Holy Hunger

An Interview with Margaret Bullitt-Jonas

Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is the author of Holy Hunger: A Memoir of Desire (New York: Knopf, 1999). She is an Episcopal priest who serves as Associate Rector of All Saints Parish, Brookline, Mass., and as a Lecturer at Episcopal Divinity School.

STEPS: I thought it might be a good idea to begin by talking about some common misperceptions about eating disorders. I talked to someone recently who commented, "If I ate everything I wanted to eat, I'd be fat, too." Clearly his impression was that people with eating disorders simply enjoy eating and just choose to eat too much.

Margaret: There is no pleasure in addictive eating. People do not eat compulsively because food tastes good. Let's take a minute to clarify what is and is not an eating disorder. Under stress, many people go through periods of disordered eating, but they don't necessarily have an eating disorder. For example, maybe you have a feast at Thanksgiving and push away from the table saying "I am really stuffed." Or maybe while breaking up with your girlfriend or boyfriend you find yourself sitting in front of the TV, eating a quart of ice cream. If this happens just once in while, you probably don't have an eating disorder. Chances are good that you will find your balance again and regain a more peaceful relationship with food. An eating disorder is a more long-term, systematic problem that gradually begins to affect all aspects of your life.

STEPS: Another common misperception is that if you have a fairly normal body weight you couldn't possibly have an eating disorder.

Margaret: Unfortunately, part of the insidiousness of eating disorders is that they are often invisible to the outside observer. You can have an eating disorder and no one around may know anything about it. In fact, those of us who have been through real struggles with eating disorders know that part of the disease process often involves keeping our disordered eating a secret. We make a point of no one else being aware of what we are doing with food. If you find yourself obsessed with food, with your weight or with your appearance, that's a warning sign. If you are using food to self-medicate (whether eating too much or too little), that is also a major warning sign. If eating becomes a way of handling your life—a way of avoiding uncomfortable feelings or necessary but difficult conversations—then you are definitely moving into the territory of eating disorders.

STEPS: There are several different kinds of eating disorders?

Margaret: Yes. I didn't learn this terminology until I was well into recovery, but there are three basic kinds of eating disorders. One is compulsive overeating, which is simply bingeing. Another is anorexia or self-starvation—eating as little as possible. This is usually accompanied by a very distorted body image in which you perceive yourself as being fat. Thirdly, there is bulimia, which comes in at least two forms. The best known variety is when people binge and then find ways to expel or purge the food through the abuse of laxatives or through vomiting. There is also a non-purging kind of bulimia, which is what I think I had—or, more accurately, what I am recovering from a day at a time. People with this kind of bulimia binge but then compensate not by purging but by strenuous exercise, or by alternating bingeing with extreme fasting or dieting. In this case our weight can look just fine. We can be a well put-together, outwardly attractive, competent, successful person and secretly be in the grip of a compulsion that we cannot control.

STEPS: One of the things your book does well is to describe the contrast between the exterior of a person with an eating disorder and the painful inner experience. For example, you talk about the experience of hiding. You say that "the larger my body became, the more I hid myself inside it."

Margaret: Exactly. All eating disorders are about hiding. They are about hiding the self. Another way of looking at it is that eating disorders are about isolating. Food addiction—like any addiction—is a way of avoiding authentic relationships with other human beings, as well as with oneself. For instance, we may need to express our anger, express our sorrow, feel our feelings. To live authentically, we need to be real with ourselves and with other people about what's going on in our lives. But if food becomes the central preoccupation of my life, then all my attention will be placed on what I'm eating and what I'm not eating. It takes a lot of energy to sustain this focus on food, and I won't have any energy left over to invest in real relationships with other people. Before getting into recovery, I turned to food as my source of comfort. Rather than crying on someone's shoulder, I would cry over food.

STEPS: You also talked about living with secrets, doing things secretly, even "secret pilgrimages to the grocery store."

Margaret: Yes. Like most people with an eating disorder, I made a point of eating "normally" in front of other people. In public—with anybody else—I would eat a moderate meal. I knew perfectly well what healthy food was. My problem was not nutritional ignorance. I knew what healthy eating looked like, and that is what I would do in public. In private, I'd go off and do my midnight runs to the 24-hour donut store or to the supermarket. I would binge by myself in my car or in the house with the curtains drawn. All of that I did in secret. I lived a double life.

