failing, I quit. I tearfully gave up on the idea of ever being able to tie my shoes and went back to unchallenging but unappealing velcro sneakers.

Months later, I put on a pair of lace-up shoes, tied them, and proudly declared, “I got it on the first try!”

Which is true. I did get it on the first try. That time. But I had hours of struggle and frustration and giving up behind me.

I’ve been thinking and writing about recovery from the “I got it on the first try” standpoint. My most recent decision to quit binge-eating resulted in fast, relatively easy, and permanent recovery. But if I’m honest, the recovery effort began 23 years ago, with little-girl me on the therapy couch and in the Weight Watchers meetings because I “just can’t stop eating.”

It started again in middle school, with Lean Cuisine that I would chew and spit for lunch, and self-defense classes to “burn off” candy bars. And again in high school with Slim Fast and hard-boiled egg diets and dry veggie burgers with no bread and trying to force myself to run and then reading about feminism and sexuality and coming out and trying to feel at home in my fat, queer body (but never allowing myself to eat freely the things I craved or to pursue openly the pleasure I desired). Loop, circle, pull…watch everything unravel.

College, married life, pregnancy, and the postpartum period brought more of the same: decide I binge-eat because I “just can’t stop eating,” look for ways to just stop eating, loop, circle, pull…unravel.

So for a while, I quit. I gave up on the idea of ever being a “normal eater,” and retreated into disordered eating. I hated the binge/purge/diet cycle, but it was the devil I knew. I took my deep-seated fat-phobia and internalized misogyny and ran with it. And this is where the shoe-tying comparison thing kind of breaks down, because instead of wearing velcro shoes, I was “running with it” with my laces untied and trying to be cool with falling face-first onto concrete and knocking out teeth all the time.

So, yes. With my last attempt at recovery, I did “get it on the first try”—but only because I finally tried again, after years of painful, failed attempts.

Recovery Is Not Hard

“Recovery is hard.”

“It’s hard, but it’s worth it.”

“You’re going to relapse. Recovery is hard.”

I see this kind of rhetoric all the time, and it frustrates me. I can’t stand the idea that recovery is hard. In fact, believing “recovery is hard” and that relapse was inevitable kept me from recovering for years.

“Recovery is hard,” you say? Well fuck that shit! I will stay in my disorder, thankyouverymuch, because at least I know what to expect. And I know that even though trying to eat as little as possible and lose a bunch of weight didn’t fix my life last time and I still binged until I couldn’t breathe, maybe it’ll work this time.

“Recovery is hard” made my eating disorder stand at attention. Because, after all, I was weak. I had no self-control. “Hard” was not for me.

Of course, staying in my disorder for years also ended up being hard: on my body, on my relationships, on my family’s food budget, on my ability to experience joy and wonder at the miracle of just being alive. It finally hit me that whatever this “hard” of recovery that everyone was talking about might be, it couldn’t be worse than the “hard” of always feeling afraid around food and distrusting my desires. And while it was true that I hadn’t done very many hard things in my life, I hadn’t done no hard things, either.

So I took a leap of faith and faced this unknown recovery-“hard,” with the understanding that I could wuss out at any time, if I really needed to.

I discovered very quickly that recovery is hard—but only because life is hard sometimes. It’s not recovery’s fault.

When I stopped binge-eating, stopped purging, stopped putting myself on restrictive food plans, and stopped punishing myself with exercise, I noticed something amazing. Everything else in my life stayed pretty much the same! I still had a yard overgrown with blackberry brambles; I still had two children who loved me and relied on me and often behaved ways that pushed buttons I didn’t know I had; I still had a devoted partner and a sneezy cat and piles of laundry and feelings of being not good enough and computer trouble and fuzzy boundaries with certain people and bouts of imposter syndrome…but I didn’t binge, purge, starve, or punish anymore.

Recovery—the decision to not do my disordered behaviors—was not hard. It took some effort and it wasn’t always comfortable, but I knew what I had to do. (Get rid of diet books, unfollow diet-promoters on social media, consciously avoid women’s magazines, politely exit fat- and food-shaming conversations, eat enough to fuel my current body and activities, trust that chips and cookies were not the boss of me…) “Recovery is hard” made me picture hacking and slashing through an uncharted wilderness. This felt more like navigating in an unfamiliar city: a little anxiety-provoking, sure, but there were paved roads and I had a pretty good map.

Dealing with the life stuff, though… I didn’t have a map for what to do when my children were fighting and I wanted to scream so loudly it might actually destroy everyone and everything within a three-mile radius. In the past, I might’ve stuffed my mouth with spoonfuls of peanut butter and maple syrup. Now what?

