Eat All You Take

In 2013, I lost 50 pounds and blogged about my experiences. Along the way, I wrote about food addiction, eating disorders, depression, and so on. Here are some excerpts from that journey:

There is a reason I am the way I am. I have a curse that has been passed down through my family since the before times. My family is haunted by addiction. Drugs for an uncle and a cousin or two. Alcohol for my grandfather. Cigarettes for too many to count. And food for my Mom and me. Nicotine got me as well. I was just as weak in my submission to it as I’ve been with food. I use the words ‘curse’ and ‘haunted’ because they evoke a sense of horror. And addiction is a horror. It is horrible monster thing that lives inside of me. A thoughtless, ruthless, hungry monster. I eat a potato chip. And the monster reaches up from my belly and grabs another chip from the bag and another and another and damn – before you know it, the bag is empty and the monster crawls back to its corner until the next time. That kind of monster.

We don’t talk about about our monsters. We probably should because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has one living in his belly. If I don’t kill it or tame it, I know it will be my undoing. My Mom is the proof of that. And come on, let’s be honest. The monster also gets in the way of intimacy and other aspects of life. When I’m up in weight, I snore. I’m not attractive to my wife or myself. I don’t feel good about what I am and that is reflected in who I am and how I treat others around me. I’m grumpier. I’m tired. I am… well, I become the monster. It is me and I am it.

It makes sense that I would learn to use food as a way to deal with the stresses of life. I grew up in the kitchen. My Mom was a foodie – a cookbook author and baking instructor who made a point to make sure I could navigate the kitchen, bake a great loaf of bread, and in her words, “make a woman happy some day.”

She wrote several bread baking cookbooks for which I served as proofreader and editor. I also wrote the foreword for one of her books, Breads from Betsy’s Kitchen. As I was thinking about my current path, I thought about the foreword and how it so clearly illustrates my association with and attitude toward food. It reads like a bittersweet playbook for fostering a lifelong love of eating…

Foreword

How fitting that I should write the Foreword to my mom’s book. Although I am not a loaf of bread, I am largely a product of Betsy’s kitchen (and I mean largely!). For the first eighteen years of my life, I ate a strict diet consisting of Betsy’s four food groups: sweet, savory, sourdough, and specialty breads. If it’s true that “you are what you eat,” then I am a living testament to the incredible recipes in this volume: I am often bold and zesty, sometimes crusty, and certainly soft on the inside.

As I edited this text, so many memories flitted through my mind… mornings when the powerful aroma of fresh warm bread would lure me, half-awake, into the kitchen; coming home from school to a kitchen alive with activity as Mom, hands covered with flour, worked her magic. I remembered sneaking downstairs for a late night snack of leftover dinner rolls; stealing sweet cookie dough from the mixing bowl when Mom wasn’t looking – so many wonderful recollections of my youth, and all of them revolving around Betsy’s kitchen.

Working with my mom on this book has been a pleasure and an honor. What a rare opportunity – to work on a project that involves three of my greatest loves: my mom, her baking, and language. Over the last couple of months, I have seen Breads From Betsy’s Kitchen grow from a handful of “old faithfuls” into an astounding resource for the home baker. This book has become more than just a collection of recipes. It is a reflection of my mom’s tireless devotion to sharing the joys of bread baking with others.

I am proud to be a part of her creative vision. For the last two decades, Betsy has traveled the world spreading the gospel of bread baking at cooking schools, stores, charity events, and private homes. And now, with this volume, you get a slice of that pie – a small piece of her love for baking. As these recipes become breads from your kitchen, I wish you the same joy they have given me and my family. Enjoy!

I keep thinking back through my life to see if I can locate the origins of my eating habits. It’s not as simple as saying that I’m just a “stress eater”. Nor do I only eat to reduce the dark cloud of depression that sometimes floats by. In fact, there doesn’t have to be a negative impetus. I will eat because I feel great. I will eat even when I’m not hungry.

