By Judy Harper
My daughter had her 15th birthday party at our house a few months ago. Eight teenage girls converged at our home and had the 2019 version of the classic sleepover: they scrolled through Instagram, watched YouTube videos, listened to Billie Eilish, ate a lot of junk food, talked about their crushes, giggled, and stayed up really late. The next morning, I tip-toed past the mass of girls sleeping in my living room, and went into the kitchen to dutifully make the breakfast my daughter had asked for: bacon and chocolate croissants. The young women ate their breakfast and the sleepover wrapped up at 10:30 a.m., with a mountain of blankets, wrapping paper, and leftovers for me to clean up. Oh, those leftovers. Pizza, croissants, bacon, cupcakes, chips…
Do you know how this story goes? What do you do with the leftovers? Do you throw away the slightly stale chips? What about the pizza? I do, eventually, end up throwing away the pizza, but not after I spend the majority of the day binge eating leftovers. I eat a chocolate croissant, a chocolate-covered donut, and five pieces of bacon at 11:30 a.m. About an hour later, I have a piece of pepperoni pizza, and at 2:00 p.m., I have four more pieces of pizza: two pepperoni and two cheese (I don’t eat the crust, though, you know, because I’m watching my carbs). Then, I drink two diet Cokes and sit down, stunned and dazed, in a sweaty stupor. The next day, I will throw away the pizza and the chips, but not yet. On this day, I just sit there, trying to pretend like it’s OK that I ate this because tomorrow will be different.
Do you do this, too, or is it just me?
That night, I sleep fitfully, having to get up to drink water and eat handfuls of Tums. When I do sleep, it is fitful and shallow. The next morning, I wake up, groan, get on the scale, and groan again. This number that I hate is staring at me, judging me, and this body that I hate and treat with such contempt is there, on full display, the symbol of my neglect and addictive tendencies. I want to cry, or scream, or punch something, but I don’t let it out. I never let it out. Instead, I start to scheme about how not to end up here again, ever, while also trying to forget all that I ate the day before. It’s a complicated dance requiring careful and exacting footwork that has to be performed in a specific sequence, and, usually, it works. It involves frantic, non-stop thinking, scores of internet searches, dozens of podcasts, trips to the library and, of course, Amazon purchases. It involves promises and lists and the constant, thrumming noise of trying to tune out of the pain and into something more comfortable.
I try to forget the pizza, the donut, the sweating, the Tums, and I focus on what I’m going to do to make sure this never happens again. The fixation on the image of the perfect life I’m going to start living just as soon as I’m done showering and getting dressed keeps me somewhat occupied as do the internet searches and lists of things I need to do and buy in order to finally become better, to finally become the perfect woman, like the one I see on-line who runs her own blog, makes her own soap, raises five children, runs half marathons in under two hours, and works on her PhD in psychology in her spare time. I want to be perfectly reconstructed into the woman I heard interviewed on NPR, the one who overcame horrific traumas and a severe learning disability to triumphantly publish her first novel and find herself short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The options and variations of who I want to become are endless; I can be the athletic intellectual, the intellectual comedian, or the quirky eco-warrior. The images dance in my head and for a while, I’m drawn into the creation of the woman I will soon become.
When I used to drink, this part of the morning took much longer…the frantic and desperate attempts to piece together what I’d done the night before, and often, no matter how hard I tried, not being able to remember. Those mornings were far darker and more torturous than the post food-binge mornings, but the action is the same: trying to twist time and memory into something other than what they are. Trying to find the space inside my soul where there is respite, coming up empty, and then replacing that respite or self-forgiveness with stuff…mental exercises, frantic writing of to-do lists, texting friends in search of validation, reading blogs, searching for new gyms, and reading about diet programs, and so on.
Wanting to forget something is almost as difficult as trying to remember, but a little less painful, and as my day progresses, I slip into that dark internal abyss of loathing and hatred—why did I eat all that? Why can’t I say no? Why can’t I control myself? Why do I eat until I can’t see straight? Why can’t I do better? Why can’t I be better? Why can’t I be someone else?
This continues for hours. I distract myself and then I have a fleeting thought that I wish I hadn’t thrown the pizza away because a slice or two sounds good. Then, I hate myself for having that thought, and sink back down into the awfulness.
This takes hours, and the ping-ponging between the highs and lows exhausts me. With each thought of the shiny new me that I’m going to forge comes also the crashing thought of a life without the escape of pizza or chocolate or chips or blogs or podcasts or internet searches.
