Comfort Food

By Amanda M. McNeil 07/02/15

The tricky part about recovery from binge eating is that I can’t just avoid my addiction, or quit cold turkey.

Amanda McNeil

I find comfort in being uncomfortably full. Eating until I am no longer hungry, or content, is never enough for me. 

Throughout my teenage years, college, and if I'm brutally honest with myself, six months ago, I have had an on-and-off again flirtation with bulimia. I had attempted anorexia in high school but because of my deep addiction to sugar, combined with my picky eating habits, I could never fully commit. I would set a goal of eating 300 calories a day, blow that by eating a bagel at lunch, and then by dinner I would get hungry, forget that I was trying to be anorexic that day and eat dinner with my family and fuck the whole day up. Thoughts like this should have been my first clue I would have a lifetime battle with food.

According to the DSM 5, I don't meet the criteria for any of the other, sexier eating disorders, so I fall under the catchall of "Disordered Eating." Obviously, all eating disorders are terrible but there is a sort of glamour that comes with anorexia, and to a certain extent bulimia. I mean, have you ever seen an episode of Degrassi, a Lifetime movie, or anything about a binge eater? I haven’t. That’s because there’s no beauty in self-destruction by way of pints of Ben and Jerry’s and BBQ chicken pizza. There is nothing impressive about it, no need for self-control or discipline. Binge eating is about self-indulgence and overconsumption. 

My parents divorced when I was seven and my mom found herself having to make the transition from stay-at-home-mom to entering the workforce. Mornings became increasingly more hectic as the year went on. As my sister and I got older, we became more defiant about what we were wearing to school, and going to school in general; so breakfast was just a battle that she gave up on with us. In order to get us to eat something in the morning, she would bake us chocolate chip cookies. Sometimes flakey, layered biscuits, but those never went over as well as the cookies. Blessed with adolescent metabolisms, my sister and I weren't overweight, so sweets were never limited in our house. As long as we "didn't ruin our dinners," we were allowed access to whatever we wanted in the kitchen or freezer. 

In the mornings, I would wake up and sneak a few pieces of break-and-bake cookie dough before she placed them in the oven to bake. Only now, years later, it has occurred to me that when I was doing that, or rather when I still do that, that each bite of cookie dough I am eating is the equivalent of eating a full, baked cookie, and that by sneaking just two pieces of cookie dough, and then eating three cookies, I was starting my day with a total of five cookies. To this day, the smell of cookies baking makes me think of breakfast. 

In college when I didn’t have set family meals or anyone to monitor my eating habits, I developed the nutritional habits of the fat kid in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Augustus Gloop. I found myself frequently lying to delivery drivers and cashiers when I went to pick up food. I would be sure to mention that "we" would need extra utensils, or I would ask, "Do you think this is enough for four people?" just to make sure that they would not know that I was getting all of this food for myself. If a delivery driver comes to the house with two large pizzas and an order of wings, I make sure to loudly yell "Food's here!" after shutting the door. When I eat out at a restaurant with a friend, I will rush through my order and then apologize to my friend and the waiter, "Sorry, I'm starving. I haven't eaten all day" or "I don't know what's wrong with me today, I'm just so hungry." The only meals that count are the ones that have witnesses. If my dogs were the only ones who saw it, it doesn't count and I can eat again. 

I can always justify ordering enough for four people by telling myself that I would have food for the next couple of days or so, while knowing that when I got home, or when the delivery got there, I would immediately eat until I felt physically sick. Then when that feeling subsides, or after I have napped off my hangover, I eat again. This has gone on for years and slowly, but steadily, I have gained weight. It is easy to convince myself that I don’t have a problem because I am eating, my food is digesting, and if I puke as a result of my eating, it isn’t because I have shoved my fingers to the back of my throat. 

Work birthdays cause me to break into a sticky, anxious sweat. I make sure to carefully study the size of the slice of cake everyone is cutting for themselves, so that when it's my turn I can make sure I take an equally sized piece, and not outing myself by taking a slice three times as big as everyone else. I make sure to pace myself, setting my fork down between every few bites so that I'm not the first one to finish. Every move is slowly and carefully calculated. After I'm done with my fix, I keep my eyes peeled towards the older men on my team. I know that they will be the first to jump up and take a second helping, after everyone has had their first. Once they make the first move, I say to whoever is sitting closest to me, "I guess another piece can't hurt! Just this once!" and laugh. It takes all that I have to not leap over the conference table or shove the waddling, pregnant Benefits Specialist out of the way so that I can get a second, slightly larger piece of cake without everyone watching. 

It wasn't until I got into a relationship and started sharing more of my life with someone that I noticed how much I hid what I was actually eating. Other than my delivery drivers and the occasional dinner companion, I rarely had people come over to my house so I didn't have to hide my habits. When I began dating Dan that all changed. 

If we were supposed to go to dinner together I would pull a "Scarlett O'Hara" and eat beforehand so that he would think I had the appetite of a dainty little bird. As our relationship progressed, so did my secretive snacking. I would plan out my binges for nights when Dan would be working late, or for days when he spent the night in his own apartment. I'd spend the whole day at work thinking about what I was going to eat, and where in the grocery store I'd find it. It didn't matter if my drug of choice that night was pizza, Wendy's, ice cream or cookies, I would consume the entire container, and then bury the evidence deep in the trash so he wouldn't find out. During the past three years of our relationship, I had done such a good job of hiding my binges that despite telling Dan that I had problems with food, he didn’t know how deep the rabbit hole went until I asked him to proofread the first draft of this essay. While he read, I hid under my comforter in bed, half terrified that he would be disgusted by my bad habits and break up with me on the spot but he sweetly said, “Maybe you should just try eating less, baby. And I think you need a semicolon here.” 

