Somewhere in the dark mists of my distance past, the term “reverse psychology” entered my awareness, especially as applied to child-rearing. The idea was that if you told your child “Please slam the door when you leave the house,” the defiant devil in that child would shut the door quietly in opposition to your instruction. I don’t have human children and never observed reverse psychology work magic in my childhood home. No matter how firmly you told my brother not to brush his teeth, his teeth went unbrushed. Telling him to jump on the bed would trigger a marathon jumping session (causing the box spring to violently part company with the bed frame) instead of a peaceful bedtime story. And I was no angel – I rewarded my mom’s laissez-faire attitude towards teen dating by involving myself with the worst losers I could find.
Despite all that, I know there’s a kernel of truth in the concept of reverse psychology. If you told me I must never, ever eat chocolate again, I’d get started on a chocolate binge before you even finished your sentence. And if you told me, “Thou shalt not even think about potato chips,” my every waking and dreaming moment would be filled with potato chips.
Unfortunately, this principle doesn’t work in both directions, at least not for me. If you told me, “You must eat nothing but ice cream this week,” I’d be happy to comply. I’d grab my car keys and ice cream scoop and race to the frozen foods section of the nearest supermarket (after a quick stop at Baskin Robbins).
Author and eating disorder expert Geneen Roth tells a story about a mother who worried about her daughter’s weight. Even when the mom locked sweets up in a cabinet, the daughter managed to smuggle sweets into the house and hide in her bedroom to gorge on them. When the mom took Roth’s advice to give the child free access to sweets, the girl tired of them and began to make healthier food choices within a few days. This was a clear case of what I call Forbidden Food Syndrome, in which forced abstinence increases the person’s desire for the “bad” food.
I don’t doubt that Roth’s advice in that case was sound, but in my personal experience, food rules aren’t the only cause of secretive food hoarding and gorging. My mom’s food rules had more to do with good manners than with nutrition. I had to take at least one bite of each food on my plate, chew with my mouth shut, ask for permission to leave the table, and dirty no dishes after supper. Other than that, I could eat whatever I wanted, in any quantity. Even with that much freedom, I would hoard and binge on sweets, alone in my room, at every opportunity. I wasn’t eating out of defiance, but neither was I eating for “good” or healthy reasons. Even at age nine, I was eating for emotional reasons – comfort, numbing, entertainment, you name it.
As an adult, I have a better handle on my emotional eating than I did at age nine. I’m well aware of the food-obsessed Jeannie who will run without hesitation right into rush-hour traffic if a brownie might be waiting for me on the other side of the road. I know intimately the defiant Jeannie who insists on eating a piece of garlic bread even though she knows that the third or fourth bite could easily get stuck in her stoma and cause a lot of discomfort. I have to monitor myself every day in order to maintain the delicate balance between choosing not to eat a piece of birthday cake because eating it doesn’t serve my weight management goals and choosing to go ahead and eat the entire cake simply because I know it doesn’t serve my weight management goals.
Sometimes I feel like a freak because I have to deal with issues like this. I watch “normal” people making carefree eating choices and enjoying complete eating freedom with no awful consequences (or at least, that’s the way it looks to me), and deep down inside, I hate those normal people. They’re not yoked to this heavy burden of disordered eating like I am. It’s just not fair. But I’m gradually relaxing about my eating issues enough to be able to listen better and to hear more messages from my normal friends and acquaintances, and to realize that they too struggle with things like Forbidden Food Syndrome from time to time.
I have a disgustingly healthy co-worker who told me recently that she can’t eat chocolate because it gives her bad migraine headaches. She avoids chocolate, but she confessed that she wants it all the more because she can’t have it, and when she tells herself it’s OK to eat one small piece, she finds that she can’t stop – she eats three, five, seven pieces even though she knows she’ll pay for it sooner or later. She doesn’t pay with obesity, she pays with pain. She doesn’t know the pain of obesity as I do, but she and I struggled with the same basic problem. Little does she know how valuable her chocolate story is to me. It reminds me that I’m really not a freak – I just have a more intense and widespread eating problem than hers. It’s a matter of degrees. She’s five degrees off-center while I’m 45 degrees off. Neither of us is perfect. We both have to work at making good choices – not just in our eating behavior, but in every piece of behavior that could have good or bad consequences for us or for our family and friends. To my mind, this is just part of human existence, part of the responsibility that adult humans bear for maintaining a civilized and (we hope) peaceful co-existence with each other and ourselves.
