Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Eating ourselves to death while fighting emotional battles
I know a real, live cannibal. Well, that is not quite true. My acquaintance is merely an autocannibal. He, like many of us, is eating himself to death.
Outwardly, he looks no different from others. There are no bite marks on his skin. He doesn’t constantly wear a bib and smack his lips when he passes a mirror. He may show a smiling face, but below the surface, there is simple but overly abundant tension. Friends ask, “What’s eating you?” or “What's bugging you?” as if there is some creature inside. Little do they know, it is autocannibalism.
He is not freezing. His name is not Donner. In spite of knowing the health risks of overeating, he keeps chomping away at himself. There may be large portions of anything sweet, fat and salty. However, there also may be nothing on his dinner plate.
Cannibalism in the auto- form, while not an admired act of table etiquette, is unfortunately all too common. Emily Post, Martha Stewart and the editors of Better Homes and Gardens would all be shocked. The auto-diet cookbook includes recipes of too many calories but also a dash of doubt, a cup of insecurity, a pinch of fear and a large serving of stress.
Eating oneself to death is more than too much edible energy in and too little exhausted energy out. In fact, a person could be rail thin and still have things eating at him or her to the point of death by stress. To be an official autocannibal, one has to be stuck in an emotional snowbank and eating his or her way out.
Excessive energy contributes to the growing concern for diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure and blindness. If there were an accomplice to our national mass murder, one would have to point at our sedentary society of stress, the agricultural-industrial complex and ourselves. Hello to sugar in every possible disguise. We have a large bullseye drawn on our foreheads, targeted by the hired gun advertisers. Who else is going to buy the thousands of new products formulated every year?
It is interesting watching my friend. He does not own a giant black cauldron. He loves his kids, and he wears a suit and tie to work and a white shirt on Sunday. The deviation comes in his simultaneous consumption of too much food and fret. It is not hunger for calories or thirst for fluids; it is a craving for comfort and confidence. His starvation of acceptance and approval drives his binges.
This is not an episode of lack of willpower. He should not be an object of scorn. The problem may be that he needs to switch his emphasis from dieting to calming. Currently, there is no pause between the stimulus and his response to eat or be distressed. The greater the distance between having the impulse and reaching for sweets, the greater the room for agency. Before he starts with reasonable food choices and portions, he needs to stop emotionally and start physically in motion. His salvation is to understand himself and to know he can choose if he doesn’t abandon agency in mindlessness.
The emotional battle of having something eat us can be more effectively fought if we gain the armamentarium, or equipment and techniques, of thought and time management. Giving up the past can be harder than giving up a favorite snack.
Let it go. Snow will melt. The cold of death from doubt can thaw. Defrost self-criticism and melt fear. Putting words to feelings can help us understand that in the cafeteria line, we are not selecting dual entrees of our past and our lunch.
End the famine of peace of mind. Relish the power of real-time experiences and not the ghosts of long ago.
So if you happen to come upon an autocannibal, or you recognize one in yourself, tell him or her to put down the knife, the fork and the anxiety. Eating oneself to death is never tasty, even with a special dipping sauce.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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