If I could get away with it, do you know what I’d eat right now? A dozen chicken wings, a large order of curly fries, chunky bleu cheese dressing, and a pint—who am I kidding—two pints of Ben and Jerry’s.
I often verbalize my desire to eat when I’m not hungry. I am unabashed about it. I tell the empty kitchen. I tell my husband. I tell the refrigerator, loudly if I need to, “Thank you, I’d like some fried chicken with that potato salad, macaroni salad, and cheese plate! Can I please also have an entire cherry pie?”
And then I tell him, or it, or myself, how I’d feel after.
While I’m overeating, there are almost no thoughts at all. But they return as my stomach settles. I’m bursting. Uncomfortable. And then sad. Disappointed. Anxious over what I’ve done. And then sedated. Unhealthy. Ashamed.
I have struggled with my weight for as long as I can remember. Since “Fatty, fatty, two-by-four, can’t fit through the bathroom door.” Although I was raised in a family of overeaters, by the time I was in third grade, I was being told by my family not to eat so much.
By the time I was in fifth grade, my physician had marked my examination form with something that suggested I had psychological issues. I thought he was saying I was crazy, and cried and cried, because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. My mother explained that he was only saying that I was overweight, and that sometimes it’s our thoughts and feelings that make us eat too much. I heard her, but couldn’t understand.
I heard it, over and over, for years. I’m considered a thoughtful, self-aware person. But my compulsion toward caloric intake is anchored so deep under my skin that I couldn’t see it.
By the time I was 22, I’d peaked at 383 pounds. I cracked two toilet seats in a month, praying each time that my roommate wouldn’t notice until I’d replaced it. (In hindsight, and having had an alcoholic friend replace my vodka with water on various occasions, I see the absurdity of this pretense).
I went on a very expensive we-give-you-meals-in-boxes diet that I thought would work because it was expensive. I started down the scales, consciously and consistently, until I reached about 220. I was happy with that—I hadn’t been that light since my freshman year of high school. When you’ve been more than 100 pounds heavier, 220 feels svelte.
And then it stopped. Life changed; things got “busy.” I stopped paying for expensive meals in boxes and stopped paying attention to my eating.
And that’s when I learned what, for me, is the problem with meals in boxes: I wasn’t going to eat them for the rest of my life. Without them, I had no idea how to control myself. I was never done until the plate was empty. I had no idea how to prepare “a little” food: I’d never seen it done. To a girl raised in an addiction-riddled family, that sounded as ridiculous as being “a little” pregnant.
By my early thirties, I was over 300 pounds again. I joined Weight Watchers and started actually paying real attention to my intake. I was exercising, recording everything I ate, and focusing unapologetically on myself and my own needs. And the weight dropped again, over a period of a year and a half, this time to 200. I felt gorgeous. But I hadn’t learned my lesson. I had a lot of “extra” skin from my weight loss. Surely, I thought, now that I’ve come so far, I’d never relapse. I wanted to somehow guarantee that. So I had some very expensive cosmetic surgery to get rid of all of the extra skin. I was done with it. Having shrunk inside of it, I was determined not going to grow again.
Surprise: The weight came back.
The thing about food addiction is that Thanksgiving leftovers aside, there is no cold turkey. Food is not something one can simply quit. I can’t just put it down, like I did cigarettes. Food, strong as gravity, is also as necessary.
I’ve been to therapy. More than once. Been psychoanalyzed. Cognitive-behavorialized. I’ve talked about everything from my mother and father to why I needed to marry a man I was afraid I’d divorce (and ultimately did).
Led down a path of careful self-examination, I will gladly hold a microscope to every silk thread in the web of my compulsions. But seeing the connections didn’t change the addiction. And feeling the feelings I was trying to escape, I found, didn’t change my relationship to food.
I’ve been in plenty of 12-step rooms as well; they didn’t do it for me either. I worked for months just to get my head around Step One, which in Overeaters Anonymous is admitting that you are powerless over food. Now on a lot of levels, powerlessness is a great practice for me—I can be uptight; I need to learn to “let go” more, to be sure. I’ll likely live longer if I do.
But for me, for food, powerlessness didn’t work. In the end, the more powerlessness I tried to claim over the magnetic pull of foodstuff, the more weight I gained. I quit going to 12-step programs because I was tired of feeling like a sham or a victim.
I’m learning that I will slip, that slips—given my genetic makeup, my family history, my psychological makeup—may well be an eternal part of my careful equation. What I have to do is learn how to manage them.
So these days, I use food like currency.
I have to track it, manage it, mind it closely in order to make it work the way I want it to. I have to add and subtract, to balance my intake and output, like an accountant.
If I want to successfully prevent food from taking over my life, I have to take over my food. Consciously. I keep delicious, healthy stuff around that I can eat if I’m actually hungry. I’ve learned that if I don’t want anything I keep in my well-stocked, thoughtful kitchen, guess what? I’m not actually hungry; I just want to eat.
And when I want to eat, I just say so. Because, yes, some days I still feel like I could, and would, eat an entire large supreme pizza and wash it down with jumbo-sized sugary soda and a milkshake.
Having confessed my urges, I find I want the food a lot less. If I do still eat, it’s usually a lot, lot, less than I would otherwise have done. And I write that down, too, just like a too-large impulse purchase. It doesn’t just go away.
I’ve shaved off 40 pounds again in the last few months. I have no guarantee I’m on a lifelong path to a healthy weight. But today I’m focused, and hoping I can stay that way.
Susan Fekete is a writer based in California.