Eat, Drink and be Merry?
By Antonia Ryan.
Hey, it’s Christmas! Eat, drink and be merry, we are told. For many this encouragement to over-indulge during the festive period heralds frivolous fun. But for some, it can stir up conflicting feelings that are definitely not merry. The array of tempting foods and the social pressure to eat and drink to excess can feel like a minefield to anyone who has wrestled with the compulsion to binge eat or drink to excess. For some of us, ‘the most wonderful time of the year' can make us feel overwhelmed, anxious, and uncomfortable.
In addition to the push to eat and drink too much of the abundance of food and alcohol on offer, we have the additional pressures that the season brings. These pressures include feeling compelled to spend Christmas Day with relatives you don’t see all year. You don’t see them all year for a reason. Perhaps they are critical or unpleasant. They might ignore or belittle you, but you decide you can put up with them for one day. A good guest brings gifts, right? So, before the event, you stress out about the right size jumper for Uncle Toby and the perfect perfume for Aunt Clara. On the big day, the gifts are unwrapped unenthusiastically, and some fault is found. Now you feel stressed and angry. And what do you do when you feel stressed and angry?
Or drink too much.
You may have experienced times when both issues have come together in a toxic mix of too much food and too much alcohol. Of course, the physical toll this takes is significant, but perhaps the emotional impact is more destructive. Feeling out of control, whether it is with food or drink, degrades our feelings of self-esteem and self-respect. We can become fearful about food or certain foods and/or alcohol. We fear losing control. We fear the consequences of over-indulging in food and alcohol, the weight gain, and social judgments. We might start to lie about how much we spend on food or drink. We might hide the wrappers or bottles. We hate ourselves for being deceptive but fear people finding out about our guilty secret.
Anyone who has struggled with binge eating is familiar with the soul-destroying compulsion to eat and eat without being able to stop. Anger or stress might be the catalyst, but once that first cookie or slice of cake or chocolate is tasted, the brakes are off. It seems like you just can’t help yourself. It might feel like some powerful force has taken over, compelling you to push more and more food into your mouth. You seek comfort, nurturing, and a balm to soothe the tumult of emotions. However, after the initial rush of ‘feel-good’ chemicals, it’s a rapid ride down into a pit of physical discomfort and emotional and mental anguish. The food might work for a while, but once that numbed-out feeling goes, reality comes crashing in even harder.
Celebrations present challenges to people who struggle with overeating and/or with alcohol use disorder. Sometimes over-indulgence happens during the event. Our hosts or friends might dismiss, minimize, or even encourage our over-indulgence. These people might have the best of intentions. They might want to show love, acceptance, and good hospitality, but their good intentions are not in our best interests. These generous hosts are facilitating habits that are undermining our physical and emotional health. They might even over-indulge themselves and be happy to have company and validation for their own behavior around food or alcohol.
Many people who feel compelled to eat or drink excessively worry about special events: the type of events at which food and/or alcohol is at the center of the celebration; the type of events that usually happen around the holiday season. These folks might ‘white knuckle’ it, enduring the event with a tight hold on their natural inclination to eat everything in sight or drink the bar dry. But once they can leave the event, they return home and the open floodgates. They stuff down all the food in the house or sit up for hours downing all the drinks they craved at the party. The substance might be different, but the behavior is the same.
You might overeat because that is what you have always done. Perhaps you come from a family of large over-eaters. Helpings of food at the family table were always generous. Your mom expresses her love through massive servings of all your favorite treats. As you grew up, you realized that not only were the dinner portions on the large side, but you were too. You feel you need to be slim to fit in, to be loved and accepted. So, you follow the methods touted by magazines and celebrities to lose those unwanted pounds – fast. You follow a weight-loss diet. You restrict food and feel tired and irritable. There is a deep ache in your soul that needs to be soothed by food, but these two needs clash. You need to be slim, but you also need to feel loved and fulfilled. This pull between the desire to look a certain way and feel a certain way can go on for years. It’s a struggle between desire and restriction. You might conclude that you just have a willpower problem. If you could just find the right diet or the right person to motivate you, you would stick to the diet and stop binging on food. But of course, it's more than a willpower problem. A certain diet might work for a while but that desire for love in the form of food comes crashing in, especially when the going gets tough and you are back on the same see-saw. Restriction versus desire. Famine and feast. Up and down.Round and round. It truly is crazy-making.
Many drinkers can follow this pattern too. Perhaps they come from a background in which heavy drinking was endemic. When times were tough, they drank. When there was a celebration, the booze appeared in copious amounts. A hot toddy or tot of brandy was the cure for a cold, a sickly stomach, or insomnia. Boozy parties brought on feelings of camaraderie and bonhomie. Perhaps it is only in later life that you have recognized that not everyone drinks as you or your family do. You try to stop but - to your horror, frustration, and self-disgust - you can’t stop. You restrict the booze. You tell yourself you can drink moderately. But the one or two drinks you havepromised yourself turn into a bottle or two, and you are back on the sameroller-coaster. The highs the lows and a feeling of being out of control. You are sick and tired of whooping it up and crashing back down. You decide you have a willpower problem. Sound familiar?
Many people find that when they stop using food in unhealthy ways, other issues pop up. These other issues could be using relationships, work, exercise, or other behavior to fill the gap. Or it could be finding that alcohol is starting to take more of a prominent place in your life. Sometimes this is described as peeling back the layers of the onion: we sort out one issue and then are faced with a new one.
