Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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“You’re not going to eat that, are you?” they asked, meaning the can of Spam given to me by a visitor to our commune. Though I knew that eating it would reveal me to be unevolved and unspiritual, I was nevertheless famished for protein, and covertly devoured the canned meat.
In our commune scrapbook is a picture of my first child as a toddler, exhibiting a smiling face and a distended belly. (I didn’t know until much later that stomach distention in children is a sign of protein deficiency.) One of my most shameful memories from that time is of a night around the campfire when someone brought oatmeal with milk — milk! We were passing bowls of it around. Holding my little boy on my lap, I shared a bowl of oatmeal with him. When he saw that I was gobbling it up faster than he could, he started to cry.
Once, when I was almost eight months pregnant with my second child, I burst into tears at the sight of a steaming bucket of the grain (literally chicken feed) we regularly ate for breakfast: there was just nothing in it that my body wanted. Everyone asked what was the matter, and I admitted that I was hungry for protein of some kind: eggs, fish, meat, milk — anything. Someone who had a car and some money bought me a dozen eggs and a half gallon of milk.
Later that day, a friend asked me if I felt better. I told her I did. Then she asked, “How many of those eggs did you eat?”
“All of them.”
I was living from paycheck to paycheck and juggling my electric and gas bills. It was either pay the lights and the gas goes off, or vice versa. Sometimes I went without food.
I began to resent my body’s need for caloric intake. And I resented especially the predictability with which the food I bought would disappear. I knew that, if I got a loaf of bread on Friday, it would be gone by the next Friday.
I’d search my drawers, the floor of my car, and the bottom of the washing machine for pennies. When I had seventy-five of them, I could buy a loaf of bread. I defined this amount as a “bread unit,” or “BU,” and related all my other purchases to this basic unit of survival. For example, a fifty-cent newspaper was two-thirds of a BU. A bottle of soda from the 7-Eleven was one BU, and my monthly phone bill was twenty-five BUs. If I felt tempted to buy a magazine for three dollars, I would ask myself whether it was worth four BUs — a month’s worth of bread — and I’d answer no. I began to feel that I was living more in concert with the rest of the world, because I understood that food is precious.
Raleigh, North Carolina
I feel so hungry sometimes, even though I always have food. I live a life of privilege, yet this persistent hunger gnaws at me. I’m at the kitchen counter, eating too quickly. In my desperation, I barely taste a thing. When it’s over, I’m left unsatisfied, while the haunting question persists: What’s wrong with me?
I want something else in my mouth. Even though my belly is full, the hunger remains. I pull myself from the kitchen, but the voice of chocolate calls to me — that sweet taste melting on my tongue, against the roof of my mouth, sliding reassuringly down my throat, promising such pleasure and relief. Inwardly, I begin to pace, the tension mounting.
I feel so hungry sometimes. There is a starving child inside me who whimpers with need, whose bones are so cold they rattle hard enough to shake apart.
In the eighties, I directed a number of emergency food centers in Cleveland, Ohio. I remember lines of people outside churches in poor neighborhoods on cold, gray mornings. Small children wearing adult-sized winter coats, their heads and hands bare, stood next to their mothers. (The children wore adults’ jackets because thrift shops rarely receive donations of usable children’s clothing.) They’d probably had hats and gloves in the fall, but had since lost them, and their mothers couldn’t afford replacements.
In my ignorance as a new director, I wanted to decrease those long waiting lines. Experienced staff set me straight: lines screen; no one who doesn’t need the food will tolerate the hassle. Long lines keep the numbers manageable.
We ran two types of sites: hunger centers, where clients got a bag of canned and dried foods to take home; and soup kitchens, where people sat down for a prepared meal. Most hunger-center clients were women with children, while single men — often alcoholics and drug users — populated soup kitchens. Mothers avoided the soup kitchens because of their stigma of poverty and their unsavory clientele. (Poverty has since worsened, and families now make up the majority of soup-kitchen patrons.)
Money was always tight, so our hunger centers provided each eligible family with only a three-day supply of food once every two months. This wasn’t enough, but we couldn’t afford more. Once, we surveyed our hunger-center clients, asking what they did when the food ran out. Most mothers gave the “good” food — meat, fruits, and vegetables — to the kids, while filling up on pasta and bread themselves. Some pooled food with neighbors to come up with a meal, or visited relatives around supper time, hoping for an invitation.
Around the time I worked with hunger programs, President Reagan had started shredding the imaginary “safety net.” Things were bad then, but they’re worse now. Social-service programs have been cut again and again, while legislators try to think up new ways to punish the “lazy” welfare mothers. Our society doesn’t seem to believe that unemployment, racism, poor schools, lack of child care or health coverage, and hopelessness leading to substance abuse are obstacles enough.