There was a rule in my house when I was younger: take all you want, but eat all you take. Pretty sure that was the rule in my Dad’s house when he was growing up. The statement was popular during WWII as a food conservation slogan.

On one hand, it makes sense as a conservation philosophy – let no food go to waste. On the other hand, it imprints the idea that you have to clean your plate. You have to eat it all, even if you are no longer hungry.

Add to that my parents’ peculiar insistence that I eat the food on my plate even if I couldn’t stomach it. Let me explain this one. There are very few foods I don’t like: eggplant, raw tomatoes, green peppers among them. The first two make me gag. Once in a blue moon, my Mom would make a dish like eggplant lasagna. Even though she insisted that “you can’t even taste the eggplant,” I could. My parents did not simply insist that I eat my serving, but would have me sit at the table until I had eaten it even if it meant my sitting there well past dinner time and into the evening.

Please don’t get me wrong. My parents were good, kind, loving people. I was not beaten or neglected as a child. Their food philosophy was clearly borne of a historical context in which conservation was critical. They could not have known then that their son would grow up to have an eating disorder – and I’m not suggesting that they made me this way. I am however, following threads from my past in an effort to understand the tapestry I am today. I see that the patterns that began so long ago are still there.

Just last night, I sat down to dinner with my family. I had my six ounces of cooked chicken, one cup of butterhead lettuce with a light drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette, and a tall glass of water. Toward the end of dinner I had about seven bites of chicken left on my plate. I felt full and really didn’t need to eat to those last bites, but I did. My habit patterns won out over my body’s needs.

I was addicted to nicotine for roughly twenty years. Mainly I chewed tobacco, but I also smoked cigarettes and cigars. I started chewing in college. I played intramural baseball and someone always had a bag of Redman on them. I learned that nicotine was a good study aid, especially when mixed with caffeine.

When I was nineteen, I backpacked around Europe for six weeks. I couldn’t find chewing tobacco, but in most European cities I visited, cigarettes were available anywhere and everywhere: street vending machines, corner stores, bathrooms, bars, etc. And so I smoked. I discovered that the moment you pull a pack of smokes from your pocket, someone will try to bum one from you. That’s when I learned to roll my own cigarettes. Fewer people ask when they have to work for it.

In my early twenties, I joined the Army as an infantry soldier. I was in for three years and was stationed in Fort Benning, Camp Howze (South Korea), Fort Ord and Fort Lewis. During my enlistment, I chewed tobacco non-stop from sunrise to sunset. I carried extra tins in my cargo pockets for fear of running out. Going on maneuvers? No problem. I’d pack two 5-tin rolls in my rucksack.

The day I got out of the Army, I met my future wife. She didn’t like that I chewed. Over the years together she asked me several times to stop. When she became pregnant with our first son, she asked me to promise – for the sake of her and our child – that I would stop chewing once and for all. I did stop. And I gained 25 pounds within a month. So I started up again. I was a poster child for addiction. I hid my tins, lied to my wife, made excuses to disappear so I could grab a quick pinch. When she asked me whether I had been dipping, I looked her in the eyes and lied like a fool. I started getting holes in my teeth – just like those anti-chewing tobacco posters in the school nurse’s office. I went to the dentist and had work done to cover them up.

When my oldest son was five or so, we were driving around in the car. I surreptitiously opened a tin of mint Skoal and packed a pinch. From the back seat, my son said, “Yuck daddy, what’s that awful smell?” And I made up my millionth lie. To a five year old. And that was the tipping point. Right then, it all came crashing down: I was lying bastard, a sneak, a cheat. I was a weak man who couldn’t master his impulses, a horrible husband and worse father. I was overcome with self-loathing.

I made an appointment to see my doctor. When he came into the room, I got down on my knees (no, really, I did) and begged for his help. He consoled me and wrote me a prescription for buproprion, which I started taking immediately. Within two weeks, I no longer had nicotine cravings. The need for nicotine simply vanished. A miracle! But in its place was the hunger. The farther I left nicotine behind, the heavier I became. At my peak, I weighed 265 pounds.

