I learned from overeating all my life that it was a coping mechanism

Last Updated on July 8, 2020

Originally, this blog begun in 2007 as a sort of accountability online journal to embark on my ‘battle’ with overeating and weight issues. In my first post, I blamed sugar for the evil thing that is causing overeating due to the blood sugar issues. Later I dabbled into glycemic index (GI) of food. If you read my early posts, it was all about food, exercising, willpower and fatigue.

But over the years, I have learned a lot down the line. I’ve realized that an eating disorder is usually a coping mechanism that we use to either fill up the emptiness or numb the pain that we feel inside. Choosing to resort to certain diet… ie low sugar, high fiber, vegetarian, GI based diet, etc would not work long term if we do not heal what is inside.

Some people, driven by desperation would resort to a gastric bypass whereby the stomach is surgically made smaller so that they would no longer be able to binge eat. If you are considering this surgery, please think very carefully…. because if food is your coping mechanism, you may find yourself dropping into depths of despair when the one comfort is removed in your life.

Another study (Bhatti et al., 2016) found that intentional self-harm emergencies, including suicide attempts, increased 50% following gastric bypass surgery.

Source: Psychology Today website

It would be more effective to find ways to heal our inner selves than to resort to extreme measures to ‘punish’ ourselves for not being able to beat the urge to overeat.

However, we are facing an uphill battle because the general perception on fat and overweight folks are negative. If a person suffers from a physical disability for example paralysed from the waist down, we would understand that the person would not be able to walk. But people tend to judge overweight people as lazy, lack of will power and unmotivated…. failing to realize that they carry within them a inner disability that causes them to binge and overeat.

What I have learned from overeating all my life

Prior to age 7, I was very hyperactive hence I was not fat. But starting from the age of 7 onwards, I craved for food and I am ashamed to admit, I would resort to stealing food from the school canteen when the pocket money given by my mom was not enough to buy food.

This did not last for long as one day when my hand was reaching for that packet of food, the canteen operator grabbed my hand. I was so afraid and thought I would be punished. After recess, I went back to class and when I saw the canteen operator coming to class to tell my class teacher, I was so afraid that I crawled under the table.

But they never took any disciplinary actions on me. Nor did they inform my parents (I asked my mom years later and she told me she was not aware of it and neither did the school had called her over this incident. She was not angry with me and it was a relief to have confessed and get it off my chest). That event planted a firm resolution in my psyche whereby I promised myself that I would no longer take whatever that does not belong to me. If they had punished me, the outcome would have been negative but the fact that they let me go and did not do things like shaming me in front of the class or in the assembly or caning, in my young mind I made that decision. It was a decision that I stuck to to the best of my ability until today.

However, it did not stop the need to stuff my face with junk and processed food. There were 2 provision shops located within walking distance from my home (they had since gone out of business) which I would go few times a day to get my fix. I was afraid of being identified that I went to one shop, then another. But I never stole money to get those food. When I ran out of money, I asked my dad for it (my mom was more strict).

So as expected, I started putting on weight. Teachers were not kind to an overweight kid. I remember when I was 11 years old, my art teacher made a joke about me being the fattest girl in the class. I weighed 52kg over a 5 feet frame. The entire class laughed except a few students like the head perfect who had always been kind to me. The thing is, in my class there was boy fatter than me- he was of lower intelligence, I remember he was always drooling and talked non coherently. But his family was rich and he was chauffeur driven and a maid accompanied him to class each day as he was not able to take care of himself.

No teacher ever dared to make any snide comments about him.

One day when I was about 15 years old, it occurred to me when I was downing a packet of junk food that I seemed to be eating to cover some inner emptiness or loneliness. But that time, there were no internet and no awareness about the psychological factors of overeating. People who overeat were perceived to be lazy, useless and slops.

Academically I was doing alright but I had to always battle the constant lethargy that comes from what I thought was from overeating. It was a constant battle. I reached for  ‘comfort food’ when I was stressed, sad or lonely which lasted well into my adult working career.

But when I ate as an adult, I also exercised and had been a gym member for about 10 years. Hence I was able to keep my weight from ballooning out of control. However, the constant struggle of overeating, then having to exercise to burn the calories off, self loathing and starting all over again was beginning to feel really ridiculous.

