My relationship with junk food – an unhealthy way I try (and fail) to make myself feel better

Woman holding plate of potato chips and looking guilty
What do you turn to when the Universe deals you a crappy hand? Maybe you crack open a bottle of wine. Perhaps you repeatedly pick fights with your partner. Maybe you go shopping and do your credit card some serious damage. For me, when the chips are down, I turn to… chips.
Also other junk food, but mostly snacks of the salty and savoury variety than chocolate or sugary morsels. Right now, my life is a giant puddle of dementor vomit, and I’ve noticed that I’m turning to a familiar vice with alarming regularity.
At first glance, this doesn’t present as a serious problem. The quantity I’m eating is not huge, and I’m eating well 85 per cent of the time. And of course there’s nothing wrong with me treating myself. But what I’m talking about here is not just an occasional treat, it’s a daily ritual of me using food as an emotional crutch. To rephrase an old New Zealand health campaign around alcohol dependency: it’s not what I’m eating, it’s how I’m eating. This is not an addiction but it is a dependency, which means there’s an underlying issue that I need to address.

Little girl holding large lollipop and smiling
Whenever I try to understand an unhealthy behaviour, I look at when it first began. As with most people, I suspect, my emotional attachment to food stems from childhood. My well-meaning mother gave us a plate of chips, biscuits and lollies for afternoon tea each day after school, so I grew up seeing these foods as a staple rather than a treat, and it’s probably no great stretch to say that when I reach for junk food now, at a time when my life is in turmoil, I’m looking for the feelings of comfort and safety that I associate with my childhood. I want to make it clear here that I’m not blaming my mother for my poor choices in adulthood – the responsibility for how I treat my body falls on me alone. Neither can I blame society for conditioning me to regard the act of something unhealthy – rather than taking an evening walk, painting my nails, Skyping a cherished friend or sinking into a sumptuous book – as the most satisfying way to treat myself. The best way for me to get to the bottom of why I consistently make poor food choices is to understand what my body is really crying out for in challenging times, and how I can meet its needs in a healthy way. Which could best be summed up like this: I feel crap about myself and my life, and I delude myself that this will make me feel better (because I don’t have any more appealing solutions right now).

Here’s the situation I’m in right now. I have no work, and haven’t for almost a month. My industry is struggling, and demand for my services is falling away. I have been self-employed for seven years, but never before have I struggled for work to this extent. Occasionally there have been a few days I’ve been unable to fill with projects, but generally it’s been fairly consistent. But to go this long without income is crippling to my lifestyle and my ideas about who I am. On top of that hit to my primary source of income, my secondary business has failed to fire and that’s resulted in bills I am unable to pay. I spend my days scouring job sites, watching British game shows and sending photos of dead cockroaches to my housemate (we had the house fumigated; every dead-insect discovery is a cause for celebration).

Umbrella with junk food raining down on itSo while I cope with the upheaval of starting again and process the associated feelings of failure and inadequacy (there are few experiences more soul-destroying than being a grown-up who is unable to provide for yourself at a material level), you can bet I’m looking for something to make me feel better. And you can bet that those choices will not best serve my needs. Because even though I know that after I scoff a bag of S&V (that’s salt and vinegar, BTW), I will not feel any happier, I do it anyway.
At the heart of the problem is the struggle to make myself feel better. I don’t know how to comfort myself and make myself feel like a valuable human being who is contributing to the world. I still don’t know how to reassure myself on a soul level that I matter and are worthy of respect. And although I do know that gorging on fatty foods is not going to alleviate this pain, the temporary mood lift is a welcome reprieve from my despondency.

I don’t know the answer to this problem (and it IS a problem, because it’s giving me yet another reason to feel like a failure) but I have made a resolution to quit admonishing myself for my unhealthy food choices, and to instead try to extend myself some self-compassion. Right now, everything is not alright. But it will be, eventually (everything always is). I know my desire to seek comfort in confectionery will be something I can overcome, but right now I’m got too much on my plate (pun intended) to do much more than simply be kind to myself. Maybe one day that kindness will result in good food choices but right now it’s more about not beating myself up for trying to cope with trying situations in whatever way I can. For now, that will have to be enough.