Food memories in eating disorder recovery

I’ve been thinking about food memories this week. My dietitian recently asked me whether I allowed myself to enjoy food. The answer at the time was ‘no’ I often feel nothing but disgust about what I am consuming. At best I can reach ambivalence by distracting myself to the point that I  am not paying attention to what I am doing. My difficulties aren’t unique to me, many people have a difficult relationship with food. For some people with eating disorders food becomes the enemy. For someone with Anorexia Nervosa who has been focused on losing weight, food is the thing that causes them to fail at their goal.

When I was in hospital receiving treatment for Anorexia I attended a weekly therapeutic group. It was one of the more helpful aspects of my treatment. The Psychiatrist and Therapist that led the group allowed patients to suggest ideas for the group to look at, which often involved people preparing thoughts or ideas outside of the group to then discuss or work on as a group. One idea which I contributed was that most people will have at some point in their lives experienced good feelings around food and eating. I pondered whether we could look at these good experiences and use them to help us in our recovery. Some of my best memories around food have involved my current immediate family. We love the outdoors and would often have picnics together before I became unwell. Some memories I came up with:

  • We have had a lot of holidays in Brixham. We’d stay in a budget holiday park which was next to a couple of beautiful rocky coves. We’d walk into Brixham along the coast path and buy fresh fish that had been caught by local fishermen. We’d add in other things from the local shops like crusty bread and salad and would set the BBQ up in one of the coves, have a swim and eat good food whilst the sun went down. Many days filled simply with swimming in the sea, eating and relaxing.
  • We grow our own food, so a regular picnic lunch would be fresh bread from the bakers, tomatoes, lettuce and spring onion from the allotment and a hunk of cheese on the side.
  • Having lazy picnic teas when I was too tired to cook, part bake bread, brie, crisps, hummus, olives and salsa, on a blanket in the park, sitting and watching the world go by, eating until we were utterly stuffed.

Translating these memories to a hospital setting was not the easiest of tasks, but I began with visiting a local shop with a member of staff. We picked out a selection of picnic items and took them back to the hospital for an indoor picnic. Whilst we ate I talked about the memories I had of my outdoor picnics and thinking about happier memories helped me to find the food less threatening. Later on in the hospital admission I had a small buffet with two other patients and I felt better able to cope with choosing and eating the food because of what had led up to it. Although I’ve struggled since I’ve come home from hospital these types of foods have been things I’ve been better able to maintain, possibly due to this therapeutic work.

I’d forgotten about food memories until this week where I was faced with cheese scones. We’d been given an excess of cheese and I’d made the scones for my family. I’ve been avoiding cheese in recovery from my eating disorder as it’s a food I’m particularly frightened of. This fear is quite common for people with eating disorders, you become focused on avoiding foods you consider to be high fat,despite them being part of a healthy, balanced diet. Whilst I was heating one up for my daughter the smell suddenly reminded me of a memory. As a young child my grandparents would regularly look after me, I was spoiled at their house and found it a respite from the sometimes difficult times at home.My gran would often warm me up a cheese scone when I had arrived home from school. I decided I could no longer avoid the cheese and heated one up to eat. The first bite immediately took me back to my childhood feelings, of being looked after and feeling good. I still found it hard because of the thoughts my eating disorder causes me to have, but I did enjoy it. This week having a heated up cheese scone each afternoon as my snack has become something I have looked forward to and something I’ve actually enjoyed.

I’ve thought more about food memories and another good memory that popped into my mind was our Friday night curry. Before I had an eating disorder we would usually order a takeaway curry at at the end of the week. We’d have half on the Friday and on the Saturday I’d serve the leftovers with home made spiced potatoes and salad. A reward at the end of a hard working week and time to relax with our food on trays in front of the TV. I’m not sure I am quite ready for a takeaway, but eating a curry is something I want to try next week with this in mind.

I am lucky to have some good memories associated with food. For others there may be no good memories or certain bad memories may impact on behaviour around food. I do have some difficult memories around food and eating. As a child growing up I was quite a particular eater. I think people would probably label it as ‘fussy’ eating, but looking back on it now I believe a lot of my issues were around sensory sensitivities. This is quite common for Autistic people. I wasn’t diagnosed as Autistic as a child, but received a diagnosis as an adult. As a child my difficulties with particular types of foods weren’t understood and I’d find myself being berated for not being able to eat certain things. My Dad also struggled with food and had a very rigid diet, this meant I didn’t try many foods until I went to friends houses or began to cook for myself as a young adult. We weren’t allowed to cook any foods which smelt strongly and I wasn’t allowed to eat my food on a tray in our living room. We had no space on the dining room table, so I’d eat my food in the hall way on a tray outside of the living room door. The narrative around treatment of eating disorders often doesn’t take into account people’s past relationships or memories around food/eating and I wonder if memory can be a powerful therapeutic tool in recovery, in part to identify barriers to recovery, but also to remind an individual of a time when food had a different meaning and the power of remembering that meaning in changing the ‘in the moment’ feeling of distress.

I’d be interested to hear your food memory stories if you would like to share in a comment below.

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