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Ask Mary Anne

If you have a question you would like to have answered or would like to speak with me you may e-mail me, Mary Anne Cohen, at or call 718-788-6986.

Q: Dear Mary Anne: My mother died two months ago, and I am totally out of control with my eating. Iím bingeing all the time and canít seem to stop. Can you suggest something?

Q: Six months ago my husband and I got divorced. Since then Iíve put on 50 pounds and have been overeating tremendously. The decision to divorce was mutual, so I cannot blame him. I guess it hasnít been so easy for me. I need to get back on track. Help!

A: Both of you are dealing with feelings of loss and have turned to overeating to help you. Food is the most legal and most available mood altering drug around. Both of you are using food to numb or comfort or distract yourselves. It is probably easier for you to focus on the problem of overeating than your feelings of helplessness, anger, despair, loneliness, or guilt that these losses may have stirred up.

Loss also brings up feelings of mourning, and I believe that when mourning or grief gets "stuck," food problems move in. Both of you need to face the full range of emotions you have about these losses. You should be talking with friends or family about your experiences and letting yourselves cry. (Often emotional eaters feel uncomfortably out of control with tears and use food to stuff them down).

When are your most vulnerable times with food? At night? On weekends? During those times, you need to plan some people-oriented strategies instead. Emotional eaters often isolate themselves and short-circuit their needs by turning to food rather than calling on the support of others. If this is the case, short-term therapy can be helpful. Isolating with pastry needs to be replaced by intimacy with people!

Q. Dear Mary Anne: My mother has been trying to get me to lose weight all of my life by criticizing and hassling me about what I eat. Now that Iím older I find that every time I try to stop bingeing, I wind up sabotaging myself because I just donít want to give my mother the satisfaction of giving her what she wants. I really need help with this because I want to learn to feel more in control of my eating just for myself. What do you recommend?

A: It is wonderful that you have made the connection between your difficulty giving yourself permission to eat healthily and your inner feeling of wanting to spite your mother. This need to get back at her is obviously keeping you stuck.

I once had a patient whose mother badgered her constantly to become a doctor. Even though this young woman really wanted to go to medical school, her motherís forcing it down her throat made it seem like the last thing in the world she wanted to do. As we worked together, we discovered that her motherís repeatedly telling her what profession to choose was a way of dominating and trying to control her daughter. Probably, if her daughter finally did get her M.D., her mother would regret losing this power to keep telling her what to do!

What I am suggesting to you by this story is that your motherís need to control you has given her a certain power in your life and you are resentful of this. What was once a battle between you and your mother over your losing weight has now become a battle within yourself.

There are four steps you can take to set in motion the process of resolving this issue. First, write a detailed history of all the memories and incidents from your childhood which illustrate your motherís controlling and hurtful behavior about your weight. Be as specific as possible in order to re-experience your feelings. You need to re-experience these emotions because the anger and hurt trapped inside of you are the cause of your self-sabotage.

The next step is to read what you have written to a trusted friend or a therapist. Donít be afraid to cry or get angry or let your feelings come up. Having another person witness your pain and anger is a healing experience. Then, write a letter to your mother (this is for your benefit and therefore need not be mailed) in which you tell her how she has interfered with your ability to regulate your weight. The goal of this exercise is to help you externalize your pent-up feelings.

The last step in this process is for you to decide whether or not you want to lose weight. Accepting yourself just as you are can be a powerful gift to yourself. If you do decide on weight loss, focus on a small and do-able goal. For example, increase your amount of exercise or eat less fatty foods.

Q. Dear Mary Anne: My daughter is anorexic but refuses to change. She even admits she is often dizzy and hungry. Why wonít she give it up?

A: Even though your daughter admits to discomfort, the "benefits" of anorexia are greater for her at this time. Actually, anorexics are usually in denial about how hungry, cold, or scared they really are. Instead, they report positive feelings about not eating, such as, "I finally feel in charge of my life," "Iím more organized than ever," or "Iím working more efficiently now." The underlying feeling is that they have everything under control.

People with anorexia try to trade in their many doubts, fears, and uncertainties about themselves for one manageable problem. That is starvation. While they may feel helpless about their feelings and the course of their lives, the triumph and power of overriding their hunger more than compensates. Whatís more, in the beginning stage of starvation, people also experience a euphoria which they are loathe to give up. This euphoria has a physiological basis akin to the "runnerís high."

I believe that anorexics are stuck at the crossroads midway between childhood and growing up. Too frightened to move forward, the girl recruits her body to express her anxiety by putting all her focus on weight loss. Rather than growing up, the anorexic is "growing down."

I suggest you share this understanding with your daughter, that she is having an emotional struggle and needs help. There are many support groups for anorexics and their families. Your daughter needs a chance to be with other girls like herself and break through the isolation that usually surrounds this illness. The fact is that anorexia is an illness and it requires treatment. Parents should not take "no" for an answer from their child who needs help.

Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD
The New York Center for Eating Disorders
490 Third Street, Brooklyn, New York 11215
(718) 788-6986