32. Things I Can Eat: This Meal, Exclusively

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.

– William James

A quick metabolism and hearty genes provide cover. A person can live for decades with disordered eating, and no one — not even the most intimate partners — may know.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder include the following:

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as over a 2-hour period
  • Feeling that your eating behavior is out of control
  • Eating even when you’re full or not hungry
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes
  • Eating until you’re uncomfortably full
  • Frequently eating alone or in secret
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted, ashamed, guilty or upset about your eating
  • Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss

The word “disorder” is troubling for a number of reasons, but it’s hard to argue with 8 for 8. For me, as for others, the genesis is in earlier chapters, with coping turned habitual. My parents both worked and once my big sister hit adolescence, she wanted nothing to do with her irritating shadow. At 10 years old, I came home to an empty house. This was no tragedy, of course. We had neighbors, bikes, a park with woods, homework, books, a piano, walls full of LPs, a thousand things to do.

Of all the activities within reach, eating was the easiest. It was low effort, quick reward. So, I ate. It kept me company. It occupied my fidgety attention. It was instantly satisfying. I could eat anything in the house without anyone assessing or demanding I share.

Even for a little girl through whom angst flowed like milk, childhood was not a particularly painful time. Even so, whatever wispy loneliness I carried cemented the habit: Food as companion, food to staunch the boredom.

Thirty years later, this is still very much so. Thoughts about food and eating — what’s coming next, what I just ate, measuring, deciding — are background noise and main score all at once.

The company of friends and family shrinks every concern about eating to a faint whine. In any sort of social setting, food is just a pleasant set piece. Eating is manageable. Even overeating in the company of others feels nothing like the lonely binge. Dining out, parties, holidays, lunch meetings, dates — all of these occasions are easy. Light. Companionship engages my attention and fills the hole that seems so bottomless when I’m on my own.

Really, any engaging activity muffles the hunger. I can dance or write, garden or volunteer, wrestle with my son or make art. I can even pay my taxes or dust my blinds. As long as the time is given to lyric, motion, and productivity, the food obsession recedes.

The challenge is the rest of life.

Alone at my desk, plowing through projects. Alone in my house at the end of a soul-sapping Thursday. Alone with my son asleep in the other room, tired myself but itching for some kind of richness, some kind of stimulation.

Alone and circling the unanswered questions about future, finances, my career, my son’s well-being. Alone and lacking any clear direction, with the nagging awareness that I should be giving shape to something more suited to us with this clay, these hands.

So I return to the compulsive, familiar pacifiers.

I know better. We all know better. But knowledge falls short of action. Instead of moving through the moment of craving and finding myself a song or a pen or a friend, I walk to the fridge.

I eat. Eat and read lit mags online, or skim leftover sections of Sunday’s Washington Post, or download podcasts. I eat and wander the house.

Hours go by this way. Eventually I break surface, climbing up from the burrow of bread and fruit. Immediately the bullets from that Mayo clinic list hammer into me. I’m uncomfortable, well past full, feeling disgusted and out of control.

It all seems so very silly, so first-world. Just a blink away are Baltimore and Katmandu, and here I am worrying the extra bowl (or 3) of cereal I just ate? I’ve come through the hell of a divorce and displacement, bought a home and moved forward in a fulfilling career. I raise a child and manage my investments and work out regularly and attend to a lovely intimate relationship with my Mister. All of these things seemed impossible just a few years ago. All of these things require strength I never knew I had. Don’t these experiences provide me with the capacity to tackle this one simple task?

Stop eating so goddamned much all the time.

Except that “stop eating” is not a viable goal.

Every attempt I’ve made in the past three decades to “fix” this “disorder” just puts attention squarely where it shouldn’t be: on the problem. Focusing on the broken part reinforces the bond between that essential brokenness and the gal carrying it around.

It’s also tempting to excavate ancient burial grounds and reckon with sleeping psychological ghosts. I’ve done plenty of that, with little to show for it. The phantoms are resting quite well now, thank you very much.

All of that said, if I want to be effective in this world, I’ve got to disentangle myself from this thicket of numbing, distracting, and ultimately disabling behaviors.

When participating in the 21-Day Financial Fast at the beginning of 2015, I discovered all over again that a specific, short-term objective with clear rules can take me miles further than whips and rebukes. Starting from a similar place of hopeful strength might serve this task well. It’s time to recognize that I am perfectly capable of setting smart, thoughtful goals and taking bold (if tiny) steps towards them.

So here is what I propose:

Eat when I eat.

(A revolutionary concept, right?)

Let’s put it this way: Only eat when I eat.

Applying lessons from mindfulness — another of my woefully undeveloped capacities — is proving useful here. If eating is the only activity when eating, then perhaps my mind will have a chance to notice how much (and how little) bandwidth food takes up. Exclusively eating means setting aside every other pursuit and carving out time to sit with a meal. Exclusively eating also means fully engaging in whatever occupies my hands and senses when meal- or snack-time is over. Without food to keep me company, will I be as likely to troll the internet and play Quiddler on my phone? Or will I notice that the time I’m adrift in low-reward distractions is really not very fulfilling after all?

I’m not sure what I’ll discover, but it’ll be fascinating — and undoubtedly tortuous — to find out. The 21-day financial fast was tough enough, and I went into that a skinflint who takes pride in driving a 15-year-old beater. This project will be bending loose some pretty rusted joints.

Yesterday was Day 1.

May 31 is the finish line.

Buon appetito!

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3 thoughts on “32. Things I Can Eat: This Meal, Exclusively”

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