As told to Jackie Pinto Aug. 08, 2016
Overeating is as compelling an addiction as drugs or alcohol. A food addict confesses about her struggle to kick the habit.
m Rashmi*. You’ve met me on the road, in a bus, or at a cinema hall. I’m 5’4”, attractive, and weigh 56 kilos on good days. The jeans I wear fit me well. I smile openly, like I have nothing to hide. And yet, I do.
I’m a compulsive overeater, which roughly translates to breaking into a cold sweat when confronted with a buffet. Where do I begin, when do I stop? It’s a full-blown panic attack.
Over the years, I have learnt to stick to à la carte. But when the bread basket arrives, I’m transfixed by the sight of those soft rolls. I cannot understand how other people continue conversation and ignore it. There are the elegant sort, who gently break the focaccia and nibble on it with great deliberation. But I can barely talk; my eyes are glued to the basket. I polish it off in minutes. The appetizers arrive, then the main dish. I finish off each course. And then I desperately wait for dessert.
As I head home, things get worse. There’s only one thing on my mind. Two actually – the fridge, and the kitchen. My heart beats faster as I get closer. When I reach, I bolt the door, draw the curtains, grab stuff from the fridge, switch on the TV, and start eating. Most of the time, I am not sure what I’m watching. That’s because I am more conscious of my non-stop chewing, the food sliding down my throat, my stomach filling up. On weekends, I am terrified. There’s no work to keep me distracted.
On my bad days, I’ve eaten off the floor, eaten expired food, eaten off other people’s plates. At my absolute nadir, I have thrown food into the garbage, always carefully wrapped in foil, in case I have to retrieve it later. The garbage-sort-of days make me realise how disgusting I am. I then thrust my fingers into my throat to bring it all up. I begin to feel a little better, only to eat again.
Every single day, I look into the mirror and loathe myself a little more.
I know at this point you’re rolling your eyes at the first-world nature of my problem. Get a life, get out, there are bigger issues out there. I know all that and yet I have to try and explain to you that for me, there is nothing out there until I come to terms with this.
I know it’s difficult to believe, but overeating is as compelling an addiction as drugs or alcohol. In fact, Overeater Anonymous in Bangalore was started by a couple of former drug and alcohol addicts. I’m coming to believe that maybe addiction is a personality type, and the object of your addiction is a matter of what comes your way.
Food came my way. I was a wholly functional human being with a reasonably happy childhood. I even had a fiancée. I hid my secret well during our brief, but furtive dating period. I would avoid meeting at restaurants. But one day, at a buffet, defeated by groaning piles of fried rice, egg rolls, chicken lasagna, and biryani, my addiction reared its ugly head and the engagement went bust. I don’t even know if I blame him. Even I wouldn’t want to marry someone with this deeply unattractive obsession. That’s when the depression set in.
Someone bought a box of chocolate chip cookies to office, and at the sight of that brown box, I panicked. My mouth went dry, my palms started sweating; I couldn’t concentrate.
A friend (and I have very few) suggested I see a therapist. I went reluctantly. The therapist told me in no uncertain terms that I was a food addict. Somehow hearing him say that it wasn’t just greed and it was in fact a disease, gave me hope and clarity. If it was a disease, surely there was a cure? According to him, I had two choices – antidepressants, or joining Overeaters Anonymous. I chose the latter.
I went to my first OA meeting at a stark office behind Koshy’s in Bangalore one Tuesday evening, and took my seat on a creaky chair. I didn’t say much on the first day. The hour-long meeting began with a Serenity Prayer. I listened to Suraj* an obese, shy 12-year-old, whose mother was literally feeding him to death, Shireen*, a failed model, who would offset her binging with over-exercising, and Ahmed, who embarrassed his wife at dinner parties by stuffing his face. At the end of the hour, I felt for the first time that I was not alone in my misery.
The group followed the Alcoholic Anonymous’ 12-step programme to recovery. And like AA, each member had a sponsor. There were no weigh-ins or religions practised there, although members were sometimes asked to acknowledge the presence of a “higher power”, which is open to individual interpretation. I began to participate and attend the Tuesday and Thursday meetings, as if my life depended on it.
Of course, I lapsed time and again. Someone bought a box of chocolate chip cookies to office, and at the sight of that brown box, I panicked. My mouth went dry, my palms started sweating; I couldn’t concentrate. I left the room, called my sponsor and tried to get my breathing under control. I spent 45 minutes dawdling by the coffee machine, hoping that the box would be empty by the time I returned. It wasn’t. There were five left. I tried to focus on the two rotis and subzi that were prepared at home for dinner. But the cookies stared at me from the table. Hypnotised, I walked toward the box in a trance and began eating… the glazed ones, the chocolate ones. I finished all five in minutes.
The difference is, this time I didn’t hide my relapse. I confessed to my group about it, and they accepted me. Their acceptance only made me try harder. OA’s recovery tools are not magic. They are just a set of guidelines. Will power is still everything. To begin with, I had to keep myself active to avoid eating between meals. I went for walks and took hot showers. I slept a lot. I prayed before each meal, “Please God, keep me abstinent.” I left post-its inside food cupboards which read, “Get out of here.” Someone told me to put a copy of The Big Book (the OA bible) inside the fridge to deter me from reaching in and pigging out. I did that. At that point, I would have done anything short of setting my head on fire to feel normal again.
I’ve been clean for a few months now. My meetings keep me sane. But I still walk into the world tentatively, not knowing when I will break down. And it will happen, it always does. Addiction is a life-long companion. Some days you beat it, the other days it beats you.
The trick is to wake up the next morning, prepared to fight again.
Jackie Pinto is a Bangalore-based lifestyle writer, a self-confessed carnivore, and an intrepid traveller. Her work has been featured in The Deccan Herald and The New Indian Express.