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Variations on a theme

Carol Coven Grannick and Judith Matz
Directors, Chicago Center for Overcoming Overeating

You may be familiar with the "Food House" fantasy exercise from When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies, workshops or OO tapes. In the fantasy you move from a peaceful, lush field of grass through a quiet, lovely wood, to a house that is there, just for you, with your name above the door, filled with whatever foods you want or need in whatever way you want to imagine them.

In the early part of your work with Overcoming Overeating, the fantasy helps you identify your food desires and tells you something about how ready you are to bring food into your home and life. Some people discover they feel calmed by the presence of all types of foods in very large quantities; others find that the availability of food seems overwhelming; still others discover that a particular "glitter" food has great meaning to them.

However, the Food House fantasy is a useful tool at any stage in the OO process, and therefore worth revisiting periodically. We'd like to show you how we use the Food House fantasy with women who are well into their OO work and discuss a variation of the Food House fantasy that extends its creativity to other aspects of the approach. First, let's take a look at how we use the Food House fantasy to help women who are feeling stuck with some aspect of the OO mechanics.

Tracy worked with the Overcoming Overeating approach for about one year. She had difficulty bringing food into her home because she did not feel entitled to have needs, let alone try to meet them. Stomach hunger frightened her. Throughout this time though, she tried to bring in a variety of the sweets that glittered for her. Gradually, Tracy began to give herself permission to get hungry but had no idea what to match with her body's signals. For several weeks in a row we used the Food House fantasy to help her learn about her desires. In week one, she imagined turkeys, hams, and stuffing. She bought and prepared these foods and felt great. The second week, she imagined a houseful of fresh breads; and the third week she filled her Food House and her real house with pasta and fruit. After several weeks, Tracy had a good feeling for the wide variety of foods she needs and loves. The fantasy showed Tracy how important it is to keep a large stock of a variety of foods, and how stocking made it easier for her to recognize that she does have needs. She will be in a better position to experiment with meeting her needs in general as she begins to respond to her food needs.

Another woman in the group, Claire, wanted warm home-cooked food, but felt she couldn't or wouldn't prepare it for herself. Claire had been working with OO for several years, and we thought that revisiting the Food House might shed some light on her problem. To our surprise, Claire's food house came up empty! On the one hand, this was strange given the fact that Claire had legalized food years ago and has always kept her home well-stocked. Yet in another way, because she has never prepared the cooked food she really wanted, her house is truly empty. What did all this mean to Claire?

Claire talked about her mother who died many years ago, and who cooked all during Claire's childhood, making delicious dinners and homemade breads. Claire feels the loss of her mother and wishes her mom were still around to take care of her. She associates the warm homemade foods with pleasant family time. In addition Claire and her husband are deciding whether or not to have children—a fuller house, so to speak. Not only did Claire's empty food house represent the absence of the real foods she wants, but also the loss of her mother and the uncertainty about creating a family of her own. Our work with the Food House fantasy has allowed Claire to start cooking for herself when she has the energy, and to buy prepared foods (the next best thing) for other times. Having these foods in her life is also helping Claire find pleasure in the memories of her mother.

True to the nature of OO in which concepts evolve and expand over time, the Food House fantasy was bound to expand and change as well. One morning in one of our groups we wondered, "Who says the food house has to be in the woods?" We decided to make the food house a "house without walls" using the following imagery:

"Close your eyes—breathe in and out and try to relax as much as possible… Now imagine yourself anywhere you'd like to be—a place that's special to you somehow… Just picture yourself there, quite comfortable and relaxed… Now imagine that somewhere in this environment is all the food you would ever want or need… Where is it? What does the food-place look like and how is it organized? How does it differ from the way your food environment looks or feels at home or work or on the road? Does your imaginary food environment feel truly complete? If something is missing, try to bring it in. When the food-place feels just right, look around, enjoy it, remind yourself that it is all yours and gently come back from the fantasy to where your are now… Breathe in and out… When you are ready, open your eyes."

For many women this fantasy helps clarify problem areas. Generally, what is missing in the fantasy is missing in a particular woman's life. In many of the fantasies, good caretakers such as chefs, hired shoppers and computer delivery services make food more available, and suggest creative possibilities for real life changes.

Given her chance to put her food supply wherever she liked, Charlene found herself in a convenience store with everything she wanted or needed at her fingertips. She had been working with OO for 3 1/2 years and was feeling successful in many areas, but she was having difficulty carrying a food bag. She had explored her resistance to carrying a food bag in many ways, but none of our work had helped her to actually carry food with her. This variation of the Food House fantasy brought to light a previously forgotten memory from the one time in her life (at age 18) when she had not dieted and instead, had relaxed around food. She ate what she wanted, and discovered that her weight stabilized at a comfortable level. At the time, she had a job in a convenience store! We talked about her food bag as a convenience store she could carry with her—an important thing for a busy woman to have nearby! When she thought in these terms, Charlene could see the food bag possibilities in a new way—not necessarily a bag with prepared foods, but a bag full of supplies, including food and utensils to prepare what she needed. Suddenly the thought of preparing the bag was less burdensome and more enjoyable.

We have found that we can tailor the Food House fantasy to accommodate particular issues. For example, Lisa, a survivor of her father's sexual abuse, has been working consistently and painfully to piece together a story of her childhood that makes sense to her. Often her work around demand feeding has paralleled her recovery from the abuse.

Lisa noticed that she feels overwhelmed when she has a bountiful supply of foods available. Invariably she allows the food to decay in the refrigerator. Through gentle and difficult work in group we began to see that the rotten food in her refrigerator has a lot of meaning for her. We discovered that each time Lisa felt stomach hunger, she was responding with annoyance and anger. Actually, she was re-enacting her mothers response when she, Lisa, was hungry and needed food as a child. To Lisa, it felt like her mother was saying, "Oh, you're hungry? Here—have some of this crap." The rotten food in her refrigerator haunted Lisa, but seemed essential. It repulsed her, yet drew her close—close to the experience of her relationship with her mother.

We used the Food House fantasy to help Lisa in this stuck place. We suggested that in her fantasy, she could stock her food house with rotten and spoiled food. As she did, Lisa said, "It was filled with everything I want and love," she told us, "but it was all spoiled." With painful clarity, the fantasy revealed Lisa's childhood longings for love, attention and the nurturing she deserved, but that "all felt spoiled" by her father's sexual abuse and her mother's denial of any problems.

Lisa's rotten food represented not only her relationship to her mother but also her rage at the spoiled years of her life. Her Food House fantasy opened the door to exploration of the dual nature of Lisa's feelings toward her mother—the painful longings for closeness, and the rage and disappointment at her mother's inability to respond to her needs. As Lisa gently experiments with providing good matches for herself, we anticipate that she will ultimately feel comfortable with good food provided by her own hand.

The flexibility and adaptability of the Food House fantasy gives it a special place in the OO process. Try using it—or your own variation of it—when you are feeling stuck in some particular aspect of your work, or you are feeling on track, but still looking for a way to gather more information. The Food House fantasy is adaptable to many situations; your imagination is the key to continual self-discovery on your path to good caretaking.

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