I had an epiphany today. I am an emotional eater, and more often than not that means I eat because I’m happy. That’s right. It’s a GOOD thing. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been, but when I look in the mirror, I see French cheese and dinners with people I care about. I’m not saying it’s phsyically healthy or even the best way to deal with happiness, but it’s not the way I’ve been thinking about food.
I was processing that epiphany and what it means for all of my posts where I’ve compared sex and emotional eating when a friend texted me:
“I made 5:15 [fancy special occasion steakhouse] dinner reserverations. Tonight. You in?”
“Hell yes. What’s the occasion?”
“I fucking need [fancy special occasion steakhouse] is the occasion. And you.”
Now, this friend… This will not be the last time he shows up on my blog, so I’ll give him a name—Bernard. He’s quite possibly the least Bernard-y person I know. I figure if I’m going to give someone a fake name, it should be REALLY fake. I’m tempted to call him “Not Bernard” or simply Bernard, but for the sake of my sanity and yours, I’ll just stick with Bernard.
Now, this friend Bernard has had one of the most horrific years I can imagine. And the last week has been kind of the brimstone icing on the cake from hell. When he says he needs [fancy special occasion steakhouse], that is not a throwaway statement. He’s had a horrible year, and he is a man who feels deeply. All the feels. Grief, joy, love, pain—he is not afraid of them.
I thought to myself, “what is it when a person who’s hurting deeply wants [fancy special occasion steakhouse]? I know this person, and I know that for him, this is not a distraction, it’s not a few moments of reprieve from grief. He will bring grief with him to dinner—I don’t think he’s capable of doing anything else. So what is it, then?” And something clicked in me. Something I never understood about joy in the face of grief, about whistling in the dark or the band playing as the Titanic sank or doing a happy thing because it’s what a deceased loved one “would have wanted”. It is this: that hopelessness is not our ally, that sometimes doing battle with wrong in the world means hanging onto joy with every ounce of strength. In the face of suffering (or, worse, the suffering of people we love), it is tempting to feel like I’m countering the Bad Thing by wallowing in sorrow, by taking the hopelessness of the moment and extending it into the foreseeable future. We embrace the reality of our grief and other feelings by letting them become everything.
Joy can feel inauthentic and disingenuous in the face of suffering. And certainly embracing distractions or numbing the pain can rob it of meaning. This is not the place for platitudes. But there is a place where real grief and authentic joy live alongside each other. Where solidarity with someone hurting or lost means that I grieve with them but hang onto hope when they can’t any more. When I own hope and joy and do not let the bad thing take them away from me even if my friend may have lost sight of them for himself. Sing and cry. Hold the light of hope in the face of darkness and loses its power to overwhelm. Weaponize joy.
I don’t know how to do this. I think… for it to be effective, I have to have one foot firmly planted in grief and one in joy. The thing is, I’m not great at either. I’m so accustomed to stuffing feelings away where they’re less disruptive. Bad feelings, good feelings, any feelings. I’m happy to draw them out in other people. But damned if I’m going to show them myself. I don’t have either foot firmly planted in any emotional space—I dance on top of feelings like hot coals. I don’t touch them any more than I have to.
When Bernard and I went on our first date, he got me crying (and cried a bit himself). We cried over life, the universe, everything. When you’re our age (around 40) and dating, there’s a lot of life to talk about, and a lot of it is emotionally moving. But having someone I barely knew SEE me—understand where I was and reflect it to me in such a powerful way—freaked me out. This was not the first time crying has happened on a first date, but it is the first time I was the one doing it. I’m happy to push and prod other people into vulnerability. But I’m not so happy to have someone else do that to me. I’ve gotten so adept at avoiding it by directing the conversation to the person I’m talking to that it is rare for someone to get past my armor. It was scary. I’m glad Bernard pursued a second date even after I turned him down a few times.
When I was going through my divorce, I learned a lot about vulnerability. I cried—openly—in just about every coffee shop in the city of Anchorage. Crisis got past my wall, and it was a good thing. But crisis and vulnerability have faded a bit, and with them my capacity to feel things. Not that the emotion isn’t there, but when I don’t express it, it comes out sideways. And I get scared and hide it.
Apparently I also eat emotion, bad and good. Which raises the question, what if I’m not eating to suppress emotions, but because for me it’s an acceptable emotional outlet? Eating quesadillas is easier than crying. Eating fancy steak dinner is easier than feeling… happy? I consume to express something that needs to come out, and eating is a way I know how to do it. It’s not so much that I am getting rid of the feeling, but that it needs to come out and eating is the way I know how to do it. In a nutshell, I’ve always thought of emotional eating as letting emotions have too much territory. I’m beginning to wonder if I got it backwards, if I eat emotions because I’m not letting them have enough presence and power.
I’m not sure where to go with it yet, but I’m going to chew on it awhile. And maybe next time I feel like eating a mid-afternoon quesadilla, I’ll find a way to let out the Amy who sings and cries instead.