Some kids were not just neglected around food, but abused. This is a bit different than just not having enough to eat – it also includes being badgered and harassed about how you eat, what you eat, your weight, your appetite, having food withheld from you, being force-fed, force-weighed, forced to diet, forced to exercise, and a whole host of other terrible things.
It may centre around food or weight, but it is abuse just the same.
One of the devastating things about abuse is not only that it hurts and traumatizes you, but that it can drive a wedge between you and your intrinsic motivation to engage in survival behaviours, severely disrupting the intuitive process of pain-avoidance and pleasure-seeking that would otherwise lead you to take care of yourself.
Once you’re on your own, away from the source of the abuse, you may anticipate freedom and happiness — only to find that you neglect yourself. This can be extremely distressing, inspiring panic and maybe even self-loathing as you condemn yourself for not doing things that you assume everyone else does without difficulty.
I’m gonna tell you the truth here: eating isn’t easy. Getting food, preparing food, and orchestrating regular eating times takes effort, and sometimes it’s hard.
If food has been used in someone else’s hands as a cudgel to bludgeon you for a good portion of your life, it makes perfect sense that you would associate eating with doom/dread/awfulness and probably not enjoy it very much. If mealtimes used to be a time of criticism, sniping at your weight, having food taken from you, being told nothing you could do was ever right or good enough, or being forced to endure food you couldn’t stand, it is 100% normal for you to not enjoy eating today.
You would have developed negative associations with eating, sometimes very strong ones, that come up instinctively anytime the stimulus, food, is presented to you. Those negative associations will interfere with the instinctive desire — but that desire is still in you, somewhere.
You can build new, positive associations with eating. It will take time, and you might need help from a therapist and/or nutritionist. What you DON’T need, right now, is the additional pressure of being angry with yourself because you don’t enjoy eating.
You don’t have to like eating. You don’t have to like any particular food, either. Trying to force yourself to is, sometimes, very similar to reproducing the abuse.
So if you don’t like eating, what do you do?
1) Acknowledge that it’s totally understandable that you don’t like eating
2) At the same time, acknowledge that you need and deserve to take care of yourself
3) Go through the motions of putting food in front of yourself, even if your heart’s not in it (and even if you don’t end up eating it)
This is where offering yourself food at regular times comes in handy again. Even if you don’t like food, even if it inspires panic, even if it brings up all the horrible doom and terrible feelings that come from being abused — even in the midst of all those feelings, you still have the ability to put food in front of yourself.
Make it as easy and pleasant as possible. If that means you need to eat with a supportive friend 100% of the time, make some calls and figure out a way to set that up. If it means eating alone in your room so you’ll feel safe, set up a place to do that comfortably. If that means you eat only chicken nuggets, graham crackers, and canned peaches for a while, stock up on chicken nuggets, graham crackers, and canned peaches.
Play music, watch Christmas movies on your laptop, get a tray so you can eat in bed — anything. Anything to make this as pleasant, easy, and nice as you can.
Then, start putting food in front of yourself three times a day, with full permission to eat or not eat it. Commit to sitting with it in a pleasant, non-threatening environment for 15-30 minutes. Over time, you will start to build new, positive associations with food.
Being nice to yourself in general takes practice, so don’t worry if this feels strange and awkward at first. If you were abused or neglected, you were likely never taught the necessary skills to soothe and comfort yourself, or how to make necessary tasks feel less burdensome and terrible.
That’s what those things are, by the way: skills. We all learn them. Some of us later than others.
After sitting for a while in a pleasant environment with food, you might feel like eating it. You might not. If not, put it away or throw it away (and be nice to yourself.)
In a few hours, put the food there again and sit with it. Practice.
It’s going to be okay.