Recently, I stopped by PQ’s blog and responded to her challenge to summarize the last ten years of my life in 100 characters. Without thinking too much, I fired off:
Gained 110 pounds, graduated high school, got job, college, grad school, job, back to grad school, lost 50 pounds (so far).
As it turns out, that’s actually 102 characters if you don’t count spaces, but that’s not important. What does matter is the somewhat unwelcome line of thought those 102 characters initiated. Gained 110 pounds. Wow. How does that happen? For me, it came on in less than two years, a mere blink of an eye and all the while I was oblivious to the changes. I didn’t own a scale, and while people called me fat, they’d always done that; it’s not like they were saying “You’re fatter.” Did my clothes get too small? They must have, but I don’t remember ever really noting it. Maybe I was determined not to realize. Sometimes I think that I was born weighing over 200 pounds, because while I’d be thrilled to weigh 150 or 160 now, I thought I was enormous then and it seems unthinkable that I was ever that small. I need to look at the pictures to even believe that I once wore the size 12 jeans that I didn’t bother to pack when I moved.
How does that happen? You can only gain that much weight if you get up in the morning and decide, consciously or unconsciously, to eat more calories than you burn most days of your life. At one point in my life, I didn’t do that, and then as if a switch was thrown, I got to it in earnest.
I can pinpoint it. I remember the precise moment, the first time I ate food seeking something other than nourishment, the first time I abused food in the way other addicts abuse alcohol or cocaine or sex. I can see it so clearly with one exception. I know that in reality, it was the summer before my junior year in high school, but in my mind I always imagine that I was very young and very small. I see myself looking the way I look in old pictures where I have straight bangs and corduroy pants, where I’m playing with my Barbie on the old brown linoleum with my sister or where I’m standing looking shy in my purple velvet dress.
But aside from the way I picture us, I know that I remember everything with perfect clarity. The front door’s open, inviting the muggy night air in. The firelight outside is casting fiendish shapes on the walls and floors. I can hear the rumble of rock music, turned up too loud on a second rate boom box to even be intelligible. I know my parents are out there, but their not rowdy as usual, they’re actually hushed, but they are drunk, which has become a matter of course for summer weekend nights. They’re more somber and I know that it’s because, frustrated by our poverty and an engine that wouldn’t start, my father has thrown a tomahawk through the windshield of his car. A tomahawk. A mistake that, stupid to be sure, will cost them money they don’t have. I know they think it’s my fault, because I made him mad. When the car wouldn’t start, I had touched his arm and said, “maybe it’s best, Dad. Maybe you’re too drunk.”
Later, my mother hissed, “You should have left him alone. You have no right to judge him.” I wasn’t judging; I was relieved.
In the kitchen, two girls, who can hardly stand a moment together under normal circumstances, huddle giggling together in the pale light coming from the bulb over the sink. They’re inventing a recipe for childhood escape: toast raisin bread, spread generously with butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and one tablespoon each sugar and Nestle’s Quick. Consume while warm and repeat if necessary.
It was necessary on hundreds of nights I can’t remember and a few I’d like to forget. It wasn’t always the same food, but it was always uncommon and excessive. It didn’t fix the windshield, it didn’t help me understand my parents or make them resent me less, but somehow, binge eating felt like my anchor. It’s a pattern that I’m struggling to break every day.
I’m not writing this because I feel sorry for myself or because I’m hoping for some sympathy. I’m writing it because I subscribe to the school that says that in order to fix the problem, you have to understand it completely. You have to turn it over in your hands, take it apart, analyze it, even if doing that is incredibly painful. That’s what I have to do if instead of recounting my first time, I’m going to some day write about my last.