Food can be a reliable friend when we seek to comfort ourselves, numb difficult feelings, and fill the gap between the life we have and the life we desire. But when we continually eat types and quantities of food that leave us feeling defeated and miserable, food becomes a weapon that we use against ourselves in an agonizing cycle of self-sabotage and, ironically, self-denial.
Because often it’s not that pint of ice cream or piece of cake that we really want. It’s more fulfilling work, deeper relationships, a break from caretaking, a nap, a massage, a walk in the woods or the chance to paint, write, sing, dance or whatever it is that truly fills us up inside.
I know this because I’m a recovering food addict and a teacher of creative recovery and expressive living. My workshops are based on The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron, a recovering addict herself who writes about how people use food and other drugs of choice to numb the anxiety that arises when we fear pursuing our passions…and the depression that aches when we abandon them.
My own compulsive eating and bulimia surfaced in high school amid the usual challenges of adolescence and some additional life stresses. I would eat myself into a state of numbness whenever emotional pain threatened to overwhelm me, no matter how many times it made me feel utterly worse. On top of all my other issues, I rejected myself for not fitting into a suburban culture that didn’t reflect who I was: an original thinker with the soul of an artist.
When I moved on to attend college in Philadelphia, I began to thrive in an urban, multicultural environment. But it was a junior year abroad that really turned my eating disorder around. In London, I was too busy consuming life to hole up in my dorm room with binge foods. I spent the year gleefully reinvented myself, surrounded by theater geeks, musicians, writers and world travelers who affirmed me. At the end of that year I returned home effortlessly slimmer and, more importantly, self-expressed. I wasn’t cured of emotional eating, but I was well on the road to recovery.
Fifteen years later I took a course on The Artist’s Way to pull myself out of a personal and professional rut. The class helped me to resurrect creative pursuits and explore new passions. It also led me to quit my job and move to a yoga center, where I soaked up spiritual teachings and connected with kindred spirits who mirrored my playful and soulful sides. Ultimately, I became what I am today: a writer and teacher of personal transformation who dabbles in music and lives artfully.
Today, doing work that I love, indulging my creativity and practicing good self-care feel more delicious than a date with my old boyfriends Ben and Jerry. Not that I never touch the stuff, because occasional treats are part of self-care, as one of my students admitted when asked about the relationship between food and creativity in her life.
“After my daughter Rowan was born, I was inspired to sketch a rowan tree and write a blurb about its mythical meaning,” she reports. “Instead of letting the idea wither under a pile of dirty dishes, I bought a sketchpad and did it. So while I still go for the (homemade) chocolate chip cookie at night, these little touchstones with creativity keep the work/motherhood tedium at bay and prevent me from indulging in nasty foodstuffs during the day.”
Another former student recounts how a collage assignment during The Artist’s Way course woke up her real hunger. “I must have spent hours on my collage, choosing and rearranging the pictures,” she recalls. “I realized that I was starved for creativity. In recent years I’d stopped singing and performing and I’d steadily gained weight. When I finally had the chance to do something creative again, I ate it up.”
As this talented actress and singer began to make time for auditions and voice lessons again, her interest in compulsive eating waned. She also began treating herself to flowers and artist dates (an exercise that invites your inner artist/child on a pleasurable adventure), eventually creating and starring in a one-woman show. “Because I was focusing on other things I was less inclined to eat mindlessly in front of the TV all night,” she says.
The next time you find yourself reaching for food when you are not physically hungry, ask yourself, “What do I really, really, really want to be doing right now?” You may need to journal a bit to uncover your real desires, or call a friend who’s a great listener and helps you speak your truth. Once you’ve identified the thing that your heart longs to do, go for it—with great appetite and pleasure.
Kim Childs teaches The Artist’s Way every spring and fall in Arlington, MA. Visit KimChilds.com for more information.