I have a spacious, airy one-bedroom apartment in a city I have always dreamed of living in. I have a job in PR, but my parents still help me with my bills, without me having to ask. I vacation outside the US twice a year, and don’t think twice about going shopping after work when I want to. I’ve been with my boyfriend for almost three years, and I think he’s going to propose soon.
But the truth is that I’m afraid of living with him, no matter how close we get. Because living alone allows me to have my habit — the one that prevented me from having a roommate, even freshman year of college — and I can’t give that up. My ritual is as important as any relationship in my life, and on the nights when I sleep with my boyfriend and can’t do it, it’s all I can think about. Going a whole life without having my food rituals to myself would be the worst thing in the world.
It started when I was young. My mother was a beautiful woman (she still is), and expected me to be the same. I remember the first time I came down the stairs in a bikini at age 12 and she told me, in front of my friends on our way out to the pool, that I looked fat. I went back and put on a one-piece, and never put a bikini on again, until I was almost 20. Despite being a size 4-6 my whole life, the idea of showing my body terrified me. My mother would tell me all the time about how to stay thin (or “trim” as she called it), so I could be respected and admired and get a man like my father. She would scold me for eating fatty foods, or reaching for a second helping. She would shoot me glares across the Thanksgiving table. She would change my order at restaurants before the waiter walked away, getting me something “lighter.”
And because of her constant dieting, our kitchen was always entirely devoid of indulgence. Because she weighed herself at least twice a day, always making sure to stay at precisely 115 pounds, there was no room for error. She was always on the latest food trend, and kept nothing but the most pure foods in our pantries: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and diet supplements. In my whole childhood, I can’t recall a single time we had some Little Debbies or a bag of chips in the cupboard. Going to my friends’ houses was like a trip to an amusement park, and I used the opportunity to eat sugars and fats and all of the things a hyper child desires. Meanwhile, my mother would sit at home, drinking her hot tea with lemon and reading her magazines, waiting to ask me about what I ate while I was there.
Eventually, I got old enough to go to the store on my own. In my first month with a driver’s license, I gained almost 10 pounds, and my mother immediately paid for me to get a personal trainer and nutritionist. She called me a ‘fat sow,’ and threatened to take away my car forever. The month had been spent in the parking lot of fast food restaurants, shoveling french fries and chicken sandwiches in my life, and she knew that she needed to cut my behavior off at the pass. I knew that if I wanted to keep eating, I would have to hide the evidence on my body.
So I began chewing and spitting. A lot. I had a walk-in closet in my bedroom, and it became my secret hideaway. Much of my senior year of high school was spent holed up in there, with my little safe full of snack cakes and Doritos and Sour Punch Straws. I would chew and chew and chew, and spit it into a Ziploc bag, which I would hoard under a floorboard I had lifted. While I did this, I would watch TV shows on the little portable DVD player I brought in with me, always the same ones that made me feel calm and happy and “in the zone.” (I loved Laguna Beach in particular at that time. Sometimes I would watch the same episode 10 times, chomping and spitting away, feeling the happiest I ever had.)
When I got my own place, it became easier. I still had my TV shows and my snacks and my Ziplocs, but this time I could do it in the peace of my bedroom, spread out on my bed. Sometimes I’ve stayed home from work to chew and spit, losing hours and hours watching the same three or four shows and drowning the world out. I have almost 100 gallon sized Ziplocs stored away in a large Tupperware, and I love looking at them. Sometimes I double bag them so I can play around with the mush inside without it coming out. I squeeze it like a stress reliever, and it helps me go to sleep.
On a bad day, I’ll go through 5,000 unswallowed calories. On a good day, I can spend the night at my boyfriend’s house without worry. But month-to-month, my food budget is out of control. I pay for it all in cash so my father can’t see the statements, and sometimes I think he assumes I’m buying drugs. But he doesn’t care — I’m thin, so my mother’s happy, so he’s happy. And I have my bags full of what used to be Swiss Cake Rolls. And that is all I need.