The day after the election, I walked into an ice cream shop at 2:30 in the afternoon and ordered a sundae. The guy behind the counter rang me up in silence, then looked up — looked me right in the eye, and nodded. His face was red and blotchy; he’d been crying. So had I, of course. I’d been running errands in my neighborhood that morning, and noticed everyone had that kind of dazed, between-cries look on their faces. Everyone was either staring purposefully down at the ground, or deliberately up into the faces of passersby, as if checking to be sure they weren’t alone. While the mood was surely different in other parts of the country, in New York City, it seemed like we were all pretty much on the same page. Dragging a spoon through my sundae, I felt flattened with despair, but I knew I wasn’t alone — literally. It was a cold, wet, November afternoon, and a weekday, no less. But damn, that ice cream shop was busy.
Reader, I make no presumptions about your feelings about our current president and the actions he has taken thus far. I won’t hide the fact that I’m decidedly un-psyched about the situation, but there’s nothing partisan in pointing out that we, as a country, have gone through some big changes in the last few months. And big changes — no matter how you feel about them — tend to bring up unexpected reactions. Old issues come bubbling back to the surface, we start scrambling for coping mechanisms, and all of a sudden, there’s a line at the ice cream store (and the liquor store, I’m sure).
On November 10, my social media feeds were filled with people posting numbers for suicide hotlines and links to AA resources. There was a lot of chatter about preventing relapse, and then, on the other hand, the bars were filled with non-sober folks, seeking commiseration and temporary numbness. Really, both responses are valid: For some, having a drink is like hitting the snooze button on your feelings, and for others it’s like hitting a self-destruct button. And while food isn’t booze (and I don’t agree with those who equate alcoholism with disordered eating), there’s no question that we sometimes use it similarly. What is commonly known as emotional eating is, indeed, a common habit for virtually everyone. Just as non-alcoholics sometimes reach for a glass of wine when the going gets tough, non-disordered eaters sometimes reach for a brownie, and it’s fine.
But some of us have gone beyond that familiar land and into much more complicated terrain with food. Some of us (myself included) have a hard time telling the difference between plain, old emotional eating and the kind of eating that hurts rather than soothes. I knew, of course, that my November sundae was almost entirely Trump-related. Looking around at everyone else in the shop, though, I had to wonder if I was just doing what everyone else was doing — hitting the snooze button on all these flooding feelings — or if my sundae was different. Was I just taking a timeout from reality, or running back into that dark, tangled terrain I thought I’d left behind?
For the next few weeks, the sundae sat like a tiny red flag in the back of my mind. I decided not to actively stress over it, because when has actively stressing over something made it better?
Well, “decided” isn’t quite right. Simply, there were much more pressing things to actively stress about than food. If I had taken a moment to think about it, I’d have reminded myself that I’d long ago learned that wrenching myself away from any particular food would only turn a mild craving into a burning desire, and in the old days, a binge. So I should just wave back at that red flag and continue to eat what I felt like eating. That’s intuitive eating in a nutshell: Eat what you want, and do so mindfully. If you want a sundae, eat it with curiosity instead of judgment. Things will naturally balance out. That had been the case for me for over three years. They hadn’t been magically stress-free years either; I’d had my share of personal ups and downs, and my eating behavior had remained relatively, miraculously stable.
But I didn’t take the time to remind myself of those things. Now, it wasn’t just me, but the world that felt knocked sideways — and many of us were too busy refreshing CNN and looking up our senators’ phone numbers and acting like lunatics on Facebook to care what we were having for dinner. As the weeks went by, the news soon bulldozed every inch of my brain, the red-flag sundae included. I didn’t eat with curiosity or judgment — or thought of any kind. I had no real sense of my eating patterns until one evening while I was at the gym, a notification from Seamless popped up on my phone: Hungry? M Noodle Shop is ready for your order!
Here’s what had happened, according to the evidence on my credit card statement: After the election, breakfast and lunch were unchanged. I had a long established routine of making oatmeal for breakfast and a big salad that I’d stick in the fridge for lunch. Now, I made those meals on auto-pilot, my fiancé and I shuffling around the kitchen in silence as we listened to morning news on the radio. After work (or what work I could manage between breaking news updates), I’d go to the gym in an attempt to relieve the knot of anxiety that inevitably re-tied itself in my chest over the course of each day. During my workout, I’d scroll through Twitter on my phone, and read a dozen emails from the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, all reminding me that the country was falling out from under us while I was trying to — what? Stop panicking? Refugees were being sent back to war zones and I was trying to calm down?
