My Grandmother Jean was known for being a big talker. She told family stories, horror stories, funny stories. Although her specialty was dirty jokes, I remember her most for her words of wisdom. She repeated the same clichés that we all do, like “stop and smell the roses” and “good things come to those who wait,” but the aphorisms that have stuck with me all these years are the ones she created herself from her own lived experiences. My favorite of all of her sayings is one that I just came to truly understand in the past few years: “If you can’t learn, you’ve got to feel.”

After over 28 years of suffering, I was finally diagnosed with binge eating disorder on May 27, 2013. That day stands out in my mind because it marked the beginning of a new life for me. One that is free of bondage to food and compulsive eating behaviors that kept me sick mentally, spiritually, and physically since childhood. In addition to abstinence from some foods, my path to recovery has included counseling, drug therapy, meditation, group support, and writing. An essential key to establishing and maintaining my release from food addiction involves sitting with my feelings, which means when I feel overwhelmed by something in my life whether it be a current event or a painful memory or emotion, I need to allow those feelings to come instead of eating them away.

In one way I think my grandmother’s words were meant to be taken literally by me when I was a little girl. She would often shake her head when I was doing something she considered foolish or even dangerous, like climbing a too-tall tree or trying to crack a walnut with a rock. After all, if I couldn’t learn not to do something she told me was unsafe, then I certainly would learn when I fell to the ground or smashed my thumb.

In another sense, though, I think she would argue that those words applied to other matters as well. As in, if you can’t learn that your boyfriend is no good after the first time he went out with someone else, then you have to feel the break of your own heart to change your ways.

The night before I entered recovery, my grandmother’s words echoed in my mind for hours calling me to accept what I already knew to be true: I am a binge eater and I need help. But it wasn’t the signs and symptoms and advice that I denied for nearly three decades that pushed me onto the road to recovery. No, it was finally feeling the pain of not living a full life that led me to seek freedom.

That is why I believe that Grandma Jean was right, if you can’t learn you’ve got to feel, and I am grateful for it all—the pain, the joy, and my grandmother’s words that live on long after she has passed on.


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