The Night It Culminates: July 7, 2015
It began as a way to cope with a broken engagement in December 1997.
My single dorm room stifles me, so I drive to the Super America, buy a 20-ounce Mountain Dew, bag of Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips, and Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies. I drive around this college town, drive out in the country, alternating between sad songs and songs by Christian music artists I like. I sing. I sob. I stuff my face.
An April 2015 evening, the kids in bed, I’m waiting for my wife to return from work. I am (for the thousandth time) searching online for different weight-loss tricks and tips. By some fluke (or maybe not) I am scanning the 20 possible symptoms of food addiction. Check. Check. Check. All but three apply. You’re advised to talk to your doctor if you’ve experienced even one.
Even one? I think. What if you’ve experienced almost all of them?
The first 8 weeks of my summer break I tabulate my food intake, most days managing between 1,800-2,000 calories. I exercise at least four days a week. On Saturday afternoons I pull on all my dress pants, and they still fit exactly the same.
My son, who is 5 and who can read, has been reading nutrition labels. He comments on the grams of sugar, the grams of fiber, the protein, the carbohydrates, the fat, and (God help him) the calories. For him it is about the ability to read and learn more. My family knows I try to minimize my sugar intake. I went through this year’s Lent without having anything sweet, without having any dessert. Not even my 90% cocoa. Later, after I seek help, I will look at my son’s behavior as a warning sign.
Whenever I glance in my mirror, my shirt off, I am repulsed. Disgusted. Hate festers. Cellulose gathers above the waistband. I grab the flesh, wish I could rip it off with my hands. I wonder if I could somehow slice it off. These last months, those thoughts have become more common. I wonder how overweight one has to be for bariatric surgery, how much it costs. A former student had undergone the procedure, wrote a personal narrative about the process. That could work for me, right? I think.
Whenever I’m eating, I’m thinking about food (the calories, the fat, the sugar). Whenever I’m not eating, I’m thinking about the food I will be (or should be, or won’t be) eating next (the calories, the fat, the sugar). Sleep is the sole stretch of time my thought patterns don’t cycle around food. Sleep is becoming my only escape. I look forward to it more and more. There’s a seven-to-eight hour window where I’m free.
Over these last months, I’ve been regularly imagining what it’d be like to see my ribs again, just as I did in junior high when I was so skinny. My nickname was beanpole. Oh, what I would give, what I would pay, what I would do for that to happen.
I am not supposed to have this problem. I’m 40 pounds lighter than at my food-binging worst in 2001. I’m a Christian, supposedly not consumed by the things of this world. I’m “educated.” I should know better.
I like being in the water. As a child, I loved going to the local swimming pool, going to a lake, especially the one at my grandparents’ cabin in Northern Minnesota. Now I live in Texas.
This July evening, while my wife is working, I take my two kids, 5 and 2, to the municipal waterpark. Our towels on plastic chairs, sandals askew on sweltering concrete, they charge into the shallow pool, shrieking. Even though I know no one is studying me, I am dreading my final preparation. I wince as I remove my T-shirt, thinking everyone is disgusted by how fat I am. I know that, more than likely, no one is looking at me, but logic cannot always defeat folly. There are so many other things I’d endure rather than take off my shirt: eat a plate of steamed broccoli, attend a Nickelback concert, visit an NRA convention, work for a Texas roofing company.
More and more often I am often thinking of my skinny friends: Adam, Austin, Tim. I think of musicians I admire, men tall and sinewy. I am so jealous. I want skinny more than I want anything else. Even more than having a book published. I’m a writer. Short of my giving up my wife or kids, there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to button a pair of size 32 jeans and need a belt.
In junior high and high school, basketball is what I live for—I talk about it whenever I can. I play it whenever I can. I watch NBA and college games with my mom and dad. I skip lunch most days, instead taking the dollar lunch money and buying snacks at mid-morning break, so I can play basketball in the gym during lunch time.