STEPS: As with other addictions, there seems to be a lot of ritualization that happens with eating disorders.

Margaret: That's a really good point. It's such a distortion of the basic human need for ritual. We need structured processes that help lead us to transformation, rituals that move us from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from fear to love. It is a distortion of that basic human need when we get into the ritualization of addictions. There were times when I felt that if I just had my Cadbury chocolate bar, then I'd be safe. Or if I could just buy another dozen donuts one more time, at the right time of day or in just the right way, then everything would be fine again.

STEPS: It never occurred to me until now how much like animism this ritualization is. The basic instinct of animism is that if you do the right thing in just the right way, everything will be fine. Every time you walk past the large rock at the edge of the village, you need to say the right magic words in just the right way. If you do it just right, then good luck will be yours. If you don't, bad things will happen.

Margaret: That's it. It is a kind of magical thinking. I remember the agony of prowling the aisles of the supermarket with a deep inner restlessness. Maybe I needed something sweet. No, no. I didn't think so. That wasn't it. Maybe I needed something salty. No, that wasn't it, either. I felt like a trapped animal, wandering from aisle to aisle. Even though I knew that what I was doing would not soothe the hunger, I'd finally give up and just grab something with which to stuff myself. The false ritual took over. It was always accompanied by the painful despair of knowing that this wasn't going to work.

STEPS: In your book you talk about the experience of emptiness. The feeling that you need more but you know that it is not really a lack of food. This emptiness is painful and it drives you to repeat behaviors that you know in advance will not satisfy.

Margaret: I've heard many people in recovery talk about the fact that we have a God-shaped hole inside us that we try to fill with different addictive substances or behaviors. To me the whole process of recovery is about getting the support we need so that we can stop trying to fill that God-shaped hole with lesser things. It is about learning to stay with the emptiness, to stay with the longing. Gradually we learn that we are not going to die from it. In recovery we have the support we need to live with the emptiness rather than to keep trying in vain to fill it. We have the support we need to listen to it. That ache, that emptiness is the very place where we begin to find God, if we are willing to hang in there and not act out.

STEPS: I suppose it is contrary to almost everyone's instincts to think that tolerating a sense of emptiness could be the path to a more intimate relationship with God.

Margaret: The paradox is that when we are able to tolerate that sense of emptiness, we begin to be filled. If I feel the need to go wander into the pantry and just see what's there, that's a real warning flag — a cautionary moment, a flirting with danger. If, rather than just following the impulse to wander into the pantry, I take time to pay attention to the fact that something is making me uncomfortable or that I'm feeling an emptiness or an ache, I may learn a great deal. I can stay with that ache and begin to inquire about it. What is this emptiness about? What is it that I am really hungering for? What would I be feeling right now if I were not so preoccupied with whether or not I'm going to eat? What would really comfort me now? Maybe I need to get on the phone. Maybe I need to go for a walk. Maybe I need to listen to some music. Maybe I need to go pound a pillow and yell. This is the kind of inner work that leads to growth. And it is work! I would never have been able to do that kind of work without the support of a 12-step program to give me some tools – things like getting on the phone to ask for help. The key is to start inquiring about the longing. I think it ultimately comes down to a hungering for a relationship with the Holy, the Divine, the Source.

STEPS: The impression I have from your book is that you tried just about everything else that could be tried before you got into recovery.

Margaret: I paid money for diet programs and for all the diet books. I counted calories. I white-knuckled it with the best of them. I made little charts to plan my weight loss. And I got out there and ran my 7 miles a day, rain or shine, blizzard or heat wave. None of it worked. My eating was still out of control. I also tried therapy, but unfortunately my therapist didn't know much at that time about the addictive process. I think that an addict who is not in recovery is unlikely to be helped very much by a therapist who does not understand addictions.. It certainly wasn't very helpful to me.

STEPS: Why didn't that stuff work?

