Why Being Alone with Food During Quarantine Has Been So Triggering for Me
With each trip to the kitchen cupboard, I know I'm leaning into eating as a coping mechanism once again.
I put another checkmark on the small yellow pad of sticky notes on my desk. The fourteenth of the day. It's 6:45 p.m. Looking up, I exhale and see four different beverage vessels lingering in the area around my desk—one used for water, another used for Athletic Greens, a mug for coffee, and the last with the remnants of this morning's smoothie.
Fourteen times, I thought to myself. That's a lot of trips to the kitchen.
It's been an interesting month of social distancing in my small fourth-floor New York City apartment. I feel pretty grateful, all things considered. I have my health, great natural light that streams in through my window every morning, an income source as a freelance journalist, and a calendar jam-packed with social obligations—all while wearing sweatpants on my couch.
Still, none of that makes this entire experience feel any less difficult. Not simply because of the whole making-it-through-a-global-pandemic-physically-alone thing, but because I feel myself slipping.
I lost 70 pounds about 10 years ago. Losing that much weight took about three years of effort, and I was a senior in college when it was all said and done. It happened for me in phases: Phase one was learning how to eat better and practice moderation. Phase two was learning to love running.
Just as I learned with running, practicing those healthy eating habits required just that: practice. And despite having that decade or so of making smarter decisions under my belt—doing so right now feels extremely difficult.
Feel yet another bout of writer's block coming on? Hit the fridge.
No one in the group text answers me? Open the pantry.
Get frustrated with some lingering hip pain? Peanut butter jar, I'm coming for you.
Sit through my neighbor's 31st time listening to "New York, New York" at 7 p.m. wondering how long I'll be cooped up inside and if things will ever feel like they used to? Wine. Lots of wine.
Before I continue, let me just make one thing clear: I am not worried about my weight or the number on the scale right now—not one bit. I'm cool coming out of this quarantine in a different, heavier place than where I started. I know that it's important to have grace with myself during this crazy time, and that life is going to be okay if it includes a few extra glasses of wine or chocolate chip cookies.
What I am worried about, though, is that for the first time in a really long time, things feel out of control. I feel as though if I get anywhere near food, all sense of logic goes out the window. I feel a constant calling to the kitchen, the same one that I felt as a teenager.
It feels just like yesterday that I was living at home under my parents' roof, hearing the garage door close downstairs, seeing Mom's car leave the driveway. Finally alone, I'd immediately making a dash to the kitchen to see what I could find to eat. When I was home alone, no one could judge me for the things I "wanted" in there.
Deep down, what I "wanted" was to feel like I had control over things, like those in my personal life. Instead, I leaned into eating as a coping mechanism. The extra calorie intake (while ignoring what was really going on) resulted in a weight gain which eventually caused me to grow resentful toward my own body.
Now, more than 16 years after those days spent home alone raiding the fridge, and here I am again. I'm starting to realize that before quarantine, I wasn't spending hours on end inside of my one-bedroom apartment—perhaps intentionally though subconsciously. Here I am, home alone, thinking about that constant urge to go to the fridge, and facing (once again) a life filled with a whole lot of things that I have absolutely no handle on. But chocolate chips? Cocktails? Cheese blocks? Pretzel twists? Pizza? Yeah. I have a good grip on that stuff. (Related: How the Coronavirus Lockdown Can Affect Eating Disorder Recovery—and What You Can Do About It)
"This is just a very difficult time for everybody," says Melissa Gerson, L.C.S.W., founder and clinical director of Columbus Park, a leading outpatient eating disorder treatment center in New York City. (Right now, Gerson is actually holding daily "Meet and Eat Together" virtual meal support sessions, which offer therapeutic meal experiences in real time, some with special guests sharing relevant stories.) "It's very hard to cope effectively under the current circumstances, and you may notice that you're lacking the internal resources that you would usually lean on to remain in balance."
Balance is something that I'm working on as I handle life in this new day-to-day. For me, managing my anxieties around overeating is an everyday practice. By sharing what I'm feeling with friends, opening up online, and writing things down, I'm already in a better place that feels more manageable and less alone. Encouragingly, Gerson tells me I'm off to a good start.
Now is not the time to be made to feel like you need to do anything. If you are thirsty, drink. If you're hungry, eat. Nourish. But, if my struggles with food, or even the just concept of feeling out of control, sound familiar, know that you're not alone. If you do feel yourself spiraling a little and want to get back on track and in control of the incessant snacking, Gerson offers up her best practices for anyone who feels out of control with their eating habits, too:
1. Think about your portions: You want to be feeding yourself like you would feed someone you care about, says Gerson. This means that you're plating each meal as if you were going to serve someone else. In practice, for me, this means making a pizza on Friday nights (I look forward to it all week), serving myself half of it, and then saving the other half for Sunday's dinner. This way, I'm not depriving myself of what I really want and doing it in a way that satisfies me entirely.
2. Have a place in your home dedicated to eating: While it may be tempting to sit down at your desk and crank through your afternoon to-do list with your lunch in tow, it's not in your best interest. That because if you're multitasking, you're not paying attention to the food you're consuming. Instead of desking your eats, sit down at a table. Have a place in your home dedicated to eating. This will help you to have an intuitive eating experience that encourages mindfulness and allows you to designate actual hunger from the emotional desire to eat.
3. Before you reach, breathe. Often times we reach for food as a coping strategy before trying something else that can be better for our bodies. Before running to the kitchen, Gerson recommends trying some breath work, including the number eight technique. "Imagine the number eight. Think about tracing the top loop as you breathe in," she says. "Then you go around the bottom loop, and exhale. It immediately activates the parasympathetic nervous system and gives you some calm, so you can access your wise mind and think a bit more rationally in the moment."
I'm all for spending more time baking (I made peanut butter cookies last night), but eating a "second snack" of endless baked goods come 3 p.m. is doing me more harm than good. In practice, the figure-eight technique has really helped me. Today, I sat down after my afternoon snack, and I thought about going into the kitchen for another one. Then, I thought about that number eight.
I breathed. That breathing helped me calm down from what feels like ambient anxiety. Suddenly, I didn't want that snack anymore. I got what I really wanted: To feel more in control.