This is the territory I’m still charting. When my mind suggests that if I’m eating cake, I might as well eat all the cake, I pull out my map: eat one piece of cake, slowly and on purpose, and sit with any feelings of dissatisfaction that might come up, reminding yourself that you can have cake any time you want it, and you are allowed to want it. Breathe. When my mind tells me to lash out? Um…try not lash out? Unless I’m lashing out because I’m overly hungry (which rarely happens these days), a mouthful of peanut butter might help. But if I’m not hungry, food is not the answer. So what is? Go ahead and scream, three-mile-radius be damned? I don’t know exactly. (Right now, I freeze, feel my feet on the ground, maybe say in as calm a voice as I can muster, “I’m starting to feel angry and frustrated…” Breathe.)

Picturing my “fantasy-eater scenario”—answering the question, “How do I want to relate to food?”—was relatively simple. Picturing my fantasy-life scenario—”Who the hell am I, anyway? How do I want to relate to the world?”—is proving to be much more difficult to answer.

Recovery is easy. It’s showing me the real “hard”: filling in my world map.

Stand

A good night’s sleep has been hard to come by recently. Parenthood isn’t restful. Who knew? Life feels overwhelming, and a well-worn neural pathway makes me want to take it out on my body.

As I stand in front of the bathroom mirror my physical self is suddenly excessive. Too soft, too uneven, too loose, too much. I’m deeply exhausted, and for a moment, the correct response seems to be grabbing handfuls of my flesh and kneading them like loathsome bread dough, watching the skin and fat squish into and fold over itself.

“Disgusting.”

The thought yanks me onto a familiar path. If I walk down it, berating myself for eating dessert with lunch or needing an extra snack is just a few steps away. A short ways after that…darkness.

I let go of my belly and turn slightly away from the mirror. I can still see the reflection of my general shape in my peripheral vision, but I can’t find details to nitpick.

This is my body, I think firmly. It is not disgusting. It just is.

I roll my shoulders back and straighten my spine. It feels good to stand up for myself.

What Did I Do Last Night?

So far I’ve been writing about recovery with a kind of long-ago-and-far-away detachment. As though disordered thoughts and behaviors are all in my past, and I am now a totally relaxed, happy, enlightened eater. I still have not-nice thoughts about food and my body, but for the most part, it’s true that things are great!

It’s also true that I ate a whole bunch of cookies at two o’clock this morning.

When I was dieting hard, I used to wake up in the middle of the night pretty regularly. Sometimes I’d stay hungry and miserable and go back to sleep. But more often, I’d get up and binge. My “favorite binge memory” (to use a bizarre and problematic phrase) is one such eating episode. I methodically, compulsively ate three dozen almond cookies. Even though I ended that binge feeling overfull and ashamed, I also felt a sense of having done something right for my body. I had been under-fueling, and especially under-“carb-ing,” for months. The little animal inside me had clearly had enough of this nonsense, and it woke me up to forage for something calorie- and carbohydrate-dense. Getting up and binge-eating, in that situation, felt like my healthy biology taking over. My animal-body was not willing to let me destroy it.

That same force woke me up last night: “Hey, mammal! You need fuel!”

Shit, I thought. I don’t want to get up and snack. But I wasn’t just feeling “snacky.” Shifting positions in bed and adjusting my blankets only made the hollow, growling feeling in my stomach more noticeable. I was going to have a hell of a time getting back to sleep without some food.

Cookies popped into my mind. There were a couple open packages in the snack cupboard, and I went straight for them. That action alone seemed a little suspicious.

This is kinda binge-y.

I took some cookies out of their impossibly loud, crinkly bag and ate them. My cells sang sweet hallelujah. “Ohmygod yes, carbohydrates, thank you!”

I thought about having just a couple of cookies and going back to bed. But my hunger was full-meal-sized. I crunched through more cookies. It felt so good to eat, but so bizarre—and a little wrong—to be standing in the dark kitchen, satisfying my hunger with a large portion of “junk” food.

Am I…binge-eating? Is this a binge?

I wondered if, like being hungry, binge-eating was like being in love: “If you don’t know, you’re probably not,” as Geneen Roth says. I had done these exact actions while definitely binge-eating, but this didn’t feel the same. Was I just in denial? Was there a difference between binge-eating and waking up hungry and eating a bunch of cookies in the middle of the night?

The obvious difference between a binge and a midnight snack, in my mind, is the sense of lost control. While I ate more food last night than I probably would have if I’d  been sitting down in daylight, I never felt like I couldn’t stop eating. At one point, an old thought flickered through my mind: “As long as I’m eating cookies, I might as well have a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter…” But it was trivial to recognize that thought as nonsense. For one thing, I didn’t actually want peanut butter. I wanted to eat cookies and go back to bed.

Another moment gave me pause and raised the “this is disordered behavior” flag: about halfway though my “meal,” my partner coughed in the other room. I felt a pang of dread. What if Rob wakes up and catches me?! I thought about rushing to clean up and scurrying back to bed.