To this day, I continue to take buproprion. I have not had tobacco for over five years. Unfortunately, the damage to my mouth had already been done and as a consequence of my addiction, I lost six teeth. God, I hate to admit that. I hate writing it down for anyone to see. But it is important to do so because it forces me to admit that I must make changes, that I cannot allow my harmful habit patterns to destroy me. I know beyond a doubt that if I continue to eat like I have over the last few years, I will die from an obesity-related illness.

This post is about limits. The reasons I “let myself go” are many: genetics, environment, access, stress, etc. But those things aren’t real reasons: they are impulses, catalysts, and conditions. The real reason I got fat was that I do not set limits. Or to complicate the matter, I should say that I can and do set limits, but I don’t have any control over myself in regards to those limits. I’m not a dumbass – I know that eating a pound of M&Ms in one sitting is not good for me. I will say to myself, “Slow down, buddy. Why not have five more then stop.” See there I am setting limits. And then I ignore myself, because even if I am not hungry I will continue to eat.

I will then set more limits, employing strong reason. “Hey now. You eat much more of those and you are going to have the shits my friend. You should probably stop now.” And after a brief moment of reflection, I will think to myself, “I do have a point there,” and then I will nod sagely and keep eating the M&Ms.

So. Three good examples of limit setting gone awry. Not even the threat of diarrhea will sway me. Later, I will spend an hour or more on the toilet trying to tame the rodeo in my gut. Let me say it more simply: knowing full well that I will have a volcano in my pants and suffer great discomfort does not stop me from eating an entire pound of M&Ms.

Normal people would’t dream of doing that to themselves any more than they would commit seppuku or leap from a cliff. Normal people wouldn’t make the decision to willfully harm themselves.

I need to clarify here about normal people. Normal people are a mythical breed of humans that exist solely so that I may compare myself to them and be found lacking. They are smarter, better looking, and have great teeth. They are moderate in all things, wear their shirts tucked in, and typically do not sport goatees. They can be found anywhere and have no idea that they are mythical or that I use them as a foil for my insecurities.

 

Normal people have the magical ability to eat only 17 M&Ms and then stop. Just like that. They possess the mystical power to fold the top of bag, wrap a rubber band around it, and chuck it in the cupboard. Their magic is so strong that they can walk by that same cupboard several times over the course of a week without even a sideways glance. Clearly you can see why I consider them mythical.

This post won’t make sense to a normal person because the inability to stop eating pieces of chocolate is incomprehensible to them. They aren’t able to process statements like, “When my teeth begin to hurt from the sweetness, I swish water in my mouth so that I may continue eating the rest of the bag.”

What I have described here is the monster I’ve mentioned before. It looks a lot like me. And something in its nature is so horrific that I prefer to talk about it as thing separate from me. I try to come to terms with it as a metaphor, but nothing can hide the fact that it is a real thing. It is an eating disorder and it has a name: binge eating disorder. Admittedly, I am self-diagnosed, but I’m pretty much the poster boy for it…

On Saturday, I took my son Sawyer to the YMCA for some swimming. When we got there, we were notified that the pool was closed for maintenance. I looked at Sawyer and saw the shadow of disappointment cross his face. He was bummed, but I knew just the thing to put pull him out of that quagmire of despair. Ice cream. Of course! When life gets you down, don’t fret… eat ice cream! Eat it by the bucket, make an ice cream potion with some caramel and chocolate sauce, toss on some rainbow sprinkles for an added crunch. Off to Stewart’s for the cure!

