One thing that I have learned, as someone who has often used food as a mind-altering substance, is that I need to take good care of my mental health. Taking good care of myself is really simple. It’s about doing things, for me, that make me feel well. And understanding that, because life sometimes involves compromises and doing things that challenge us, there are times when extra care is needed.
Like most humans, I need other humans to feel well. I need cuddles. I need to be touched. I need my family. I need my friends. I need my partner. I need stimulating conversations. I need to listen and be heard. I need a community to belong to.
So when I travel for work, the social animal in me feels vulnerable. Anyone who has gone on business trips knows the dangerous isolation of the hotel room. There’s a reason they stock the mini bars with KitKats and miniature bottles of vodka.
Having just been on a two-week business trip, I have certain practices I do which help me to feel well. I make more of an effort to have phone conversations with family and friends. I take my tarot cards with me. I journal. I take time for long baths and self-massage with essential oils. I listen to inspiring podcasts, and spiritual talks on YouTube. I do my yoga. I breathe. I walk a lot. I book myself a massage, if I can. I do my best to find my non-stimulating foods, and get my veggies when I can.
What I’ve noticed, is that my ability to care for myself in this loving and joyful way hits a wall. This time, I hit the wall at about day 12 of my trip. So close to getting home!
Before hitting the wall, I seem to be able to gently and lovingly guide myself towards the non-stimulating food, engage with my hunger, and eat reasonably and calmly. However, once I’ve hit this wall, my mood plummets. Despite the sunshine, I’m feeling gloomy inside. I walk around aimlessly. Surrounded by couples and families, my heart is filled with longing. Where are my people? What is my purpose? My mood darkens, and in comes the feelings of pointlessness, despair. And my usual self-care routine no longer even enters my consciousness. It’s like I forgot I was even able to access all these healthy tools.
And in comes food. It is incredible how seamlessly my mind switches back into crave mode. Get it! Go on! Ice cream! Have something you really, really want! F*** it! Have everything! Who gives a shit! Just get what you want! It’s OK – really, just go mad!
It is almost like inhabiting two different realities. One is spacious, reasonable, and balanced. Life feels OK. I get to bed at a decent time. I eat reasonably. Life feels manageable, I feel OK.
The other reality feels like a hole. Empty, endless. I can’t concentrate, and end up staying up late for no reason. I scroll through Facebook. I scan the horizon for treats. And if I really feel called to push the F*** it button, then I go for a ride to binge town, emerging dazed, confused, and saddened by the inevitability of it all.
In this moment, I am called on to deeply, completely, and unconditionally love and accept myself. It’s easy to like the other version of me: healthy, content, and behaving and eating in what feels like a reasonable way. It is so much harder to stay present to this unreasonable version of me, the one that goes on a rampage around town, the one that doesn’t see the point of life, the one that has made the same mistake a thousand times. I need to be present to her, reassure her that she’s still OK. I look at myself in the mirror. I am both the reasonable and unreasonable eater. I am both committed to living and giving up on life. I am present to all of my experience. I need it all.
This self-care business, I’m realising, is an art form, a dance. A set of daily practices that reminds me that all of me needs to be valued and accepted. Sometimes it involves taking a step back and looking at my life from a more objective viewpoint. Overall, I eat really reasonably. Overall, I care for myself well. Overall, I want to be here. And even when I do disappear down that hole, I don’t lose all the learning I’ve integrated so far. I don’t go back to square one, even though it sometimes seems like it, as the feelings that surround the experience are so familiar. If anything, the more I accept and value these trips down the hole of despair, the shorter they become, and less food is needed to accompany them. So although the intensity feels the same, I crawl out much quicker, and my body takes less of a battering.
So for anyone who’s on their journey, engaging with their process, and gently relearning how to eat, don’t be worried if you fall down a hole from time to time. I promise, we keep practising, and we gradually spend much less time down there. At some point, we may even be able to sit in that hole of despair without an ice-cream for company. But even if we don’t, it’s OK. As my partner says “Calm down, you didn’t actually kill anyone! You ate a bit too much. You didn’t hurt anyone. You’re fine.” He’s so right.