They’re just cookies. I reminded myself. You’re not doing anything wrong! I was hungry, I needed and wanted a snack before going back to sleep, I chose cookies, the end. I wasn’t acting in alignment with my goal of eating mostly nourishing foods, but so what? (And if I walked in on my partner eating cookies in the middle of the night, I certainly wouldn’t judge him for it!)

Despite the temporary fear of “being discovered” and the smattering of shame over choosing boxed cookies instead of…anything else, really, I feel confident saying no, I did not binge last night. I ate when I was hungry; I paid attention to my craving and ate exactly what I wanted; I didn’t eat past the point of feeling comfortable; and I didn’t sink into the quicksand of moralizing about food.

Rerouting my thoughts in the middle of the night wasn’t too difficult. But not letting my midnight snack shape today was harder. There was lots of mental back-and-forth: “I should skip breakfast.” No, no “should.” I will eat when I get hungry again. (I ended up with a smaller, later breakfast than usual, because of where my hunger and satiety were.) “I should work out this morning.” Nuh-uh. It’s a rest day. (If I hadn’t eaten a bunch of cookies, I definitely wouldn’t be looking to add exercise to this busy day.)

My digestive tract was not amused, and it let me know with a miserable morning bathroom experience. I couldn’t shake the thought that I was getting “what I deserve.”

When I emerged, my partner was worried. “Any particular reason for that?”

“No, not really.”

That is a fucking lie.

One thing I promised my partner last year when I decided to really, actually recover was that I would not lie to him anymore. I would not parade around going, “oooooh, look at me, I’m so recovered!” while still engaging in disordered behaviors.
I mentioned not sleeping well, and being at a certain point in my cycle, both things that tend to upset my digestion. Shame crept in the longer I stalled. By now, our daughter was awake and playing, so I continued the conversation via text.

Me: Cookies at 2:00 AM were probably not a good decision. But it wasn’t a middle-of-the-night binge!

Him: Whoo!

Me: I had the old neural pathway of “what if Rob catches me eating cookies?” But I was like, “if Rob wakes up and comes out here, I’ll be all, ‘Want a cookie?'”

Him: I took out the trash this morning and noticed the wrappers, which made me remember the noise in the night. I was all “Do I mention this? Was she bingeing? What’s the supportive thing to do here?”

Me: You are, by FAR, the best and most supportive partner.

Him: I’m sure trying.

Me: I woke up very hungry and thinking about cookies. I decided to eat cookies. As per usual when I eat something previously on the “bad” list, I started to feel bad, but I decided fuck that, they’re just cookies, the end.

Him: Where’s the emoji for “huge sigh of relief”?

And that is what my binge-eating recovery really looks like, right now, today. It’s messy. It can feel pretty roundabout, as evidenced by the fact that I took a four-minute snack and turned it into an almost 1,200-word essay. It’s a wordy process, built mostly on talking to myself and fact-checking the voices in my head.

What Do I Want to Eat?

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When I threw out all the diet rules and food lists, I felt unmoored. Eating when I was hungry made sense. But what am I supposed to eat now? How do I know what to eat?

Only one guideline made sense: asking, “What do I want to eat?”

I had taken myself to the grocery store for an early lunch. I’d checked in—was it body-hunger I was feeling? Yes, the rumbly, tugging feeling was there, right around my navel—and I had determined that I didn’t want or have time to cook anything. By the time I chose my lunch, paid, and got home, I would be close-to-too hungry.

I can have anything I want, I tell myself. (I still need regular reassurance of this.) What do I want to eat?

For years I thought the question was “What don’t I want to eat?” But as I walk the aisles, I realize lots of things don’t actually appeal. Cookies and chips in flashy neon packaging, former “binge foods,” sound unpleasant. I want something rich, creamy… I round the corner.

Yogurt? God, no.

I kind of hate yogurt. It’s one of those foods I forced myself to eat over and over again because it was “healthy,” or because it was “macro-friendly,” or it was “something sweet I can have on this diet when all I want is dessert.” (Ever notice how many fat-free, artificially-sweetened things are named after and supposedly flavored like dessert foods?)

Pudding is creamy. Pudding? Maybe.

The grocery store is now my real-life Choose Your Own Adventure book. I select pudding, hold the page, and flip ahead. I see myself at home, sitting down to a bowl of pudding. I try to conjure up the sensation of eating: the weight of the spoon in my hand, the flavor, the texture, the feeling in my body as I push away from the table… Something is missing.

I flip back to the grab-‘n’-go meal crossroads page: deli case, individual bags of chips, hot soup, sushi, bakery…

I want cake.

Wow, okay.

It’s not even 11:00 AM, but I’m practicing not judging my desires. I walk over to the single-serving dessert area in the bakery and peruse the rows of clear plastic clamshells. The desire part of me is now wide-awake. Answering, “What do I want to eat?” is not hard.