And I am so uncomfortable there, in that swinging back and forth between the highs and the lows, that I grab my notebook and write out “the plan” to turn myself into someone else, someone completely new and different. Anything to get away from my thoughts.
The plan takes shape: I’ll never eat sugar again, goes the familiar refrain. Not one bite. I’ll also never eat anything with artificial sweeteners in it, oh, and of course, I’ll never eat chips or crackers again. Better to just wholesale go 100% Paleo and dedicate my life to eating this way. I’ll clean the whole house, top to bottom, organize every single drawer and cabinet. I’ll clean out my closet. I’ll write my book. I’ll run 5 miles every single day and do yoga, too, becoming that person who wakes up at 5:00 a.m. and cheerily goes about her day, non-stop, until 11:00 p.m. I’ll be that perfectly busy living that perfect life. Oh, and I’ll stop chewing my cuticles, too.
The day moves forward smoothly from here; I have now found an escape from my thoughts and I have a plan. I have eggs and avocado for breakfast, but I put milk in my coffee, which isn’t strictly Paleo. It’s OK, I tell myself. I’ll go to Whole Foods today and buy coconut almond creamer. This is the last time I’ll ever do this. I put my earbuds in, turn on a podcast, furiously clean the stove and sweep the kitchen. Then, armed with a list of 25 items that will make my life perfect, I head off to Whole Foods.
I arrive and walk optimistically through the store, filling my cart with things that will save me: pasture-raised eggs, ghee, cabbage, avocados, plantains, tomatoes, and ideas for recipes and images of the way everything will be when my life is perfect flood through my head. I find the coconut almond creamer and put three of them in my cart…if I’m going to change my life, wholly and completely, right now, today, I better be armed with groceries. A thought pops into my head: maybe I should give up caffeine, too, as I am far too reliant on my daily cup. But I manage to shut down the thought.
I move easily past the beer and wine aisle, grateful that the siren call of alcohol no longer plagues me. I turn the corner and see the banner hanging from the ceiling, a picture of a happy, achingly beautiful young mother, next to her cloyingly pretty little girl, and they are smiling at a tray of sponge cake, whipped cream, and beautiful berries. Shit, I remember, my thoughts and spirit sinking, I told my daughter we’d go downtown and go clothes shopping and get ice cream at our favorite place. What am I going to do? Watch her eat the ice cream? Eat some myself? Find a sugar-free, dairy-free variety? Shit.
I turn the final corner in my sojourn toward perfect living and I see the bakery, and the slices of cake and the cookies and chocolate bars. And, in an instant, I put two chocolate bars—one with almonds, one without—in my cart, right next to the cabbage and tomatoes and plantains, and I walk to the register. There is a low-level buzzing in my head, and a voice that just keeps saying “it’s OK. Just this once. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. This doesn’t mean anything.”
I pay, walk to my car, and carefully load in the $158 worth of organic, locally sourced groceries into the trunk. I slip the chocolate bars into the pocket of my sweatshirt and I get in my car. Before I can think or look at myself in the rearview mirror, I start the car and turn up the volume on the podcast I was listening to, and I quickly begin eating one of the chocolate bars. I try to eat one square at a time and savor it, but, of course, I don’t. I can barely taste the chocolate, but it is pulling me out of the feeling of fear I have of the groceries in the trunk and before I’m out of the parking lot, the first bar is done. I’m now waiting to get to a red light so I can rip open the second one, which I devour almost as quickly as the first. As I drive down the street, my teeth aching dully and my head buzzing, I feel a wave of sadness descend over me. I pull into my driveway, and, feeling like a fraud, I unload the groceries and carelessly put them away.
I stand in the kitchen, staring into space. I have worn myself down. I can’t figure out a way to justify the chocolate. It doesn’t make sense. I am not angry at myself anymore nor do I have thoughts of how to fix this, either. I’m just done, spent. An entire morning of bouncing between self-loathing and desperate attempts to pull myself out of it render me exhausted. I spend the rest of the day half-listening to podcasts, walking the dog, skimming through some work, and cobbling together a dinner of leftovers.
