Perhaps it’s true that John F. Kennedy was shot on the very same day that my eating disorder began. Frankly, I don’t recall which came first—watching the coverage of the shooting or discovering the maraschino cherries in the refrigerator. I was only three. I do, however, remember rocking back and forth in front of the television, my fingers sticky and as uncannily red as my chair, knowing that something of significance had occurred.
That jar of cherries was way more impactful for me at that age than a death I couldn’t understand. Those juicy red morsels were like a long drink of fresh water after stumbling through a parched desert. I know they were just cherries, but the sweetness, the secret relationship with them, the knowing they were there for the sneaking, and the instant rush of sugar, were all beyond gratifying. It is my earliest memory of using food as a comfort, a mood altering medicinal.
We now know that the brain is affected by eating massive amounts of sugar which causes the release of dopamine. It’s a drug. In college my craving for sugar and using food became more sophisticated. I got the idea that if I lost 10 pounds my life would be perfect and I just needed a way to keep the weight off. Luckily, my roommates at the time were also struggling with body image and weight issues. They shared a great new dieting technique: bulimia.
After several years, I realized my great new technique wasn’t working and I was experiencing adverse consequences: exhaustion, the challenges of hiding while eating out and the mental back-and-forth of beating myself up for not being able to stop became chronic. I told myself that “this would be the last time,” but the last time lasted five years and finally I knew I needed help.
Here’s the thing: My own addictions helped me to make it through life. They were convenient. Mine happened to be legal (at least most of them were). I’m not minimizing the danger of addiction. I have dear friends who have lost loved ones. What I am saying is that I did realize I needed help. When I sought it out, a whole new world opened up to me, a world of self-awareness, a sense of belonging and spiritual connection.
After many years of struggling with bulimia, love addiction and severe codependency, I sought help. Who would have thought the simple request for assistance would create the foundation for all that is good and wonderful in my life?
The first therapist I found to help me stop throwing up my food wanted me to talk about my feelings and my family. After seeing her for six months, and in a frustrated plea for a quick fix, I yelled, “I don’t want to talk about my family, I want you to tell me how to stop throwing up my food!”
“Well,” she said, “you have to learn to tolerate your feelings.”
This was my introduction to the concept of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence for me means that I have the capacity to identify my differing emotions and allow them to inform me with their wisdom. Then and only then, can I choose my response to any given situation rather than act in a knee jerk way. Each emotion, I’ve learned, has a gift. When I walk through my fear rather than react, I find clarity. When I reach out to appropriate, available people with my sadness, I find connection. Anger is usually an indication that my boundaries have been crossed and personal power for my voice and right action is activated. The gift of anger is strength.
My addictiveness has also led me to spiritual intelligence. There are many things that I am able to accomplish in life with my intention and right action but addictive behavior requires a spiritual intervention. Addiction and Grace is a book by Gerald May that discusses the classic exploration of the relationship between addiction and spirituality. For me, seeking a spiritual solution with a power greater than myself made all the difference. Seeking a spiritual solution doesn’t mean that I am off the hook. It means that I take responsibility for my part, for the action that I can take, and then let go of the result knowing I’ve done what I am able to do. The next right action will be revealed to me. It’s a spiritual journey and I am in partnership with a spiritual source, co-creating my life.
In Buddhism the lotus flower represents awakening, spiritual growth and enlightenment. However, the lotus flower begins its life under water surrounded by muck and mud. I think that sometimes, we too, have emotional grime and sludge in our beginnings. There may be loss in our family system and we may not know how to grieve in healthful ways, or addiction and dysfunction in the systems we grew up in. The strong stem of the lotus pushes upward and unfolds into a beautiful flower open to the world. They seem to need the mud to get a strong foothold.
In entering the portal of my own addictiveness, shadows and deep grief, I found spiritual connection, emotional awakening and belonging. Sometimes the pain we avoid holds the greatest gifts for us. Just like the lotus flower that grows strong from its unlikely mucky beginnings, there is an emergence of beauty that comes eventually. The struggle towards the light nourishes our compassion and our hearts become tender. We find community. Emotional and spiritual intelligence come to those who bravely hold their own addictiveness and pain as sacred. We bow to the power of support, humility and spiritual awakening. As our native ancestors say, in healing ourselves we heal seven generations forward and seven generations back. We bring our sturdy strong roots and reach wholeheartedly towards the light.
Author: Sally Bartolameolli
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Autumn Skye Morrison