Food has been a struggle of mine for, well, most of my life. I didn't eat enough or I ate too much or I didn't eat the right foods. I just could never do it right. You'd think feeding yourself wouldn't be so difficult. Open mouth, insert food, chew, swallow, repeat. Stop when full instead of repeating, literally, ad nauseum.
I climbed on the scale today after six months of stress eating. You could call it comfort eating, but I haven't been comfortable – not with my choices, not in my clothes, not with my life. But compulsive eating is how I deal with my problems. It's not dealing, though, is it. I stuff my face with food and stuff those difficult emotions down with it.
It's definitely a learned behavior. In fact, as a kid, I didn't eat much at all. I liked most food, though, and was growing properly. But my brother Clinton teased me because of how little I ate. "You don't eat enough to keep a bird alive," he would say. Given my family history of enormous women, a slender girl might be cheered rather than ridiculed. But, no. It didn't occur to me that my brother was rather overweight and had his own food issues. I was a kid.
Still, I heard stories of my sister Cynthia eating 16 pieces of French toast for lunch. "We had to go to the neighbors for more bread!" my mother would say, a twinkle in her eye as she reminisced. I always asked how big the bread was but was just told it was bread size. I couldn't possibly have eaten 16 pieces of French toast. I could hardly finish one piece of French toast. Think of the size of my little stomach. Cynthia was much taller than I was (and is and am, in fact) and thinner, too, and could eat 16 pieces of French toast. My parents raved about her boisterous exploits in and out of the kitchen and enjoyed her company, and as a kid, I felt less valued because I had a more moderate temperament and appetite. They would never joyfully regale anyone with stories about me eating 16 pieces of French toast.
As I got older, I started taking more food. I tried so, so hard to eat more. I thought I was supposed to. I thought everyone wanted me to eat more. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn't really care how much I ate. I don't know. I only know how I felt, and that was that I didn't eat enough to make my family happy. My dad would make meals and be angry that there were so many leftovers. My mom would pour me more milk and plop more meat on my plate without asking if I wanted more, declaring, "Milk, Amy," and "Meat, Amy." Yes. There it was.
Sometimes I would put the food in my mouth, chew it, then spit it into my napkin. Especially the meat. I just couldn't stand that gristly old beef roast my mother would make, so blackened and stringy. She got wise to that napkin trick, though, and scolded me. Other times I tried slipping my food onto other people's plates when they weren't looking. Again, moms have eyes in the backs of their heads, and it didn't work.
The only time food was ever taken away from me was when it was dessert. "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach," my dad would say. "You'll never finish all that," my mom would say as she'd snatch a good portion for herself.
When I was about 9, I noticed I was getting heavier. My thighs started rubbing together. It hurt and gave me a rash. On a particularly sweltering summer night, as I sat watching television in our dark, humid living room with a big bowl of strawberry swirl ice cream in my lap, my dad said, "Amy, you're fat!"
I looked down at my exposed belly and the bowl of ice cream I didn't even like but whose chill felt so good against my sticky skin. "No, I'm not," I said. He'd always been proud of my strength and athletic ability, and to have him think I was fat was a huge blow to my ego.
"You are!" he said.
"I am not!" I yelled. He laughed and walked away. I wouldn't talk to him the rest of the night. I knew how he felt about fat people. Fat people weren't athletes; they were sissies and slobs. I didn't want to disappoint him.
I probably weighed about 70 pounds.
My parents lived through the Depression. If there was something salvageable on a piece of food, they salvaged it. And they wouldn't buy more until that nasty shit was gone. So, bruised, sour, rotting apples sat in the refrigerator drawer next to shriveling oranges and darkening bananas. Bread would get so dry that the jam, which had nearly reverted to juice, would run right through it. I used to take empty lunch boxes to school and beg food off my friends. I just couldn't stand the ick factor of our sandwiches. And there was no way my parents would buy me a loaf of Wonder Bread and a jar of Jif. If my dad didn't like it, we didn't buy it.
Once at the grocery store, in the most thrilling of aisles, the cereal aisle, my dad told me to choose whatever I wanted. I looked up at him, knowing he didn't really mean that. He meant, choose Corn Flakes, Bran Flakes, Shredded Wheat or Cheerios. He probably figured I'd go with the Cheerios since, to him, they were junk food. But I kept a close eye on him. I knew I couldn't get the Sugar Pops or Cocoa Puffs. When he was beginning to grow more impatient, he looked away, and I snagged a box of generic frosted flakes. I put it in the cart backwards so he couldn't see what it was. He saw the plain, blue box and was likely assured I hadn't gotten the Froot Loops or Cookie Crisp. I made sure to keep the box surrounded with other groceries as we shopped.
When we got to the check-out, he took the box out of the cart and finally saw what it was. His face turned red and he held it up. "Who put this in our cart? We don't get this crap!" Then he looked down at me.
"You told me I could get anything I wanted," I said, and I started to cry. I was embarrassed to cry, upset that he was angry about a box of cereal, mad that I was right he hadn't really meant I could get what I wanted, only what he wanted me to want. He relented. Kids are famous for grocery store meltdowns, and he caved with grace.