You might feel perplexed by your compulsion to eat or drink too much. But many of us are compelled to eat or drink to excess to feel more comfortable. We all need to feel protected and cared for. We all need to feel loved and fulfilled. These are basic human needs. So, when life presents us with challenges, we desire comfort and seek out ways to soothe ourselves. If we have been taught how to do this in healthy ways by our early caregivers, we will turn to healthy pursuits to attain comfort. However, if we have grown up in an environment in which we were not taken care of, or we saw over-eating or heavy drinking used as a strategy to get through life, it is only natural we will turn to food or alcohol in the same way. Our early caregivers do not need to have been abusive or neglectful. They might have lavished us or rewarded us with food and forged a link between nurturing and consumable treats that is hard to break. We might have witnessed them pouring themselves a drink to relax or cope with bad news. We learned that when you feel stressed or upset you turn to alcohol or food to deal with it. The connection is forged.
Now, when you feel a lack – whether that lack is a lack of love, attention, or recognition - you turn to substances to soothe yourself. You might over-indulge in food or drink – or both. You learn that this might work for a short while. The food and drink numb the pain and give you a sense of comfort. However, you are also aware that using these substances in this way carries a hefty price tag, including unwanted pounds, embarrassment, and social disapproval.
For many heavy drinkers, binge eating occurs when they are in blackout. This happened to Nancy, a woman I worked with who struggled with over-eating and issues around alcohol. She shared this recollection with me:
”Some years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I got invited out by a friend who was living in university accommodation. She assured me I could stay over in her room after our night out, rather than have the expense of a taxi back to my home in the countryside. The crowd were all fast drinkers, and I was happy to keep up with them, and some. I have no memory of getting back to the house they shared near the university campus. I had a vague memory of helping myself to the contents of the fridge. The next morning, I saw the evidence of my blackout binge: food wrappers were littered all over the kitchen table and the fridge had been emptied – by me. I was never invited out by that group of friends again. This pattern continued for years. I would be very disciplined around food when I was sober but when I drank to blackout, which was habitual, I would binge eat with little or no memory of doing it. The impact of this showed up in unwanted weight gain and distressing feelings of shame around my lack of control with both food and drink.“
Nancy’s story highlights many of the issues blackout binge eaters face: self-disgust, social embarrassment, unwanted pounds, and feeling out of control.
Less dramatically, drinkers might talk about the ‘drunk munchies': the compulsion to eat after alcohol has been consumed. Of course, alcohol is an appetite stimulant, so even moderate drinkers will have more of an edge on their desire for food. That’s why fancy restaurants and parties serve aperitifs. But when alcohol has been consumed to excess, the munchies are more than just a sharper appetite. The drunk munchies show up as a compulsion to eat fatty, salty foods. Even people who follow a healthy eating pattern whilst sober will be unable to resist the lure of the greasy scent of frying potatoes or a certain colonel's chicken nuggets in a bucket. Research shows that high-fat foods and alcohol make the same parts of the brain light up. The same circuits are triggered by alcohol and the foods that become irresistible when copious amounts of alcohol have been consumed. If you walk along any street where there are bars aplenty, you will find fast-food outlets open at all hours to accommodate this compulsion to satiate the ‘grease-tooth’ that heavy drinkers develop after a big night out on the town.
A key similarity in the behavior and motivations of people who binge on food and those who misuse alcohol is secrecy. The person who overeats might hide wrappers or grocery receipts. The person who drinks too much might hide their bottles and go to extreme lengths to dispose of the empties. One woman I knew dug holes in her garden to hide her full bottles. The only problem was she forgot where she had buried them. Years later, after getting sober, she would discover her hidden ‘treasure’ with a rueful smile. In both cases, whether it is overeating or over-drinking, the root of this secrecy is shame and fear of social censure. You might have heard the phrase, ‘you are only as sick as your secrets'. This secrecy erodes a healthy self-image and drives us down further.
Most problems with food and alcohol have similar roots. The roots are usually buried deep in feelings of lack, low self-worth, and a cold, hollow ache that food or drink seems to soothe for a short while. Many heavy drinkers and binge eaters report feelings of depression, anxiety, and trauma. Both drinkers and binge eaters seek release. This release takes the form of overindulging in the substance that has presented itself as the solution: food or drink or both. The consequences of this ‘solution’ of over-indulgence are negative and include weight gain, feelings of shame and embarrassment, and more.
For some ‘larger-than-life' personalities who have formed their self-image on being a big drinker and/or a big eater, celebrations are a way to come into the limelight. Their lack of restraint is attractive to others who are jollied along by their bonhomie. These characters would scoff at the idea of feeling shame and put two fingers up to anyone who tries to tell them what to do. ‘Good for them’ I would say. However, in my experience, when you scratch the surface many of these larger-than-life characters will relate feelings that belie their outward appearance. Many are not happy with their behavior, looks, or health. Appearances can be deceptive.
Most problems with food and alcohol have similar roots. The roots are usually buried deep in feelings of lack, low self-worth, and a cold, hollow ache that food or drink seems to soothe for a short while. Many heavy drinkers and binge eaters report feelings of depression, anxiety, or trauma. Both drinkers and binge eaters seek release. This release takes the form of overindulging in the substance that has presented itself as the solution: food or drink or both. The consequences of this ‘solution’ of over-indulgence are negative and include weight gain, feelings of shame and embarrassment, and more.
Effective solutions are similar for people who eat or drink too much to soothe internal pain, numb feelings of shame, lack of self-worth, or feelings of being unloved. The solutions are not about the grim application of willpower or just finding the ‘right’ diet. The solutions involve finding life-affirming ways to soothe and treat the pain that is at the root of the compulsive behavior.
If this article has resonated with you, you might be interested in my books:
Mindfulness for Alcohol Recovery (Co-authored with Lewis David)