This is third in a series of blog posts about how my autoimmune disease led me down the path of healing my relationship food. You can read the first post here.
I used to be a mechanical engineer.
In retrospect, that wasn’t the best career choice for someone like me. I like people more than projects, and I prefer crafts over calculations. Being human can’t be summed up with math problems but being a mechanical engineer has to be, so it wasn’t for me.
When I was in high school preparing for college, my mother nudged me in the direction of a degree with a clear career path. Both my sisters were communications majors. Mom had watched them flounder as they tried to figure out their paths. You don’t necessarily graduate with a communications degree and become a communicator, but when you graduate with an engineering degree, you do become an engineer. (Assuming an engineer is what you want to be.) I was good at math and science, so I took the engineering idea and I ran with it. When I arrived on campus my freshman year, my choice was affirmed by the prestige that came with being a woman in engineering. There were just a handful of us in the program and people were always singing our praises.
School was ridiculously challenging—the hardest thing I’d done in my life to that point—and to add to the stress, I always felt out of place. While my classmates were geeking out over the lathe and the computer-aided design machinery we got to use for our senior project, I worried about doing it right. The stark contrast of their excitement against my stress made me feel like an impostor.
For our senior project presentation, my job was to design a model that showed the inner-workings of a self-locking wheelchair my team had designed. I volunteered for this part of the project because it felt more like arts and crafts than engineering. My classmates were vying for a chance to use fancy equipment, while I comfortably worked on the equivalent of a fancy lego model. It’s not that I wasn’t smart enough or didn’t know how to use the fancy equipment, I just didn’t want to.
The day of our presentation, we set up in a thoroughfare hallway outside the library so passersby could engage and ask questions about our projects. The idea of someone asking me a question about our project put my stomach in knots. I understood the project, I just didn’t care enough to talk about it. I stood in the wide hallway thinking wow this is what I’ve signed up for…this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.
I had already gone through four and a half years of college to become an engineer, so I kept trekking along right into a career in engineering.
Out of school, I accepted a job as a process engineer with a prestigious international company. It was a little different from what I had studied. I was using many of my strengths —people skills, simplifying processes, creating synergy, problem identification and resolution— so I actually felt good about it. I felt like a productive team member, rather than just an impostor, but two years in, they dissolved my team.
I followed my manager to a different department, where I took on a more technical role, and the familiar feeling of knots in my stomach returned. I felt overwhelmed, ill-equipped, and inadequate, but somehow I was still in the running for a promotion.
At one point, one of my senior co-workers came by my desk to talk about grooming me for taking a leadership role over an important team. “When the time comes, you’ll be the only one doing this very important job,” he said. At that moment, I realized he thought I wanted that job because that’s what anyone climbing the ladder would want. In reality, that job was my worst nightmare. It had never been more obvious to me that I was in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing, so when my husband was offered a job in San Francisco, I was happy to start looking for a job for myself.
I had a problem, though. I didn’t want to be an engineer anymore, but I didn’t know how to be anything else.
So I did what anyone looking to make a “safe” career change would do. I looked for jobs that were tangentially related engineering, but not engineering. It seemed easy and it seemed logical, but it was completely ineffective.
At one point, a headhunter essentially asked me What are you doing? You don’t have the skillset to do the jobs you’re applying for, why don’t you apply for a job in the same field you’re already working in?
The realization that I didn’t have the skillset and experience to do anything other than what I was already doing was devastating, but I couldn’t give up. The idea of continuing to do the same soul-sucking job was more motivating than the rejection was discouraging. Sometimes being backed up against a wall is exactly what it takes to get creative about your exit strategy.
During this time, the chronic symptoms of my Hashimoto’s disease were the worst they had ever been. My husband knew how miserable I was and he wanted to give me the space to figure out my next steps for both my health and my career. He didn’t want to see me physically suffering and floundering from one job I hated to another job I hated. When he put it that way, I had to agree with him.
When we first agreed to move to San Francisco, we had run the numbers and come to the conclusion that I had to work. With our backs against the wall and my health continuing to deteriorate, there were things about our previous lifestyle that seemed far less important. Our original budget had included luxuries like eating out, weekend getaways, and expensively monthly salon visits. I always said that I would never sacrifice my hair, but all of a sudden I was happy to get my hair color done at the local beauty school.
I realize these are relatively minor sacrifices, but these were little things that had brought me joy for a long time—which is why they seemed like non-negotiables the first time we did the budget. When I looked at the big picture—the things that create true joy— making these sacrifices was a welcomed step towards finding a fulfilling career.
But I still had to find that career.
I had an inclination that I wanted to work with people like me— suffering through symptoms of an autoimmune disease and trying to find a way to heal their bodies naturally without sacrificing their sanity. I was certain psychology was the ticket to overcoming binge eating, and I was eager to learn how to leverage that. I enrolled in classes about nutrition and psychology. I went to therapy to get in touch with my feelings. I spent my days and nights reading anything I could find about diets, the psychology of dieting, autoimmune disease, and every other rabbit hole those search terms led me down, and then one Saturday morning it all came together in an instant.
Shortly after moving to San Francisco, I was clicking away at my computer when I landed on one of Marc David’s introduction to eating psychology videos. If I could go back and find that exact video now, I would probably think the music and the script are cheesy and that it’s missing essential information. In that moment; however, it was exactly what I needed. I was so inspired by Marc’s words about food being a doorway into a complex world of emotions, personal history, family history, and coping mechanisms. I remember thinking this combines everything I’ve been trying to figure out—it combines all of my strengths and interests.
I called my husband over, and we put the laptop on a tv tray to watch the video together. He watched intently, and when it was over he said, “this is so you,” because it was.
I had taken nutrition classes.
I had taken psychology classes.
I had embraced “inner work.”
The psychology of eating brought all my interests together. I felt what can only be described as a calling.
That same week, I applied to the psychology of eating certification program. For good measure, and to ensure I had all the pieces of the puzzle, I also applied for my nutritional therapy practitioner certification.
When you know, you know.
During my studies, I did a lot of reflection on my own relationship with food. I realized I had spent my late teens and all my 20’s living out of alignment with who I was. On the inside, I was warm, fuzzy, feelings-centered, and artistic. On the outside, I was a cut and dry engineering type. As a result, I had perpetually felt like an impostor, and it was stressful. It was stressful to go a job I hated. It was stressful to fake my confidence all day long, and it was stressful not knowing how to change the course of my career. Papa John’s and Krispy Kreme became my coping mechanisms for all that stress.
It’s crazy to think how desensitized to our stress we can become. When I was in the thick of my impostor syndrome, and the subsequent stress that drove me to eat my feelings, I wouldn’t have called it emotional eating. I didn’t know which feelings I was eating, and I didn’t know what was causing those feelings.
Now, over a decade after this stress saga began, I know that bringing awareness to my stress— or anything else I’m feeling—empowers me to choose how I’m going to deal with it, rather than mindlessly numbing it with food. These days, I take a regular stress inventory, and I ask my clients to do the same. Knowing the stressors and potential stressors in my life give me so much power to decide how I am going to proceed in order to feel the way I want to feel, rather than the way stress makes me feel.