A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my boyfriend’s living room table, alone, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, my laptop open, trying to fend off both a cold and a bad mood. I was frustrated that I couldn’t pick amongst the multiple documents I had open that required my urgent attention, and angry at myself for feeling tired and frustrated, a vicious cycle of inertia and self-hatred. Rationally, I know that I’m lucky to be able to be my own boss and make my own schedule, so when I fall down on the job, I get upset. I was also antsy because I was in suburbia; I live in New York City, and right outside my door, within a one-block walk, are a bagel shop, a diner, three 24-hour delis, a nail salon, a dry cleaner and more. Where he lives, I can walk for coffee in just five minutes, but I’m pretty much the only one walking. I felt trapped, and stressed, and cranky, and turned to something I thought would soothe those feelings: food.
I’ve always had a tricky relationship with food. From ages 12 to 20, I was a vegetarian and, later vegan, until I went to college in hippie veggie haven Berkeley, California, and my rebelliousness took the form of going back to meat eating. I had tried starving myself and puking, and after stopping those forms of disordered eating, deliberately restricting my diet seemed unhealthy. I’ve gone up and down a good 20 pounds in the last few years, in periods of better or worse nutrition and exercise, but for the most part, my body hovers around the 150 lb. mark, and I’m mostly okay with that. Yes, I’d like to weight something more along the 130 level, but mostly I want to be strong enough to lift boxes and jog a few miles without getting winded, to be rejuvenated from a natural high rather than my constant caffeine fix. That’s my ideal life, anyway; real life is a bit more tricky. I’ve found that the more I mentally beat myself up about my weight, the more the topic starts to consume me, so I generally leave it alone rather than trying to count and calculate every calorie that enters my mouth. But even though I don’t diet per se, food is still a fraught topic. I don’t go overboard monitoring my food intake, but I do sometimes fear that if I ate literally whatever I wanted, as writers like Geneen Roth advocate, I’d gobble up every piece of junk food in sight. And sometimes my fear comes true, as I’m about to tell you.
One aspect of my disordered eating habits has remained, an occasional crutch that feels all the more sinful because it’s so rare: bingeing. Usually it involves some type of “bad” carb, be it cereal or cookies or, in this case, potato chips. Once I know a food is a potential trigger, I tend not to buy it, or if I do, I buy a small package of it so that if I want the giddy, joyful, getting-away-with-something feeling of literally shoving food in my mouth, I can do so without guilt. (Thank you, single-serving cereal packs, which I know are bad for the environment, but they let me shovel Lucky Charms into my mouth and not feel gross about it.) Sometimes it’s Cheerios or Raisin Bran; I’ve even managed to binge on Grape Nuts, and that’s a challenge. It’s not that Cheerios are unhealthy in and of themselves, but when I eat anything simply because I want to feel and hear it crunch in my mouth until I zone out, it’s not a good thing. For me, binge eating isn’t only about eating “forbidden” foods. It’s that I’m eating them alone, in secret, with a purpose that I know, even if subconsciously, has nothing to do with hunger.
My boyfriend had two large bags of potato chips in his kitchen; the jalapeño chips were almost decimated, so I decided to open the Kettle sea salt chips. As almost always happens when I binge, I didn’t set out to eat all of them. I just wanted something salty and crunchy, something to take my mind off myself and my problems, and figured I could eat a few, close the bag, and I would look like a normal snacker, not a glutton. And it worked, for a little while; those first few bites were blissful. Then, after the initial handful of chips, I zoned out and kept shoving them in my mouth, long after the saltiness had made my tongue rough and even the crunch seemed dulled. Every time I paused, I realized how much I didn’t want to face my own sluggishness, and the chips seemed easier to deal with … until I got to the very bottom of the bag. I didn’t let myself look at the calorie count, because I knew if I did I’d be tempted to revert to my old ways and stick my fingers down my throat (when I did finally look, I saw that the entire bag contained 750 calories, and was relieved it wasn’t twice that amount). I was like a living version of Heather Whaley’s hilarious and a little-too-close-to-home cookbook Eat Your Feelings: Recipes for Self-Loathing.
The worst part wasn’t my regret or stomachache, but that I couldn’t keep it a secret. Like secret eater Shoshana Davis, I’m used to hiding the eating I don’t want anyone to know about. I decided I’d walk the three miles and back to the grocery store to replace the chips and my boyfriend wouldn’t be any the wiser, but the walk took longer than I’d planned and I had him pick me up. I tried to drop the bomb casually into the conversation; “I got you some more potato chips because I ate them.” I managed to say this so casually that he didn’t pay attention until we got back and he saw the empty space where the chips had been. Thankfully, he didn’t ask me any more about it. Still, I felt extra guilty, not because he was heartbroken about his potato chip supply, but because this was a sign that I’m not as easygoing as I want to appear to him.
The silver lining of my binges is that for a long time afterward, I will avoid whatever food it was that triggered my binge. It’s instinctual; I don’t even want to see them, as if I’ve eaten my year’s share of chips or cereal and am ready to move on to other foods. The joy almost immediately evaporates, though sometimes it comes back. I don’t set goals of the “I will never binge again” variety, because that’s unrealistic and if I didn’t meet that goal, I’d feel even worse. I hope that I won’t binge again, and that if I do, I’ll be able to stop myself before too much damage has been done.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is the editor of over 40 anthologies, including Curvy Girls: Erotica for Women, Best Sex Writing 2012, Women in Lust, The Mile High Club, and others. She blogs at Lusty Lady and Cupcakes Take the Cake.