No more food bans. I’m finished with their flimsy pretense of protection. It’s like crawling into a tent to shield yourself from a lightning storm. You’re as vulnerable as a vole naked in a meadow, but you choose to believe that half millimeter of nylon will hold back the sky.
I’ve banned cookies from my diet for so many years now, I’ve lost count. Alcohol, just as long. I’ve tried banning breakfast cereal, meat, and ice cream. I’ve recently banned wheat. I say I feel great. Part of me does.
Meanwhile, the deeper and more integrated me — the me that’s more than parts — recognizes that there’s something seriously nuts about cramming myself into an ever narrowing range of acceptable foods.
Eating is a balm, a most familiar vice. I eat to push away anxiety, uncertainty, confusion. And what is the life of a working single mom — indeed, of most any human anywhere in 2016 — if not anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion? How many days does any of us go without worries leaking in and clouding the water? (Days, you say? Hours maybe. Usually minutes.) Being alive on this planet means not knowing if these choices of ours are working, if the change that comes faster every year will upend what we’ve built. Is what we do today making sense for tomorrow?
Eating is an attempt to ward off the unease. Meanwhile, each ban is an attempt to establish control over what feels like a frenzied pull to eat all the time.
I’ve tried to “fix” the simultaneously numbing and chaotic engagement with food by removing the triggers. I quit cookies and got hooked on muffins. I gave up muffins and turned to ice cream. I stopped buying ice cream and now scoop peanut butter straight out of the jar. Without peanut butter. . . you get the idea. The substance is irrelevant.
It’s time to accept that compulsive eating has about as much to do with the act of eating as it does with food. Which is to say, nearly zilch.
“You can never get enough of what you don’t really want,” Geneen Roth says in her classic work, Feeding the Hungry Heart. Because guess what? Eating doesn’t do a damned thing to create order or clarity. No matter how decadent or delicious, nothing that goes in our mouths is going to nourish the deep self whose hungers we barely understand.
In paying attention to the source of the cravings, to unspoken frustrations and desires, it’s possible to learn how to feed ourselves well. How to nourish ourselves.
For the first time in years, I go to the counter at Panera armed with the knowledge that I can have the wheat, the cookie, the muffin, the bagel. Any damned thing up there. No more forbidden foods. No more weird restrictions. I can have any of it. I take my time, look over the cornucopia, the glazes and the cheese crusts, the calorie counts, the prices.
And you know what? None of it appeals. On this day, I’m writing with a Meetup group, and I don’t want to mess with anything that utensils and fussiness. And I don’t want that bagel, all dry and mostly tasteless. The cinnamon roll will be delicious for a moment before I start to feel that weird over-full sugar buzz followed by a hunger for more more more. Even the chocolate chip cookie, that Lothario of the bakery case, slouches there like a skinny-armed kid in knock-off designer shoes. I just don’t want it. Not really, not it that way that will satisfy and sustain me.
I end up with the peach-blueberry smoothie, which is exactly what I make at home most days. Now it sits on the table untouched for most of the two hours that my neighbors and I write.
In slowing down and listening, I could hear the call from that well far beneath the belly. It doesn’t want food. It wants imagination. It wants purposeful labor. It wants play.
The cookie ban was a lovely little fiction. It told me that a series of tilting corridors hide inside the funhouse of me. Food — certain foods — work dangerous magic, tilting me over the threshold into that crazy place.
For some reason, I still cling to this idea that I’m helpless in the face of any cookie, anywhere. Cookies are charms pulsing with dark juju, the lie tells me. I am always one misstep away from losing control. Why is it so improbable that without a ban, I wouldn’t be able to resist the half box of thin mints left in the office break room? If I’m already satisfied from lunch and I don’t like the way I feel when I eat them, why do I need some simulacrum of prohibition to keep walking? As if I’m not a full-grown woman with volition and strength and the good sense to act on what my most whole self wants.
What do I gain by keeping company with this narrative of helplessness?
I free the cookies; I free myself from them. The truth is that I can bypass the cookie while still retaining the option to eat the cookie. Or, I can eat the cookie. Either way, I’ll be fine.
Let’s face it. The cookie ban has done its job. It’s still in effect all these years later because I am capable of upholding it. The cookie ban taught me that I can set limits and stick with them. I can trust myself to do what I say I’m going to do. It’s why I haven’t smoked in what, 17 years? It’s why I don’t drink. It’s also why, on a less dramatic level, I go to work every day, pay the bills, get the kiddo to school on time, and take the stairs. The reason I do all these things is because I can trust myself. Even with depression and single parenthood, even with the uncertainty about the future and some habits I’m not sure how to break, I can trust myself.
We are allowed to trust ourselves.
When I believe in wholeness, it’s a way of both opening to the big world outside and tapping into the deep vitality inside. It’s an exit from the the hall of mirrors, that field of distortion and slippery surfaces.
On this day, it’s journaling in Panera in the company of other writers. On another day, it will be a bit of dancing in the living room. Volunteering for trail cleanup. A small party making crafts with friends. It’ll be a joke, a chat with a neighbor, free music at the park. It might even be setting up a new workshop for the students or taking the lead on drafting the budget for the new fiscal year. It’s momentum. It’s choosing to wake up. It’s having faith not in a future that refuses to obey, but in the self to act with care along the way.
There is no magic trick here. No secret. There is just the acceptance that the one who gets to decide this life is right here, the one who makes choices to be well and live as an integrated person is right here. Those choices are complicated, but complications are not reasons to founder, to give up and just slide down the collapsing hill of compulsion and avoidance. Some days, some moments, remembering to nourish and integrate will be harder than other. Some days and moments, it will be easier. No matter. The turning is always on the menu, the orientation towards wholeness.
Image: “Starry Cookie Night” from ToughPigs