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Choking on a Hairball:
Confessions of a Reformed Emotional Eater

by Katy Byrne, MFT

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It's hard to tell my story, especially when it's been over for years. But when somebody asks me about my eating days, I completely choke up, like it's still in there--my Hairball. Maybe I never really got it all out. You know, the way my cat does? Cats relieve themselves, then they're calm, but not humans…
I need to tell my story for the generations of women that will follow: for the young girls, who swallow their food in huge gulps, hiding in their bedrooms or vomiting in bathrooms; for the men who've been buying into the media hype about thin women, only to find themselves on their third divorce with a skinny but starved and angry lover. Are petite women really all that much heaven compared to larger women? I don't think so! Not if they're making themselves miserable and sick to be that way.
I know some women who are actually anorexic. They may look good in bikinis, but they're starving themselves for the same reason some of us overeat: to get our feelings and needs numbed out--we're all trying to do the same thing.
But I digress…Okay, it started in my late teens. I ate and ate. I ate in the morning, ate all day, thought about food every second. I'd get up at three in the morning, in freezing winter, throw on my overcoat over my flannels, slide into some boots and get into my old Volvo. I'd drive to the 24-hour grocery, walk in fast, and get pizza, chocolate, wine, donuts, anything to gobble quickly. Then I'd go back to my tiny apartment and devour it all.
Afterwards, bent over the bathroom bowl, I'd beg for freedom, trying to make myself vomit, but never able to do the gruesome deed. Instead, I'd lie on the floor groaning or crawl into a ball and roll around the living room rug feeling like a lost embryo.
Soon, the tears would come--grief from a time so early and so deep, I thought my aching would never stop. When I cried nobody came. I wanted my mother. I called for her, wishing she would feed me. I wanted to be held, and finally, thank God, I'd fall asleep, but from exhaustion, not comfort.
We hide so we won't feel ashamed of being rejected for our real selves. We cut ourselves off from our grief, excitement, opinions, and desires to avoid being abandoned or abused. In the end, pretending we aren't here, we deaden ourselves with flour and water, just like Elmer's Glue. And there we stay, until we break free of numbing by using our own voices and needs.
Eating was all I thought about back then. I waited for moments when I could dash over to the store for chocolate covered almonds. There was one period when Wheat Thins and Kahlua and milk got me through the night. What luck, when the combination made me vomit so violently one night that I've never touched them again.
Anyway, I remember so many awful times, like this recurring horror movie: I'm sitting alone in a restaurant, trying to have a meal and thinking everyone there is staring at me: "Look at that woman, eating!" I remember what it was like getting my hair cut short and a guy telling me that now I "really" had to lose weight. He didn't have a clue. A food addict doesn't just go on a diet.
I remember trying to get dressed, putting on basic black outfit after basic black outfit with pieces of large jewelry. It'd make me so upset; I'd fall on my bed and eat another powdered sugar donut, ruining my black clothes. Then, I'd bawl all over them in the bathroom trying to wash one off to wear.
I also remember my breakthroughs. The day I finally gave myself permission to buy some decent clothes in my size, instead of "waiting" until I was thin. I bought lovely outfits, then, when I eventually lost weight I had them altered.
Another breakthrough was when I called one of my friends and said, "I just ate a whole box of cookies, and I'm screwed, back where I started." I felt panicked, completely defeated. She said, "So, was that what you wanted?" "Yup," I said, shivers running down my spine. I was done! That was the permission I longed for: permission to be myself and to have my desires. I was done with overeating!
There were other unexpected miracles along the hard road. There was the night I leaned into my cold fridge, talking to my inner child, and said, "You can have whatever you want." As I stood there, I said, "What do you want?" She screamed, "Pizza, lots of pizza." Then, finally she sobbed, "I just want love. I want you to hold me." I whispered, "How about some hot milk and a few crackers?" I must have looked like a theatre piece in my own kitchen.
That night was the closest thing to mothering I'd ever experienced. It wasn't that Mom didn't love me. She did. She just had problems of her own. All by myself, having this crazy conversation with an imagined kid, and I'll be darned--after that, she and I went to size twelve jeans, then to size ten. I began to walk and jog.
There were other moments: like firing my Overeaters Anonymous sponsor because, in those days, I had to weigh and measure my food and I just couldn't deal with it. All I remember is her tight face and her finger pointing. I just know I needed to find my own way. Not that 12-step programs haven't saved my life over and over again--they have, but in that case, I needed to leave.
The biggest change of all came when I was lying on another good friend's rug; we were having tea and I cried, "I can't take it anymore." She put her hand on my heart and asked, "What is really going on in there?" Ashamed, I found, once again, a small child whimpering. My friend asked me, "What does she want?"  "Love," the little one inside me screamed. That was the last day I remember overeating.
Do you have a hairball inside you that needs to come out? What is your relationship with food? Do you feel it is a healthy one? It's no ball living in a world that makes women feel they have to be hungry, but it sure is a ball having friends and people who love you!

Katy Byrne, MFT offers personal counseling, specializing in helping people with eating disorders. Her book Hairball Diaries: The Courage to Speak Up from LangMarc Publishing is available at Amazon.com. In it, she shows that while speaking up takes courage, it can help us create conversations that perpetuate health and happiness. Catch Katy on the radio on Saturdays from 12-1 pm on KSVY 91.3 FM. You can reach her at (707) 938-5289 or visit www.katybyrne.com.

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