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We have the same first name. Our birthdays are the same week. We live in Portland. We love art and literature. The list of things shared in common between us goes on and on. But perhaps the most significant similarity is this: Kristen and I are both emotional eaters who learned after years of hard work how to lead balanced and healthy lives. We both understand the irresistible allure of a plate of nachos or a ball of cookie dough and we’ve both reached a place where we can enjoy either treat without losing ourselves to a binge. Maybe I first chose her as a therapist because I thought I could trust someone who shared my name, but I’ve stayed with her all these years because we speak the same language and she’s helped me immensely.
To kick off my month of gratitude, I want to start at the beginning. For me, that’s what Kristen represents: the beginning. It was 2012 when I first looked her up online. I was googling the phrase “emotional eating Portland” and her therapy practice was the first link that popped up.
Here’s a summary of a few things going on in my life around that time: 1.) I started a new job working with seniors at a retirement center. 2.) My beloved grandmother died. 3.) A toxic two-year relationship ended and my ex immediately moved in with someone else. 4.) I moved into a new apartment after a few months of staying with my parents. 5.) My position at the retirement center went from part-time to full-time and I started to spend more of my hours with residents in the memory care unit, most of whom had severe dementia. 6.) After months of feeling exhausted, irritable, sleepless, weak, and worse than I’ve ever felt, I was diagnosed with acute grief, anemia, insomnia, and a vitamin D deficiency. 7.) I began working with a therapist who tried to convince me I was overly emotional, overreacting to both my grandma’s death and the breakup, and all I really needed to do was start dating again and my problems would be solved. 8.) I turned 30. 9.) My other grandma’s health took a decline.
10.) I came home in the evenings after spending my days with people my grandparents’ age who had dementia and physical ailments and felt absolutely drained. I did not go out and socialize – I had neither the energy nor the ambition. Most nights, I would come home and eat, drink, and sleep. I had neither the time nor the energy to fix myself nutritious meals. I did not exercise. I simply ate whatever was easiest, often eating as much as I could because my body was so empty it couldn’t even register fullness, washed it down with copious bottles of wine, went to sleep, and woke up the next day and did it all over again. I was no longer living a life. There was no limit to what I could push into my body without feeling anything: entire cheese pizzas, full boxes of cookies, the aforementioned bottles of wine. Everything was broken and that’s how I found myself Googling “emotional eating Portland” and stumbling across Kristen Hamilton.
If I could offer one piece of advice and one piece only, I would implore anyone who has an issue with emotional eating to start that Google search before you reach a place of absolute brokenness. When you start from there, you have a long journey ahead. You have a lot of work to do and a long, long road to travel.
But that’s where I started. And maybe starting from such a dark place ultimately helped me to appreciate how far I’ve come. I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but I can be thankful for my own warped journey. Because of everything I went through, I feel qualified to speak to you now. I feel qualified to say what works and what doesn’t. I know with certainty that learning to love yourself is the only way out of the cave. There is no scenario in which hating yourself and beating yourself up will eventually lead to success. You have to take care of yourself. This is a lesson I learned from Kristen and it’s the most important lesson I can share with you now.
Especially as women, we’re taught to fear food. Food equals fat and fat is the worst thing a woman can be, right? We let ourselves believe this. We let ourselves believe that our physical appearance is the most important thing we have to offer. We let ourselves believe that if our bodies fall outside the confines of what makes an acceptably hot body according to the limited minds of men and media, we must be inferior. Since it would be a social crime to accept ourselves as-is no matter the size or shape of our bodies, we must therefore diet.
Dieting is a way of making people feel crazy by convincing them they need to avoid certain foods, to restrict the amount of food they consume, and to ignore their inner cravings and feed themselves whatever dieting product du jour is currently making the rounds. We’re taught to believe we need reduced-fat snack bars and shakes made with chocolatey powder and frozen single-serving meals that the women in the commercials are absolutely ecstatic to consume. We’re not encouraged to seek out real food. We’re not told how much more filling it is to eat full-fat peanut butter or cheese than the nonfat counterpart. We’re not shown it’s okay to keep eating throughout the day every few hours. And we’re certainly not told that the world doesn’t implode if you eat a piece of cake for your coworker’s birthday.
We think we’re not allowed a piece of cake. We don’t deserve the full-fat cheese. We don’t have time to make our own meals, so the frozen version will have to do. We convince ourselves that we’re not worth the time. That time would be better served helping our kids or catching up on housework or listening to a friend’s latest crisis. There’s simply no time left for us, so this reduced-fat snack bar will have to do. And when it doesn’t actually satisfy us, maybe four of these reduced-fat snack bars will have to do. And when we’re still not fulfilled, maybe a quick run through the drive-through and a few bites of ice cream will have to do. And when a few bites of ice cream don’t cut it, the entire pint will have to do.
Uh oh. Now we have to feel guilty. Everyone knows this is the next step. The commercials tell us so. The magazines tell us so. Our friends at the gym tell us so. “I was so bad last night,” they say. “I ate an entire pint of ice cream.” “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” we say. “What kind of person eats a whole bag of chips?”
And so the cycle goes. It’s a cycle that’s perpetuated by society, by media, and by just about everyone you talk to. We’re all naughty people with no self-control. We’re all terrible humans who turned to a bowl of candy at the end of night when for some bizarre reason that salad and handful of grapes we had earlier in the day wasn’t enough to sustain us.
Kristen Hamilton taught me to recognize the insanity of all of this. We all act like this is normal behavior, but trust me: it’s insane. It’s insane to think we can go for hours upon hours without food and that we won’t want to stuff whatever’s in sight into our mouths when we do finally take a moment to eat. It’s insane to think we can’t ever enjoy a piece of cake and if we do, there’s something wrong with us. It’s insane to think a 200-calorie frozen lasagna TV dinner will get us through the day but a real lasagna made with real cheese is taboo. It’s insane, maddening, and the only way out of it is to give yourself permission to live a real life.
In a real life, you’re allowed to listen to what your body wants. Most days, my body wants quinoa and tofu and stir-fried veggies. It wants oatmeal and fruit and eggs on whole wheat toast. It wants Greek yogurt and almonds and lots and lots of water. I’m happy to give this to my body because I think my body is smarter than I am. Some days my body wants a scone or an enchilada or a York Peppermint Panty. Am I going to listen to my body the same way on these days that I do on the veggie and tofu days? Absolutely – because again, my body is smarter than I am. Am I going to feel guilty for eating a cupcake? No. What crime did I commit by eating a cupcake?
Often what it boils down to is that the so-called crime we committed was breaking the rules of polite womanhood. Women are dainty creatures who should only eat cheeseburgers behind dark curtains. Women with extra skin on their bodies should do whatever it takes to cover that skin as much as possible so as not to shock the eyes of bypassers. Women should not look like themselves. They should look like the air-brushed images they see in magazines. Women should not treat themselves. What exactly did you do, Woman, to deserve that piece of cake? Nothing? And you ate it anyway? Welp, better retreat to a corner and go feel terrible about yourself. That’s the only possible outcome.
Can you believe I used to live my life like this, believing bullshit like this? Can you believe that millions of women still do?
I will never be able to thank Kristen Hamilton enough for showing me the light. She showed me that I deserved so much more than what I was allowing myself. She showed me that I had the right to live a life. She showed me I had the right to eat real food and be unapologetic for it – after all, what on earth should I be apologizing for? Never apologize for eating what you eat or being who you are. You’re a human and humans are allowed to live. Thank you, Kristen, for teaching me this.