Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Coping

Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Artie. He was an only child born to an electrical engineer father and a doting mother. Growing up during the Great Depression, food was somewhat scarce. But life was good for little Artie, as he sometimes gathered soda bottles for cash and then used the money for a chocolate bar and an afternoon at the movie theater, watching cliffhanger episodes of the Lone Ranger.

Artie's family didn't own a refrigerator, so they had an "ice box:" literally, a box of ice to keep foods cold. The ice man would come by with huge ice blocks for sale in a horse-drawn wagon, and Artie would hop on the back and take ice chips to suck on as a special treat in the summer. He helped his parents in their garden full of vegetables and flowers.

Artie quit school to find a job when he finished 8th grade. He worked until he was old enough to join the Army, and then spent many years travelling. He lived in Japan for 15 years. He went to Korea during the Korean War, and to Vietnam after that.

Did Artie grow up and get fat because of his difficult (by modern standards) childhood? Did he binge on foods once they were available, because he had been hungry so often as a child?

What would you do?

If you grew up during a time when food was not so plentiful, would you now blame your obesity on your childhood? Would you say, "I had to quit school and work when I was just a child. I lost my childhood. It's not fair, so I overeat to compensate for it."

Artie didn't get fat. He had a very thorough appreciation for food, though. He loved to cook, and when he had a meal, he enjoyed every bite. He had a habit of eating slowly... so slowly that his family would be done with dinner while he was not even halfway finished. He'd say, "I had enough of gulping down my food in a rush when I was in the Army. I won't do that again." And while he did eat his share of potato chips and dip, he didn't binge. He didn't eat so much that it became a problem. Because he *knew* he had access to food *now,* and his childhood had nothing to do with the present.

If you had gone through the traumas of War, and had seen your best friends blown up in a trench beside you, how would you cope?

He coped. He drew inward. He drank, but not excessively. He liked his martini with dinner, and his beer after work, but I can't say that I ever remember Artie being wasted on alcohol. Artie was my father.

Why is it that my father was able to cope with his difficult past without becoming an addict of some sort? Is there some key here, to show us how *not* to turn to food for solace?

No, sadly, not. Everyone copes in their own way. My mother, with alcohol and religion (a curious mix). Myself, with food. My father, by turning inward. He *did* self medicate with alcohol... just not to the point of becoming a problem. After all, he had a family to support, a job to keep, a daughter to raise. So somehow, he kept it in check.

I don't know why some people keep it in check better than others, but EVERYONE turns to *something* to cope. I bet you'd be surprised to find how many "normal weight" people do use food to soothe themselves. But they don't let it consume them. It's something they do once in awhile, while eating healthier or smaller portions the rest of the time. Or perhaps they have other outlets: friends, family, exercise, smoking. Some methods are healthy, others detrimental.

My problem is that over the past decade or so I was spending 99% of my time COPING. Much like my mother, who was often on a drunken binge in my early childhood or in a religious frenzy during later years, I had been spending way too much time trying to "deal" with past traumas instead of living in the present moment, enjoying the good about the now.

There's enough ickiness and unhappiness in life that we really should only have to live each incident once. Dragging unpleasant events up over and over in one's head, worrying, fretting, wishing one could change the past, is really counterproductive. I have found that it's a good thing to *learn* from the past, but not to dwell in it. After all, the only moment we have for sure is the one we're in right now.

Maybe I'm simplifying a bit, and I'm not knocking the helpfulness of a personal counselor for some people. If there's some event that haunts you, you may need professional help for that, no doubt. But I think a lot of times the *recurring thoughts* are worse than the events were.

