I haven’t been very hungry, lately. Which has made following my bright lines rather simple. I’ve also been fairly busy, which has kept my mind occupied and away from thoughts of food, for the most part. But today, I hit a little snag.
I’ve been studying for my qualification exams, and so far, it’s been going well. Slow, but not difficult. Until this afternoon. I ended up in unfamiliar territory – some material on cardiac arrhythmias that I haven’t seen in 4 years. My memory of this was more than foggy. Instead of studying and consolidating information that I already understood, I found myself struggling to learn material, almost from scratch. We may have touched on this stuff 4 years ago, but we never learned it in the depth I’ll be required to know for my upcoming exams.
It’s a little thing, I know. I’ll get through it. But I couldn’t help feeling frustrated. I already felt like I was behind, and the extra time this was going to take had me panicking. Which made the task even more difficult. I couldn’t focus, and every minute that I wasted without learning anything only escalated my anxiety.
That was the point at which I thought – I wish I had some cashews.
I was not hungry. Not at all. But I really wanted to eat some cashews. As in, a large container of cashews.
You know, the funny thing is, I never used to think my eating was motivated by emotions. I thought I was just hungry. Constantly hungry. Nothing could fill me up, and to me, that need to eat felt entirely physical. I really believed there was something seriously wrong with the way I was put together. Some medical reason for what I was going through. And at the time, when my eating was out of control, that was mostly true. My brain was leptin-resistant, which made me feel hungrier the more I ate, and my cortisol receptors were down-regulated, which kept me hooked on food like a drug. It wasn’t normal hunger, but it was definitely real hunger. When my well-meaning doctors tried to delve into the emotions that they obviously believed were driving my inability to control my eating (and the periodic ability to overcontrol it), I played along. But I didn’t believe it for a minute.
Now, with my brain starting to heal, I’m starting to see that there was some truth in what they were saying. Exploring my emotions, on its own, was never going to work. But with the physiological addiction quieting down, the emotional aspects of my eating are becoming more recognizable.
I didn’t want to eat today because I was hungry. I wanted to eat something because I didn’t want to do what I was supposed to be doing.
I was stuck. It wasn’t just a boring or unpleasant task – I’ve been doing that for days, without issue. This was a task that I didn’t know how to complete. The solution to my problem evaded me, and I felt overwhelmed. I felt incompetent. I felt angry with myself, for being incompetent. And I felt angry with the world, for asking too much of me. For expecting me to be something I’m not.
That was the wounded little girl. And this experience taught me a little more about her.
The Wounded Child
I wasn’t scarred by anything traumatic in my childhood. I didn’t feel unloved or unappreciated. I wasn’t judged, ridiculed, manipulated, dominated, exploited, betrayed, neglected, abandoned, or violated. And I didn’t need to go through this list to know I had it really good. I’ve always been thankful for the childhood I was granted. It was a happy one.
Still, I have an inner child, and she is hurting. And angry.
Funny. I don’t usually think of myself as an angry person. I regularly attract the anger of others by not being angry at the things they’re angry about. For example, when I am a passenger in my sister’s car, I probably should not attempt to defend the other drivers who are attracting her wrath. Trying to reason with a person experiencing road rage never ends well.
But there is some anger in me, after all. An undirected sort of anger, not aimed at anyone in particular. I felt it, this afternoon. I felt it in my frustration about cardiac arrhythmias. And I felt it in that little girl who wanted to drown those feelings in cashews.
I’ve had glimpses of this little girl, before. She felt overwhelmed. She felt confused by a world she didn’t understand. Now that I’m paying more attention to her – and to the things that bring her to the forefront – I think I can see her a little more clearly. What she’s overwhelmed by are the expectations put on her. She’s confused about what exactly those expectations are, and how to go about meeting them.
She wants to meet those expectations. She wants to be strong, and smart, and useful. She wants to be a person that others can rely on. And she is willing to work hard to become those things. She knows that others see potential in her, and she desperately wants to fulfill that potential. But she doesn’t know how. She doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to do. The expectations are either unclear or unreasonable, and she just can’t do it, no matter how hard she tries. And that’s where the anger comes in. She’s frustrated with herself, but she’s angry at the world for asking her for what she doesn’t have.
I have to imagine that most children go through something similar to this. We all have to learn to navigate the world of expectations, from our families, from school, from our friends and peers. As a former high school teacher, I know just how indignant these children can be when they feel that those expectations are unfair. But I was never one to complain about these things. So I wonder why this feeling has stuck with me so strongly. Why it still hurts.
A History of Expectations
When I was 12, my family moved from southern Manitoba to central Ontario. I dealt with it well, but it was a major culture shock. I was surrounded by curious classmates who clearly expected something from me, but I seemed to continually disappoint. Pretty soon, I decided their approval wasn’t worth trying to earn. My teachers vacillated between praising me for accomplishments that in my mind, were simple, and publicly ridiculing me for mistakes that I had never been warned against. Having given up on making friends, I poured all my effort into gaining the approval of these teachers. And I did. But with academic success, came more expectations. I’m not sure where these expectations came from, but I felt them. And I continually strove to meet them.
And inside, no matter how much praise and approval I gained, I felt like a fraud.
I’ve spent my adult life seeking out more challenges to meet. To an almost pathological extent. And even when I’ve deliberately tried to take it a little easier, the challenges seem to follow me. Honestly, I thought Naturopathic Medicine was going to be easy. Well, easier than it was. But none of it is easy. Everything is hard. I constantly feel behind. Like I’ve taken on too much. Like I signed on for something I’m not capable of doing. I am surprised every time I pass a test, because I feel like I understand nothing. And one day, someone is going to discover just how little I really know. How much I struggle to retain the information I’ve learned. How quickly it slips away.
When Healing is Elusive
That little girl inside me has no idea how we got here. But she is horrified by it all. She wants to go back, to a time when she felt safe. When the expectations were simple, and she knew how to meet them. When the world made sense.
Cashews make her feel safe. They let her ignore the world, forget the expectations. They calm her terror.
I didn’t go looking for cashews, today. Or any other form of comfort food. I felt the craving, I was surprised by it, and I looked at it with curiosity. I discovered where it came from. And I gently told that wounded child no.
But I didn’t know how to comfort her. I don’t know what I can do, to make her feel safe. To reduce the overwhelm. Because the things she fears are real. I feel like I’m just being hit continually, wave after wave, with no end in sight. And it’s going to drown me, eventually.
I want to run away. I don’t want to look at this calendar on my wall, with all the impossible tasks written on it. I don’t want to feel like a failure and a fraud. I want goals I can achieve. Standards I can meet. How did I end up in this place? What drove me here? What was I looking for?
I tell myself that I’m here for a reason. That nothing is an accident. That the things that seem impossible right now will look better in the morning.
But I’m not sure I believe it.