I was living in Santa Monica when I first noticed them — the hungry ghosts. As described in Tibetan Buddhism, hungry ghosts have great empty bellies and tiny mouths incapable of consuming enough food to satisfy their unending hunger. I saw such creatures driving Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars, Rolls Royces, and Bentleys, talking on car phones, angry at having to wait while I crossed the street in front of them. I saw people who left their multi-million-dollar homes for twelve hours a day to drive around buying more things and making more money. Or people who were on their second or third face lifts, still hungry for a youthful look. I knew of an oil man in his nineties who was still fighting to put oil wells in Santa Monica Bay.
At the mall here in Portland, the hungry ghosts walk around barely looking at each other, eyes riveted on the windows full of shiny new goods. In the food court, they are lined up to buy forty-eight-ounce sodas and greasy food kept hot for hours under lights and on steam tables. They stand in line for movies that are ever more “action packed” because that’s what it takes to entertain our overstimulated psyches.
And then there are my clients: children who need to stop eating so much or to stop starving themselves, but whose parents don’t want to make time for even one family meal a week; adults who stuff or starve themselves and feel, ultimately, that if they were to give up that struggle there would be nothing left to their identity. I have seen this hunger described as “the dissatisfied soul,” and Mother Teresa calls us “the poor in spirit.” In our unending pursuit of more, more, more, we hungry ghosts destroy the earth that gives us life.
Recently, with great fanfare, the media heralded a possible treatment for obesity that had helped mice lose weight. For most of the world’s population, famine is a reality, but for us a mouse losing weight is big news.
For two and a half years, I lived in a fishing village in northern Brazil. I was in the midst of what ultimately became a twelve-year journey throughout the world. My home was made of mud and palm leaves, and lacked electricity, running water, and sanitation. The village was located on a long strip of sand between the sea and a wide freshwater lagoon. There were thousands of coconut trees, and the weather was always wonderful.
Around sunset, I would sit behind my hut at a large, heavy table the tide had left behind and eat my one meal of the day — a share of the beans and rice my next-door neighbor, doña Mira, had made for her family. I supplied them with twenty-five-pound bags of rice and beans that I bought during my monthly trips to town, about fifty miles away. Although the bags cost only about three dollars each, it was always a stretch for me to get the money. (True, I had chosen to travel, but my immediate situation was that I had no passport, money, or shoes, and lived hand to mouth.)
Doña Mira had three little girls — ages two, four, and six — who had big smiles and deep brown eyes. I would spend hours with them each day, as their hut was only six feet from mine, and I loved them as if they were my own. Every evening as I ate, the three skinny little naked girls with big tummies would sit on the table and wait for me to finish, staring at each bite I took. When I’d finished, they’d take turns licking the plate.
I went to bed hungry most nights, and it was OK with me. I saw concern with food as a kind of materialism, and lived mostly on the incredible beauty of the place and people: moonrises over the sea, sunsets over the lagoon, tropical flowers, the samba, the endless beach, blue sky, and sunshine. I felt full and blessed and very much a part of nature. My body needed nourishment, but beauty kept my soul alive.
Eventually, I had to leave. I had little choice. I was sick, and my toothaches were becoming unbearable. I was also thirty pounds underweight and suffering from tapeworm, hookworm, heartworm, a bleeding ulcer, and various other tropical diseases. I walked through the village, barefoot, saying goodbye to everyone, tears running off my chin.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
“Do you want me to cook something for you?” Uncle Woody asked. “Are you hungry?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“You sure? I’ll fix you a hamburger.” He started rummaging through the refrigerator.
It was an October evening during my ninth-grade year. The mountains of my West Virginia hometown made the sky prematurely dark.
“No, I had a big lunch at school. I’m not hungry,” I said. My uncle and I were dancing to an old Lebanese tune: the host repeatedly offering food, the guest refusing.
“What do you have to eat at home?” he asked me.
“We’ve got food.”
He knew I was lying. He also knew that helping me might anger my father, whose stubborn pride rested on the delusion that he was providing for his children.
My father did his best to single-handedly raise my brother, my sister, and me — the youngest — after our mom gave us up. We were high on his list, but clearly second to his bottle of Jim Beam. During that year, my brother went off to college and my sister ran away from home — leaving me alone with my father. Though I thought it hardly possible, his drinking increased.
His diet was lean: Pabst Blue Ribbon as an appetizer; a main course of Jim Beam beginning before 9 A.M. and continuing throughout the day; and, when times were good, Scotch in the evening.
