Binge Eating Disorder and Poetic Wisdom

I have a Binge Eating Disorder.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “Binge eating disorder is a severe, life-threatening and treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating. It is the most common eating disorder in the United States.

I cannot recall a time when I was not desperately affected by food. I was thin as a child. My mom would say that even slim-fit jeans would fall from my waist, though I do not remember those days. I look back at school pictures and sometime in the middle grades, I began to fill out. By my sophomore year of high school, I reached 220 pounds and started my first diet. As an all-or-nothing person (I suspect many folks with eating disorders tend in that direction), I quickly lost 40 pounds. Yet it was not to last. I would like to tell you that the thirty years since then have been a piece of cake, but more often than not, it was the whole cake.

I wish that last sentence was tongue in cheek. It isn’t. I have eaten a whole cake at one time. A whole Baker’s Square French Silk pie in a hotel room alone. Pounds of M&Ms behind my closed office door. Dozens of cookies in my car driving home. Not over a lifetime, mind you, but at one sitting. Those who binge eat all have their war stories, but the number of episodes we forget far outnumber those we remember. During a binge, the brain’s executive center seems to go offline, allowing baser desires to take over.  Eating becomes an automatic behavior that nullifies appreciation of food and flavor.

By the grace of God, I have not had an episode of binge eating in over a year, though I’ve lived enough life to know that it is unwise to say that I have beaten it.

Enter the Poets

Perhaps you were intrigued enough by the title to read this far. I hope so. Over the past several weeks, I have had a dawning realization that poets are granting me insight into my binge eating. How so? The best poets bid us to pay attention. In my limited experience, Mary Oliver succeeds at this better than most. I am currently reading Devotions, a remarkable anthology of her poetry. On each page, she invites her readers to see extraordinariness in the ordinariness of creation. Her Instructions for Living a Life capture her invitation well: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” When one binges, the capacity for attention is short-circuited. I am discovering that for me, poets re-awaken those circuits.

In addition, to improving our ability to pay attention, poets whisper, “Slow down. Breathe. Not so fast.” Many writing genres encourage rapid consumption. How many readers have found themselves repeatedly saying, “Just one more chapter”? Not so with the poets. Just this morning, I found myself beginning to rush ahead. I was not listening. I imagined Oliver telling me, “Jason, set the book down. Savor what you have read today. I will still be here tomorrow.”

In our brokenness, it seems that our primary, and often only, response is to seek answers in what the scientists tell us. Often, they can and do offer benefit. But what if, in addition to listening to the doctors and scientists, we also begin to pay attention to the poets and painters and musicians? Or to the farmers and housewives and World War II veterans? Perhaps our deepest healing occurs in a community where diverse gifts and experiences contribute to the deepest wisdom.

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