After I've destroyed the evidence, in comes the guilt, shame, disgust and promises. Guilt that I have lied, or if not directly lied, then committed a lie of omission. Shame that I ate enough to feed a horde of teenage boys, and disgust when I think of all I've consumed. Sometimes, I don't fully process all that I've eaten until I see the carnage around me. My body flies into autopilot, shoveling food into my mouth by the handful/forkful (shit, I've even used a knife to scoop ice cream out of a carton if the rest of my dishes were dirty), until I'm blissfully full and need to remove my pants. 

That was another lie. Anytime I am about to binge eat, the second thing that goes, right after my dignity, is my pants. 

After the disgust comes the promises. Promises that tomorrow I will eat one cookie instead of an entire carton. Promises that I will eat macaroni as the side dish it is intended to be and that I will be mindful of the "family sized!" label on the box. Promises that I will eat like a well-adjusted woman in her late twenties and not a member of the Honey Boo Boo clan. 

Promises that I inevitably break the next day. 

Lately I’ve been thinking about why it is that I binge eat, and honestly I’m still not entirely sure. I have always had issues with control, and as a child dealing with all the chaos that came from having an alcoholic father and parents in the midst of a divorce, food was one of the few things my sister and I could control. My sister, Erin, became obsessive with food too, but in a different way. She would only eat six things, and the things that she did eat came with demands. When it came to meals, she had a rider that would make Hollywood’s biggest divas look easygoing. She would demand french fries for breakfast, platefuls of pepperoni heated up in the microwave, and spaghetti without sauce. Sometimes she would ask for hot dogs, but they had to be cut up and cold, and once served she would peel off the casing and dip the remains in maple syrup. For years she existed on the previously mentioned items, chicken, and the occasional apple slice. 

Later on when my sister, mom and I moved in to our post-divorce, downsized house, Erin became deeply attached to random scraps of food. One night at dinner with our dad, she had a leftover piece of steak sitting sadly alone on her plate. My dad and I offered to eat it for her so it wouldn’t go to waste, but my seven-year-old sister wouldn’t let us, saying she had named it “Steaky” and she wanted to keep him. My father had no patience for parenting, so he ate Steaky, executing him with a single bite and my sister had a full-blown meltdown. After Steaky there was “Eggy,” a hard-boiled egg my sister fell for after Easter. Once again, she wouldn’t let anyone eat him, but this time she was wiser so she hid him in her room for his protection. Eventually, Eggy must have fallen out of favor because he was left forgotten in her room for months until my mom started a search party to find out what dead animal was causing the smell in my sister’s room, and found a very squishy and rotten Eggy hidden behind some books on a shelf. My sister seems to have grown out of her issues with food, although it’s hard to say since I don’t live with her. She might also be hiding a secret like mine. 

Addiction is something that was talked about openly in my family, or at least with my mother. We never talked about addiction with the actual addict in the family, but with an alcoholic father, and a history of drug and alcohol addiction in the family, my mom thought it was important to talk to us about the dangers of substance abuse. I grew up hearing that I had a genetic predisposition to alcoholism and that I should never risk it by drinking or taking drugs. In some sense, my mom’s hours of lectures worked. I only smoked a little pot in high school and didn’t even have my first drink until months after my 21st birthday. We never talked about how food could be addictive, so I didn’t know that I had to watch my back around the stuffed crust pizza, or that Blue Bell ice cream could be a gateway drug. 

I’ve watched enough episodes of Intervention to know that I am an addict, and to recognize a lot of myself and my behaviors in the people on the show. I know that I am powerless over my addiction, and that the first step to recovery is admitting that, but I don’t know how to fix it. Eating an M&M chocolate chip cookie makes me feel good, eating six makes me feel even better, eating 10 makes me feel overstuffed and like shit, but by the time I realize that, it’s too late. I go to therapy, I’ve taken a meditation class, and have weekly sessions with my acupuncturist but I still haven’t found a way to self-soothe that works as well. Although, to be honest, whenever I need to self-soothe, I reach for the carbs before I ever consider getting out my round butt-pillow, or Zafu, and guided meditation app on my iPhone. Sometimes, I’ll even fantasize about washing my ice cream down the sink, my own personal version of flushing my stash down the toilet in a last ditch attempt to get clean, but like any addict I’m always able to justify just one more binge. 

The tricky part about recovery from binge eating (other than losing my second favorite coping mechanism after humor) is that I can’t just avoid my addiction, or quit cold turkey. I have to learn how to eat without triggering a relapse, which is a lot like telling a recovering alcoholic they need to learn how to drink without getting drunk. I read that I need to learn to eat for nutrition instead of comfort, but I don’t know if I can do it. I still haven’t found something to fill the hole in me like overeating does. 

Amanda M. McNeil lives in Milwaukee, WI with her two poorly behaved dogs. This is her first published piece. Follow her on twitter @gingermidwest

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Amanda M. McNeil lives in Milwaukee, WI with her two poorly behaved dogs. This is her first published piece. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr.