By Sarah Simmons
It’s 3:58pm, known around the parenting world as the witching hour. Babies and toddlers are terribly whiny and you’re not sure what to do about it. It’s too early for dinner but it’s also too late to plan an outing. For me it’s a time where I restlessly walk around the condo past the accumulating crap of life, pile of laundry and the kids because I should and could be playing with them or folding the clothes or even getting to the closet that needs to be organized but I don’t. Instead my mind keeps wandering to food.
My dinners are the same every night. Some sort of vegetable with ranch dressing. The same so I don’t have to think about it. It’s light enough where I’m not full and then can go to town on what I really want, which are the cookies. But it’s not just a woman sitting down with 3 cookies on a plate daintily munching whilst watching Modern Family. It’s a woman shiftily going back and forth from living room to kitchen, like an alcoholic, to reach under the cabinet where one of the several 2 pound bags of animal crackers lie open, to grab handful upon handful until most of the bag –okay the entire bag- is empty. I crave these things all day long and try to plan it so I might possibly eat less. Like, maybe if I eat dinner late enough then I will be too sleepy to eat? It doesn’t work.
Eating has represented more for me than hunger. Food=control=suffering=filling a void. I don’t know how these things come to be or why I can’t just have a healthy relationship with food but I do know this:
I’m 37 and too old to be lying about who all the animal crackers are for when the Walmart cashier winks at my 2-year old and comments how she must love her cookies. I’m not a calorie counter but I know that there are over 3,000 in one of the bags that I just about polish off each day on top of other food. I’m a stay at home mom so I have kids that mean the world to me, in fact, they are my world. It’s just that what I eat and when I work out is the gravity in that world that in my twisted sense of reality keeps my days going. My mood correlates to exercise, specifically that I get it done and also if I eat too much I’m a stressed-out mess. Everything I do is done to make me feel safe ie. not guilty and with as many cookies as I eat in a day it doesn’t take long to make me feel bad.
I look normal. I’m average height and average weight (size 8 if you’re curious) so I look normal despite such abnormal eating habits. I don’t think I’m alone and without exact figures I’d wager that the percentage of women with distorted eating is high but what specifically constitutes disordered eating is probably varied and who’s to say what is okay or not – anyway, I guess it comes down to if the food you eat effects your self-esteem and your mood then it might be a problem. Therefore I definitely have a problem.
We all have our favorite foods and habits and behaviors that we like. I have seen people with their strict vegan/non-dairy/non-gluten/paleo etc. diets as well as women who have the 3 glasses of wine and a couple nachos diet and it works for them, or seems like it does.
For me I just know that what I’m doing isn’t good for me. Eating a giant bag of cookies each day is an addiction that numbs me out and once I start, whether at 10 in the morning or 7 at night as soon as the first handful enters my mouth I’m obsessively going back and forth to the kitchen for more. It’s a binge, really. Maybe not in the crazy strung out way that leaves the cupboards unhinged and empty boxes of donuts left in its wake, but crazy still.
And then there are the games of justification and rationalization where just one handful is okay, but that’s it. But one more is okay too. I just fight with myself over them, I want more. Just one more handful then that’s it. But you’ll feel better if you don’t. And then I’m stuffed and angry and more irritable than ever because I’m so full and also because I have no willpower over them and then I’m sad and ironically feeling quite empty.
And then I start wanting to feed everyone around me so I don’t feel so alone.
I’m aware of how pathetic this is, and sick and probably harmful but I ignore it because the addiction is earsplitting.
I have been like this for years, not exactly in this way but suffering from one varied version of dysfunctional eating or another. I can’t pinpoint an exact beginning when it started. It could have been official when I was diagnosed with anorexia and hospitalized when I was 13. But since I didn’t just wake up one day in a hospital bed it had to before.
When I was 7 I had a friend who had a mother who told my friend that she better watch her weight, that she was chubby. That friend over time made comments about herself, about her thighs and arms and belly. When we went over to her grandmother’s apartment we would weigh ourselves and she would tell me how skinny I was. All of it went over my head. I loved junk food and ate with relish and then I would play or whatever, not giving food a second thought. A few years go by and my friend moves to another state and I start to notice things about myself and had this itchy feeling that I wanted to be smaller. I had this book called Gymnastics that had a photo on the front of a girl high in the air doing a straddle jump. I remember looking at the cover in awe of her muscles and how strong she looked. I envied her but had mixed feelings about the book. I felt as if I didn’t deserve it since I wasn’t a gymnast myself. But I kept it on my bookshelf just to pull out once in a while to look at the cover.
