My relationship with food has always been tightly coupled with anger. As a child, I lived in a turbulent household. The unpredictability of my father’s alcohol-induced rages turned me into a timid, fearful child. Since the angry tirades usually occurred late in the evening, I spent my youth feeling tired and nervous, always anticipating a bad event, even when things were relatively calm. I ate candy for comfort and energy. My father was a controlling, invasive parent and I came to think of myself as incapable of independent thought or action. As I grew older, my anger and fear grew stronger and I began to use food as a weapon against myself. I ate less and less, hoping that if I were small, I would be less noticeable and less likely to become a victim to my father’s frightening behavior and his constant need to control my actions. I thought it would be preferable to disappear instead of feeling helpless to change or escape from my home situation.
As an adult I continued to have problems managing my anger. I was afraid of the emotion. For me, anger was a dangerous beast that needed to be caged, not an acceptable human emotion that could be healthy when expressed appropriately. I became an anger-eater. I swallowed my anger until it spilled out in inappropriate ways: snapping at my mother for no reason or ranting wildly at rude drivers on the road. Since I had such low self-esteem, I always picked someone “safe” to express the anger to; someone I knew would not retaliate. Despite my graduate education and degree in counseling psychology, the theories I read about managing anger addicts and enabling adult children of alcoholics did not register personally with me.
Meanwhile, I was alternating between eating huge amounts of food and eating almost nothing at all. When my anger was sharp and I was frustrated and fuming, I would eat nearly nonstop to soothe myself – mostly carbohydrates, salt, and sugar. After I had pushed the anger deep inside, I would punish myself by eating very little for weeks. This rollercoaster eating and fasting took a toll on my health. In addition, to decrease the stress I felt from the smallest criticism or failure, I would run or swim for miles. The result was that I became a stress hormone factory, exhausted and demoralized most of the time. I worked very hard and unfortunately was very successful at hiding and denying the storm that was raging in my head.
After I turned 50, I seemed to pass a developmental milestone. I cared less about the opinion of others and began to feel a shift in my thinking about the definitions of urgency and failure. But the exception to this change involved the opinions of my husband and children. Their criticisms of my behavior, disappointment with my cooking, and in particular, my husband’s anger that I was an unemployed, stay-at-home mother, cut me to the quick. I would often spend the day frowning and snapping at everyone or giving them the silent treatment. I ate a lot of carbs to soothe myself. Despite a rigorous exercise schedule, I gained ten pounds in a matter of months. Though I tried to watch what I ate, a single emotional upheaval would send me back to the fridge. I also tried a number of diets that left me exhausted and prone to colds and flu.
Since I started The Suppers Programs I have fewer “all anger, all day” situations. I am able to take in the criticisms of my family and talk them out. I still have anger spikes and moments when I give in to some chocolate to ease myself through the rough moments, but, overall, I see a marked improvement and feel more calm than storm. My weight is slowly stabilizing. My greatest pleasure is my changed relationship with my nine-year-old son. He has many of my psychological traits and tends to hold in his anger and then explode. I used to put him in time out like a two-year-old while I shouted about his immaturity. Now I am able to talk him through the episodes and finish the talk with a cuddle. It is one of the most joyous transformations of my life.