I've had my share of unhappiness.... pregnancy losses, the deaths of my parents, illnesses. No doubt there is a time to grieve, but that grief should not take over our lives. In fact, I believe the best way to cope with bad times is by taking care of *ourselves.* If we are well, bad times are easier. We don't think about that very often; we tend to equate being healthy with being able to do *fun* things, have *happy* times. But here's something my dear friend Karen shared with me as her father was going downhill in health and not expected to live much longer:

"I was thinking, when my Dad does die I will obviously have to drop everything and go home (to another state) and I need to be semi-prepared now with something to wear, etc. Then I realized how much easier this horrible ordeal will be for me if I am not still 288 pounds. It will be devastating, emotional, and stressful no matter what, but how much LESS difficult will it be if I can just run to the mall and find something to wear in a matter of a couple hours? How much easier will it be when I see people I have known since childhood if I am 50 pounds smaller than I am now? How much less horrified will I be if I can actually walk to the grave and stand graveside for 30 minutes without my back and knees causing me to be in agony? Being skinnier is great for the good times in life (going on vacations, visiting amusement parks, taking plane trips, etc) but you know, its even MORE important for the bad times in life."

Very wise words, Karen. And I am so sorry for the loss of your father last month.

We don't have to turn to food for comfort. It just complicates things. All the better if we can learn to cope in a healthy manner: eating well, taking walks, talking to friends, or pampering ourselves with a relaxing bath or an evening with a favorite book. If we can learn to let go of a rough past and focus on the here and now, we can spend more time really living and less time coping. And that's the life I want to live.


For the story of little Cookie, click here.

10 comments:

Kelly said...

Thanks. I don't know what to say except thanks. :) That was like reading something off my own soul. Dude, I think you brought a tear to my eye!

Salted with Shadows said...

Both wonderful posts. I just began participating in a support group for food addiction and a lot of what you shared here resonated with the work I'm trying to do right now myself, as well as lots of parallels to my own history and that of my family...thank you.

antgirl said...

Yeah, we all have our own coping mechanisms. It's the toughest habit to replace, but if we can succeed at replacing self destructive behavior with constructive behavior, how fantastic. It takes time and persistence.

shaungirl22 said...

thank you for this post. I came across your blog just a few weeks ago and have really enjoyed reading it. I am working on my own weight loss and am down 19lbs now! I am not a great writer but decided to start my own blog too in hoping it will help me more. Thanks and have a great week.

Graze with Me said...

Beautiful story and you have a great point, everyone copes in some way; healthy or not.

Scale Junkie said...

This really made me think Lyn. I think that I've spent a lot of time learning new ways to cope with things, healthier ways to cope with things, productive rather than destructive. I do agree its best to live in the moment but I think at some point everyone needs to stop and look at the road that led them to the point where they are but you're right, dwelling there is just as unhealthy.

When you talked about traveling for a funeral for me I had to have funeral clothes and clothes for every possible occasion at the ready because you just can't buy 5X clothes for every occasion off the rack (its a bit easier now) but just a few short years ago it had to all come from catalog purchase. Even now I tend to want to buy everything that fits just because I never know when I might need it or if it will be available in my size when I do....clearly you've opened a huge can of worms here for me LOL but thank you because I can see that I've made tremendous progress in this area of my life too.

...stopping babbling now :-)

Ceres said...

Thanks for sharing, and for the wonderful post. It's absolutely true what you're saying, everybody has a different way of coping, and some ways are healthier than others. Hopefully we can change the programming, though, and learn not to stuff our feelings, and not to look inside the fridge for the answers. They are usually not there.

Christina said...

"There's enough ickiness and unhappiness in life that we really should only have to live each incident once."

This really resonated with me. Thank you for your post. You always leave me with something to think about. I think you are 100% right about this. I personally spend way too much time regretting past events and sweating the small stuff.

Vickie said...

"It's okay to glance backward; just don't stare."
Stephen M Pollan and Mark Levine from their book It's All in Your head: Thinking Your Way to Happiness


I did not read the book - just saw the quote in an article and loved it.

Mike579 said...

Your essay is wonderfully written. Struggling is over-rated for sure. Practicing compassion to yourself is always worthwhile. Hug!,

Mike