“I would try to be good, in the Puritanical sense, which meant denying my appetites. Resisting temptation meant I was good — strong, counter-animal. But the jungle drums would start beating again.” – Anne Lamott
Ugh. Those jungle drums! It seems so simple. Eat what you need, move about. Respect your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, instead of a primal casing for animal appetites. How much harder it is to live that way.
Having eaten “clean” for nearly a week (nearly a week!) it occurs to me that my eating habits come from a place of fear. Looking back, it becomes crystal clear.
Birth: 4 lbs, 11 oz. preemie. Obviously, when you weigh four pounds and some change, being a “good eater” is a good thing. No problems yet!
Early childhood: My earliest memory about food as a young child: B.O.R.I.N.G! Eating took away from my playtime. I would try a few bites of anything, but the few bites sustained me.
Mid-childhood: I had to be bribed into eating at all. At mealtimes, I learned to shuffle food around on the plate to look as if I’d eaten more than I had. For a brief stint, I was not allowed to leave the supper table until every single bite of my food was gone. This evolved into my finding ways to trick my parents into thinking I ate, and their adding time on my sentence of sitting at the table – or even adding more food as a punishment. Food became a major power struggle issue. Not only was it boring, but now mealtimes became occasion for dread.
Late-childhood:: I earn the family nickname “toothpick legs.” Underweight, I am sick frequently.
Early Teens: Okay, I’m hungry now. I get it – hunger. Hormones aflux, the periods happen. Boobs happen, and keep happening. Fat fills in all the right places. During this time, I start to make the correlation between yummy foods and reward. Food isn’t punishment, it’s reward! Ahhh, wait. It’s both!
I get into a twisted ritual of starving myself any time I’m disappointed in me; of not feeling worthy of reward, starving myself as punishment. I also begin hiding food, in case I do something worthy of reward. Giving food way too much power.
Late teens: Oh, how I love food now. I discover different ethnic foods (Greek is favorite!) This is a time of exploration – curries and spices, cooking and baking. Nobody calls me toothpick legs anymore. I decide that I shouldn’t use food as a reward or punishment (hooray – GO ME!) but instead, eat unhindered of any rules at all. In the free-for-all. As you probably know, free-for-alls are not free at all. There is always a cost.
Young adult: I discover alcohol, and this is where it gets more complicated. I drink to excess, and frequently. Funny thing about alcohol – it is high-calorie, no-nutrient. I fatten up quickly from all the beer, wine, rum drinks, and white Russians (especially the white Russians!) and do the only rational thing an alcoholic does – stop eating with any regularity. Gotta have priorities, right? Drinking made me forget I had issues with food at all! Weight drops, as does self-worth.
Mid-twenties: I must get sober and eat veggies, because I am thinking about becoming a mama. I quit drinking. I get pregnant; I love being pregnant. Even with complications, feeling my baby move in my belly fills it up the way foods never did. I take prenatal vitamins and drink plenty of milk, but cannot resist urge to eat McDonalds. Once per day, I snarf two double cheeseburgers to assuage the baby and the infernal cravings she causes.
After she is born, I continue McDonald’s habit, and add several hundred more calories per day. Nursing makes me ravenous! I breastfeed my daughter until I become pregnant with my second baby – 2 ½ years. With the second pregnancy, I gave up the fast food burger habit, but only because the new baby wants TACO BELL. I form the habit of eating firstborn’s leftovers. There are always leftovers because kids eat what they need and then go play. Justification: This is what new moms do. They clean their kids’ plates – the leftover fries, the quarter of Happy Meal hamburger.
When I gave birth to my second daughter, I breastfeed her as well. Whew, I forgot how hungry nursing makes me! I am making sure to squeeze in a few fruits and veggies, as I feed my firstborn semi-healthy foods, but at night, I collapse from exhaustion and grab a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies. Or maybe Milanos, a comforting “treat” for Mommy only.
Late twenties: When the youngest is two years old, I wean her. I also take drinking back up, heady with the idea of having my body all back to myself to use (or abuse) as I see fit after seven straight years as a baby-growing vessel and milk machine. Adding a ” glass or two of wine” in the evenings seemed reasonable, except that it was (a) never ‘one’ glass of wine, and (b) several hundred extra calories every day. With the weight of two pregnancies still clinging to my frame, I could not eat as I typically did AND drink, something had to give…. And it was food, healthy food.
Early thirties: Okay, now I am miserable and fat. And on blood pressure meds. And antidepressants. And I am pre-diabetic. But also – at 32 – sober. For good, All glory to God, one day at a time – as long as I don’t pick up that first drink. I tell the story of my alcoholism/recovery in my book, “EDGEWISE: Plunging off the Brink of Drink and into the Love of God,” but from a nutritional perspective, the drinking/binge-eating had really done a number on my health. When getting sober, a person’s body craves sugar like a crazed maniac, because alcohol converts to sugar and without it….well, what better to reward your cravings – and spirit – with than actual sugar? At this stage in my life, my marriage was deteriorating, I ate for comfort in addition to craving. My body hurt, and hurt often.
Mid-thirties: The Divorce Diet. Highly effective at weight-loss and mind-loss. Depressed, I upped my smoking to two packs every day. Working four part-time jobs to feed my children, I was in survival mode. I chain-smoked, and drank diet soda, and little else. I think I perhaps consumed 800 calories a day, because I was hanging by such a thread emotionally that I had NO appetite. NONE. Within a year, I lost 80 pounds. People started telling me how great I looked! I had NO control over a single thing going on in my life during that period, except weight. It became a daily personal challenge to eat as little as humanly possible without passing out. Damn it, I would have control over something going on! I found that if I went without even 800 calories each day (say, 400 calories) I dropped pounds even more rapidly and even MORE people told me how great I looked!
Until they starting telling me I was too thin. Toothpick legs was resurrected. And obsessed with running out of food for my daughters, I begin hoarding food again. I am sorry to say that I passed along my “food as reward” mindset to them, too.
Mid thirties: Ages thirty-three to thirty-six were a pivotal time for me. I had hit a bit of a stride as a single mom, with steady employment and a much-improved walk with God. I started having some clarity about my food issues, and – as I worked on my alcoholism recovery – became aware of the parallels. Started eating semi-regularly, gained a little bit of weight back, but still smoked like a freight train.
Late thirties: I fell head over heels in love with a man whom I married a year later. I tried not to bring the body-issue baggage into our relationship, but of course – I did. But I was happy again, for the first time in forever! We both loved to eat, and four months into our courtship, I quit smoking completely. Again, I employed the tools of recovery to help me through the cold-turkey smoking cessation.
My appetite for life – and food – returned! My Lazarus taste buds all stood at attention and implored me to eat. And in my newly wed bliss, I decided that I must cook southern foods for my Yankee husband! Our first year of marriage was greased with butter and shortening. And it was delicious.
And now, several years (and medicines, pant-sizes, and cholesterol points) later, I am attempting to learn from the mistakes of the past – acknowledging the red flags of bingeing, hoarding, and starving in the rear-view mirror – the cost – but not changing direction for them. I am surrendering. In any surrender worth it’s salt (so to speak) there is an element of accountability.
Today, I am going to eat what I need and make those Jungle drums the rhythm to which I move about.
One day at a time.