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The Emptiness

            The more successful I become at Intuitive Eating, the more I have to face the sadness of not being able to use food to fill the emptiness. I don’t know why I describe it as emptiness when it seems so full of pain, but it’s so black in there, and it’s all so un-see-able and un-name-able that it appears empty to me. I think I became a writer in order to try to name the emptiness, but I’m still working at it.

“The word you’re looking for is ‘woof.'”

            Is it really sadness that I feel when I tell myself that it’s time to stop eating, or it is anger, or frustration, or disappointment? The first feeling that comes up is that it reminds me of being on the bumpy train with Mom from Paris to Versailles when I was sixteen years old, with no air-conditioning and a severe case of motion sickness. It feels physical, as if there are gears and strings in my belly and they are being pulled and pushed and making creaking noises, just because I won’t let myself eat another two hundred calories of whatever. And every time I try to define the feeling or suggest an activity to distract myself from it, this voice in my belly screams, NO!

“That’s my favorite word!”

            I keep picturing this space as an emptiness that needs to be filled, but the physical feeling is as if I swallowed a sharps container at the doctor’s office and all of these needles and blades are roiling around in my belly. I felt a lot of this as a teenager, but back then the sharps seemed to be in my veins, traveling through my arms and legs and into my skull, and I couldn’t name those emotions either, I just knew that they were unbearable.

            I know all of the things that I’m supposed to try to do in order to fill the void and soothe the pain, like meditation, or a bath, or exercise, or reading a book, etc. Reading and writing are, of course, my reliable old friends, but I’ve also tried different exercise programs and music and movies and craft projects over the years. Knitting used to help, and then coloring and puzzles. But sometimes the emptiness is so persistent and so prickly that nothing works. All I can feel is the sharp, bristling, feathery pangs of something as it scrapes across my insides and whispers hopelessness to me over and over again.

            In fact, a lot of the activities that are supposed to be soothing – like meditation or yoga or baths or massages – create more panic and agitation for me, and stir up the sharp things that live in the emptiness, instead of calming them down. It seems so unfair to have all of these weapons aimed at me from the inside.

            I think some of what’s in the emptiness is a need to fight or flee, even as my body freezes in place and waits for the danger to pass. It would be like catching a humming bird in a glass ball and feeling the endless beat of her wings while she can’t get out. The endless activity and rapid heartbeat and desperation for escape all lead to utter exhaustion, with no sign of an enemy anywhere nearby to explain the need to fly away.

            I keep hoping that if I can name the sharp things, and bring more light into the void, then I’ll be able to soothe the pain, but that hasn’t worked yet.

            Part of the problem is that the panic – that there will be no way to soothe the whatever-it-is that I can’t even name – is profound. And eating something often does stop the panic. The panic is then replaced with shame at overeating, and hopelessness that I will ever lose weight, but the chaos and the panic do subside with food, and in that moment, that’s the most important thing.

“Food is magical!”

            So here I am, feeling the sharp things in the emptiness, resenting them, and trying not to use food to solve the problem. Now what?

“Have you tried chicken?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

81 responses »

  1. I impress your thought

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  2. I feel you! I have been very stressed lately and I love to eat. I think it’s partly because of that stress even I always loved good food but somehow I feel I need delicacys more than before. Like nothing’s enough and I’m never satisfied. Specially sweets I could be eating almost all the time but I don’t allow myself to do that. I try to reduce sugar what’s really difficult!!

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  3. Dear Rachel,

    So many of us have the feeling of emptiness, loneliness, and anxiety. Often it stems from being told negative things or experiencing negative behaviors from others causing us to build walls to protect us from further hurt or harm. I am a child abuse survivor. The ache of why or how to fill it I think causes us to feel deeply and sometimes we may fill it negatively or with good or bad action… I am glad that you are writing and as myself taking step by step to get our words on paper. Excited to read more of your expression. Thank you for sharing your voice. Julia

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  4. Thank you for your courage in writing this; it was so powerful. I too have been trying to be more willing to feel the feelings, to set aside the fear and panic if I feel hungry. I’m sorry that you are also going through this but hope you know that you are not alone, and it is comforting to know that I am not alone in this, either.

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  5. I wish I had an answer, I really do. May the Lord give you peace.

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  6. Keep seeking the balance that will maintain your health, and help you heal. Love and hugs, 🐾

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  7. Oh Rachel, it’s so good to read your post. I relate so much to the feelings you describe.

    Sometimes a WP glitch of some kind unfollows me from blogs and I don’t even know it until it dawns on me that I haven’t seen any new posts from a particular blogger in awhile. That must have happened with you. I found a starving dog abandoned on the highway several days ago, and I brought her home. Something about this little sweetie made me think of you and the pictures you post of your fur babies. She isn’t the same breed at all, but she has such a sweet personality. As I thought about you and your fur kids, I realized that I hadn’t seen you post in awhile. So I searched for your blog and discovered that I had to follow you again.

