I’ve not come across a great deal of information about the relationship between food issues and dissociation. My colleague Cary is working on a thesis on the topic, and it came up the other day in our group Bridges. Many of us who struggle with chronic dissociation also have some difficulties with food. This is by no means all people, dissociative experiences can vary significantly from person to person. What do I mean by food issues? I’m talking about struggles that range from entrenched eating disorders to milder difficulties. Some people have a tendency to starve themselves, others find themselves overeating. Personally I struggle with a binge-starve cycle that slows my metabolism, wrecks my energy levels, and causes my weight to fluctuate. Dissociation and food issues can go hand in hand. People who struggle with over eating sometimes describe ‘unconscious eating’ where they consume food without being aware of it. Most of us know the annoying experience of reaching for a cup of tea and discovering we’ve already drunk it without registering. For some people this goes a step further and they find themselves looking at a clean plate and wondering what they had for dinner, suddenly realising the biscuit packet is empty, or finding themselves roaming through the cupboards looking for snacks whenever their concentration wanders.
Not eating due to dissociation can also be a difficulty. Personally this is something I’ve realised I have quite a problem with. When I’m very dissociative, I tend to lose my sensations, so I can’t feel things very well. That includes the sensation of hunger. Without that cue, I would at times go for several days without realising I hadn’t eaten. This starvation would do nasty things to my blood sugar levels and usually increase my dissociation. It wasn’t until I started fainting that I realised this was quite serious. A combination of sleep deprivation, starvation, and extreme stress has produced the most severe and terrifying dissociative experiences I’ve ever had, something like a drug overdose high. I now have to use the time of day as my cue to eat, and as I do eat more regularly it’s been exciting (but also freaky) that my sense of hunger has been returning.
The binge part of this cycle for me is that erratically I would eat large meals of high sugar foods. With my metabolism slowed down, I don’t tend to feel hungry and I’ve lived for many years on one meal a day. The binging has been a problem since childhood, when I would hoard, an on occasion even steal, sweets. At the time I was confused and deeply ashamed of this compulsion. At times my behaviour seemed to resemble an alcoholic, with sugary foods hidden in stashes that I consumed secretly, at high speed, at times of stress, and felt deep guilt and shame about. I teetered for many years on the edge of adding a purge component to this cycle, and deliberately cultivated a phobia of vomiting to help keep me away from this.
I’ve come to understand my food struggles as being created by a number of different issues. One of them is attachment problems. This is about our experiences as children, and how we now tend to view and react in relationships. For some people with attachment problems, ‘comfort food’ goes a step further and children may hoard food in fear that their needs will not be met and as an attempt to be self reliant. Another component is self image and self loathing issues, born out bullying and humiliation during childhood and teenage years. A deep ambivalence about food and myself makes it difficult to have a healthy relationship with food. Another component for me is intense stress. Sugar cravings are common for people who experience intense stress, because adrenaline and sugar have a relationship in the body. I’ve found I tend to crave sugar when I’m stressed. Another factor for me has been that at times I’ve been threatened or physically assaulted, which is just the kind of situation that makes you wish you were bigger and more imposing. This can lead to weight gain.
Food issues can also be a kind of self harm. There are many ways to play out self loathing, to try to override emotions or memories, and to express pain, and needs around control. People used to living in a disconnected dissociative state may use over eating or starvation to trigger dissociation when they feel overwhelmed. Others may use the discomfort of overeating or the pain of hunger pangs to reconnect them to their body and help to manage dissociation.
So, what can be done about this? Firstly it helps to know that food issues and dissociation often re-enforce each other. They easily form cycles where the dissociation aids the food problems and having problems with food makes you more vulnerable to dissociation. This cycle will need to be broken. For me, I’ve had to move quite slowly on reducing my issues. Several years ago after my most severe dissociative episodes involving low blood sugar and sleep deprivation, I made a rule that I had to eat one meal a day. At the time that was quite a challenge. I also started to examine what was behind my difficult relationship with food, and started to tease out the emotional components and work on them. One of the biggest I started with was the issue of self loathing. Initially I couldn’t imagine a life without it, but I could see how badly it was crippling me and kept working away at it. On bad days I can’t eat, and if I force myself to I will only be terribly ill and likely vomit. I don’t force myself. When stress levels are high, energy is diverted away from the digestive system. There’s only so much I can do and I let myself off the hook on the bad days. The goal is sustainable change, not re-enacting abusive scenarios where I feel terrible and out of control.
A couple of years ago I moved up to two meals a day. I was able to sustain that except for periods of homelessness when I tended to drop back to one or less. Now, on good days I have three meals. Possibly half my week is like this at the moment. I also tried to link food to good experiences – so I often eat a snack or even lunch in my groups because they are such a safe and positive environment for me. And I wanted to remove shame and humiliation from eating. I dismantled my stashes and decided that if I was going to eat something like chocolate, I would do it openly, I would enjoy it, and I would feel no shame, even if I gained weight or people made rude comments. These movements, little by little, have moved me towards a better diet, better energy, and better health. My cholesterol level which had been rising is now low and stable. My weight has stabilised, and my health is better than it has been in many years. I no longer diet, I refuse to engage in fads or restrictions, ‘bad foods’, or an obsession with ‘healthy’ food. My goal has been to tune back in to my body, to eat and enjoy eating, to have fuel, and to get back to the good side of being fussy about food – the pleasure of good food and my love of cooking, the kindness and care of preparing good tasty food for people you care about, and to resolve issues of shame, control, stress, and comfort in my journal rather than my diet.
If you’re struggling with dissociation and food, take heart, you’re not alone! It may be that a two pronged approach – working on reducing the dissociation, and working on understanding and resolving the drive behind the food issues will give you the best chance of making good changes. Food issues can be tenacious, deeply rooted, and re-enforced by the unkindness of our culture. You’re not going to make progress every day, and you may find that things change slowly with back steps and challenges along the way. I’d suggest watching those who have a good relationship with food and their bodies and modelling whatever you can.
If you’re a multiple, you may have food issues broken up among different parts. Sometimes everyone in the system is fine but one part has a major eating disorder. Sometimes the roles around food are broken up, perhaps one part cooks, another eats, and another cleans up the kitchen. Maybe you function just fine around food until the one who eats goes away for a while, or until someone who doesn’t eat ends up being out for a long time. I know that this kind of dissociation can add a whole extra layer of complexity to the situation, it may take a while to even work out what is going on and who is doing what. Be patient and gentle, you will make sense of it at some point and work out what you all need to do to make sure your body stays nourished and taken care of. Getting a hold on food issues may help you drastically reduce your dissociation and be an important part of your recovery. Best of luck to you!
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