Yes, the title seems to be over-the-top provocative. However, it is absolutely true. No, I wasn’t downing beer and wine at that tender age, nor was I inhaling cigarettes or some of that “whacky tobacky”, either. But I was hopelessly addicted by the time I was in kindergarten. My drug of choice is probably the most common one, easily acquired and relatively inexpensive. It gave me such a profound sense of pleasure and comfort that I never found in nicotine, alcohol and marijuana when I got around to test driving those substances as a high school sophomore.
“You don’t like it, do you? I could tell by the way your face was all screwed up.” I was standing with a group of people after school near the football field, and a classmate whose name has faded with the passage of forty years had given me what was left of a joint that was attached to a “roach clip”. The guy was crouched down on the grass, peering up at me as I coughed violently. I shook my head and passed the “roach” back to him. The stuff tasted like what I imagined to be burnt hay. Why would anyone want to smoke that? I spit out little pieces of marijuana that was on my tongue.
“Come on, Angie, let’s go.” My friend Kim, a pro as far as smoking cigarettes and weed was concerned, laughed as she pulled me away from the little circle of pot smokers. Our other friend, Veronica, had refused the roach, but joined in the laughter. “Angie, girl, you’re pitiful!” It was true. But I wasn’t too upset. McDonald’s was about 200 feet away, right on our way home. A quarter pounder, and a chocolate shake would wash that nasty taste out of my mouth.
Who would bypass a free high for 1,390 calories of worth of unhealthy fat and an extraordinary amount of sugar? Someone who was addicted to food. Someone like me.
I remember my very first addictive experience with food in more detail than most of my other childhood memories. My mother was a fantastic old school Southern cook, and she had made one of my favorite dinners: meatloaf, collard greens, cornbread (made from scratch, none of those mixes-in-a-box), and her absolutely heavenly macaroni and cheese. She made it with what she called “a white roux”*, a concoction of flour, butter and milk that was poured over a large pan of cooked macaroni, then a very generous amount of grated Cheddar cheese was mixed in before it was put in the oven to bake. I stood in front of the oven, anxiously waiting for the dish to finish baking. But our family had to be seated at the table, and grace had to be said before I could take that first tantalizing bite. Eating my mother’s homemade Southern cooking felt like I was being transported to what my five year old brain imagined to be heaven. Forget angels and pearly gates, my Nirvana was an endless supply of my mother’s mac and cheese. Even though I was stuffed, I kept sneaking back into the kitchen to get some more macaroni and meatloaf.
“Angie! What do you think you’re doin’? Get out of this kitchen, NOW!”
She caught me. My mother didn’t mess around with anyone, much less her two daughters (I’m the oldest), and her son, who was in utero at that time. She whacked me hard on my bottom, and told me to get ready for my nightly bath. I was lucky. She didn’t hit me with my father’s thick Air Force belt or with the back of her hairbrush. Strangely enough, the whack hurt, but not as much as it usually did. That was an unexpected bonus. Extra food helped take the sting out of spankings. They still hurt, and my mother remained a terror-producing force in my life whenever she yelled, which was often. But I was effectively “numbed out” by the soothing effects of the food, and I learned to do what was expected of me, or at least, appear to do so. Whenever she went outside to put laundry on the clothes line, or talk to a neighbor, I took advantage of her absences to raid the refrigerator for leftover fried chicken, potato salad and of course, macaroni and cheese. I didn’t realize it then, but I had a preference for food that was very high in fat. Sweets gave me awful headaches. But if I ate, for example, two of my mother’s very delicious, buttery grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries, I could eat a half dozen of her homemade oatmeal and raisin cookies without any painful suffering. I did, however, have problems with a rapidly expanding waist. By the time my little brother Ricky was born in 1964, I was six years old and wearing a “chubby” girl size 6x. And I wore a size 8 the following year.
Even though my weight escalated to alarming proportions over the years (my highest weight topped out at 400 pounds), the worst part about being addicted to food was I never developed any kind of coping skills to deal with life. I numbed all of my emotions with food, and, aside from the time I spent raising my beloved children after divorcing their father, the only other pleasure I felt was found within those first few seconds that I put some of my favorite food in my mouth. And it took more and more deep dish pizza or double cheeseburgers to get that same pleasurable effect. And forget dieting– after 30 years of going up and down, then up even more, I began to feel like I was stuck in locked, dark closet whenever I tried to diet–a lonely, frightening experience that never felt like it was worth the agony, even if I lost a considerable amount of weight.
In desperation, I turned to a 12 step program that helped me to understand compulsive overeating, but there wasn’t much in terms of specific directions that would help me. The people were very friendly and I enjoyed talking to them, but their suggestions about the process recovering from eating too much seemed extremely vague. “Keep coming back!” didn’t seem to be a viable solution to my problem, but I did that for almost 20 years. I reached 400 pounds while attending those meetings, mostly because I substituted eating my typical high fat, calorie dense binge foods with excessive volumes of organic lacto-ovo vegetarian food.
Alarmed by my weight gain, I had Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery in 2002, and I lost 140 pounds. That was down from 368 pounds, which was somewhat better than my all time high. But within four years after surgery, I had gained back 70 of those pounds. I became desperate because in spite of gastric bypass, and the very real problem of violently throwing up my food because I couldn’t digest all of it at once, I had lost any semblance of control over my food intake. Slowly, I began to recognize that I wasn’t just a compulsive overeater, although that was part of my problem. I had been listening to some talks given by 12 step speakers who were recovering drug addicts, and I recognized the behavioral similarities I had with them. I used food the same way they used drugs. The only way I could stop was to never start. But that prospect was so terrifying that I flung myself on my bed and sobbed, “God, please, help me!”
The answer came in 2007 when a young lady from Australia sent me an email in response to a post I had on my blog. I was stunned that someone from the other side of the world would take the time to write to me about her own struggles with food , and how she found a 12 step program of recovery specifically for food addiction. She told me that she would be visiting friends in California, and invited me to join her in San Francisco. I did, and I experienced the profoundly nauseating effects of detox for the very first time. It was one of many firsts. A year later, my weight fell below the 200 pound mark, which hadn’t happened since I was twelve years old. I was happy with the weight loss, but unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with the overwhelming amount of anxiety and depression that I was feeling. Unable to effectively share my feelings and experiences with my fellow food addicts, I began the shamefully agonizing process of relapse.
It has been eight years of on and off recovery from food addiction. However, the scale is now registering incremental weight loss, although at a slower pace than when I was a newcomer to the program. Strangely enough, I feel it is for the best. I’m now dealing with the anxiety, the depression and the issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder, which was the result of having been married to a man who was, and probably still is, an abusive, bi-polar drug addict. I survived, but the experience has left deep emotional and psychological scars. Therapy is helping me heal from that trauma. And recovery from food addiction is helping me heal my mind, body and soul.
*For more information about white roux, check out Alton Brown’s recipe at http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/white-roux-recipe.html