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    • Such a lucky dog to be found by you!!!!

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      • Awww thank you. ❤

        I found all 3 of the dogs we now have, abandoned on the streets. I found our small standard poodle, Scrappy, as a little puppy, injured, starving, and covered with ticks and mites, in 2014. In 2016 I found our big mystery mix dog, Baby. The vet said she was probably about one year old then. This newest one, Angel, is probably 7 months old. Going by her appearance and characteristics, she may be an Australian Koolie dog. I had never heard of that breed. I can’t imagine how she ended up abandoned on the streets of Santa Rosa, New Mexico!

        When I get some free time, I’m going to write a post, with pictures, of our three dogs. 😀

  8. So sorry the feeling of emptiness continues to plague you. Glad you keep striving for more balance in your life.

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  9. Great book about intuitive eating : Eat to Love by Jenna Hollenstein. She tears strips of all the conventional weight loss organisations WW included. Says they all stand to profit from women’s insecurities. we are who we are !

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  10. I’m sure you are not alone in this, and it’s so good that you can write about it so eloquently. Well done, Rachel. You’ll be all right.

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  11. So sorry to hear you’re having such a tough time and wishing I could suggest something helpful.

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  12. Omg, Rachel you are so eloquent. I wish I could wave a magic wand to make your sorrows vanish. You’ve been through so much, and the fact that you can write so intuitively speaks well of you and your intelligence.

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  13. Wonderful piece. I hope it’s okay, but I laugh at every picture and caption. They’re hilarious!

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  14. I feel for you Rachel. Comfort eating is very familiar, especially when stressed. I’m taking time out from my diet programme, paying for it on the scales, but feeling better in myself. Hugs and treat by proxy to Cricket and Ellie. They are a great comfort I’m sure, and calorie free. Talk care.

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  15. It sounds like you are going through a rougher than usual patch right now. I never think that the answer lies in books, or the well-meaning advice of others. It can only come from inside.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  16. Such a powerful, relatable piece. This amazing image alone: “like catching a humming bird in a glass ball and feeling the endless beat of her wings while she can’t get out.”🌷 💖

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  17. I love the plot of Yeshiva Girl. People find sanctuary in all sorts of places, don’t they – and nothing is ever as simple as it might seem at first glance. Great post.

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  18. I feel like there is a larger metaphor here. I think many of us are guilty of trying to use something, be it food, money, materialism, status, relationships/other people, etc. to fill a different-shaped emptiness within ourselves. (Lord knows I am extremely guilty of this myself) To recognize that it won’t really work makes that emptiness feel even sharper. But it’s also a first step to real change.
    Good luck on your journey!

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  19. Ice cream temporarily fills my existential void, but diabetes limits that remedy. I believe nobody completely gets over these feelings–they just get pushed aside for awhile.

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  20. Ya know having just gained a $50 gift certificate for my birthday for Amazon. I’m hunkering down on your book. 😁

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      • I don’t want to pry or assume, but it seems like you have more going on than food and eating. I have felt those emotions and physical sensations as well. Many people have commented how you captured the words perfectly, and I couldn’t agree more.

      • Thank you! I think most food (or drug, or overwork or over exercise etc) issues come from a deep place and a deep pain. The problem is when we treat these profound problems as if they can be solved with a diet, or will power, instead of nurturing and compassion.

      • Absolutely. A lot of times we don’t know that’s what’s going on though, unless we have wise people who can help us out. It doesn’t make the problem go away, but at least we can understand it some.

  21. I think that feeling of emptiness and the intolerable itch that takes over my mind when it’s at rest is why I work so much and constantly try to fill my time with projects even on the weekends. I hope someday not to fill the emptiness, but to be at peace with it.

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  22. Rachel, The image of the hummingbird in the glass ball, fluttering and flapping her wings, resonates with me and the feelings in my gut. I, too, use food as balm (most recently moose tracks fro-yo, but anything chocolate will do) and I tell myself that it is better than alcohol (which I used to use in copious amounts). Meditation, prayer, knitting, etc. help me but none of it takes away the anxiety. I have learned to live with it and see the gift of it as making me more compassionate/less judgmental of people who struggle with inner turmoil. Just because people can’t see it does not mean it does not exist (I long ago got tired of people saying, “You don’t seem like someone who is anxious.”) Thanks for sharing. Your writing is a gift.

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  23. P.S. I think movement and dancing help me more than anything.

