April 17, 2012

The Truth About Food Addiction

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What is the issue?

I’d finally reached bottom — bottom of the ice cream bucket.

Staring at the dots of milky sugar pooling at the bottom of the certified trough of double-mint-chocolate-chip-cotton-candy, I only had one thought: I want more.

The next thing I knew, I was waking up surrounded by twenty three packets of mini Milky Ways and praying to all the gods that it was chocolate, and not a more sinister brown stain on my comforter. Welcome to my freshman year of college!

Amongst the tales I’d heard from older compatriots, the ones that seemed to be the most prevalent were those of the dreaded “freshman fifteen” weight gain. Though these stories were told less as precautionary and more as a surety, I wasn’t concerned. The main reason cited for their new soft waists and extra chins was after hours dining. One girl said that on nights that she wasn’t studying or shacking, she was shoveling pizza in her mouth. Well, I thought, I hate pizza. Just have to avoid Domino’s, and I’ll be fine.

The greatest contribution my mother can make to dinner is to abstain from cooking it. She does the best she can, but it’s hard to get past the fact that she once burnt a bowl of soup. Even in the absence of the traditional “home-cooked meal” nostalgia, I still connect the concept of eating with familiarity. The communal enjoyment of flavors and textures triggers in me a sick glee, a naughty bliss that comes from savoring such a fundamental experience. In my mind, there was no problem that a solid meal with friends couldn’t solve.

When I got to school and was surrounded by what seemed like millions of unknown females during sorority rush, I was prepared to connect with them the only way I knew how: through their stomachs. Indeed my first interaction with my roommate happened to be crouched over a bowl of makeshift mashed potatoes, which we ate with plastic spoons. The first time I went out with my sorority sisters, I tried to steal a Papa John’s delivery van solely for the contents. So much for that pizza avoidance thing.
Late night eating quickly became mandatory. On the way back from going out each night, my friends and I would grab a take-out box of noodles, and garnish them with crushed up goldfish. I started to designate “good” nights from binge ones by the size of the order of wings from Domino’s, or how many bonus packets of ranch I had requested. Of course I knew that these mesonoxian munch sessions were the opposite of healthy, but I figured: hey, everyone’s doing it. We were going to end the year in larger pant sizes, but at least we would all be on the same level.

All of a sudden October rolled around, and what was promised to be one of the most memorable weekends of my life became just that. I was already geeked out by the fact that I was going to be attending our biggest rival football game and something called the “world’s largest outdoor cocktail party,” which appealed to my newfound love of beer, bad music, and large crowds in impractically small places. I almost drove off of the road when I discovered it was to be held at a location where there was a Whataburger fifteen miles away.?

Though it may seem like just another fast food place, it isn’t. For a Texan, going to a Whataburger is not just a meal: it’s an experience. Whataburger is the Mecca for underage gatherings of any proportion or occasion: post-football games celebrations; pre-prom parties; dates with your track coach. It’s the unifier between rivals. Calories do not exist there, mostly because you never remember consuming them. It was my happy place, and I had to go to there.

Unfortunately, my bullheaded determination to get a honey butter chicken biscuit that Friday night had completely eclipsed my better judgment. While I still ended my night sitting on a hard plastic bench under fluorescent light, it wasn’t a Whataburger I held in my hands. In fact, I couldn’t hold anything because I had been handcuffed.

My first time being pulled over subsequently turned out to be my first time being arrested. The police officers obviously lacked my refined fast-food palate and failed to identify with my insatiable desire for a cheddar chophouse burger. It seems they were more focused on the fact that I couldn’t enunciate my intentions. “I warna herny chutter chiskin biscuit,” I plainly told them. “Ess-tra KETCHUP.” I’m convinced I would have made it away unscathed had I offered to share my fries with them.
The guilt I walked away with that night was not of the ruined diet sense. Sure, there are a number of platitudes I could slap in here to illustrate the deep sense of failure I felt, but at the root of it was sheer embarrassment.

The story of my ill-fated trek to fast food shot quickly around the tailgate parties the next day. Feeling the burn of a thousand judging stares, I retreated towards the safest place I knew: the food table. Every time someone would try to approach me, I would sprint full-force towards the buffet. Now people could immortalize me as the girl who ate the last (twelve) hot dogs, rather than the bonehead who got a DUI.

That strategy backfired and as my reputation soured, so did my general demeanor. I didn’t want to see anyone, but I also didn’t want to be alone in my dorm room for fear that I would end up crying into a bag of Cheetos like a typical lonely college girl. I ended up garnering a new set of whispers about me losing control of my partying.