Now, before you judge, allow me to brag that I didn’t order any ice cream myself. Which made me sad. And since I was sad, I wanted to eat ice cream. Ice cream makes everything better. Momentarily I was caught in an existential vortex of sorrow: I was sad I couldn’t eat ice cream… because I was sad, I wanted to eat ice cream… I became sadder that I couldn’t eat ice cream… which made me want to eat ice cream even more… etc. Moments before reaching the event horizon, I was saved by a sound: “Phnxfrtheyskrm.” What? Sawyer wiped his mouth, “Thanks for the ice cream, Dad.” My pleasure, son.

That’s the rub. It is my pleasure. It is my absolute pleasure to eat ice cream as a cure for what ails me. And by taking Sawyer to Stewart’s to allay his disappointment, I was modeling a behavior that may have consequences down the line. This wasn’t the only time I had done something like this. A pattern emerges: movie sold out? go for ice cream – sad that mom is out of town? go for ice cream – hamster died? go for ice cream. The list goes on.

I don’t have specific memories of my Mom (or Dad for that matter) “teaching” me bad eating habits like eat when you are troubled, son, but my guess is that I witnessed my Mom doing it without it registering on a conscious level. Nature. Nurture. I’m still hiking upriver to find the source of my particular condition. I’m sure that on some level my addiction is deeply rooted in my life experiences. I also suspect that something in my physical makeup is off – a deficiency perhaps. I’ve always suspected that the impulse control synapses don’t quite bridge their minute divide.

Trying to change one’s own eating habits is a tough enough row to hoe. But I really need to start thinking in bigger brush strokes – taking into consideration that there are people around me watching, learning, absorbing my actions. Lesson for today: best way to teach my child bad eating habits is to model them. Modeling is made of moments (like the ice cream cure above), but it is really a longitudinal blur of behaviors that simply become part of the family canvas. The challenge is keeping the big picture in focus when you’re sweating your own small details.

I have loved candy corn since the before times. They are possibly one of the first foods for which I developed an outright addiction. Set fifty one-pound bags of candy corn in front of me and you would see a horrific site suitable for a Halloween fright show. My jaw would unhinge and open uncommonly wide and from deep within my stomach, a roar like thunder would presage the volcanic arrival of the monster. Its tentacles, slimy with digestive juices, would burst forth with the force of a Plinian eruption. Within a blur of seconds, the candy corn would be gone and only a wisp of foul green smoke and a belch would be evidence of its brief attack. Gone.

On a recent trip to Target, I saw two things that made my heart sink with dread. Candy Corn Oreos and Candy Corn M&Ms. Two products equaled in addictive potential only by Candy Corn Cocaine and Candy Corn Sex. These may not be a temptation to you. You may be able to walk on by. But then, you would not be human. You would be a statue or an alien species occupying a human shell. Well, you would at least be someone without an eating disorder and impulse issues.

When I met my wife, I was a musician and entertainment manager in Seattle. This was post-grunge, mid 90’s Seattle and the music scene was fertile and full. When you live that lifestyle, a lot of your time is spent in clubs. Booking, scouting, networking, seeing other acts that might compliment the bill with my own band, setting up shows, performing, after parties – it was a time I’ll never forget. Or actually, it was a time I have forgotten because it was lived fully. If you know what I mean.

I had a habit (yes, I’ll call it that) of slamming a bottle or two of MD 20/20 before a show. If you are one of the lucky ones to have escaped your youth uninitiated in the dark arts of MD 20/20 or Night Train, count yourself blessed. MD stands for Mogen David, but most folks know it affectionately as Mad Dog. MD 20/20 is a “fortified” wine that is popularly wrapped in paper bags and swilled by the down and out under rail road trestles. It is without a doubt the quickest, dirtiest, nastiest way to get a drunk on. At some point in my illustrious tenure in the Seattle music business, people began calling me Mad Dog. In jest of course. But not really. As much as I’d like to think it was because of my initials (Mark David), I can’t really hide from the brutally sharp lens of hindsight. I was a wreck. Problematically, I was a charismatic and often times effective wreck. But still, I was in a dark place.