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  24. I know that it’s of little comfort, but you aren’t alone. Many of us (me among them) understood immediately when you described that sharp emptiness. What I can offer you (from a greater perspective of being older than you ((not necessarily wiser)) ) is the hard fact that it will get easier. From time to time it will still hurt as much, but you’ll come to anticipate those times and be able to find your own way to cope with it. If you aren’t doing it already, I’d strongly suggest some professional help for a while. The problem is (as I see it anyway and how it was for me) is that we have to take our MINDS off the emptiness and the pain. That’s a tough thing to learn to do, let alone feeling deprived because we aren’t stuffing the pain hole with food. We have to change our perspective. Hard work. Don’t do it alone. I admire you greatly because you do come here and share this. Many hide in the shadows thinking there’s something wrong with them for feeling that way. Hug the dogs too. Canine therapists are the BEST!

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  25. Keep persevering for light and positivity. Eventually, you will overcome. I only know because I am an anxiety case… i never thought I’d be in control of it, but God healed me that I can find contentment in all the dysfunction. In my own dysfunction. In the mud, we can be clean. Just dont stop believing and you will see 😘

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      • I am your biggest skeptic. God’s power is true. The more we make it who we are the more we are empowered by it. I am a completely different person. I once was so lost, i was hospitalized!! How did I ever think that who I am now would be possible? Keep persevering! I live for the struggle now 🤗 btw, thx u for your encouragement!!

  26. Apple–when I still want to carry on eating but full already, or know I should stop, I eat an apple. That seems to do the trick–for me, at least! 🍎🍏 (Chicken would have been nice, as Ellie suggests.)

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  27. Big hugs. Pet and hug your puppies.

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  28. If you had told your story to my grandmother, she would have said, “Have a snack, Rachel, you’ll feel better.” She might have added, “You’re too thin.” I kid you not.

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  29. Such is the nature of PTSD. We re-live the past in the present. There are no easy answers, at least none that I have found. Just be kind to yourself, Rachel. ❤

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  30. So descriptively vulnerable. Thank you for sharing. I wish I had words to give to help, but I don’t. Holding space for you, though, and I see and know you are stronger and more resilient than you think. 😘

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  31. So do you think it’s a purely psychological thing that masquerades as physical pangs or a void, or are you genuinely not getting enough nutrients?

    I went vegetarian in 2015 and thought I was getting enough protein, but particularly within the past year I’ve suffered productivity-destroying fatigue. I began taking a proper multivitamin, which helped, but it wasn’t until I began taking a protein powder supplement that I realized how protein deficient I’d been, and how much difference it made in how I feel.

    I mention it because perhaps you’ve got a deficiency, not necessarily with protein. Perhaps that hunger is your body screaming at you that you need certain nutrients. It’s worth checking out.

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  32. Hi Rachel, I agree with you that food is a comfort but sometimes it can get out of hand can’t it. Good on you for putting this out there. Know that you’re stronger than you think. Baby steps …

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  33. I’m trying hard to keep from filling the space left by my losses this year with food. I get your struggle.

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  34. Rachel, your description of your personal struggle and emotions is so poignant and accurate. I hope you can find solace with your faith, and of course those lovely girls of yours. Much love x

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  35. The pain from our childhoods cannot be easily healed. I at least could count on food once I left home. As a child we did not have enough to eat, so I did not learn to know feelings of fullness. I think that to discover that we have two tubes in our center, one for food, one for love, takes a lot of time and patience. May you continue to be gentle with yourself.

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  36. Hopefully, the fact that over 200 bloggers have read this post and probably pulling for you should give you a glimmer of some positive karma. Hang in there, lady, and hug your dogs for me.
    Art

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  37. I don’t know, Rachel. For me, i just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I try something, if it works, i practise it until i get good at it before i try anything else. If it doesn’t work or stops working, i put it down and try something else. When my mood/outlook is good, i can look back and whatever progress i see i can appreciate and feel good about. When my mood is off or my outlook is grim, i try my best not to look back, because i know it’ll likely make things worse.

    These issues are full of nuance and they’re all twisted around each other and so hard to unravel, i think. There is, in my experience, power in the act of trying. A power that can be built on, whether one fails or succeeds in the attempt.

    Hang in there lady. Your sharing helps me, and i’m sure i’m not the only one.

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  38. I don’t want to sound condescending, but I used to have that void and emptiness inside. What filled it for me was a personal relationship with Jesus, God’s Son. He sent the Holy Spirit to live inside me after I accepted Him as my Lord and Savior and I’ve never been empty since. I realize you are Jewish and probably not a believer in Jesus, but He is the Miracle in my life that secured my freedom from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse by my father – and all the painful things since. I’ll be praying for you to find the filler that works for you. God bless you. You are so talented and beautiful and you have a wonderful and unique thought building pattern that is an inspiration. May God’s Peace find you.

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