Margaret: I wish it had worked! The trouble with addiction is that you lose control. You lose control of both starting and stopping the behavior—you find yourself starting the behavior without really meaning to, and even if you promise yourself that you'll stop, you find that you can't. That's why the solution is not about developing will power. All the will power in the world is not going to stop an addict from acting out. For me the solution involved surrender—admitting that by myself, left to my own devices, I was completely powerless and that I needed something beyond myself to set me free. I heard a wonderful analogy. An addict is like a person pushing a wheelbarrow. Every time a person says, "I'm concerned about what you're doing with food (or alcohol or drugs or sex)," it's like putting a rock in the wheelbarrow. Eventually, by the grace of God, it may become more painful to push the wheelbarrow than to face the pain of putting the wheelbarrow down and getting into recovery. I find that a very hopeful message. The rock we put into someone's wheelbarrow may not be the final rock. But each rock helps.

STEPS: Tell me about the decision to go to OA for the first time.

Margaret: I didn't mention this in the book, but I had wandered into OA two years earlier, back in 1980. I took one look around the room and decided that I didn't have to do this, this was too extreme, everyone there was sick and I wasn't. I just couldn't identify. I really believed that there was an easier and softer way. So I left—and got back to bingeing and all my futile efforts to stop. Nothing worked. For me it took a major crisis. On Good Friday, 1982, I made my way back to church for the first time in years. I'd fled the church after high school, and I was now 30 or 31, so it had been years since I'd been in church. But in desperation I went back. It was through the Eucharist—receiving the bread and wine—that I suddenly saw that God comes to us as food. It was as if I saw for the first time that there was spiritual food that could satisfy spiritual hunger. The good news was that I was beginning to take my religious longings seriously. The bad news was that a few days later, I went out and binged again. Maybe it's not such bad news, because it really broke through the fantasy that all I needed to do was to accept my hunger for God and to go to church and pray. Getting into recovery is not that simple. All addictions are about God and our hunger for God, but we need communities of love (such as 12-step programs) to help us keep on the path. We need communities of support to help us a day at a time.

STEPS: The experience of God as a God who nurtures. Why was that so shocking to think of God as a God who nurtures?

Margaret: As an addict, I was used to living in a place of extreme self-hatred. If that is where you live, then God is either absent—distant, irrelevant, out of reach, uncaring, indifferent—or God is punitive and hateful. I wasn't very theologically conscious in those years, but I think I was walking around with a sense that God was either absent or punitive. So to walk into a worship service during which I began to glimpse the possibility that God was not absent or punitive but intimately close—that God loved me tenderly—just blew me away. It was a paradigm shift. It is a huge discovery for an addict. I noticed that there was something about this love that I did not control. I didn't create it. I didn't put it there. But it was real. And essential for my well being. I wanted to follow wherever it led.

STEPS: Your description of the hard work you did in early recovery is quite moving. You talk about how in the beginning there needed to be a single focus.

Margaret: Yes, for people with eating disorders, physical recovery comes first. No eating, no matter what. By "eating," of course, I mean no compulsive eating. That is where all the energy is focused in the early days and weeks. One day at a time, not eating compulsively. The question, the only question, is: What do I need to do today to protect my abstinence and not act out with food? That was a huge piece of work. One of the difficulties of having an eating disorder is that we need food in order to live. Unlike alcohol and drugs, which an addict in recovery can refrain from using a day at a time, a food addict has to keep interacting with his or her drug of choice. We have to keep eating to stay alive. This offers a particular challenge for food addicts.

STEPS: People who have never been addicted probably think that "one day at a time" is a pretty narrow focus.

Margaret: Well, it's the only focus that keeps me sane. And that ultimately keeps me alive. Today is all we have. It's all we have to work with. If we can take good care of today, then we have a good day. If we take care of the next day, then we have two pretty good days. And before long we have a pretty good week, and a pretty good month, and eventually a pretty good life.

STEPS: Talk to us about the tools that were most helpful early on in your recovery.

