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Eating my Feelings

Walking the fine line of pleasure

My boyfriend is Italian, grew up in Switzerland and his third most fluent language is English. We always communicate in English (his choice) and he often comes up with funny turns of phrase that at times seem to express an idea in a truer form than its more common iteration.

Many years ago, he was eating something sweet (perhaps after a stressful situation - I don't remember the context) and flatly said, "I am eating my feelings." Having been immersed in self help and psychological language from a very young age, I had examined patterns of consumption from nearly every angle. But this simple wording felt surprisingly profound. What are we doing when we don't consume from a need? What are we feeding when we don't eat out of hunger?

When I shop, when I eat, when I draw - I am mostly concerned with pleasure. Sure, sometimes I need a new pair of underwear or some protein after a workout. But mostly, I am not a person motivated by necessity. This seems wholesome enough. Especially as a sober person, rewarding myself with a piece of carrot cake hardly feels like a transgression. It's almost sweet (pardon the pun).

Like most of the planet (or more accurately, people of privilege), I gained weight this year. Partially due to the sedentary lifestyle of isolation, but mostly because I had stopped smoking weed and gone vegan. Sobriety meant I had taken away my primary treat - joints - which in my case was an appetite suppressant (unusual, I know, but this is often the case with long term chronic users). Cutting out animal products meant that because I missed some of the high protein foods that kept me full but lean, I justified that I "deserved" more sweets and comfort food carbs to compensate.

So while I noticed I couldn't fit into any of my pants except for my leggings (bless you, Lululemon), I was still patting myself on the back. Cutting a 17 year substance dependence and handling an almost Herculean task of resisting the temptation of what most of the world was eating meant that I scoffed at having a few extra pounds. You might even say it was a badge of honour. I had "earned" a new form of reward.

A year into sobriety and a few years into gradually leaning into veganism, I am now ready to start looking at my relationship with food more closely. The thing is, I do not feel my weight is unhealthy. I move easily, have energy and focus. But my thighs do chafe more when I walk and frankly, this makes it less comfortable to move around than when I was leaner. But none of this is the issue, because body weight, size and shape all contribute to only relative ideas of health.

What is more interesting to me is why I need to "treat" myself with food, using it as a reward. A healer in Toronto that I deeply respect had similarly pointed out that a desire for sweets meant that one was seeking pleasure. Seems obvious, right? But could this perhaps be revealing something deeper? Are we thus depriving ourselves of pleasure in another area?

Here is why I want to examine this further. My reason for sobriety was that while smoking a joint was pleasurable in the moment, I suffered from some of the after effects. The same can be said for overeating (eating past the point of fullness) and consuming sugary foods. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a moment of pleasure. But what if it makes your energy crash, impairs your focus, causes oscillations in your mood or makes you less comfortable in your skin in the long run?

So when does pleasure turn into something that can cause you pain? It recently occurred to me that when I craved sugar, I could ask myself if what I was seeking was pleasure and some form of primal enjoyment. In that moment, I could offer myself a substitute: a nap, bath, a book in a cozy chair or a phone call with a friend. Those would not leave me feeling crummy.

Natalie Vansier sitting at a corner table in an old restaurant, drinking a hot chocolate with a small plate of cookies next to her.
Having a thick hot chocolate at Harry's Bar in Venice mostly because it was the cheapest thing on the menu.

I recently asked intuitive eating coach Maria Nikolakakou during an Instagram Q&A how to differentiate between intuitive eating (something I am big proponent of) and emotional eating (its sneaky cousin). She answered that one factor among many was fullness cues. Well, this simple idea stared me back in the face. How often in my life did I really eat only until fullness? More often than not, I saw feeling full as an annoying inconvenience, meaning that I would soon have to consider stopping what I was eating for pleasure. What a nuisance to have to listen to my body rather than continue to splash in my dopamine brain bath!

I guess this brings me to the essential question that anyone who has had a propensity to addiction and finds themselves in a form of recovery must face: why am I simply not satisfied to stop at the point of satiation when buying things, eating things or drinking things? And furthermore - what I am getting at - what more essential pleasure am I denying myself that makes me need to compensate with these temporary "treats"? If one is never doing something that makes one feel uncomfortable or overextended, does one need a reward?

If you love your work, do you need to unwind with three hours of Netflix? If the conversations are stimulating, do you need a fourth glass of wine? And when you're creatively and spiritually fulfilled, do you need to self-soothe or self-punish through a glucose rush?

On Saturday, I wrote my first blog post entry (the one before this entitled "Getting Unstuck"). It felt like a breakthrough to commit to regular writing. And do you know what I noticed? I wasn't hungry. I nearly forgot about food for hours. I was giddy most of the day and didn't need to reward myself for anything, because I had fun, I stretched myself and I felt satiated.

What if we lived our lives so well that we didn't need to reward ourselves for anything because just moving through every moment of every day was the treat in itself?

I guess that would mean starting by feeling our feelings rather than eating them.

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