Tuesday 21 October 2014

For me, food was always a way to avoid reality. Now I'm fully alive.

Looking back, Bernadette Rock realised she had always used food in the same way that an addict uses drugs; to soothe, to comfort, to ease stress

Bernadette Rock and her daughter Keela (7).
Bernadette before her weight-loss regime.

You know how bad you feel when you have a special event, a friend's wedding, a reunion, and you wanted to shift those extra pounds, and you didn't do it? So the day comes and now you've got to try to find something to wear that makes you feel half decent, and you have to figure out how to hold in your stomach.

What about when you promised yourself after a weekend of over-indulging that you would start being 'good' on Monday? But all you can think about is what to eat and what not to eat, and by Wednesday you're struggling, and reaching for a packet of Maltesers from the vending machine near your work desk.

Evening times are a ritual of grazing and picking or numbing out with a packet of biscuits in front of the TV. Then you promise yourself every morning "today will be different".

I was all too familiar with this daily struggle – hovering around the fridge in the evenings, standing over the sink in the kitchen eating, always wanting more to eat. I started dieting when I was 16, counting calories and restricting what I ate. I was happy when I was in control. But when I got upset or anxious, I would eat. This cycle continued throughout my twenties and in college life. I used food for the same reasons an addict uses drugs: to comfort, to soothe, to ease stress. Then I was so used to eating for these reasons, it became a habit so I forgot why I was eating in the first place and I would eat for every reason.

Looking back, I wasn't really living life. Food numbed me as I grazed my way through each day. By focusing on food – what I had eaten, what I would eat next and how – I could distract from feeling bored or anxious. When I ate, I didn't really eat. I hoovered food and I inhaled food, but I didn't really taste it. My friends and family routinely told me I looked "grand", but I felt miserable and very unhappy. I didn't like who I was. My eating was out of control, and it was a scary and isolating place to be.

By now I had separated from my husband and was a single mother to a six-week-old colicky baby, and also trying to complete my PhD. Life was even more stressful, and I had more reasons to eat! But instead this proved to be my turning point. I realised that I could not continue living as I was. I wanted a better life for me and for my daughter. I clearly remember a moment when my daughter was still an infant, and thinking, "this cannot go on. I cannot carry on living like this".

I felt horrified at the thought of my beautiful little girl becoming like me. All little girls want to be like their mother. But this was not what I wanted for my child. I wanted her to be happy in herself and to have a healthy relationship with food.

I gave myself a choice. I could continue living in this miserable cycle or start living a new life that was not controlled by food. I stopped dieting. I realised that my life was stressful enough, and instead of beating myself up for every wrong step and judging myself for every morsel of food I ate, I should ease up on myself.

Looking back I think that by caring for my little daughter, I started caring for myself. I learnt that I didn't have a weight or food problem – I had a self-care problem that manifested through weight. Now when I stop and ask myself, "What am I really hungry for?" the answer is usually "I feel overwhelmed by work" or "I'm afraid things won't work out." Another diet cannot fix this these concerns and anxieties. Only you can take the reins back. I drew on my own personal experiences, my PhD in Sociology, and mindfulness practices to create the Heyday programme to help women and men develop a healthy relationship with food and weight. I delivered the programme in Loughlinstown Weight Management Clinic, with very promising outcomes among patients. Then I started offering the Heyday programme to clients in Medfit Proactive Healthcare in Blackrock, and developed an online programme.

I love my work and I'm inspired by my clients' honesty and determination. Most people I meet have tried every diet under the sun from counting points to the cabbage soup diet. They have all the food books and could write a diet book, but still struggle, "I'm good during the day and I eat well, but it's the evening times that I start eating the unhealthy stuff." I understand this. Food can have enormous pulling power.

I hear clients tell me that food calls out their name, and only when the food is eaten, can they continue on with everyday tasks. Or first thing in the morning, their mind is consumed with thoughts of food and they're picking at leftover cake from the previous evening. A 34-year-old client Michelle tells me that "sometimes I wake up in the morning and I feel swamped by everything that has to be done today. It's not that they're huge tasks but I feel overwhelmed, and so I procrastinate by eating." Then everything is a last-minute rush, brushing away the crumbs, and rushing to meet each task. For many people, years of dieting and cutting back on food followed by overeating creates shame and feelings of guilt. My clients talk about refusing to stand in a photo with their children or hiding behind their children in photos. Why? Because they don't want to be seen. Many people tell me they will stop hating their body after they reach their goal weight. I say you have to stop hating your body before you can stop the emotional eating cycle.

I help people understand and make sense of their eating, and find ways to meet their needs that does not involve a packet of biscuits.

Eating is a powerful way to find temporary relief from many of life's challenges. If it didn't work so well, no one would do it. I've often asked my clients what they would have to feel if they did not binge or overeat and the common answer is, "I would have nothing to look forward to." And at the end of a long and hectic day, a big bowl of ice cream can be especially effective in temporarily soothing our exhausted, hard-working selves. Why? According to research, eating sugars and fats releases opioids in our brains, in the same way as cocaine and other narcotics. So the calming, soothing effects you feel when you eat ice cream and crisps are real. And breaking these habits requires persistence and patience with yourself. Andrew, a 35-year old client, revealed his new insight "I tell myself that eating that slice of cake will change nothing. It might distract me for a few moments, but it won't change anything or make me feel better in the long-run. So maybe I'm better off dealing with whatever is in front of me now."

I try to remain mindful of what and when I am eating. Otherwise I can fall back into habits of unconscious eating, such as eating when you're finished with your meal and you continue to pick at it, slowly eating the remaining portion that you intended to leave behind. It can also be putting peanuts or crackers or any other food in your mouth, just because it's in front of you.

To manage my eating, I stay conscious and aware of every bite, of the tastes, taking time and chewing slowly and enjoying my food. While food was my way of disconnecting from reality, of checking out when I was bored, anxious, now I am awake. I focus on being fully alive, present, and engaged, connected in every area of my life. Right now.

  • Bernadette is hosting an open evening at Medifit Proactive Healthcare, Blackrock on March 24 with nutririonist Paula Mee. For more information visit www.heydayworld.com or www.facebook.com/heydayworld

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