Thursday, November 5, 2009

Being a Closet Eater

For years I have been a closet eater. It is really bad. Getting over that is probably one of the top 10 challenges of getting my food-life together. For those of you who have been morbidly obese and/or struggled with emotional eating, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. However, if you haven’t let me tell you what I mean and decompress a bit.

Closet eating (per my unscientific definition) is anytime you eat in secrecy and privacy, with the intention of no one finding out. There’s lots of shame associated with closet eating. It’s pretty terrible yet, at the same time, it can be incredibly relaxing – more accurately, it can numb you to your emotions which is absolutely stellar when you feel terrible. Unfortunately, there are several problems with closet eating.

First of all, it really is a temporary fix bandaid to a much deeper set of issues. It doesn't make the problems/feelings you're dealing with go away. However, it can help you temporarily detach yourself from the emotions. A food coma will overtake you and you can bask (temporarily) in the haze of just gorging yourself. When this haze wears off, though, you just feel badly about yourself. It's a total death spiral. (I feel badly about something, I overeat to numb the pain, I feel good numb for awhile, I emerge from the food-induced haze, I feel badly about the situation that originally upset me and now also angry that I can't control my eating either. Return to step one.)

The second main problem is that being a closet eater is inherently dishonest. You’re essentially living a double life. I can remember going to friends’ houses, eating a meal, passing on seconds (“No thanks, I’m full.”), and then going to get more food on the way back to my own house. Now that’s just crazy. I actually didn’t realize how much I did this until after I started losing weight, some friends pointed out to me that they thought I didn’t eat much when I was at their house. I was thinking to myself, “Really?” They’re excellent cooks and I really enjoy eating with them. However spending time in fat-land, I became incredibly self-conscious about how much I eat. If I hid how much I ate from friends, then I convinced myself they would not really think about how much I weighed. In truth, I have no idea what most of them think about my weight. It’s still not something I feel comfortable talking about that much, even though I think about it a lot. Now I am a lot more honest about what I eat. I don’t think I hide eating from others anymore, even though there was a time I would regularly hide food wrappers, dispose of food trash in places other than my home garbage can, etc. That’s clearly addict behavior. I work to be honest with you, dear readers, about my struggles and when I mess up. Even though I have no idea who you are and whether you read this (and thus whether “you” even exist), the collective, invisible “you” keep me honest. Thank you.

The final reason I think being a closet eater is so terrible is that I think being a closet eater really chews on your psyche. This goes along with point #2 about being dishonest. Most of all, I think that living a double life (i.e., a public eating life, and a private, closeted eating life) underscores the failure you’ve become. To me it wasn’t unlike what I see of drug addicts (mostly from movies, so who knows how accurate my perception of drug addicts is…). When I wanted to eat, I would plan out my stealthy food-obtaining missions in advance. My mouth would water in anticipation (literally in a primal-like physical reaction), I would become anxious and jumpy, I would look for places to go by myself and eat. It is ludicrous to reflect on now, but it was very much a part of my life for a long time.

In general, I think that anything that causes you shame is not good. It could be that the shame is misplaced, and you’re doing the right thing and you need to come to terms with your actions – that is, you need to let go of the shame and be proud of your actions, opinions, etc. An example of this is smart kids who feel ashamed of their intelligence, who feel like their intellect is a liability and who just plain feel like they don’t fit in. Lots of times, however, shame is warranted and it’s the underlying behavior that needs changed. My closet eating, of course, is an example.

I am getting better at closet eating (i.e., doing less of it). However, there are times when I really struggle with wanting to do it. The struggle becomes most intense when I am feeling really strong emotions – the toughest for me are lonlieness, sadness, anger, and despair.

Decoupling food and emotion is a tough challenge, but I am doing better at it. I think recognizing it is one of the first steps. It’s tough, but important. I would really like to lick this for good this time and be a closet eater no more.


  1. Thank you Sarah for sharing such a private struggle!
    Many hugs...

  2. Thank you for sharing. I am coming to terms with this myself. It's nice to know I'm not alone. :)


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