I have a friend who has some pretty severe issues with food. We discuss them sometimes, but she is my friend, not my client. She has her own therapist to talk through these issues with and so we don’t discuss these things too often. This friend, I’m going to call her Angela, is an amazing, beautiful woman who struggles horribly with both depression and anxiety. Though she has been in therapy for a very long time, her main coping mechanism to deal with her pain is compulsive eating.
Last weekend, we had the occasion to go out of town together with several other friends. It was great fun, but came with all the stresses that come when four couples spend a weekend in a cabin with 7 children ages 0-6. On Saturday night, after all the kids had gone to bed, and most of the other adults had gone to sleep, Angela and I and our husbands sat in the dining room talking. We’d all had a great dinner that we all cooked together, and we were just sitting and relaxing and talking.
But Angela couldn’t seem to get comfortable. She had a graham cracker. Then she had a graham cracker with peanut butter, then she went in for some chips, then she went in for some bowls of cereal. And every time she finished something, she got up and grabbed something else. I recognized immediately that she was stuck doing some stress eating that was unconsciously heading toward bingeing. I knew what she was going through. I’d been there a million times before, that feeling that you just can’t get to that invisible itch. You keep feeling it and feeling it and you try and try and try to scratch it, but it’s just slightly out of reach. I knew she was anxious and I knew she couldn’t get comfortable, and I knew that she and her husband were having some issues, and I knew that she was using food to help her calm down. I didn’t want to say anything and draw attention to what she was doing as both my husband and her husband were there and it wasn’t my place. But we were also all right there with her during her binge. Finally she turns around in this desperate plea and said, “What should I eat? I don’t know what to eat! I keep eating and eating and I can’t get full!” And there it was. It wasn’t that she couldn’t get full, it was that she couldn’t calm down, and she was using food to help herself relax. But I didn’t say that, I didn’t tell her that she didn’t need to be full, she just needed to be satisfied. The look of desperation and angst in her eyes cut right into me. I knew she was asking me what to do, and that she was asking for help. I said, “maybe get a glass of water and try to sit down and relax for 10 or 15 minutes, then check in with your body and see what it needs?” Her husband said, “yes, that’s what you should do,” and she nodded and sat. We all went to sleep shortly after and the issue of food wasn’t brought up again. However, I’ve not been able to get the incident out of my mind. I’d seen my friend right in the middle of her compulsion and I felt powerless to stop it, yet I felt that I shouldn’t sit idly by and watch her continue to engage in this destructive episode she was having. And it wasn’t because I was having judgment about what and how much she was eating- I was feeling so empathic to what she was going through- the pain she was in, the feeling that she just. couldn’t. get. enough. food. in. quick. enough. She couldn’t and she finally turned around in desperation saying, “HELP ME! WHY WON’T SOMEONE HELP ME!?”
What I wish I had done in that moment, was put my arm around her and said, “I know what you’re feeling, I’ve had these times before when I felt like I couldn’t get full, no matter what I ate, it sucks. But I know that I when I get like that, I’m just trying to eat away the stress. The food isn’t going to help, no matter how much you eat you’re not going to be full, you’re confusing hunger with anxiety. When I get into these frenzied eating patterns, I utilize HALT. Am I hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Can you talk? Do you want to sit down and talk? I’ll support you no matter what you want or need, but I’m here to talk.” Maybe it would have been different if both our husbands weren’t there. It was definitely not the right venue for a deep heartfelt discussion of her innermost feelings. But it’s what I wish I could have done. Not tried to stop her, but helped her find some alternate solutions to her problem of not being able to get full.
I’ve thought a lot about how my clients’ friends and families should talk to them when they catch them in their disorders. We do couples and family therapy on it all the time. But I’ve never quite meditated on what to do when it’s my own family or friend…
Always a learning process for all of us.