Emotional Eating Interview: Dr. Margaret Jamal

by mortylefkoe on May 4, 2012

Morty: Hi. This is Morty Lefkoe and I have a very exciting guest with me today, Dr. Margaret Jamal, the author of the book, When Girls Don’t Tell: A Survivor’s Story of Child Sex Abuse and Re-victimization. She has had some experience with how sexual abuse affects our eating and how sometimes eating can be a defense or a way of dealing with that particular problem. I am very excited to hear your story today, Margaret, and whatever you can tell us about how sexual abuse can sometimes lead to body issues, over eating, and what you have done about it and what recommendations you might have for my listeners. Thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Jamal: Thank you. I appreciate you having me, Morty. I am excited about this.

Morty : If you could tell a little bit about your background and how this all arose for you and we can then have a little conversation that might illuminate some of the issues that might be useful for the people who are listening to this interview and who are reading a transcript of it.

Dr. Jamal: Okay. Really my background of abuse actually began from age 4 and it came up in the City of Chicago, the west side of Chicago and we lived in the projects. My mother was a single parent raising us and so many situations happen with single mothers, the children find themselves engaged with the boyfriend who was our stepfather at that time. My stepfather was actually the father of my younger sisters. He started sexually abusing me, he started molesting me at age 4, and it just kept going into my later years. I talk about re-victimization because I was one of those people there, say about 25% of people who have been sexually abused, who actually get sexually abused later on in life for different reasons, as I discussed in the book. It happened to me repeatedly in grade school, in high school, in college with different people. So I definitely have a lot of issues. One of the things that, I believe, contributed to the eating, or what I would call my defensive eating, was that it seemed like in every situation, people would say, “You’re so pretty. You’re so pretty.” I believe in my mind, I began to think that it was because I was so attractive that these sexual abusers, which of course I didn’t use that term at that time, that they were attracted to me because of the way I looked. Okay? Coming up of what people consider to be attractive nowadays was thin, I came up with twiggy, the thinner you were, the more attractive you were. So I believe in my mind, I would say, Okay, if I get bigger I am not going to be as attractive.

Morty: Yup. I’ve heard that one before. Even for people where there is no sexual abuse, it’s just fear of sex or discomfort around sex due to perhaps religious upbringing where sex is just uncomfortable, and I’ve had many clients who’ve talked about–if I am heavy, I can bypass the whole issue of sex

Dr. Jamal: Absolutely and the thing that is really interesting to me about that is if I was upset and didn’t want to be bothered with anyone, my defense would be to eat. I figured, as I eat it and I continue to get bigger, they will leave me alone. It didn’t correlate with me that also my attitude has something to do with it and that was just the eating portion of it. Sure enough, the eating problem really got worse in high school. Right. I was pretty heavy in high school.

Morty : At what point did you realize what was going on? What kind of help did you get? Who helped you realize it and how were you able to ultimately deal with it? What technique or what approach did you use to deal with what you call defensive eating? How did you handle that?

Dr. Jamal: Actually it wasn’t one particular technique even as I reflect in my book. It was a number of interventions that occurred with, of course, my mother, I believe prayer had a lot to do with it, from a spiritual perspective. From a mental perspective, finally having a male figure that I felt I could trust to protect, that didn’t betray his role as a caregiver. I had to see that example first of all. That was important for me.

Morty: And who was that person for you?

Dr. Jamal: My husband. He is very instrumental with not only being patient with me, but I remember, Morty, one day he said to me, “You’re not that child any more. He said, I am not him. I am not those men. I am not those male people who hurt you. I am not going to hurt you and you’re not that child.” I had to realize that every time people would act out or revisit what happened, I would actually go back there. I am leaving my present state of existence. I am leaving 2000 and now I am going back into the 60s or I am going back into the 50s. That was one of the things that I had to recognize.

Morty : Let me just ask one thing. I am curious along the way, if you were so afraid of men and afraid you can’t trust men and started eating in order to get heavy to keep men away, how did you manage to open yourself up to your husband? How did you manage to open yourself up to creating a relationship with him and ultimately marrying him? Or had you done a lot of work on yourself before that part?

Dr. Jamal: Not really. I was pretty destructive and reckless by the time we met. I have done a number of things. I believe that even though I was trying to push people away, protect myself, I still had that basic need to be wanted and to be loved and to feel loved. I still wanted that and I believe that that’s one of the things the perpetrators use in order to get close to you. People want to be loved. The term seems to be cliché-ish but I think is really: looking for love, so I was definitely looking for that. As far as my husband was concerned, he pursued me and was able to see beyond the hard exterior. Let me just tell you this, I had body issues so I went up and down. I would gain weight then I would get tired of being heavy, and then I would lose. By the time we met, I was actually pretty slim. By the time my husband and I met. I had actually done a crash diet. I remember looking at the television. He is actually my second husband. After my first daughter was born, I had ballooned up to … I wore a size 18 at the time.