Everyone could see me bellied up at the bar or stumbling around the street, devoid of all motor skills; what people didn’t see was what happened away from downtown.

Two bags of popcorn, pretzel M&M’s, the rest of the peanut butter jar; full box of granola, half a carton of milk; the tub of hummus from last week, my roommate’s leftover Quizno’s; the late plate of lasagna I stole from the sorority house’s cleaning woman; the carton of cookies I dug out of the trash. Anything. I would actually eat anything, and everything. And I did.

Every. Single. Night.

There’s a quote from Fight Club that would resonate in my head whenever I waited for my fifth serving of Ramen noodles to be ready: “Self-improvement is masturbation. Now, self-destruction…” While I wasn’t looking to get ritualistically pummeled by a group of strangers, I shared their thirst for sadomasochism. I had replaced the delight I derived from eating with my friends to just devouring whatever crossed my path. The cheap thrill you get from conscious wrongdoing is amplified when you realize the main victim is yourself. It is an extension of freedom, understanding that you can literally do whatever you want.

In this situation, consequences go unheeded, passed off as pithy or nonexistent. Still, I felt the need to justify myself to others. “Anorexics are so annoying,” I would say, making myself a double-decker-quesadilla. “So not fun to be around, they’re always so boring,” I declared as I dumped another shot of tequila into my margarita. I began to publicly tout the full figures of “plus-size” celebrities, or even the rare model with hips. “Now they look like real women,” I’d claim, but inside I knew I was only gauging people’s reactions to see if they thought I was the same size as Kirstie Alley.

I could feel my love handles morphing into obsession grips. My elastic-band shorts left angry imprints on my skin. My fellow dorm inhabitants began to resent my presence on the elevator, as I only rode to the third floor. If I wasn’t talking about the chafing of my thighs, I was busy convincing myself and others that I could keep on eating because I was still hungry. “I’m starving,” I’d say, blushing because I knew they’d just witnessed me consume half of the pantry. I was automatically allergic to anyone who told me they weren’t hungry, or refused to let me eat something else. People I couldn’t rely on to be there for me, but the vending machine never moved.

So I wish I could tell you that my salvation stemmed from an intervention. I wish I could credit my friends’ pained attempts at rescue, or the comfortable development of acute acid-reflux. I’d love to lie and say that I had an epiphany, and I’ve made a full recovery, and I love every bit of myself now, but we’ve had such a good time together I’d hate to ruin that now. There was no moment of truth, no apple bonked me on the brain — just a subtle, simple “no.”

It was during spring break, and — thanks to my winning combination of binge eating and drinking — I was up fifteen pounds and down a thousand brain cells. Standing alone in the kitchen of our rented condo, I was about ten seconds away from singing “Hopelessly Devoted” to my brisket snack wrap. Everyone else had already left me for the beach, but the thought of being scrutinized in a bikini by my slender friends was enough to make me stress eat an entire box of Girl Scout cookies. I raised the warm tortilla to my lips, ogling the cheese already coalesced on the foil and suddenly noticed that that was all I saw. There was no one else around me to share in this; I was alone.

Alone. I wasn’t enjoying this with my friends. This wasn’t social, this wasn’t fun. It was making me sick and secretive. It was only heightening my shame. In that kitchen, I finally understood the mantra of an addict: I am my own destroyer. I am my own savior.

Food addiction is often ascribed as a female problem. The stereotypes are endless: “My boyfriend broke up with me so I have to drown my feelings in chocolate sauce!” I used to believe this too, and would pity the girls that would emerge from a crisis with lighter issues but heavier legs. Bad habit bears a glamorous tag when it involves emaciated girls, starving themselves because they are dead on the inside. Aversion to food is almost lauded whilst overeating is seen as a pathetic affliction. For some, it is incomprehensible to abuse an activity that every human needs to survive.

Though it may be easier for girls to identify to my situation, the bottom line is something most people can understand: when there is a void, what do you do to fill it? Even the most primitive species recognize when there is a blip in the ordinary sequence and strive to correct it. The unexpected walls I crashed into freshman year drove me to seek reassurance by abusing the most basic needs. Though I was never physically hungry, I was starved for approval. It took a while to understand that I would never gain respect if I didn’t honor myself.

As I mentioned earlier, my ways have not changed completely. In truth, I am getting hungry while writing this and can’t stop fantasizing about the chili I’m about to devour. The desire to plug up my problems with food is not something that is quelled, but is understood. Yes, I still want more but the little voice continues to dwindle. I breathe before I eat now; I want to taste what I’m doing. TC mark

image – Anna Hoychuk
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