There are two people that brought me out of my vortex of stupidity. One was a man named Dan, the owner of the Tractor Tavern in Ballard, Washington. The Tractor is one Seattle’s oldest performing venues and was just getting its feet on the ground in the early 90s. I was managing and playing in a band called Salamander and we played a number of gigs there. The Tractor was one of the few places where the owner handled the booking. Dan was a really down-to-earth guy who genuinely wanted to help nurture young acts. Over the three years I was in the business, I grew to like and respect Dan. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t remember me from Adam, but he did something that will keep him in my memory until I die. One night, he pulled me aside and told me that he was worried about me. I can’t recall his exact words, but the effect was that a man I respected called me out on the floor for my behavior, specifically my drinking. He didn’t shame me, he simply let me know that he was worried.

Around that same time period, I met Becca who is my long-suffering wife and best friend of 18 years. I met her the day I got out of the Army. Me in my high-and-tight military haircut, and she with her long hippy hair and patchwork pants. I still don’t know what she saw in me. I was equal parts driven, ambitious, laid back and laissez faire. And I drank too much. She came to shows. She danced and partied with us. She was beautiful and smart and witty and filled my heart with joy. And one night, she came to me in the middle of a club with lights and music and bodies and chaos and whispered in my ear “I think you drink too much.”

I think you drink too much.

Thats what she said, but what I heard was the subtext. I like you, but I can’t be with someone who doesn’t love or respect himself. I knew that I was going to lose her if I didn’t straighten up. And so I did. I tried to show through my actions what my heart knew to be true. I loved her and didn’t want her to leave me. I was capable of being the kind of man she could be with and count on. It must have worked because she didn’t leave. We got married. And I haven’t returned to that lifestyle since.

But, here’s the residual effect of my early actions. In those years, I clearly demonstrated that within me is the seed – the kind of seed that if left untended might grow into alcoholism. So, every couple of years, I may go through a period where I have a few drinks now and then… which becomes a few drinks a week. Which becomes a drink or two a night. And as the ritual goes, my wife will rightly call me on it. And I will say my part of the script, “a couple of drinks now and then isn’t cause for alarm.” And she says hers, “But I am alarmed and I want you to stop.” And I get boxed in. Any attempt on my part to justify drinking sounds like I’m auditioning for the role of alcoholic. Obviously, I don’t need to drink. And my past reflects onto my present making my explanations into justifications, rationales into excuses. And these conversations ultimately set the pendulum back the other direction.

I know I am not an alcoholic – not even a recovering alcoholic. Plain as day however, I am addicted to nicotine and food. Nicotine is controlled by the buproprion I take religiously. Food – well, if you’ve been reading since day one, I don’t need to explain. And likewise I don’t need to explain that it’s easy to draw a parallel between the behaviors of my past and those of my present. One of my biggest self-sins is telling stories that make my addiction seem benign. “I’ve been working out lately, so it’s okay to eat these two granola bars.” or “I could probably start drinking coffee with milk again, because I’ve been doing so well lately.”

Before you know it, I have spun a web of stories so vividly that I actually believe my own narrative. It is too vulgar to say that I am simply lying to myself. There is really an art to the kind of reality twisting I am capable of performing.

One challenge that I face now is the creeping half-thought that the act of getting-being-staying healthy is a burden. When my “natural” state is one of consumption, not consuming takes effort. Great effort. Sisyphus pushing a boulder uphill kind of effort. With my background in the study of mythology, I am in the habit of viewing my life through the aperture of old-world narratives. It’s a disease really. One of my favorite and frequently referred to stories is that of Sisyphus. His dull purpose of pushing that boulder resonates with me. I am tempted to share Camus’ view of Sisyphus as absurd hero but abstain because truth be told, Sisyphus was a deceitful prick who earned his fate through his lies and treachery. Still, I totally grok the whole eternal loop of toil thing. And changing my daily habits to fight against a lifetime of habituated recklessness certainly feels like an uphill battle.

