• Sarah Hickson

My Food Journey

When I first started studying nutrition at uni I had so much hope and optimism for what nutrition could achieve for health, in fact, following my brother’s diagnosis with stage IV testicular cancer at the age of 26 – I was on a personal mission to try and discover more about health so that I could be equipped with the tools to protect any family member should cancer ever rise its ugly head again. While this new found ambition was the catapult I needed to shake me out of long-standing belief that I was “too dumb” for uni and to test what I may be capable of, because life was now quite clearly too short not to, behind the scenes there was my own turbulent relationship with food and dissatisfaction with my body that conflicted with all of this new nutritional knowledge that I was now accumulating.

A Challenging Relationship

Six kilos heavier than I am in this pic, back then, although appearing healthy, I had hated how uncomfortable I felt in my body. Since I was in my teens, any flicker of anxiety, overwhelm or a craving for a reward - which was often in those days of uni while struggling to maintain a work/life balance - would trigger my hands and legs to seemingly develop a life of their own, causing me to engage in a repetitive pattern of going back and forth from the pantry or fridge to kitchen table or couch with a new snack or meal, feeling completely numb to what or how I was eating, unable to stop until I felt completely stuffed and regretful. Consequently, I would feel sick, angry, guilty and ashamed by my lack of self-control, frustration with my soft and bloated belly that was always so revealing into my darkest secret and then there was this overpowering sense of hypocrisy I felt because my behaviour was out of alignment with everything that I had believed in and had been working toward, “I shouldn’t be eating in this way.” These feelings, though, only perpetuated my compulsive eating further because any moment where I felt that I had “lost control,” out of fear of gaining weight I would try and compensate by engaging with extra-long exercise sessions, or I’d punish myself by trying to follow some kind of diet or new food rule to live by, the consequence being that I would just think about food constantly and always, always, would I fail in maintaining my sense of control.

A Sign to Get Help

I was in my final year of uni and spending a lot of time on my own when my parent's relationship had come to an end, coinciding with me already slipping into my own version of an existential crisis (I refer to this as my quarter life crisis). In response my compulsive eating had reached a whole new peak – the worst it had truly ever been. In weird chance of serendipity though, a customer who interrupted me in an anxious frenzy of stuffing my mouth with health bar after health bar (ranking up my account owing) while working a shift alone at quiet health store in Melbourne, had planted a seed that would later, and ever so slowly evolve into a new way of relating to myself and food.

While chatting to her about the iron supplement she was about to purchase, I asked for her postcode, which we were capturing for marketing purposes. She couldn’t remember the exact postcode of the suburb as she had only just moved to the area but told me it was Ivanhoe, which ironically was the same suburb that I had just moved to just two weeks before from the outskirts of the Yarra Valley. She then told me that her name was Sara, and while chatting about how she used flower essences with her clients, she told me that she was a psychologist who had strangely enough, just found a new clinical space to practice at that was in a building only a block away from the apartment that I had just moved into. In that moment, I was struck with the realisation that I desperately needed some kind of support as I wasn't coping well and I could feel myself slipping further and further into a darkened head space. I decided that this was enough of a sign for me to see her as a patient so I asked for her details, and she gave me her email. Within a matter of months (after I pushed through my last semester), as I Sarah, sat in front of Sara venting out my shame into the space between us, it was through her empathy, compassion and non-judgement where I first learnt that my eating behaviour was a form of self-nurturing through the difficutly I was experiencing, and she highlighted the possibility that there could be other ways that I could learn to “love and care for myself," food may not be the only strategy that I had available to me to soothe away challenging emotions. Later l discovered that writing, playing the piano, massage, hiking and yoga were among some of them. This concept would later make so much more sense to me through my work with people affected in some way by a disability, many who had challenges with their own emotional and sensory regulation, triggering challenging behaviours.

A Long Journey

My first of I think eight sessions with Sara was back in 2013 and since then its been a long, long journey of self-discovery to understand my eating behaviours and their underlying motivations. A particularly challenging point related to the part of me who was always so critical of everything that I did and said, which triggered its own binge-eating cascades as an effort to momentarily escape from its harsh and punishing voice, which only served me up with a hefty dose of shame afterwards. A business coach I had later worked with pointed me in the direction of Russ Harris’s book The Happiness Trap where I discovered Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and from there I started to become aware of these negative thought cycles that I would become fused with, learning how to forgive rather than shame myself whenever I compulsively ate (I can't emphasize how much my sense of shame perpetuated this cycle). I started to develop a keen interest in the concept of “self-care” and I was beginning to take more of an initiative to take more care for myself on an emotional level because I was realising that my mental health really suffered without it. This was imperfect though, as my desire "to keep doing" was relentless.