As the years went by, he loosened up about cold cereal. I think I was about 20 when he finally read the nutrition information on the Shredded Wheat box. He said, "There's not much junk in Shredded Wheat, but there's not much of anything else, either." What an epiphany to have in your 70s.
As a teen, I quickly learned I got attention from the popular kids if I had a big bag of Skittles around. Or M&Ms. And you know how most teenage girls spend all their money on clothes? Not me. I spent it on food. I knew pizza delivery guys by name. I knew the best and worst delis and cafes, and I was the youngest person hanging out at Steep & Brew, the ultra-hip, dark and smoky, mostly gay coffee joint downtown. (It’s not like that anymore.) I had definitely learned how to eat more.
And it showed.
One of my former tennis teammates (former because I stopped going out for sports) jogged past my dad and me one day. He said, “You should do something like that. When you’re active you eat a lot, and when you stop being so active, it’s hard to stop eating as much as you did, and you gain weight.”
He was probably trying to be helpful. But it hurt. Every 16-year-old girl wants her dad to tell her what a pig she’s become. Right?
I am sort of momentum-driven, so when I had the fortune of getting mono in 11th grade, the weight that fell off from being so sick stayed off. And I lost more. And once I got out of high school, I headed to Mexico. I can tell you, if you want to lose weight, there’s nothing like a couple months of diarrhea to strip the pounds away.
How awesome it was to come home and buy new clothes and get a real job and meet people who liked me. It was a confidence booster, and I kept shedding fat.
When I shrunk to a size 9, my sister and mom told me I was too thin and they were worried about me. Now, as I mentioned, my sister is a few inches taller than I am. Yet, she wore a size 9 even after her second child was born. Apparently I was supposed to be the fat one. It pissed me off.
My weight stabilized there for several years. I ate what I wanted when I wanted and ignored my family’s incessant remarks. I loved oat bran and pizza and seldom ate candy or cookies or ice cream. My mom told me I was no fun at all.
And then I met Eric.
At work one day, I bought a Hershey bar from the vending machine. Oh, it was perfect. The chocolate was so sweet and sour and it melted just right in my mouth. I had another. Oh, man. It was good.
When I got up to get another one, my friend Rekha said, “Amy, my god, what is going on?”
I stopped and looked at her. “What?” I said. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with me.
“I’ve never seen you eat a candy bar, ever, and now you’re eating three? When you want a snack you eat a bagel. What is wrong with you?” She was laughing, but she meant it.
I laughed it off. Then I realized I was eating instead of dealing with this craziness called love and the fact that I would have to hurt my boyfriend because there was no way I could stay with him after meeting Eric. I didn’t get the third candy bar. I don’t remember what I told Rekha.
I did put a little weight on, and my family was pleased. Eric told me he wouldn’t want me to be any heavier. He liked skinny women. He thought it meant they took care of themselves and had a healthy relationship with food. (He no longer believes that to be the case. And he's always been totally on my side, supportive, gentle and caring.)
I was a pleasant size 8 when Eric and I got married. And then the weight started coming up again with all that eating out new couples do. And then I got pregnant, and that was pretty much the end of being thin ever again. God. Oh, sure, I lost most of the 55 pounds that I gained with Kayleigh. Then my dad got sick (sicker) and then he died and I ate my way through my grief. I lost some of that weight. It was harder. Eric and Kayleigh put the pressure on for another kid. I told Eric I wanted to lose some more weight before we attempted conception. I hit my target weight, which was more than I wanted to weigh, but it was acceptable and reachable, and we had at it.
I tried harder not to get so big with that next kid. And it worked. My doctor congratulated me for keeping my weight under control, that it was hard to do.
My weight went up and down after Kelsey was born, but last year I tried rather successfully to lose it again. I bought some smokin’ jeans and girly tops and felt OK about myself.
And then my mom’s health fell apart, and my diet fell apart with it. I can feel that I’m almost at the end of my grief bingeing, although I’ve been thinking that for a few months. My clothes don’t fit. I weigh almost as much as I did when I was at my most pregnant with Kelsey. My percent body fat is obscene. I don’t want to turn into my mom, whose health would have been a completely different story had she kept her weight down and moved her body. I don’t want to do that to myself or to my family. But I can’t seem to stop eating and it just makes me feel bad.
I love my mom. I love all my family. I want to honor them and the love we share by being better than I have been. I want to be healthy for all of us. It’s just so hard. Bad habits and coping mechanisms are pretty hard to overcome. It makes me feel weak for not being able to just put down the candy bar or turtle sundae or 5th slice of pizza and stop. What am I getting from food that it’s worth the pain and the guilt and giant, roly-poly belly? (I do like my boobs. They’re big and soft and squooshy boobs like I always thought I’d have, not the little pimples I had when I was young and trim.) I honestly don’t know. I feel less frantic, less afraid. Maybe I just feel less.
Because what I have to feel these days isn’t very pleasant. My parents are dead, my daughter is sick, my husband’s health is always on the edge, I just turned 40. Midlife crisis? I suppose. Then I think about people with real problems and feel like I should be grateful, and I am, but apparently not enough.
I just need to move my ass, shut my mouth and get that momentum going in the right direction again.
My new motorcycle should help with that. But that’s a story for another day.