I’d walk home, first feeling like a useless, selfish piece of shit, then angry at myself for wasting energy beating myself up (a routine which helps exactly zero refugees). It didn’t matter if I’d actually done something good and civic-minded that day (like calling my representative) or if I’d gone on an ill-advised Facebook-posting binge. By the time the sun went down each day, all hope seemed to drain away, and fear settled in for the night. I never cooked dinner. Cooking meant my hands would be busy and my mind free to wander, and I couldn’t let it do that. I needed something fast, so I could sit down and eat in front of the TV as quickly as possible. Again, none of these were deliberate decisions. At no point did I think to myself, “I am scared and therefore I will reach for comfort food.” I’d just whip out my phone for the billionth time, and for a good thirty minutes, scroll through menus instead of news. Inevitably, though, I’d wind up ordering noodles, dumplings, or ramen, from the exact same restaurant in my neighborhood.
The patterned continued into January, and after the inauguration, only became more firm. Every day brought some fresh horror, and every night I’d deal with it the exact same way: noodles, TV, and more often than not, a Xanax. I didn’t sense myself gaining weight, but I did note that I now wore my “comfort clothes” full-time. Still, who cared if I wore my pajama t-shirt that said “YAS QUEEN” in public? Who could care about anything but the immediate, terrifying present? Work, gym, panic, noodles, work, gym, panic, noodles, and repeat.
Then, one day in late January, that message popped up on my phone: Hungry? M Noodle Shop is ready for your order! What? How did my phone know what I wanted for dinner? How many noodle orders had I placed? I clicked on the Seamless app, navigated to my order history, and for the first time in who knows how long, laughed out loud — because I had ordered what can only be described as a laughable amount of noodles and soup. All of a sudden, the things I’d been too anxious to notice came rushing to my attention: The stack of take-out containers jamming up my tupperware cabinet. The comfort clothes I’d eased into (bloated with, oh, a lifetime’s worth of sodium). It all added up. Then, I remembered that sundae back in November, and how rattled it had left me. Back then I’d still had it in me to worry over whether or not this emotional eating was normal, or the top of a slippery slope.
That day in January, I got my answer. I was okay. And more than that, I wasn’t alone. Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed all those social media posts about self-care and compassion during difficult times. Had I asked my friends, they would have told me that, duh, they’d eaten plenty of comfort food, drunk plenty of comfort wine, and watched hours of comfort television to get to sleep at night. That’s life right now, for a lot of us: Forget the work-life balance. Now it’s work, life, resistance, and trying to stay sane. Things are never perfect, and this is a particularly un-perfect moment in many of our lives. You might just need to get some noodles.
Or you might need to get some back-up. While I think a lot of us are grappling with “post-election eating,” I also know that tumultuous times like these can trigger the kind of issues you can’t just ride out. If you need help (or even if you’re unsure whether or not you do) just know that help is out there (see the link at the bottom of this post). I know it’s not simple, and that not everyone will easily recognize that they need help and then go get it. I just want it on the record that if you’re struggling, you’re not the only one. And that whether or not you’re grappling with disordered eating or just ordering a bunch of noodles these days, there’s nothing in either of those scenarios to be ashamed of.
It wasn’t until I got that phone notification that I realized how ashamed I’d been over my new noodle routine — and how needless that shame was. It was pointless, not only in the grand scheme of things, but also because that shame was part of the fuel keeping this whole routine going. Once I started talking about it, and joking with my friends and my fiancé about my ridiculous Seamless order history, I stopped craving those foods so intensely. I still loved noodles, but night after night of them was now boring. I bought a purple cabbage on the way home one night, and roasted it up, along with some fish and potatoes.
I still ate in front of the TV, and I still scrolled through the news on my phone until I fell asleep. I probably will do that for the foreseeable future. The only goal I have is to do my best, as a citizen, and a person. That will never look perfect — it never did. The last few months have been a glaring reminder of that fact. We have never been perfect and we never will be. We just have to keep trying.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.