Today, I want to talk about the temptation not to eat but to close the mouth and turn the head away. Are you one of those people whose strategy when things got difficult was to refuse things that came your way. The big ‘NO’. ‘No! I won’t open my mouth, swallow, let you hug me, receive the good things life has to offer.’ Perhaps your life is full of things you don’t allow yourself to enjoy?
The Big ‘No’
Have you seen a child do that in a highchair, spit the food out, turn the head away? Maybe you have seen your child do this. But what if mother doesn’t take the hint? She’s desperate to do the right thing. The spoon keeps coming. There are tears and tantrums on both sides and everyone feels bad. What does the child learn but that her needs are secondary to mother’s need to feed her that food at that moment. How, as we therapists say, does that make you feel? It makes me pretty angry to be in any position where I cannot influence what happens to me. Maybe you too. How does it make you feel as a mother when the organically grown, expensively purchased or lovingly made puree end up on the walls. Yep, pretty angry too. Two angry, helpless people. Ouch.
I believe each of us has chosen a turn in the road here. When things did not go well we learned either to comfort ourselves with the sweetness of a full mouth or to excite ourselves with the power of refusing. The mouth is the organ with which we first explore the world and a treacherous organ it can be, always ready to deny its connection to the rest of the body. If love (in any of its many forms) has been offered in an intrusive, unattuned way or if parents have attempted to override our will, we may just close our lips and lose touch with what we need to take in to keep ourselves alive, be it love or food. Our need to have some say in what happens has been set at odds with our need to survive. Often punishment complicates the picture still further.
Maybe you have no eating problem as such but you recognise in yourself a tendency to withhold things from yourself, to deny yourself, to write off the great pleasures of being human as indulgent and certainly not for you. This is a complex area but a common factor in saying ‘no’ is often a false feeling of power. Soon the longed for independence is no longer about other people. What is sought is independence from one’s own bodily needs and therein lies the danger.
What to do if you can feel the seductive pull of rejecting things your body needs or if your child is refusing to eat? What to do if the little one within has forgotten what it is to feel hungry and food frightens you? What to do if this is your child? The same love and compassion come into play as for overeating. Start by taking care of that starving little one within just as you would if s/he were sitting at your kitchen table. Make it safe to say ‘no’ and perhaps it will be safe to say ‘yes’. Safe enough to eat. And if you get as far as eating, be patient. The person eating needs to be in control of how much and what speed and how often. The parenting part (or the parent) needs to be in service of the little one.
NB If you are suffering from a serious disorder you may need medical help to reach a stable place from which to recover, so this article is not an alternative to counselling, therapy or medical help but a way to work kindly with yourself in addition to outside support. My concern here is to address the very earliest distortion of the tendency to say ‘no’ and to address it with kindness and wisdom. If your problem is threatening your health you will find more dedicated help here and a whole community of individuals who will understand your dilemma online. So for someone who needs to be coaxed into eating, here is a recipe for the thinnest, most delicious, wheat-free cookie. It comes courtesy of Otto Lenghi via my friend, Mary, who first cooked them for me. (The method has been adapted slightly.)
260g flaked almonds
2 x egg whites
100g icing sugar
grated zest of an orange
vegetable oil and baking parchment
- heat the oven to 150 degrees
- line a large baking tray with baking parchment* and brush with oil (use a paper towel or your fingers if you don’t own a pastry brush)
- gently mix together the other ingredients
- put teaspoons of the mixture onto the lined tray
- take a fork and flatten the blobs into any old cookie shape – the thinner the better
- bake for 12 minutes and cool before removing from the paper
- a word about baking parchment – it is a revelation, no comparison with greaseproof paper or other things. Use it whenever things might stick (meringues, bread, cakes etc). Accept no substitutes!