Jessai Flores

My grandmother sent me gingerbread cookies when I passed my Licensed Master Social Worker exam on the first try. She was the first person I told as I left the testing center, and I called her crying with relief and ecstasy. “I’m so proud of you! I’m sending you gingerbread cookies!” Sure enough, a few days later, a box of gingerbread snaps arrived at my doorstep. It was like a fairytale, except instead of a witch on a broomstick, it was my Grandmother using her Amazon Prime. I ate one, and then chewed and spat out the rest. 

Yes, you read that right. I chewed the rest of the gingerbread cookies, and then spat out the rest into a napkin and threw it in the garbage. 

Mirror, mirror on the wall, 

Who’s the therapist and who’s the fraud? 

You just passed your LMSW, and here you are with your own eating disorder.

I tried waving my hand to shoo it away, but the voice got louder. And it brought its twisted sisters named Pain and Memory with it to haunt me. You don’t deserve pleasure, nor anything that tastes good. Deny yourself everything you want. It will keep you safe.

But don’t doctors get the flu? Don’t dentists get cavities? Must therapists be perfect to be competent and effective? As a social worker and therapist, I know that perfection is a toxic myth. I say this often to my clients when I facilitate my Dialectical Behavior group therapy. Dr. Marsha Linehan is right — radical self-acceptance is the key to healing. 

But when I googled “treatments for chewing/spitting disorder” nothing seemed to come up. Where are the interventions? Where are the clinical studies on treatment plans for this eating disorder? The Google Gods were oddly silent. From the few research articles I found, chewing and spitting begins as a maladaptive coping mechanism by which we attempt to regulate distressing emotions. It also might begin as a way to control the number on the scale. Most studies label it as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. Whether weight loss is a trauma response or a way to alter body image, the reason for the behavior is the same: a need to feel loved and safe. 

But if you ever open yourself up to the possibility of pleasure you will only be met with the pain of loss. Best to spit it out first; at least then you can control it.

That same voice shaming me into thinking I’m not worthy to be a clinician (just because I chew and spit my food when I’m triggered), is the same voice telling me to chew and spit out my food. 

I love gingerbread cookies. Whenever I eat them, it reminds me of the Grimm fairytale, Hansel and Gretel. I still read fairy tales every night. At least one, sometimes two. You might think fairy tales are just for children, but we all need them.  

Hansel and Gretel is one of my go-to’s for dealing with my own disordered eating habits. The tale has been changed a bit to make it more palatable, but I prefer the original version. In the real Grimm story, it’s not an evil step-mother — it’s Hansel and Gretel’s own mother who convinces their father to abandon them in the forest. Isn’t that awful? I feel like it’s more acceptable to think of a step-mother as being a villain, but there’s something about a mother who has a real blood bond with her children that makes the child abuse and neglect more distasteful to the reader. You’d think child abuse would be heinous regardless. It feels worse — implausible, even — that a mother or father would hurt their own flesh and blood.

And yet, I see this everyday in my clinical work. Regardless of our age, we are all children wandering alone in a dark forest, trying to find breadcrumbs of the love we so desperately crave. Maybe we’re all products of traumatic displacement; our parents forget how to nurture their own inner-child, and so treat their children with the harshness and severity that they experienced growing up. Generational trauma compounds on itself. We are not only dealing with our own pain, we’re trying to work out our parents’ and their parents’ as well. 

Is that all that life is? A swirling vortex of displaced trauma? 

Anyways, back to the fairytale. So they’re abandoned by their parents. Then the bread-crumb bit; they find the gingerbread house. They’re starving because their own mother wouldn’t let them eat, so they pick crumbs off the gingerbread house. 

The witch sings out to them: 

“Nibble, nibble, gnaw

Who is nibbling at my little house?”

The children answer:

“The wind, the wind,

The heaven-born wind…”

The witch coaxes them inside, taking the role of a nurturing mother. She feeds them delectable treats, enslaves Gretel, and fattens up poor Hansel — you know the rest. But the part of the story that no one talks about is that throughout the tale, food and love are both used as a manipulative tool. Attention and affection are weaponized, and used to enslave poor Hansel and Gretel. What’s even more disturbing is how the witch wanted to eat the children. Maybe it’s not about cannibalism at all, but a metaphor for how the witch was so desperate for love herself, that she was willing to use food as a trap. 

Think about it: who loves an isolated witch? Maybe the witch is just another metaphor for our own inner-child who wasn’t loved in the way she needed. 

But at the end, though, we see Hansel and Gretel claim their own agency and healing. The Grimm story says this: 

“…they saw from afar their father’s house. Then they began to run, rushed into the parlor, and threw themselves round their father’s neck. The man had not known one happy hour since he had left the children in the forest.” 

Healing is found in an embrace. 

Hansel and Gretel is a complex story about mimetic desire, jealousy, food and affection. I could comment on how this tale would benefit from structural family therapy, and I think Salvador Minuchin would agree with me that the maladaptive pattern of behavior is to withhold love and affection, and treat it as a scarcity (like food). If we do not feel safe at home, or if we do not feel like we can count on love or affection being shown to us in the future, then we might develop patterns of self-denial and self-rejection. In order to mitigate the anxiety of not feeling loved or nurtured, it feels empowering to deny ourselves the thing we crave most. We see this pattern play out in myths and fairytales. And also eating disorders. 

But I hold the pen now. I am writing my story. Instead of chewing and spitting out my gingerbread cookies, I am going to build myself a house. No, a home. A gingerbread home within myself of love and affection, of gentleness and tenderness. A place so warm and inviting, that other people will want to visit too. I invite you to do the same for yourself. Give your inner-child the attention and care she needed, but didn’t receive. What did you need your parents to tell you? Maybe you needed a hug. You wished your father would have played with you. Perhaps your mother neglected you. Maybe your father was abusive. 

I wish I could wrap all your traumatic memories in a cinnamon bun and bake them away with sweet words and hugs. But that’s not what you need. You must validate your feelings, honor your pain, and embark on the worthwhile-but-challenging journey of healing. And guess what? Now you get to “mother” and “father” yourself in all the ways that you need. 

“I’m so proud of you,” “You’re working so hard,” “I see how much you care,” “Thank you for believing in yourself,” “What a gentle, sensitive soul you are”. You must say these things to yourself. Write them out on pieces of paper if you have to. Be gentle with yourself.

Am I in therapy? Of course. Every therapist needs a therapist. I’m working hard on myself, because I believe in my own healing, and you should too. 

So build your inner-house. Use Kerrygold butter to bake your gingerbread home, put gumdrops on your door handles, pink frosting on your window panes, and candy canes across your inner-lawn. Decorate your own gingerbread house inside yourself, and embrace the beauty of radical self-acceptance. Making your own inner-world sweet and lovely makes you impervious to other people’s harsh words.

You deserve more than breadcrumbs. You deserve to embrace your own healing, self-acceptance, self-love and also gingerbread cookies. 

*This essay was not written to replace the need for professional help. If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, it is important that you first go to your primary care provider and talk about resources that are available for your healing. After meeting with your doctor, you might visit these resources for more information and help: 

 National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

NAMI aims to offer education, support, and public awareness of mental health issues.

  • The NAMI helpline (1-800-950-6264) provides information, support, and treatment referrals to those with mental health conditions. It’s available Monday through Friday.
  • NAMI offers support groups throughout the country for people with different needs