Until about 10 years ago when I quit my corporate job, travelled to Thailand and ended up living on a remote area near the hill tribes people. There was a river located in front and a cave at the back. We lived on a simple bamboo build building and bathed by the river. I taught some of the children English and at night there were fireflies by the river and clear starry skies on most nights. Life was peaceful. I felt happy and contented.

I still ate a tonne and gobbled lots of junk food because I don’t quite like some of the hilltribes dishes. But after about a month, my weight just dropped to about 52kg, effortlessly. I maintained that weight for about 3 years after coming back and despite eating a lot of food. During that time, I practiced the 8 precept diet which I find suit my temperament- that is I could eat all I wanted for breakfast and lunch but stopped taking solid food after that.

After 3 years, as my corporate job got more hectic, my body was responding to stress and the weight gain started again. I went back to normal way of eating. And I was eating the wrong kind of foods for comfort. I knew it but was not able to stop the habit. The only thing I could do is to drag my butt consistently to the gym or exercise outdoors to prevent uncontrollable weight gain.

What to do when you cannot stop overeating

Dr Gabor Mate mentioned in his talk that all forms of addictions are a coping mechanism towards trauma. He said the kind of substance addiction does not matter- it can be food, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, workaholic, extreme sports, pornography, sex, gambling, shopping, etc.

Therefore healing starts with recognition that you are not a lazy, useless and worthless person who cannot control the urge to eat. Please view the talk above where he talked about how overeating is a coping mechanism for trauma.

For me, loneliness, feeling of unworthiness, constant conflict and sadness drove me to drown all my sorrows in food. I used food instead of drugs and alcohol because I do not like to numb my senses totally.

In recent years, I begin to realize that in some ways I am different from mainstream society. I do not thrive on having a successful career or lots of money. I don’t belong in corporate world but I did not want to disappoint my mom who had high hopes for me.

It does not help that the society around me…. my friends, neighbors, bosses and colleagues believe that climbing the corporate ladder, securing a mortgage and car, having a family and affording luxuries in life such as the Europe holiday or an expensive car is what life is about. Job security is important to most people I know even though it means getting stuck in jobs they hate or doing work that sucks the soul out of them …..so much so that they had to resort to chain smoking down the side of the building and go for drinks on a Friday night/ weekend to numb their inner pain and conflict.

In 2017, I decided to quit my corporate job to care for my mom full time who was suffering from acute hepatitis B, limited mobility from a fall and onset of Alzheimer’s that she was not longer able to care for herself. She had Alzheimer’s hence I was no longer a disappointment for her if I left corporate. My close colleagues who knew me gave me moral support. There were 3 colleagues who I know they really meant well who suggested why not send my mom to a home and continue to work.

But due to the terrible physical state my mom was in (she was basically yellow with jaundice, weak, and had acitis, ie bloating at the abdomen and ankles), my boss had expected to see me again in 3 months’ time. It has now been more than 2 years.

After I quit my job, again I find to my amazement, I was no longer gaining weight that easily even though I ate a lot and quit the gym. Yes, there are challenges in caregiving but I love my mom dearly and it was worthwhile. I also resumed blogging and there is joy in my heart through sharing my experiences and sincerely hoping that my writing could ease someone else of his/her pain. I also had more time and mental clarity to continue with spiritual practice which I had abandoned for so long.

Today, I am still overweight, hee hee. But my food portion size often astonish those who are eating with me often. Because my portions are large because I am back on my 8 precept diet and I eat more because I am worried to be hungry in the evenings. Mostly I do not feel I am eating to fill up the emptiness inside or to numb myself from sad feelings. I eat because I enjoy food, and often because I am sitting down with a group of people and listening to their interesting discussion so I mindlessly eat as I enjoy their company.  If I had been in corporate and eating that that amount, I would have easily put on 5kg consistently each month. But since I quit my job, I stopped putting on weight.

There are a lot of things in our past eg childhood that we cannot undo. Our parents, even though from a dysfunctional family, would have did the best that they could. They are most continuing a pattern that were conditioned by the generation and environment around them. Therefore, please, try to forgive the past and do our best to move on, even if it means we may need to seek therapy to come to terms with it.

We may be stuck in family and financial commitments that makes it impossible to just quit and go travelling around the world or be an artist. But we can slow down our pace, and make time for things that spark happiness and joy in our hearts.

Once things are slowing falling into place and our inner being is happy, the compulsive need to fill it up with food would reduce.



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