In therapy I learned that for much of my life, I inwardly feared and distrusted others. And I made my fear and mistrust of others bearable in two major ways:
- I surrounded myself with a protective "wall" of fat that physically kept me at a distance from people.
- And sometimes I simply kept my distance from others because I felt they would not want to be around me -- a fat person and therefore unattractive, or so I thought.
I now know I was wrong about how others felt about me. Or, at least, about how some of them might have felt about me, if they could have gotten close enough. Some of them might even have loved me, given the opportunity.
But I didn't give it to them. Today I realize I was afraid that if they really knew me, they'd hurt me. All of them! I see now how extreme that was, but that's how I felt. It's also the way I felt about my family. (We'll talk about that in a later installment of this series.) To keep my fear and mistrust under control and get along in the world, I chose another "extreme": I learned to love the temporary fullness of binges and the wraparound embrace of fat.
Let me stop here to say that during all those long years of struggling with my emotional eating, I wasn't sitting alone in a dark room with nobody around. I had a life. (Remember, although inwardly I was distrustful and afraid, I did have the courage to get out there and do what I needed to do, with the "help" of food and fat. It's that inward part we're talking about here.) I had work I was good at and enjoyed, two daughters I raised on my own, eventually three grandchildren -- and, yes, friends, though few were close friends. And even those few were almost always left behind without further contact when we moved, which was often.
I really regret this today, but that's how it was. How it needed to be. I think I moved so much at least partly because it was a relief to start over, in a place where nobody knew me.
Then at long last I gathered my courage and sought help to finally understand and release my lonely childhood and its grip on me as an overeating, fat adult. At first what I felt and learned in therapy were so different from what I'd thought my life was about, I wasn't surprised I hadn't been able to explore my emotional eating before. And it did take some time for the therapy to make a difference.
But as time passed, I realized that I wasn't feeling as much of the mistrust toward others that had felt so "natural" to me for so long, and I wasn't isolating myself from others as much. Now here's the really exciting part: I wasn't binging as much, either. In fact, I was starting to lose weight. And, wonder of wonders, I was making friends and actually telling them how much I liked them!
Of course, the therapy helped me do most of the work. But as I said, I'm pretty sure the process started with -- a bear.
I also said I'd explain! So here goes.
A few years before I began my therapy, I made a wonderful discovery: that once you love something, anything, completely, holding nothing back, it can be a start on the road to loving other things, including people.
And then you can love yourself, too.
A teddy bear did this for me, a teddy bear that for a time became an apartment full of teddy bears.
Did you know that you can love a teddy bear without holding anything back? It never laughs or turns away in embarrassment or runs away in fear of emotional throttling. Muffin Bear, my first teddy, came to me one Christmas. He was a vanilla-colored, awkwardly shaped armful, but I loved him instantly -- surprising myself with the power of my feelings. I know now I'd never felt so free to express love in my whole life.
First we were alone, Muffy and I. (Sound familiar? My first instinct was still to be alone. But loving Muffy was a first step.) Then I got another bear, Tiny Bear, and I loved her, too. And then I started to rescue bears from thrift shops and yard sales and repair them. It was so satisfying to see how an abandoned, faded, lumpy bear with no eyes and fur worn thin from hugs could perk up.
I see now that in rescuing those sad bears, I was taking another step toward "rescuing" myself.
For a time, my bears became the close family I'd always longed for who loved me no matter what, smiling me off to a new day each morning and welcoming me back home at night with just as much joy. No matter how the day's events might have drained me -- or scared me 'til I stuffed myself -- my bears pumped me up with such a sense of being loved and cared for and needed that the next day I went off again with an eager, expectant heart.
For you, it might be the love of a pet, or a doll, or a beautiful painting or plant -- whatever. The important thing, I believe, is to start loving something so much, you don't hold anything back.
We hear all the time about the need to BE loved. But my experience has been that the need TO love, safely and completely, without fear of ridicule, punishment, or abandonment, comes first. You could say that loving attracts love, rather than the other way around.
I loved all my bears. And -- I know how strange this sounds, but I swear it's true -- they loved me back.
Things went on like this for awhile. Then I slowly began to realize that this "loving" business was coming out of me with actual people. I was feeling warmer toward others, more generous-minded -- safer and more trusting. I felt good about my feelings for them. I said the good things I was feeling. And I couldn't help noticing that some of them were smiling and saying good things to me, too! I even got involved with a group of teddy bear collectors who became that great thing: close friends.
I was ready for the day when therapy would finally be able to help me.
I don't have an apartmentful of teddy bears anymore. But I've kept several, including my dear Muffy, who were especially important during that time in my life, before I was ready for therapy, when I began to want to experience and express my loving feelings.
Today I'm certain that once I'd loved teddy bears and then opened my heart to people I could feel close to, I didn't need food and fat in the same way anymore. I could at last begin saying goodbye to those lifelong "close friends" -- with love.