I have been this way my whole life.
Food has always meant happiness to me.
There is nothing else that gives me such immediate satisfaction.
There's nothing else that helps me shut off my mind and my feelings and engage in something simple. There is the delicious or crunchy or creamy taste and then there is the full stomach.
The day the Challenger exploded in 1986 I was 3 years old. I remember my mom folding hot, fresh laundry into neat squares and watching the footage of the fiery tragedy on the TV in our kitchen. I remember that on this day my mom finished one of her shake-based diet programs. This meant we got to celebrate by going out to dinner.
Weight was the enemy, we were the enemy for having no self-control. Food was always an innocent.
My mom bought me several boxes of sugar cubes to make a castle for a project at school. The castle turned out just fine, I don't remember the grade. What I do remember is sneaking down the backstairs of our house once I brought it home and prying loose the cubes, eating them one by one, glue and all. There was something in that stale, chewy sweetness that transported me to another place.
This was something called emotional eating. I didn't have a name for it. It was just the way I lived.
At school, during the day, I was a nervous kid. My lips were always red and raw, my eyes wide with worry that I would say or do something that someone wouldn't like. My fourth grade teacher once told me I needed to stop worrying or I'd give myself an ulcer. I found out later ulcers don't work that way. I found out when I got my first.
I didn't tie any of this into my emotional eating. I wouldn't. I was a kid.
On my birthday my mom would make me whatever cake I wanted. I loved my birthday and my birthday cake. I'd let everyone have a slice but then the rest was mine to hoard for days on end. One year she made me an angel food cake with pink frosting and strawberries. I wouldn't let anyone touch it.
By the third day it was sprouting mold. I'm sure that's a metaphor for something.
In middle school I was one of only two girls in my entire class, the place had only recently gone co-ed. I wasn't an athlete. I wasn't pretty. When we had to run the mile around our school campus I would stop and sit in the trees behind the school, reciting Edgar Allen Poe poems at the top of my lungs.
The other girl in my class had a boyfriend, and I didn't. In a school of MOSTLY MEN I couldn't get a boyfriend. I also couldn't get my mother to buy me the right kind of cloths, and I couldn't make my face and hair do what it was supposed to do, according to television.
Fridays we got out of school early. I would go home, make a packet of ramen noodles and a bag of microwave popcorn and eat them both sitting too close to the TV. I savored that final sodium-packed sip of ramen broth. I ripped the empty popcorn bag apart so I could more effectively run my nails down its surface, slick with artificial butter, and scrape it out onto my teeth and tongue.
I didn't know who I was supposed to be. I was uneasy all the time.
I wasn't that way when I was eating. It never is with emotional eating.
On the weekends I would ride my bike down the hill to the deli and buy whatever candy I could afford with the change I managed to scrounge. Then I would walk my bike back up the hill and retreat to my room to eat it all.
I never threw the wrappers away in a trash can. I hid them around the room. I couldn't haven't told you why then, but I can now: I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I was unhappy.
In bed at night I curled up with books and a pile of apples. I would eat absentmindedly, filling my stomach with food and my mind with words.
When my pediatrician (an anorexic) and my mother (the only non-anorexic of her sisters) told me I weighed too much, I believed them.
"This," my pediatrician said pointing to the center of a BMI chart, "is everyone else. And this," she moved her pen up, pointing at a lone dot that seemed to fly high above all the others all alone, "is you."
I replaced the apples and the popcorn and the ramen noodles and the candy with boiling hot water that I'd sip delicately from the baby bottles my youngest brother had outgrown.
It wasn't the same.
It couldn't be. I'm an emotional eater. Late night batches of cookies, hard candy that is great because it lasts longer in your mouth, chocolate and caramel that is warmer and more inviting than a kiss. I didn't just love them all, I needed them.
In a life full of feelings I didn't understand, of anxieties and fears, of utter loneliness, food and the warmth and escape it provided were a constant that I desperately needed.
At my core I am still this girl. When I feel the urge to bake a batch of cookies, or to sit in front of the TV consuming a pint of ice cream and then maybe some lollipops I try to ask myself "what do you need?"
It doesn't always work. I don't always remember. But sometimes I do, and when that happens there is a shift inside of me.
I feel the same wash of warmth as I do when I am contentedly eating bag of tortilla chips. It is calmness that comes with knowing yourself, or at least, with trying to.
I can still (and will) inhale a dozen cookies in a sitting. But I also don't need to anymore, and that feels pretty miraculous.