I don’t cook anything using the ingredients I bought at Whole Foods; they just remind me of what a failure I am, remind of the chocolate, which then reminds of the pizza, which then reminds me of the time I ate an entire container of French onion dip and a whole bag of potato chips and the roof of my mouth ached for days, which then reminds me of the time I drank so much that I passed out on the couch and spilled a glass of whiskey on the floor, which then reminds me of the time in college when I threw up on the stairs of someone’s house at a party, and so on. These thoughts are so painful that I shut them down the only way I know how, by stuffing them down with food or with podcasts or with Wolf Blitzer sharing 20,000 breaking news stories.
A week later, I find the cabbage that I had planned to braise with onions and tomatoes in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator, rotten. I put it in the garbage and see that the tomatoes on the kitchen counter are shriveled, and as I throw them away, I turn on a podcast and turn up the volume.
Have you ever done this? Anything similar to this? Or am I the only one? What is your thing? Is it food? Alcohol? Shopping? Perpetual busy-ness?
Drinking was, by far, the most destructive of my habits, and I’m so glad I quit. But food is also very destructive, and removing alcohol hasn’t cured me of what truly ails me: fear of my self. Not “myself”, but my self…my soul, my inner-most me. I don’t know her, probably never have. I’m afraid of what I might find if I do, and so I avoid her. I fear so terribly that she’s some awful disappointment that I distract myself in every way I can conceive, purposefully blind to the consequences.
Can you relate? I ask because I have a hunch you can. This isn’t about food addiction or alcohol addiction or cell phone addiction…those things are the consequence of the core issue: not knowing ourselves and not having the time or space (or desire) to actually know who we are. The most common manifestation of this is the Instagram moment or the duck-lipped selfie pose, those very falsely manufactured moments intended to show us something real. But of course, they aren’t real. They are fake, and yet we somehow elevate them in our consciousness and create ideas about how our lives are supposed to mirror this ideal.
I’m not writing about anything new here. For years, we’ve known that the internet and especially social media are robbing us of some aspects of real life, and I don’t know if my particular issue of binge-eating angst is because of the internet, per se, but I do know that my disconnectedness from the world around me, from feeling things in the here and now, have been exacerbated by the internet and the need for distractions in general. Or maybe, it’s just that I’m 46 and I’m in the throes of a bout of existential angst.
And yes, while existential angst is certainly a part of this, I also know that my food addiction and my podcast addiction and my addiction to anything that will keep me from a moment of quiet, a moment of reflection, a moment of stillness have gotten far worse in the years since I’ve had a smartphone and access to stories and pictures and interviews with people who live lives that are thousands of times more glamorous than mine at my fingertips. Everyone has a story, a life hack, a “you can do this, too.” You can organize your whole house, build your own compost bin, change your diet, do more core work, run your own business, and thus become just like someone else.
There is nothing wrong with self-improvement. Not one damn thing. But are all these books, podcasts, and blogs really aimed at self-improvement, or do they sell the idea that the way someone is doing something is the way we should all do it? In short, are they selling the idea that the way I am is fundamentally damaged and that if I can change external parts of myself, I’ll be better?
As someone who is, by nature, deeply insecure, deeply neurotic, and very impressionable, I think the answer is yes. I have bought, hook, line, and sinker, into the idea that I’m not good enough, but that there is an answer out there for me, that some blogger or self-help author is going to fix me.
I have been searching for years now, and I can’t find the answer, no matter how hard I try. And the harder I look, the less I know. I used to be able to eat a meal without second guessing myself, and now, I can’t. I can’t figure out if eating a banana with breakfast is good for me or not, and an internet search only makes this worse. And if I can’t figure out if bananas are good for me, then how will I ever figure out how to lose weight, get in shape, write that book, be a better person, and so on? If bananas are confusing, then what about life? How will I ever know?
I want to believe that I’m actually fine, just the way I am. I really do. It’s just very hard and overwhelming. I have read about and seen a lot of movement toward body positivity and inclusivity, but even that overwhelms because I don’t want to blog about it, be interviewed about it on the Today show, or post about it on social media. I don’t want to be famous or a vanguard. I don’t want to have the answers. I just want to be who I am, whoever that is, and not feel less than because I don’t run fast or compost or follow a strictly Paleo diet or a strictly vegan diet or write a blog or make my own goat milk lotion.
Or, how about this? I want to go through a day, a whole entire day, without feeling less than anyone else, without needing to drown out the self-doubts with noise. I want to be able to just be, whatever that means, and to not feel so afraid of that, just that.
Judy Harper is a 46-year-old adjunct instructor at a community college. She is married and has a 15-year-old daughter. She lives near the ocean on the central California coast.
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