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The ‘Illusory Totality’ of the Codependent Eater
There is a wholeness that is achieved in this evening ceremony, a necessary glue that keeps her fractured pieces intact long enough to try again tomorrow.
Originally published on TheHungryFeminine.com on August 8, 2017
The sun’s glow dims as it falls beneath the horizon, and with it dims the noise of the world around me. Late-night summer dusk is a near guarantee that everyone has gone home, been fed, and begun dreaming up adventures of tomorrow. In the darkness of night, early morning ambitions and anxieties have quelled, the bustling has slowed, expectations ceased, and there now exist much fewer ways for a girl to disappoint herself.
Was I good enough today? Did I perform well for those who needed me? These are not conscious questions, questions that know themselves, but rather an unconscious frenzy that releases within, trying to free me, until tomorrow, at least, from the need to distort, to please, to be perfect. A ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ will lead me to the same vice, but with different intentions. There is both celebration and punishment in either answer.
If I was good, I can celebrate that I did what was expected of me; the punishment is that I had to sacrifice myself to do it.
If I was not good, I failed at contorting myself to please others, and for that I deserve punishment. But at least there still stands a chance that the reason I failed for others was that I showed up for myself, as myself, which is worthy of celebration.
In this darkness, there also unveils an emptiness that has been distracted away all day; an unconquerable longing which reveals itself and demands appeasement in order for me to stand a chance at surviving another day. This emptiness can’t be filled in the daylight of the connected world because there’s no room for me there; it can only be fed in the darkness.
Many in mental health don’t like to use the term “co-dependent,” and that’s likely because it’s a product of pop psychology and not any means of a proper diagnosis. And yet it’s the only term that’s ever felt appropriate in defining how some people wiggle about the world. So let me explain.
A co-dependent person feels the weight of the world on her shoulders. In her self-reflecting eye, she merely functions as a tool to be used by others. To do so, she must suspend her own needs, desires, and autonomous action. We often see co-dependent behavior in those who love an addict. Al-anon meetings are filled with people becoming aware that their determined need to heal their alcoholic loved one might be as much an addiction as alcoholism itself.
Many people might equate the co-dependent person with a martyr who highlights the moral good in their behaviors without also admitting that their actions for others are also self-serving, that holdsservice being redemption.
The martyr lacks self-agency, worships uncontrollably, and sacrifices herself to serve those who never asked her to.
Except that once upon a time, someone indeed asked her to.
Typically in early development, a co-dependent person is taught that her triumphs are not nearly as important as her failures, and that there are far more ways to fail than succeed because success is only achieved by fulfilling someone else’s idea of it. She is assured that her personal missteps, self-care, and aspirations can be catastrophic to those around her.
It’s a distorted life lesson that convinces her, deep down in the gut of her very personality, that her mistakes, shortcomings, and weaknesses are not personal challenges but rather tribal inflictions; her imperfections can cause another person pain, destruction, and even psychic death.
She can easily annihilate the world around her, and thus be annihilated back in return. The weight of this on the co-dependent’s shoulder was indeed placed there by another when she was too young to defend against it, or even realize it was unjust, misplaced.
Co-dependency is a deeply rooted soul voodoo for which we must forgive ourselves, and those who may have inspired it into us.
To use a predictable food analogy, I used to think of co-dependency as unwanted sprinkles on top of a person’s ice cream Self, and that if she could just scoop off the sprinkles with good therapy and personal exploration, she could learn to navigate relationships in a healthy way. Eventually I learned that co-dependency was instead the milk inside the ice cream, twisted and swirled and blended as one, and that figuring out where it stops and she begins would be a never-ending struggle.
A portal to another dimension
It isn’t true that everyone with an eating disorder is co-dependent, and vice versa; people are not that predictable or two-dimensional. However, it is true that whenever I gather with women who struggle with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, their stories share obvious themes; a need for control, to be perfect, to punish and celebrate herself when she is good, and punish and celebrate herself when she is bad. Each hold individual definitions of what “good” and “bad” are, but those definitions were all drilled into their psyches by something or someone else.
These women also share that they use their unique engagements with food as a means of replacing missing forces of energy in their lives.
The binge eater, regardless of whether or not she purges, can’t eat and be in the real world at the same time. Food is not a means of satisfying a primal need, or providing her body with nutrition and energy; food is a portal to another dimension.
Jungian analyst and mythopoetic author Marion Woodman described the unfolding and reclaiming of power in these nighttime moments, what godliness food represents in this ritual, and how it’s all an illusion:
Gradually her hunger for life, her sexual hunger, her spiritual hunger — all converge into one explosive desire for the forbidden food. Suddenly, all the limitations which she cannot face in herself vanish, and the perfection which she craves seems possible. The conflicts seem to be resolved in the momentary satisfaction of filling herself with sweetness, which to her means life and love. Momentarily, she is Queen in her domain. She has incorporated into herself the numinosity of food and become identified with it. The drive for wholeness builds, and with it the desire for losing herself and finding herself in the ecstasy of oblivion. All is resolved in her surrender to an illusory totality and she passes into sleep.
There is a wholeness that is achieved in this evening ceremony, a necessary glue that keeps her fractured pieces intact long enough to try again tomorrow. It does just enough to get her there, to mimic a spiritual climax, and yet when she awakens the next morning, she can see the illusion as it is. No longer under its spell, she rots in her shame and disappointment and attempts to re-engage with the world from her broken place just long enough to endure the daylight.
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