by Elana Kupor, MA, LMHC

My cat Grayson is unambivalent about food. His only apparent conflict with food is that he always wants more. He scours our countertops when we’re out of the kitchen and filches scraps from the garbage — or our plates — if we’re not vigilant. While our tiger-striped cat Tigra stops eating when she’s satiated, Grayson ate two full cups of dried cat food when we ran an experiment to see if he could self-regulate. He spent that evening draped over the back of the couch, his whole upper body spilling down the back cushions like a frozen, furry waterfall.

I have more ambivalence about food than Grayson. Seventeen years ago, I left college in the middle of my junior year and flew home to Seattle. I had started bingeing and purging towards the end of fall quarter, and during winter quarter my behavior had escalated so much that it frightened me. The more I tried to shut down my feelings, the stronger the need to binge became. This struggle with food led me to enter therapy when I was twenty. Many years later, I decided to begin my own training as a therapist. Exploring my relationship with food allowed me to dig deeper into what was not working in my life as a whole. Changing this relationship meant changing my life.

Food can be a chameleon, a shape-shifter, a siren. It can soothe and nurture; it can punish and destroy. People with eating disorders are at the far ends of a continuum that includes many women and men who have a disordered relationship with food. The difference lies in the intensity of the obsessive thoughts and the degree of compulsive behaviors.

People with eating disorders mirror all people with addictions — their primary relationship is with the addictive object, not with other people. Food becomes the protector and the enemy. It occupies the crevices of the mind, usurping the place of friends and family. Nothing can touch the person as profoundly as whether or not they are eating. A person struggling with their relationship with food is really struggling with their ability to accept and to satisfy their hunger, to love and be loved. Someone with an eating disorder is like a snake eating its tail. It needs no one else; it is self-sufficient. But it is also terribly alone.

I have experienced different facets of this struggle with hunger and nourishment. I have known the strong, tidal-pull cravings for constant feeding, and the equally strong aversion to consuming anything. When I was having a hard time not bingeing on chocolate, I remember feeling envious of a friend who simply lost her appetite whenever she was stressed. That seemed so pure to me; plus, she looked great in jeans. She had no hunger; therefore, she had overcome her needs. But later, I too lost my appetite and found this to be just as painful. Cutting hunger off at its roots severs our connection with the vitality and joy of life.

Eating is one of our most basic needs, and so are social relationships. We are pack animals. Eating disorders show us that our ability to feed ourselves and to connect with others has been disrupted. Treating eating disorders means inquiring into the nature of this disruption and finding ways to place trust in the spaces which have been abandoned. This is essential and delicate work. It cannot be done alone. I think again of Grayson, who yesterday wrestled a roasted chicken to the floor and was gnawing on a plump leg when I caught him. He can be infuriating, but I also admire how deeply he inhabits his hunger. He is shameless. The task of freeing oneself of a troubled relationship with food is the task of liberating oneself from shame.

The above article expresses the opinions of the author and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Women’s Therapy Referral Service.