Morty: Okay.

Dr. Jamal: I could only fit stretch pants. I remember very vividly looking at the television, these women with the bikinis and stuff running along the beach and I am eating in front of the television and I just started crying. I am crying with my food in my hand and I am like, I hate this. I am going to have to do something about it. I didn’t know about going on any diets or anything so I just started starving myself. I just would not eat. Of course, I lost weight and it didn’t look very healthy but then I got small and then I started working out. Because there is something that happens that I think is very important. When you begin to lose weight, the people in your environment, if they start complimenting you, that is giving you affirmation. That is giving you encouragement. So I began to change into this person that people were attracted to. Now, I thought, Okay, now I want to be attractive.

Morty: But that was still will power? What did you ultimately do other than just not eat for a period of time? Did you find any techniques to deal with the need to eat? Anybody can go on a diet and stay on it as long as the will power lasts, but how do you deal with the compulsive need to eat? Did you find any particular technique or techniques that you’ve used that may be my listeners and readers might find useful?

Dr. Jamal: That stops me from the need to eat? No. I mean, really what I do now is eat differently and it think in a way that I eat the right types of food. I actually eat often now. I had to make myself eat often. I learned about how my body operates, that is one of the things that I did. I said, okay you can go up your metabolism. I am in my 50s now. I am in my middle 50s. I am 56. I needed a metabolism, so I am studying this. I am studying with the Healing and Creative Arts Center. She was telling me how to eat every 2 to 3 hours, right? So I am eating but I am learning how to eat the right types of food. But at the same time, what I recognize is if I start thinking in terms of a diet, I think about food too much. Diets can make you think about food too much. You know, the reasons that you are eating.

Morty : That’s true. As I said, there have been books called Diets Don’t Work and they basically … all a diet is is trying to eat less or differently than you would normally eat. By definition, a diet requires forcing yourself to do something that you wouldn’t do naturally and as a result of that, it requires a tremendous amount of will power, so the real issue is how can you deal with that. We have one technique that I write about in my e-book on eating, but there are various techniques that people have to deal with the need to eat. I called it “emotional eating,” you called it “defensive eating.” We have negative feelings that we don’t want to have. We either try to gain weight to remove ourselves from romantic or sexual situations or we eat because we’re triggered by neediness, by feeling unloved, by feeling depressed, anxious, bored, etc. So eating is a way of coping with negative emotions. Basically you need to …

Dr. Jamal : Well, I actually think that … I am sorry go ahead.

Morty : All I am saying is I have created one technique to decondition those triggers and I know that there are other techniques out there that people use to deal with emotional eating or defensive eating because diets, as I just said, don’t work in the long run. You can go for so long and then the pressure of doing something that’s not natural or normal just stops. You can’t do it anymore, so I am just wondering, did you ever create any sort of an approach that’s helped you when you feel a need to eat, it’s my protection against men, it’s my protection against sexual abuse if I am heavy. Have you been able to deal that or is it mainly just will power you’ve done?

Dr. Jamal: I don’t even know that is willpower. I would have to think about that a little more, Morty but I will tell you what, I have a different attitude about food.

Morty : Okay, tell what changed and how you changed it.

Dr. Jamal: Okay, my attitude about food is that food has its place. Food is meant to be an enjoyable experience and food is for eating in order to enjoy. So I have even gotten into making recipes, just thinking of good ways to make recipes to make my food interesting, which I really wasn’t involved in that. I really didn’t take into account what food was as much because it was a tool.

Morty: I got it.

Dr. Jamal: Now, it is enjoyment. Just say for example, I am getting ready to make these vegetables. I am not Susie Homemaker by any stretch of the imagination, but I am into herbs now and to actually getting my food to taste good, learning about food, the make-up of food, the vitamins that are contained in food. I am appreciating food for what food is.

Morty : I got you, but how did you make that switch? Because if you used food as a defense, as a way of covering up of negative feeling or way of getting heavy to keep men away, etc., then obviously you have a problem. If you were able to change what foods means to you, your attitude towards food, that obviously makes a big difference. How did you do that? Is there anything in particular that you could say at what point did food change from being a defense to being something just to be enjoyed and what it’s supposed to be in life. That’s something that we enjoy, we enjoy eating and we eat to survive. We need to get enough food in to nourish us, the right kind of food. How did you create that attitude from what you had prior?