Uncle Woody, his brother, would come over regularly to clean or bring food. But there would be violent fights when my dad came home drunk and found Uncle Woody sweeping up and two brown grocery bags full of bread, sandwich meat, and fruit sitting on the kitchen table. As my dad’s drinking had increased, so had his false pride and shame, until he finally stopped letting Uncle Woody in the house.
That night, after I finally gave in and ate at my uncle’s house, Uncle Woody started a practice that continued weekly for the next four years, until I went off to college: he would take me to the supermarket, force a couple of tens into my hand, and say, “Here. Get what you need.” I’d resist, but not too much; I knew this would be the only food coming into our house. My dad never asked where the food came from; I doubt he ever noticed.
My father died of alcohol-related complications eleven years ago — four days after he finally checked himself into a treatment center. Uncle Woody recently turned seventy-eight. We talk and visit regularly, though we live five hundred miles apart. We try to remember the good things about my dad.
I was a big, chubby baby with a grand and legendary appetite. No matter how high my fever, no matter how sick I was feeling, I always ate. My mother was thrilled.
But as I grew older, she pointed out chubby children to me with disgust. “Do you want to look like that?” she’d snarl, pinching my arm. Then she’d add softly, kissing the top of my head, “That’s what happens when you eat too many cookies.”
I tried not to eat too much, learned to tolerate cottage cheese and Melba toast. When I reached puberty, I found some relief in smoking cigarettes, which I stole from my mother’s underwear drawer. I still wasn’t as skinny as I wanted to be, but at least I had something to stick in my mouth that wouldn’t make me fat.
When I went off to college and graduate school, my mother called me weekly. The first thing she’d ask was “How’s your weight?” I was drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes: my weight was fine.
I eventually quit smoking because it was making me sick. After receiving my degree, I took a postdoctoral appointment in London; at the same time, my dad’s job required that he move to Singapore, and my mom went with him. With thousands of miles between us, there were no longer any weekly phone calls.
I began to eat with a mixture of delight and shame: greasy fish and chips smothered in malt vinegar; whole boxes of chocolate-covered biscuits; cream crackers glopped with Irish butter. I saw that food and self-love were inextricably entwined for me, but I was powerless to stop overeating. I also realized I did not want to be a scientist and spend the rest of my working life in a lab. It was my mother, after all, who had wanted to be a doctor. Was every aspect of my life geared toward pleasing her?
I decided to visit my parents in Singapore. The moment I arrived — or “rolled off the plane,” as my mother likes to say — I was put on a diet. My mother was cold and distant, and I was hungry and ashamed.
One month into my visit, my mother and I planned what we hoped would be a relaxing sightseeing trip to Malaysia. We spent the first day of the trip aboard a dirty, speeding bus on the narrow, twisting roads to Kuala Lumpur. My mother, always prone to bursts of viciousness (especially when she’s had a rough day), was being particularly unpleasant. Exasperated, I cried out, “Why are you so mean to me? You act like you don’t like me!”
“Well, fuck you!” she screamed. “Fuck you. You think I don’t like you?” Then, her anger spent, she hung her head. “I hate fat people,” she said, staring at the floor. “I’ve always hated fat people.”
Maplewood, New Jersey
When I was growing up, my father made it painfully clear that we were poor. Since we lived on a farm, there was always plenty to eat, but there was never money left over for anything else. We worked hard every day of the year.
In the evening, I would sit with the Sears & Roebuck catalog, designing a real bathroom with tub, sink, and matching towels to replace our outhouse. I would choose wallpaper and paint to cover our bare, water-stained walls. I longed for a dresser to replace the cardboard boxes in which I kept my hand-me-down clothes.
But, most of all, I hungered for reading material to make our isolation more tolerable. I read all of my mother’s books, and the old magazines that were gathering dust on the porch. I devoured the rare newspaper my father brought home. I even memorized the words on cereal boxes. When there was no more to read, I composed poems and stories while working in the fields.
Many years later, after my parents had died, I returned to their empty house and found jars of coins under all the beds — and a hundred thousand dollars in the bank for my sister, my brother, and me. God, how I hated that money.
He’s a strange-looking man who always keeps to himself, never speaks a word. His eyes are as deep, rich, and dark as a sadhu’s. For years I’ve seen him walking the streets of our small town, wearing a knit hat in the middle of summer. During the rainy season, he covers his feet with clear plastic and wears garbage bags over his clothes. He has never been known to ask anything of anyone. I once saw him behind some bushes and offered some change. At first, he ignored me, but I offered again, and he reluctantly thrust out his palm.