I want non-chocolate cake, with buttercream frosting. Generous on the frosting. I want something salty and fiber-rich on the side.

I choose a piece of “Autumn Spice” layer cake and a small tub of garbanzo-fava bean salad from the deli. I feel confident, but also a little sneaky, like I’m getting away with something. My heart-rate picks up, and I remind myself kindly, “We’re not going home to binge, remember?”

I take my guilt-free-but-still-kind-of-embarrassing lunch through the self-checkout. I drive home and plate the food. I set a place at the table.

Cake for lunch, I think. Slow, mindful cake for lunch. Here we go.

I remind myself that I’m fine. This is okay. This is allowed.

I savor every crumb of that slice of cake. I put my fork down between bites so I don’t numb out and miss this, my carefully-chosen, just-what-I-want-to-eat lunch. The bean salad is too vinegary. I eat a little of it between bites of cake and have the idea that I should finish it, but no. It’s not what I want. There is no “should.”

I finish the cake and put the bean salad back in its deli container. I put the container in the fridge to maybe-eat later. I feel an unfamiliar sense of inner calm as I close the refrigerator door.

The food war is coming to an end.

It Was Always About Food (Was It Ever About Food?)

I remember the cookies at the church coffee hour in the kind of detail you notice only when your chin is just above table-height. I can see platters of shortbread square-ovals half-dipped in waxy chocolate and speckled with nuts—those perfect little pebbles of diced peanuts and pecans that only show up on bakery cookies and fast-food hot fudge sundaes. There were doily-shaped cut-out cookies with bright rainbow nonpareils embedded in them. But the cookies that always caught my eye first and made my heart race were the ones with half a maraschino cherry in their centers. They were bakery shortbread (most of the cookie spread was) and they looked as though they’d been piped from a huge, flower-tipped piping bag: roundish but with enticing little ridges. And that neon-red cherry center! Those cookies were a child’s flower drawing come to life, and I wanted to eat every single one.

I was tall and capable enough to help myself, but small enough that the world under the long plastic folding tables was as real as the world above it. I still had to tilt my head way back to see adult faces. I was big enough to ladle my own “fruit” punch from the enormous plastic punch bowl, but small enough to feel semi-invisible among adult bodies. I don’t remember where my mother was during these social hours, or what any of the adults were talking about. There were children around, of course, but I didn’t interact with any of them. I was driven to consume as many of those cookies as I possibly could.

I’d keep my eyes lowered as I sneaked a cookie off its tray. (There was no need to sneak. They were out in the open, meant to be eaten—”Help yourself to refreshments after the service!”—but I still palmed each one like a thief.) I’d cram it in my mouth whole, trying to chew, but mostly letting the sugar-flour dissolve in a sea of saliva before sucking the cookie-paste down in a heavy swallow or two. I barely tasted anything. The sensation was mostly a mouthful of dry sweetness. When my saliva ran low—which I often discovered was happening only after

I’d poked the fourth or fifth cherry-flower into my mouth—I’d lift my fragile plastic cup, form the tiniest “O” with my lips and sip, flooding the dry shortbread in my mouth with syrupy punch.

Those church coffee hour cookies were everything. Thinking back on them with my adult taste buds, they were kind of terrible. A decent match to overly bitter coffee perhaps, but not high-quality baked goods by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, once a week, for an hour or so, those cookies were my entire world—especially those food-dye-red half-cherries, gleaming in the late-morning sun. They occupied the space in my mind that “sexy” would later inhabit.

We didn’t have cookies at home. During Christmastime maybe, but not certainly not on the regular.

To my knowledge, I was not on a diet as a table-height child. I don’t think I felt hungry during those earliest binges (again, thinking back with my adult understanding of what “body hunger” feels like), but I remember a kind of emptiness in my middle. It was partly fear, and a sense of shame. Despite being outdoors, surrounded by people, I was trying to hide. I was trying to eat as many cookies as fast as possible, before anyone noticed. I had the strong sense that if I were “found out” I would be cut off. Separated from the precious object(s) of my desire.

Pop psychology and many trained psychologists will tell us that eating disorders are “about” something. Often it’s “control,” or, if we’re binge-eaters, we’re told that we use food to “stuff down feelings.” Whatever our actions are “about” though, it isn’t the food.

This analysis has never sat well with me, especially when I think back to my first, feral-animal eating experiences. It was about those beautiful bakery cookies, and wanting them. If I was trying to “stuff down” a feeling by stuffing myself with shortbread, it was the feeling of aching to eat the shortbread. I binged because I had the desire to binge. And, perhaps, because the shame of actually binge-eating was preferable to the shame of experiencing desire.

Where did this come from, I wonder. Why, as a tiny child, did I feel so much shame for simply wanting?