Having to deal with eating choices may seem like an awful burden at times. So many people have bariatric surgery believing or hoping that it will solve everything, that they’ll never have to struggle with eating again. Most of the time, that’s not the happy ending to their story. Their story has a different ending that could be happy if they adjust their thinking to it. Is the burden of good eating choices too heavy for you? Your surgery helped you lose all that weight, shouldn’t it help you maintain that weight loss without another thought for the rest of your life? That’s a nice idea, but it’s not realistic. It’s kind of like hitting the “seven-year itch” in a marriage. You had a romantic honeymoon with your band, things were great for a while, and then things got harder and harder. You can fall in love with another bariatric procedure, believing that a revision to gastric bypass or whatever will hand you the key to happily-ever-after. Or you can stick with the partner you already have, survive some tough times, and come out of it all the stronger.
All this may be too philosophical for you, but I’m telling you about it because thinking about my eating problems this way has helped to put them in perspective, and putting them in perspective makes them a lot more manageable. Perspective is the art of seeing things in correct relationship to each other. As I wrote in Bandwagon, without perspective, my computer’s monitor looks ten times bigger than my neighbor’s barn across the road. In fact, my computer monitor is tiny compared to that barn. Without perspective, my weight management challenges seem enormous. I lost all that weight in just one year, but my maintenance job goes on forever. But consider the alternative. I could go back to obesity. I could have a stroke and become a human vegetable, reliant on others for everything from speech to toileting. I could lose my limbs to diabetes, reliant then on others for everything from tooth-brushing to transportation. I could suffer cardiac arrest and die at age 60. Or I can work at maintaining my weight and my health, with a huge payoff of mobility, independence, and longevity.
So…back to Forbidden Food Syndrome. Although I’ve said that reverse psychology doesn’t always work with me, I must also say that one of the reasons I chose the band was that living with it would allow me to choose from a wide variety of foods I like. (Yes, I know I’ve used that phrase before, and I’ll probably use it again.) My nutritionist told me I might have problems eating certain foods, like celery or pasta, and I was willing to take the chance because life without celery or pasta still looked pretty good to me. But when my surgeon, speaking at the bariatric surgery informational seminar I attended, said that gastric bypass patients need to avoid all foods that are high in sugar, fat, or simple carbs because of the possibility of dumping, I mentally walked into a barbed wire fence and backed right off. At the time, I had one gastric bypass friend who didn’t dump, but the bypass patient who spoke at the seminar reported that he does dump, and when he described a typical day’s eating, I thought, “That’s not for me.” That guy was justifiably proud of his weight loss and didn’t mind a limited list of food choices, but I knew that limited food choices would send me running straight for the junk food if only out of sheer boredom. The night of that seminar, I hadn’t eaten a chocolate chip cookie for several months, but just the idea of giving up cookies forever made me want to stop at a bakery on the way home.
I chose the adjustable gastric band, and the breadth and flexibility of my “OK Foods” list is one of the things that makes my post-op life enjoyable. I do overeat from time to time, but not because of Forbidden Food Syndrome. Taking foods off the Forbidden list has robbed them of some of their power over me. As a pre-op, I would attend a co-worker’s birthday party and eat two pieces of cake (Forbidden) because I’d been avoiding cake and missing it so much. As a post-op, I recently walked through the break room at work and saw a birthday cake on the table. I briefly wondered what flavor it was (impossible to tell from the decorative frosting, whose colors can’t be found in nature) and told myself I could try a little piece of it later, on my official break. Lo and behold, come break time I was quite hungry and not in the mood for cake. I wanted my chicken salad, and when I was done with that, I had no room for cake, so I went back to work without another thought about birthday cake. Now,