One morning a year later, I saw him making his rounds of a shopping center, checking the vending machines for coins. I stopped my car and said, “Hey, man, do you need some change?” He met me halfway, and I handed him about three dollars in quarters and dimes. He looked me straight in the eye, put two fingers up to his eyebrow, and saluted. The next time I called him to my car and gave him a pile of quarters, he uttered a raspy thank you.
I find myself caring for this man immensely, wanting to offer him clothes, shoes — whatever he needs. But as I look into his dark, piercing eyes and see that he asks for nothing, I wonder, Whose hunger is this, anyway?
When I was nineteen, my father died of a brain tumor. I became completely numb, unwittingly and unconsciously closing off all feeling so that I could function through his illness and death.
After that, in a halfhearted attempt at being “healthier,” I eliminated certain categories of food from my diet: ice cream and all sweets except those made with honey; all things deep-fried or cooked with oil or butter; all red and fatty meats; whole milk. I was unexpectedly pleased by the powerful surge of self-righteousness I experienced, confident that I possessed a stronger will than the people who shamefacedly succumbed to desires for doughnuts and French fries every day. For four years I subsisted on plain bagels, apples, beans, rice, and broccoli with soy sauce.
My hunger would wake me in the morning with a tiny, sharp signal, and I would carry it with me all day like an invisible companion — a cozy abdominal pinprick that seemed to prove to me that I was alive. I was very attentive to my hunger and nursed it as one would a fallen baby bird. But the more I nursed it, the larger and stronger and more terrifying it became, until I felt tiny and helpless in the face of its compelling force.
Over time, I became less able to hide the effects of my “diet.” My mother noticed early on that I was not only losing weight but acting strangely around food. When, at twenty-one, I confessed to her that I hadn’t had a period in two years, she contacted a doctor. I was outraged that she did not trust me to take care of myself. But, unlike her, I could not see my body wasting away.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I am living in an apartment in Haight-Ashbury with my lover, Francois, and his friend Henri. When I am drunk, Henri makes love to me and Francois watches. I am the only one of us who works; I string silver, shells, and turquoise beads for a street artist. Francois swipes a butterfly pin I am working on and attaches it to his black vest. We buy groceries with food stamps. It is the end of the month, and we are down to nothing — no food, no money, no toilet paper. At dinner, we all scrape our plates with our forks to get every last grain of rice.
I am tired of feeling hungry. I have lost too much weight. I go walking in Golden Gate Park and see my friend Marie. She is French, like my roommates, and has red hair. I tell her I am hungry, and she takes me by bus to see her friend at Fisherman’s Wharf.
The friend is sitting at the bar in a seafood restaurant. He buys me a beer and asks what I like to eat. Everything, I tell him. He orders me a fisherman’s platter with fish, shrimp, scallops, oysters, French fries, cole slaw, lemon, tartar sauce, and ketchup. I eat every crumb. The fisherman is gray and grizzled, an old salt.
After I am finished, he takes me to his boat. We stay there the rest of the afternoon and have sex. He tells me over and over that I have “a nice nest.” I am pleased to have made him so happy. The boat rocks gently, and I fall asleep.
When I wake up, it is dark and I hear music: the melody of an Italian accordion. I want to learn to play music that sounds like that.
From age twelve to fifteen, I lived with my mother and sisters in internment camps in the Philippines, where the invading Japanese kept some six thousand American, British, and Dutch civilians. We were on our way from Shanghai to the United States when we were imprisoned. Because of the war we lost three years of our lives, suffered all sorts of diseases, and were almost killed by starvation and massacre.
Hunger is a rat that gnaws at your vital organs, but starvation is slow and deceptive. It seduces you, lulls you into forgetting the mortal danger that threatens you. Isn’t that odd? you say to yourself. I can feel my backbone from the front — as though it were a new cowlick you’d discovered, or an extra tooth. Just let me sleep and I’ll feel better. Just let me lie down. And when you wake up you do feel better for a while, but, although you might not notice it, you’re not as strong as you were yesterday.
We became apathetic about the prospect of dying, but we were single-minded fanatics on the topic of food. It dominated our thoughts and conversation and dreams. Every night, I fell asleep with the same fantasy: We were in California, in a new house — clean, well lit, no rats or bedbugs, a room for each of us, a kitchen like the ones in magazines. We’d have breakfast soon, but first we had to go to the grocer’s to buy eggs, bacon, butter, milk, and good brown bread. At home, we unwrapped all the food — taking our time — and put the bacon in the pan. I turned on the stove and broke one big egg, watched it spread all over, the yolk so yellow and round, the white transparent at first, then opaque. I broke another egg. I cut the bread, put it in the toaster, and pushed the switch down. Finally, I set the table, slowly, because putting the food on the table was the climax of the fantasy. Sometimes, to make it last longer, I went back to the grocer’s for apples or oatmeal.