For kicks, I include this paragraph about Sisyphus from a piece I wrote titled Fulcrum:

For years, work was my boulder. Cobbling women’s high-heeled shoes, sorting mail, catching shoplifters, tutoring Asian students. Pure drudgery despite the variety. No matter the job, I felt like I was pushing the same boulder up the same hill every day. Work became the place I went to dream about being somewhere else. I found myself during lunch breaks plotting my escape, remembering those times when I was younger, slicing waves like a blade – back when I was strong, unshakable, immature and full of myself. Back when I could live out tiny rebellions by quitting my job and telling the manager to go to hell. In retrospect, I see this period as a slow spirit-killing process during which my body forced me to grow older as my heart violently fought to stay young.

Perhaps the weight I am losing is the real boulder. Just as Sisyphus’ behavior led to his punishment, my behavior is leading to reward. Each pound I lose is one pound less of boulder I am forced to push every day. That idea rocks. (get it? rocks? boulder? I’m hilarious, right?).

I imagine most of you at some point have asked yourself “What must it be like to have an eating disorder like Mark where food cravings haunt every waking moment and you are compelled to write self-deprecating blog posts as a defense against the dark arts of addiction?” Well, don’t you fret. To answer that question, I have prepared the following picture. Go ahead, stare at it for a good 10 seconds and see if you can tell why I posted the image. Look really hard…

cookie

You may be thinking one or all of the following:

Clearly he has chosen this picture because chocolate chip cookies represent carnality in most industrial societies and is therefore symbolic of Mark’s debased pseudo-sexual attraction to food.

Ah, the picture illustrates the principle of wholeness as it relates to Gestalt theory. Since Mark’s mind subconsciously desires for the half cookie slice to be whole like the other two – and since he cannot produce another half cookie slice – he must do the obvious… he must eat the half cookie.

Maybe Mark’s propensity to cheer the underdog has led him to form a bond with the half cookie slice. It obviously signifies the inherent loneliness of post-modern existentialism, dangling there like an orphan just begging to be loved by someone. Hear it whisper, “Take me home, make me warm, I will fill the emptiness inside of you.”

No, I chose this picture not because of its figure, but because of its ground. Specifically, I draw your attention to the small glob of icing at left. Normal people, those without food addictions, would probably be drawn to the cookie. It does look quite yummy. But when I look at that plate, I see only the glob. You see, I know if I sneak a bite of the actual cookie, I would be caught within the hour. It’s sitting on the counter in plain site. My wife knows there are only 2.5 slices remaining and if any of them should go missing, I’d be the first person to be interrogated. So, no temptation to eat the cookie because the resulting pain would be worse than the short pleasure of consumption.

But, the glob. It was obviously left there because someone did not wish to eat it. Although this is inconceivable to me, it must be true. And since most people are focusing on the cookie proper and not the cast-away glob of icing… that’s where my potential for sin lies. I mean, who would notice the missing icing? A normal person who might notice it gone would understandably assume someone had cleaned up the mess because to normal people the icing is refuse.

Me? I walk near that plate and time slows, everything turns a cloudy charcoal gray except the bright shining halo that surrounds the glob of icing. What is this? A gift for me? Someone has left me a small treasure, I think. It calls to me with its Siren song, drawing me to the sharp rocks that will puncture the weak hull of my resolve. The world will not suffer the loss if a pinky-full of icing should go missing. I could even orchestrate its disappearance with a short wipe of a paper towel to make it look like it was, in fact, wiped up and discarded. No one would be hurt – it’s a victimless crime, perfect in its simplicity. I could even prep the scene to confound forensics experts. All I would have to do is spread some of the remaining icing over to the spot where the glob used to be. This would necessitate more finger licking, but I am willing to do whatever is required. If nothing else, I am thorough.

And that is your answer. Another snapshot of addiction for the family album.

The really amazing part? You actually think I am joking.

End.