My stomach rumbles through afternoon classes, through basketball practice, through track practice. I get hunger pangs that hunch me over in my desk. The pain is the most intense and uncomfortable I’ve ever felt.
Maybe this problem precedes college.
My kids asleep after their joyful playing at the waterpark, I sit in the recliner. In that span before my wife returns from work, I am wandering, aimless. I look at information about food addiction and eating disorder symptoms, and it is so glaringly obvious.
I turn to social media for connection, and a friend’s post on Facebook reads, “There seems to be a lot of pain and loneliness in the air tonight. I love you.”
I want to cry. It is the nudge. I begin writing.
When my wife returns from work, I’m sitting in the darkened living room still writing. I have not bothered to switch on a light.
After pleasantries, I grab my Bible, return to the recliner. It’s time for our evening devotions. I read the account of the Ethiopian eunuch, his conversation with Philip.
My wife prays for me, for my summer class to go well, prays for our son, and then it is my turn to pray for her, and to pray for our daughter. And the tears start. My conscience (or the Holy Spirit, or two labels for the same thing?) is saying, just express your emotions; don’t hold all this in anymore; you don’t have bear this burden alone anymore; admit that you can’t handle it on your own; you’re becoming out of control.
She prays for people in our small group, leaving the other half of the group for me to pray for. And the tears are more regular, but I keep somewhat intact. I have to swallow hard a few times to keep going.
I sign off with our usual, “And I pray that you would watch over us this night, and that our sleep would be restful. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Before we had started praying I took some ibuprofen, telling her I have a headache (which I do), but I know that it’s also a result of the dam about ready to burst. I’m ready to admit defeat. To hoist the white flag.
She asks, “Are your eyes watering or are you crying?”
I throw this burden into the day’s last light that is a line running from the entry way window across the hardwood floor to me.
“Crying,” I say. And then without turning to her, I tell her about how I’ve spent the last hour in the darkened living room, writing about my unhealthy relationship with food, about how I have 17 of the 20 symptoms of food addiction. My face is a mess of tears and snot. I tell her I want to eat like a regular person, without thinking. Just enjoying. Not obsessing. Not spending my day thinking about what I just ate, what I’m eating next. Not adding up numbers. I’m so tired of numbers.
That I have a problem. That I need help.
I tell her I wanted to convince myself that I don’t have a problem, an eating disorder, but when I read her the symptoms I have (or have had), being the counselor she is, she says, yes, you have a problem.
And because one of my weaknesses is sweet things, and because she makes baked goods for friends, for us, I tell her that sometimes I feel as though I’m an alcoholic trapped in a liquor store. After all, I have on occasion, eaten so much leftover frosting and so many cake scraps that I have eaten the equivalent of half a cake. On occasion, I have dug old cake and frosting out of the trash can.
And in this, she just holds me as I sit in the recliner. She is crying, now, too, but she is listening, listening as she always has.
I tell her that I realize that my problems with food go back, way further than a broken relationship two decades earlier.
I tell her it feels so wrong to have this problem when so many people in the world lack sufficient food. There is the ongoing civil war in Syria. There is police violence. One in 6 Americans are in poverty. 90 percent of the world lives on less than $1 a day.
She hugs me. Yes, she says, you need help, but it’s going to be okay.
When the crying has subsided, and as has my headache, I feel spent, exhausted.
She tells me that she had been planning to have sex. I don’t have a desire for that. I just want to hold her. To be held. The thought of being naked with her, after all, rarely fills me with gleeful abandon. Rather, I see my obese body on our bed, and I am disgusted. If I were a woman, I would be repulsed by my body, say, Pull up the sheet! or For God’s sake, you really need to work out more.
Yes, this problem has a history.
Nathaniel Lee Hansen is the author of the short-story collection Measuring Time & Other Stories (Wiseblood Books, 2019) and the poetry collection Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life (Cascade Books, 2018). His website is plainswriter.com. He is on Twitter @plainswriter.