Lily Penn, my grandmother, was tough, resilient and outspoken. She turned off her hearing aid when she wasn't interested in the conversation, spoke Yiddish fluently, especially when she didn't want me to know what she was saying, and had opinions about everything from hairstyles to hemlines. Everyone thought she would live to be a hundred. Except for one thing: she didn't pay attention to her own needs. She spent years catering to her children, and when they left, to her husband. Clucking around him endlessly, she grew fat on her own food. He became a picky, irritable old man who demanded that every one of his desires be met immediately — and she complied. When she got cancer of the uterus and had to stay in bed, he complained, yelled, fussed. Where were his eggs cooked exactly three and a half minutes? The coffee cake, still warm from the oven? Why couldn't she get up and fix him dinner, wash his shorts? "I've created a monster," she'd say, as she grew pale and wan, and her voice became as thin as antique lace.
After admitting herself to the hospital for the third time, she told the nurse she didn't want to go home to her husband again. "I should have divorced him thirty years ago," she told my mother. But at eighty-two, the only option she could clearly see was death, so she made a fast exit and left her fragile, fussy husband to fend for himself.
My grandmother lived in a generation of women who weren't taught to nourish themselves. Their days were spent watching over their brood of children and partners. The thought of asking themselves what they actually needed or wanted — what true nourishment meant for their particular lives — never occurred to them. And unfortunately, although many years have passed since my grandmother's death, the same is true for many of us.
To nourish means to comfort, to cherish, to support. A dictionary adds: "to supply with matter necessary for growth." Nourishment is specific; what nourishes you in one situation may not nourish you in another. And nourishment is also personal; what nourishes another person may not nourish you.
My friend Cynthia recently told me, "On a physical level, food is nourishment, and on an emotional level, food is nourishment." We both laughed, but since she was fifty pounds above her natural weight and in a marriage she'd rather have been out of, we knew she meant what she said. She uses food as her support, her comfort, her sole source of nourishment.
Food satisfies when the hunger is physical, and only then can it be considered true nourishment. Every other time you want to eat, you are telling yourself that you are hungry for something. You are trying to get your own attention. In this way, you are fortunate. Some people don't know when they need attention or quiet or alone time. Some people have no access to their needs, but as an emotional eater, you have instant access: food.
If you use food or any other tangible substance — alcohol, cigarettes, drugs — as your main source of (non-physical) nourishment, you never get full. Food, being a tangible substance, cannot satisfy intangible needs. It can numb and drug you, but it cannot nourish you. If you walk around with a constant gnawing, with a body that is always empty and always full, food is not working for you. You are undernourished. And if you are not nourished, then the quality of what you give to others is only an echo of what it could be.
A fundamental beginning to the process of nourishing yourself is giving yourself permission to do so. Will you feed yourself with matters necessary for growth, or will you continue to ignore your own needs, killing yourself slowly with food? Will you nourish yourself or won't you?
Nourishment takes time; figuring out what you need is not as simple as going to the grocery store. You've got to decide that you are worth your own attention. Are you important enough to be listened to? Are you worthy of your own tenderness? Are your needs just as important as your partner's? Your children's?
One of my students told me that sometimes she just wants to "knock herself out." Sometimes, she said, "I've had it with my kids, my partner, my job. Sometimes, at the end of the day, the best way to nourish myself is NOT by taking a bubble bath or talking to a friend or sitting down with a book. Sometimes I need what bingeing gives me but without the binge. And I've finally figured out that there are ways to do that — mostly by watching soap operas. Nourishment isn't always a la-de-da lofty activity. Trashy novels and soap operas also count."
Yes, they do, because nourishment is specific. Sometimes knocking yourself out is what you need; sometimes the situation demands to be handled. A confrontation may be needed, or a good cry might relieve your anxiety more than your favorite candy bar. The path between sensing you are in need of something and reaching for food to satisfy it is well grooved and automatic. You are bored and so you eat. You hurt and so you eat. You are tired and you reach for the potato chips. Turning to food has become a habit. But it's possible to create a new habit: nourishing yourself.
A cancer physician named Bernie Siegel said, "Most people get sick because they are not living their own lives. They are living the roles that everyone else imposes upon them, and they don't know enough to say the help they need is mental. The disease is a message to take a new road in their lives."
The place to start, he said, was by being kind to yourself. "I believe that when you abuse yourself, you abuse the world. But if you learn to love yourself, you become an expert in self-preservation. You become an expert in your own healing. You begin to bloom and then the whole world blooms around you."
Compulsive eating is a message, too. It asks you to stop. It asks you to develop the habit of kindness. It asks that you allow yourself to be nourished. So, go ahead. Dare to bloom.