A true sense of peace in my body and in my relationship with food wasn’t fully reached though, until I met my now husband Gerrard – someone who is so stable in nature, on the opposite spectrum to where I am at emotionally (a true “grounder”), and a believer in everything I could be capable of. We had a unique start after learning of his mum’s illness (a whole other story and is the reason we left Melbourne for Brisbane) and we moved in together quite early in our relationship. Through living together I started to feel a strong sense of stability and I guess by observing someone who was so logically minded and who mentally “had their shit together,” it became more clear to me the areas where I had been struggling, like giving myself permission to take a break wherever I needed to, and getting to bed earlier for more length of sleep, which became a regular habit (I had really sucked at this one, yet would still get up early to make it to the gym before work). We developed a habit of sitting down to enjoy regular meals together. Always a player with food rules, being in a stable relationship made me feel less pressure to manage my eating, going back for seconds if I felt I wanted to, and I strove for a real balance during our meals, ensuring that protein, fats and carbs were included at each meal to honour the satiety factor (I was experimental vegetarian before meeting Gerrard and I often wouldn't get enough protein in my diet). I started to plan for mindful snacks/breaks in between meals because it never worked well in my favour to go too long without food (I am absolutely not a “faster” – for me it would only trigger a compulsive eating cycle). I rediscovered joy with eating and in the comfort of our relationship I ate freely what I craved for. While I continued to regulalry exercise, short and sharp became my mantra - I would do high intensity for just 20min at a time, when I was tired I didn't push myself, I would opt for a walk or yin yoga instead.

Feeling Normal

It feels strange but in time I noticed that I was no longer eating in a way that was out of control and I was dumbfounded to realise that I had found a point where I was able to stop eating and still feel satisfied (where the hell did that come from? This was always something that had eluded me). I still still have the instinct to snack whenever I feel anxious but the intensity behind it now is much less, I’m able to catch myself, acknowledge what I’m doing without judgement, and cultivate the mindfulness to shift onto something that is much more effective at soothing my anxiety (like resting or gentle stretches). It may not sound like much, but for a compulsive eater who had always felt that her body was taken over by some kind of entity whenever anxiety was triggered, this was huge! I was a terribly slow learner at being able to put this into practice since the days of seeing Sara, but I was eventually able to get out of the habit of eating while distracted, a habit that made it so easy to overeat because it allowed for too big of a void, a disconnection, between what you are doing and how your body is feeling (those internal cues that let you know when you’re full or still hungry).

As it hadn’t been an active pursuit, it was a really strange experience for me to observe how my body had changed physically over this time, and to have so many friends and family members comment on my weight loss whenever I returned to Melbourne for a visit. Some people felt quite comfortable telling me that I looked “really skinny,” there were genuinely caring others who had asked if I had been sick - was that how I lost weight, because I would tell them I hadn't tried to. Years of anxiety certainly did cause my stomach feel sensitive and reactive to any emotional state I was experiencing, but I didn’t feel comfortable with people making assumptions or judgements about me or my body size, because it only triggered my own anxiety and self-doubt that my body had become this way because no longer was I struggling with my food relationship. “Was I really just sick?” To be completely transparent with you, my anxiety took me on a trip to the doctors to get it all checked it out.

The Bigger Picture

My desire to share this personal story with you, I guess, is because I am a strong believer that it’s not about “what” you eat, but rather how you relate to food, that has the biggest impact over our bodies. It’s incredibly important here to be mindful of the imagery and the messages used in our culture about what health is supposed to look like, and what food rules we are supposed to be following to achieve some kind of ideal that is completely out of alignment with what is natural, sustainable and healthy for each individual. I grew up using this imagery as a reference point to how I should look and how flat my stomach should be (my sensitive point). In spite of all the nutritional knowledge that I had gathered during my time at uni and thereafter, I really struggled to regularly apply it to myself during those times where I emotionally struggled, and they were frequent, because I never had the insight to understand what was really going on, nor the tools to cope more effectively. At the crux of it all, all I craved for was to feel worthy and enough as I was, and I didn’t know how to support myself when it all became too overwhelming. Finding that love within myself was the ultimate key and its proven to be a lifelong journey of mine. If food is a challenge emotionally for you, I hope that this plants the seed for you to discover your own path towards balance and self-compassion, I feel so fortunate to have had one planted for me. The answers are inside of you, support may be needed to access them.

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