Margaret: I think of addictions as diseases of isolation. So getting myself to meetings was a critical tool. Just showing up at a meeting reminds me that I am interrelated. We thrive only in community. I also learned to use the phone as a recovery tool. This was very difficult for someone who is an introvert and was filled with shame about what I had been doing to myself and to my body. But I learned that I could phone someone in the program and ask for 10 minutes of time and talk about what was eating me. If I could talk about what was eating me, I wouldn't have to eat over it. Gradually I came to realize that I was living in a community. For someone who until that time had lived in emotional isolation, that's a huge transformation. I also learned to journal as a tool. And to read 12-step literature. And I began to learn about prayer. I'm now passionate about prayer! I think so many of us are hungry for a more intimate encounter with God. I love trying to help people to make that connection. I think addicts are full of self-hatred. At least that is true of every addict I have ever met. Simply to tell active addicts that God loves them is, in my experience, completely meaningless. We experience the reality of that love only as we put down our drug of choice and learn ways of prayer that are a good fit for us. It is very different to hear that God loves you from the pulpit and to know that fact in your bones and your gut and your heart.

STEPS: You came from a very verbal family. But talking to God was not easy.

Margaret: Well, we were very verbal and quite emotionally repressed. We pretty much lived in our heads. What I needed to learn was to stay with my feelings rather than immediately to jump into theorizing or minimizing or avoiding them. I needed to learn to just keep breathing — to experience the feeling rather than to try to make it go away. The first months, years really, were very turbulent because I had a sea of frozen feelings inside me that I had never dared experience, much less express. All sorts of terrifying emotions came surging to the surface. There were lots of tears, lots of anger. I went through lots of blame and finger pointing.

STEPS: Really, I'm so shocked.

Margaret: [Laughter] If we learn to just stay with it, it moves through us and we don't have to hold on to it. For example, I grew up being "Nice little Margaret. Good little Margaret." For me to claim and to feel my anger was quite a shock to my identity. I hadn't known that I was a person capable of anger. In a way I needed to learn to defend my feelings. To let them be there as long as they were there. To put my arm around their shoulder and say "OK, here we are." A common metaphor for the self is a house. Many of us tend to live just in the living room or the front hall, where everything is polished and scrubbed and tidy. But the process of recovery is about getting into all the other rooms of the house that have been shut off or sealed away for years. We start to make sense of those spaces, too.

STEPS: At one point in your book you quote a line from a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." The sense that the world is full of the love and grace of God can make such a difference. And it is such a contrast to the sense of scarcity that always seems to come with the addictive process.

Margaret: That's right. We can inhabit two completely different worlds. In one world there is never enough. So I have to grab for what I need. In this scarcity world we develop an anxious, greedy striving that feels necessary for us to get what we need. The alternative is a grace-filled world. Here there is a fundamental sense of abundance, a graciousness in the universe. In this world, even if I am suffering, I know that at some deep level of reality I am held, I am loved. It reminds me of St. Augustine, who talked about sin as a kind of anxious reaching for anything less than God. In a way he looked at it very compassionately. One of the metaphors he used was of an infant who anxiously reaches out for the mother, anxious to know that he or she is safe. I think that is a very tender image. At some deep level, all of us wonder if we are safe. And we are tempted from moment to moment to grab on to different things for security or salvation. That is what in traditional Christian language we might call sinning. The on-going journey of recovery is to learn that we don't have to go there. We don't have to grab on to things to increase our security. And, when we do, we don't have to stay there, we can come back home and discover that fundamentally there is enough, there is more than enough, there is an abundance of love and grace available to us.

STEPS: One of the things that seems to go along with the experience of scarcity is perfectionism. Because there isn't enough to go around, we need to be really smart, or really good or really something in order to make sure that we are entitled to our share of the little that is available — the little love that is available, or attention or care.

