Breaking Unhealthy Habits & Healing Childhood Wounds
I sat on the couch the other night, tears trickling down, saying goodbye to a man I love. And though I was sad and confused (that's an entirely different discussion), I felt comforted realizing not one part of me felt the urge to beat myself up. I woke the next morning as I do almost every day, getting dressed, feeding my dog, and biking to yoga. I then recharged with healthy food, I basked in the sun as I worked, I hopped in the ocean for a surf, I cooked dinner for friends, and I bar hopped with a girlfriend. I didn't feel the impulse to hide and punish myself, to fill up the lonely void in hopes of squashing uncomfortable sensations like I used to years ago. All I could think about that day was how far I've come, breaking unhealthy habits.
After my sister Miya died, when I'd get sad or angry, I'd feel this immediate, instinctual urge to revolt. I wanted to punish the part of me that didn't save her, the part of me that felt stuck living in Michigan, the part of me I had ignored for years as an adolescent, the part that only an event like unrightfully losing your best friend can expose, the part of me that felt torn between what my parents taught me—their coping mechanisms, good and bad.
My mom was the active, healthy one; my dad was the lazy, imbalanced one. If something triggered me, like reading through my sister's journals, I'd reactively fill the void that felt like a crater in my gut, an emptiness that ached. I wanted something external to soothe the chaos inside. And since I wasn't into drugs or alcohol, I used the only thing that could manifest a similar escape: Food. I ate to comfort myself. I was doing what I had always watched my dad do.
Fortunately, because I have great genetics, my poor eating habits didn't really change my appearance aesthetically. But emotionally and on the molecular level, in every cell of my being, I was a wreck.
A hurricane of confusion and unhappiness.
My unhealthy coping mechanism—using food as both a source of comfort and destruction—was simply the symptom. The underlying issue was the pain of losing my sister and the childhood wounds I harbored.
Let's get real, no matter how pristine your upbringing may have been, every person has childhood wounds. We absorb the older generation's pain and beliefs and take them on ourselves. To be a more fulfilled, more functional, healthy adult, each of us must face her/his inner child. This includes acknowledging the pain and fear ingrained in us from our formative years. And to stop that cycle, we must do work, hard fucking work. For me, this meant 3 laborious years of self-reflection—using therapy and my writing—to work through my shit. It was scary and painful and far from fun. I recognized something was wrong and took myself on a journey to figure it out. I wasn't just sitting there waiting for it to go away.
In chapter 25 of my memoir Must Girls Love, I wrote:
My sister Kacee would remind me, 'What would you ever had to write about if you didn't have any struggles? You grew up, went to college, had kids...great. Surface level, surface level. It's not until you really look at yourself that you're like, Fuck, it's not really fine."
She was right.
I remember the first time I didn't have that overwhelming self-destructive inclination to eat myself silly. I froze in disbelief. "It went away?" I asked myself out loud. Joy and relief quickly flooded every crevasse of my body that I swore had died when Miya did.
I could have ignored my childhood wounds and denied my unhealthy habits, but I chose to deal with them. It took me about 3 years (3 years!) to fully reteach myself how to trust my body and gut, to no longer feel rocked when something emotional happened or if I was just having a down day. I had to reteach myself how to simply acknowledge yet not feed into my inner child's fear and anxiety. (As woo woo woo as that sounds.) To feel centered, no matter what was happening around me. Like tonight, on my couch, as I say goodbye to this man.
This isn't to say we all shouldn't and don't feel ups and downs and overwhelmed at times. That's life! But it's how we deal with those fluctuations that matters.
Of course, like every person I've ever met, I occasionally over do it. I sometimes eat mindlessly. I sometimes eat a bit too much. I sometimes eat things that don't feel that my body doesn't like. But it's not from an emotional place like years ago. I'm not intending to fill a void and punish myself. That urge to beat myself up kinda just evaporated. In fact, the memory of that unhealthy habit now feels like a distant cousin I once saw at a family reunion. She's there but her face is fuzzy and I don't remember her name.