Sometime around eleven or twelve the idea of a diet entered my head, perhaps leftover from my friend or something else. Somehow there was a link in my mind between a diet and what the gymnast looked like. One day I said to myself as my grandmother put a plate of eggs on toast, one of my favorite breakfasts, that this was the last time I was going to eat it. And then it was done.
I swore off eggs, then chips, French fries, ice cream, cake anything that I loved and was fattening. Looking at labels obsessed me. It was important to eat the same or less each day. Weighing myself set the tone for the day. The little needle, the barometer. My grandmother was hurt that I rejected most of her food barring plain baked chicken. She got to the point, after the observations that I wasn’t eating like I used to, where she asked what I had for breakfast and lunch. Anorexic people tend to lie and exaggerate and fudge the facts when asked directly about what they’re doing. I wasn’t above indirect answers but also couldn’t flat out lie so when she’d asked about breakfast I’d say toast with jam, the truth but only one bite.
I lost weight quickly and got attached to the constant thoughts and the high of food restriction; I felt empty and buzzy and accomplished. A day of manipulating my mind to avoid eating and the games I put myself through was exhausting. I grew fearful of food and weight and balancing the line of what is okay and how much and how to have less. I couldn’t see beyond the moment I was in. I didn’t fathom that it couldn’t go on, that the end would be a small death. Instead I focused on being small, not taking up space, not needing much to exist, a sick martyr. Giving in to food would be giving in to greed and then guilt. I had formed an identity as being thin and the fear of changing became incomprehensible.
I remember my aunt, who was as slim as they come, comment about one of my cousin’s friends who was eating with us that he did not need a second helping. “He’s big enough,” she’d said under her breath. My grandmother and I watched figure skating often and her thoughts about how the performance went centered around the skater’s “heavy legs” or “bit of a belly.” I internalized their opinions as mine. I didn’t want that kind of scorn to apply to me. I have always sought approval and for every criticism of a person for being overweight there was virtually nothing for someone being too thin. And then came a sense of superiority. Every time I passed on the popcorn at a movie or opted out of going in on a pizza I was strong. I’d also developed this idea that food, especially food that had fat in it was dirty. As stupid as it sounds I think it came from a toothpaste commercial I used to see where a bunch of thin people with huge white smiles were shown splashing around in water and eating apples. I associated happiness with being thin, and then kept apples as my main source of food.
Soon my grandmother, along with my aunt became concerned and brought me to the pediatrician. I was weighed and told that I was underweight and would I be able to gain a little bit on my own? I was given a couple chances and proved I couldn’t. The next step was to get checked out at a specialist’s office, which turned out to be the now defunct Newington Children’s Hospital. After a battery of tests I was told that my heart would give out if I continued to live this way. My blood pressure was dangerously low and the doctor wasn’t surprised at the number of times I had fainted in the previous months. This was scary to hear but my mind kept going to the part that truly petrified me: I was going to have to give up my routine and eat things I didn’t want to.
I was enrolled in a long term residential program and at first it was awful. Physically I felt as if my abdomen would explode with how full I felt multiple times a day. I had to get used to the inability to move or exercise and deal with suppositories. I cried and doubled over in pain as I called my grandmother but was told that if my phone calls were to only complain they would be restricted. Soon enough I got used to it and the achiever in me liked the structure and rules that if I followed them I would earn privileges. After 5 weeks of inpatient treatment and another month of day treatment (where I met other girls much worse off) I left at a healthy and stable weight. I entered the 8th grade better but still vulnerable to the mixed messages of junior high where I still envied other girls’ bodies and then on to high school where I channeled a lot of my anxiety into sports.
Since then I have had several setbacks, the worst coinciding when we moved into my in-laws but I have also had times when I was okay. I thought pregnancy would be hard but I had 2 healthy children and even felt admiration for my body instead of the usual discomfort.
Sadly, the desire to manipulate how I eat and how much I exercise is always there, in the background. Optimistically, I can say that I’ve come to live a somewhat normal life but eating new things or family dinners stress me out. I don’t know what keeps me thinking that food (or lack of specific foods) is the key to whatever lack I feel inside instead of living life with food as a means of nourishment and pleasure, but I know that what I continue to do, even if I’m not at risk medically speaking, isn’t working. Being a better role model for my daughters is more important than food. I can still choose to live in a way I won’t regret later. I can be more than this, I just have to figure out how.
Sarah Simmons is a 37 year old woman. She lives in CT with her 2 daughters that and prays they will have a better relationship with food than she does.