I’m still reading Geneen Roth’s Women, Food and God*, and seriously think that I could create posts from just this book for a year. I love it, and think it’s a must-read. If you’re not familiar with Roth’s work, I highly suggest visiting her Web site. You can watch a video of her reading from Women, Food and God here.

I used to think that preoccupation with food stemmed from liking food too much or as a consequence of manipulating your diet to be thinner.

But like perfectionism, which I talked about yesterday, obsession, according to Geneen Roth, is a mask. It’s also avoidance of the tough stuff. (Oddly enough, right now, instead of writing this post, I’m too focused on italicizing the book title and Internet surfing…hmm…)

And this mask and avoidance, this incessant obsession with food, actually serves various feel-good functions.

Roth writes:

Obsession gives you something to do besides having your heart shattered by heart-shattering events. Like watching your children get sick, like living while your spouse dies. Like being with your parents as they get old, wear diapers, forget their own names. Obsession gives you a plane ticket out of a particular kind of heartbreak…It gives you the illusion of feeling everything without having to be vulnerable to anything.

It’s like when you focus on the minute details like I do, you have no time to focus on the truly devastating things. Like when my dad was in the hospital, I brought my laptop every day and focused on work. Because I had to work. I took a week off when my dad passed away. Then I worked. I focused on periods, semi-colons, blog posts and articles.

And I didn’t eat very much. I had no use for food. When my grandma passed away, I ate everything in sight. I just kept throwing back food like it was shots of liquor. Now looking back on it, I think I was trying to push down the pain.

Maybe your obsession with food also masks a whole world of emotions and experiences you’d rather not touch.┬áMaybe your obsession with food drowns out the loneliness you feel. Maybe it’s the only way you know how to process what’s happening at work or with your relationships. Maybe it’s your way to anticipate bad events.

Roth used to think that the less she participated, the less pain she’d feel once she inevitably lost everything. Sometimes, she wished that her husband “would just die and get it over with.” She’d go from fearing this horrific event to wishing it’d already happen to worrying every time he’d leave the house to telling herself that she’d be relieved when he died.

Roth says that it’s this sort of thinking that transformed into her obsession with food decades ago. It’s “The belief, unconscious as it was, that I couldn’t handle, couldn’t tolerate, didn’t have thick enough skin or a resilient enough heart to withstand what was in front of me without fragmenting.”

Obsession, continues Roth, is our way of organizing our lives so we don’t have to deal with the scary parts, which happen “between being two years old and dying.” She says that compulsive eaters wouldn’t have an obsession with food “if we believed that life was tolerable without it.”

So what feeds the food obsessions is our fear that we can’t handle life. That when terrible things happen, we’ll explode, or to use Roth’s word be “annihilated.” As if the pain is bigger than ourselves, like Roth used to believe. That’s why many of us just close ourselves off and put limits on what we’re allowed to feel. Happiness, some anxiety, a smidge of sadness are permitted. Raw, strong emotions out.

Maybe you close your mind, your heart to the gut-wrenching pain. If there’s even the tiniest sign that you’re about to feel something seriously negative, you take the keys out of the ignition, and, well, you’re done for the day. You turn yourself off and pick out your latest numbing activity – which, for many, is food.

To end your obsession with food, you need to toss your running shoes. Or put them away in the closet for a bit and be open to staying with yourself, with your emotions and experiences for a while.

Roth concludes (I feel like I need to post this on every surface in my house):

At some point, it’s time to stop fighting with death, my thighs and the way things are. And to realize that emotional eating is nothing but bolting from multiple versions of the above: the obsession will stop when the bolting stops.

So, again, consider staying.

Today’s favorite post. Kindness Heals” from Geneen Roth’s blog.

If you dig deeper, what does your food obsession reveal? Does your food obsession have certain advantages? If you’ve healed your relationship with food, what helped?

(* received the book from Roth’s publicist)