Margaret: I decided early in life that I just didn't measure up. That is certainly what it felt like to me. So part of the homecoming to God was the discovery that in God's eyes, I am enough. I'll tell you a story about this that illustrates how I still don't have this one quite licked. The temptation is always to go for something other than God to give us what we need. I remember being in a worship service just before Holy Hunger was published, and the choir sang a song that included the line, "In the eyes of God, I am wearing a crown. I am wearing a crown in the eyes of God." In that moment I knew that I had everything I needed. I was reminded of a beautiful line from Thomas Merton, who said, "We have what we seek. It is there all the time, and if we but give it time, it will make itself known to us." I wept with the joy of knowing that there was no scarcity. There was enough. I had everything I needed. I was loved to the core. At the end of the worship service, I went to check my voice mail messages and discovered that I'd gotten a call from my publisher. An early review of my book had come in but they had been unsuccessful in trying to fax it to me. So, I started dialing the publisher. Almost immediately, certainly before I had finished dialing, I was in an anxious state. What was the reviewer going to say? Was it a good review or a bad review? Would they like the book? How was I doing? Was the book OK? Was I OK? Then I heard a little voice in my head saying, "What's at stake here, Margaret? In the eyes of God, you are wearing a crown. You are wearing a crown in the eyes of God." Life for all of us is full of occasions that tempt us back into the anxiety. The scarcity sneaks up on us. The feeling that "I'm not enough." That is one of the reasons we need each other to remind ourselves and one another of the abundance of God's love for us.

STEPS: Abundance is not always obvious. You have a wonderful story in your book about experiencing gratitude for a "pathetic little meal."

Margaret: Yes. This was early in my recovery and I was sitting down to the abstinent supper that I had committed to my sponsor. It just looked so paltry, like "How is this ever going to fill me?" And then, as I reflected on it, I realized that the limits of the meal were actually a sign of love. They were there to keep me safe and to help me keep heading towards love. I suddenly realized and felt my connection to my sponsor and to the whole community of people in recovery. And to God. Somehow tasting those limits gave me great joy. I think gratefulness is a wonderful spiritual discipline. It is a discipline, of course. It is always a choice. When things happen to us are we going to receive them with a grateful heart or are we going to pick at them? "Well, it was pretty good but it could have been better." Or, "It was good this time but will it be good next time?" We always have a choice as to whether we are going to encounter our lives with a spirit of gratefulness or a spirit of resentment.

STEPS: We used to "give thanks" before meals when I was a child in a very predictable and perfunctory way. As a consequence, I rejected this discipline for many years as just not helpful to me. I have had to re-learn the importance of prayer as a way to express gratitude. I know that prayer has been a really important discipline for you in your recovery.

Margaret: There's a lot I could say about prayer. I think that for many of us spiritual growth is as much about unlearning things as it is about learning new things. I needed to learn forms of prayer that weren't about ordering God around—as if I were wise enough to know what God ought to be doing! I also needed to learn to pray in ways that allowed me to be authentically myself. C. S. Lewis says somewhere that "The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks and may it be the real Thou that I speak to'." So to me, the first principle of prayer is to be oneself. To be real. I came to prayer thinking prayer was a place to show off my noblest feelings and my warmest impulses and my best thoughts. Prayer was where you put your best foot forward. I had to unlearn all of that in order to learn that prayer is a place to be real. It is OK to be messy, sad, angry, lonely, scared, greedy. Whatever you are feeling—that is what we need to bring into our prayer. That was all new to me.

STEPS: Let's end with a very practical question. What would you say to someone who is right now sick and tired of being sick and tired but they don't know what to do?

Margaret: First, ask for help. The moment when we find the willingness to ask for help is a very sacred moment. When an isolated, addicted person is able to reach out and ask for help, that is a moment of holiness. Second, there is hope. It is going to be hard work but it is worth doing. The work is worth it. And the person is worth it. You are worth it. I would encourage anyone struggling with disordered eating to find a 12-step program and to go to six different meetings before you decide you hate it and will never darken the door of a 12-step meeting again. I also think many of us need to find a therapist who understands the addictive process. It can be really helpful to have a companion to walk with us out of the worst part of the mess. And finally, I'd encourage people to take their spiritual longings seriously. It is not just an issue for addicts, of course. It is an issue for all human beings. What do I want to give my life to? What do I long for? What do I want more than anything else? We all know people who outwardly have everything: the house, the marriage, the material possessions, health, the job. Everything. And yet they still feel restless. Unsatisfied. They sense that there is something more. I take this as a clue that we are born for worship; we are made for worship. Back to St. Augustine again: "You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in You." All of us need to claim, to value that longing, that restlessness, that itch. There is something of God in that restlessness.