Dr. Jamal: I am not exactly sure when that started. I would say as far as not using the food as a defense mechanism. I am not exactly sure at what period in my life it actually switched. You asked me that and I am going to go back and think about that but I will you this, my attitude about food now just began, I would say, in February. My husband and I went to Florida. I heard about Midge Lancet, something called “Living Lifestyle” or something where there is a lifestyle change and you want to be healthy. I believe that we are at that age … we are baby boomers. So we are at the age now where you have our attention. We want to be healthy. We have grandchildren. We have children. She was telling us about this and we went there for about a week and when you go to Midge’s house, you eat chicken soup. You can’t drink coffee and it is a very peaceful, relaxing atmosphere. What it did for us is it allowed the noise of the world to be cut off. There is no noise and so you can receive, right? We were watching the way she prepared food. She says, This is how I prepare food. I prepare it ahead of time so that I am not rushed. Actually a lot of the time the reason that people eat so poorly is because they don’t plan and she had to show us the short cut because you know, we are fast food people. This is how you can quickly plan your food. She had this crackpot with chicken and vegetables and right in front of our eyes, she put an apple in there. Right? We didn’t think that we would like it but just experimenting with food. It was fun! What she did was she kind of gave us that platform and we are doing it together and I think that that makes a difference. Just learning about supplements, learning about how our bodies operate, that, I believe, has helped me to see food differently.

Morty : That’s real interesting. Thank you. I appreciate that explanation. Margaret, would you say that you’ve had a weight problem in the last 5 or 10 years?

Dr. Jamal: Absolutely.

Morty: Did you still keep ballooning up and down? Do you still keep going up and then having to diet to come down or are you staying pretty steady?

Dr. Jamal: That’s what I am saying. I have just started losing. What happens is my mom passed about a year and a half ago and then my sister passed. I noticed that from the time my mom passes, I started getting heavier and heavier. I just noticed some pictures previously; I had no idea that I had even gained that much weight. I believe my friend who noticed it, other people noticed it but they didn’t say anything. You know that happens, right? It is not that I have been dieting or anything, I just was not eating the right way. I definitely wasn’t on a diet but if you don’t take care of yourself especially, like I said, when you get older our metabolism is different. It wasn’t even that I was eating a lot. It was just I had poor eating habits. So I am saying the eating habits that I have now, these new outlook as far as what food is there for, being able to enjoy food, I just got into that like I said in February.

Morty: And have you been losing weight eating that way?

Dr. Jamal: Oh my goodness. I have lost at least 20 lbs. I had clothes in my closet since my mother passed that now I can’t wear. This just happened since February.

Morty: That’s interesting in itself. Again, for the people reading and listening, without changing perhaps any emotional needs, without changing the need to eat, just eating healthily, just focusing on the good taste of it and learning about nutrition and different foods and experimenting foods, just eating healthily without trying to diet has taken off 10 pounds a month for the last 2 months.

Dr. Jamal: Absolutely. Again, appreciating what food is for, having fun with the food. My husband and I are getting up, making up little recipes, doing a little juicing here, drinking more water, just caring more about my health. Yes, it has made a tremendous, and a lot of times people say, You need protein. So I make sure I have added protein to my eating. I still pretty much eat what I want to eat. Oh, and then I cut out certain things that I realized are not good for my body, like gluten. I learned about gluten, to remove the gluten and not have so much of the starches in there and I don’t feel like I am depriving myself at all. I am actually eating better.

Morty: That’s great. Congratulations! That’s very exciting to hear.

Dr. Jamal: Thank you.

Morty: That’s pretty much it. Is there anything else? Like I said, I appreciate your taking the time to tell me your story and this is … if there is any advice that you might want to pass on to people who eat emotionally not because they are hungry but as a way of covering up feelings or defensively in some way or another, is there any final word you would like to give to them? Anything you’ve learned along the way yourself that might be useful to other people?

Dr. Jamal: Yes. One of the things is that eating in order to keep people away is unhealthy. It is definitely destructive. It is bad for you physically as well as emotionally and it does not stop. It can continue a cycle of chronic sicknesses where you will have other health issues such as diabetes, which runs in my family, high blood pressure, that will actually compound the problem and you might not even realize that really the foundation of your problem has to do with your eating.

Morty: Well, thank you so much. I very much appreciate your time, Margaret, and we are going to get this transcribed, get it up on our website and make it available to everybody and I am sure that many people will find your words useful.

Dr. Jamal: Okay, thank you for having me, Morty.

 

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