During the day, I’d sit next to my sister on my rickety camp cot stained with blood from bedbugs, and we’d talk about food. We’d pore for hours over the luscious color ads in Ladies’ Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens — particularly the ads for refrigerators, with their cubes of butter and bottles of milk. Sometimes we’d read recipes to each other.
After the U.S. troops rescued us, we ate each heavenly meal of C rations as though it were our last. I gobbled until I felt my gorge rise, then sat completely still for twenty minutes, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth. What I could not finish, I wrapped in my napkin and took back to the barracks to eat between meals.
“Those people,” I heard one GI say of us, his nose wrinkled in disgust, “are pigs.”
Dorothy John Horn
San Jose, California
They get in line early in the morning, gather up their day-old doughnut, bowl of cereal, cup of orange juice, and sometimes cold pizza. They wait in line every day for food, but hunger isn’t their biggest problem. Hell, they can eat at three other shelters before and after this one. Food isn’t what they’re hungry for.
Sylvia lost her three children to a fire. Franklin’s leg was mangled by a city truck four years ago, and the city still hasn’t made good. Ben had to jump behind his grandma’s sofa to avoid the drive-by blast that took his younger brother’s life. Donna lost her son to friendly fire and her daughter to a drunk driver. Greg was shot four times by a thief who stole six dollars from him. Willie has only one lung, and Susan has no legs. Tim doesn’t know what day it is, but he is aware that his fingers are frostbitten. Melinda’s daughters are now the property of Children’s Services. (I wish they’d taken Mary’s son instead. Maybe then he wouldn’t have died of malnutrition.) Dave died last week of AIDS. Joey’s drinking himself to death, Walter is covered with bugs, and George has gangrene of the left foot. Tommy’s jaw is wired shut from a beating he took over a pair of boots. Jim is raped and beaten on a weekly basis because he doesn’t know any better. Charlie is conned out of his food money by addicts, and Jean is working the streets to pay for her boyfriend’s drug habit. Laura showed up last week with a busted lip and a black eye; she went right back to the guy who’d hit her.
They are all hungry when they come to my shelter, but I don’t think it’s for a day-old doughnut and a cup of orange juice.
Twenty-two years ago, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a small town in Morocco. Each year, during the holy month of Ramadan, the Islamic Moroccans would fast from the first light of dawn until sunset.
My husband and I were the only Americans in the tiny village, and our lives were closely watched. As Ramadan approached, several Muslim friends described the fast they would undergo, implying that we would never be able to endure such deprivation. Partly in solidarity with them, and partly just to see if we could do it, we committed ourselves to fasting during Ramadan.
While our bodies quickly adjusted to having no food during the daytime, the absence of liquids (particularly in temperatures well over one hundred degrees) was another matter. Still, we soon adapted to the rhythm. About an hour before sunset, the small town’s marketplace would come alive as people went about gathering the foods many had been anticipating all day. Fresh pastries with milk was the preferred way to break the fast.
After two or three weeks of this routine, we traveled to some of Morocco’s large cities. Each evening during Ramadan, cannons would be fired in the cities to announce the moment of sunset. Our first night in Marrakech, we made our way to a popular restaurant about half an hour before sundown. Virtually every table in the place was packed, and the waiters were scurrying around, hurrying to place a bowl of harira (tomato-and-chickpea soup) in front of each customer before the cannon went off. We sat down, but they ignored us, tending first to those who were obviously devout Muslims. When the cannon went off, we still didn’t have our soup. Even the waiters then sat down to eat. There was nothing for us to do but wait.
One day, just before sunset, while visiting Rabat, the capital city, we found ourselves deep in the heart of the residential district, with no transportation in sight. The streets were deserted; everyone was inside preparing for the sundown meal. In desperation, we asked two parking attendants directions to the nearest cafe. After informing us that there were none, one of the men asked why. When we explained that we, too, were fasting, he quickly invited us to share a meal at his home a few blocks away, where his wife had a pot of soup ready for him. Seeing us, she hurriedly produced additional bowls, and made sure we all had spoons in hand when the cannon went off. They would accept nothing but our thanks.
Patricia M. Brady
We were a company of idealistic students sitting around the kitchen table at two in the morning, solving the world’s problems, our ideas made more profound by cheap beer.
The conversation turned to my five-year-old daughter. We were trying to figure out why she wouldn’t eat. I was the only parent in the group — and a single one at that — but I appreciated any advice I could get.
Our concern for my daughter developed into a discussion of all America’s children. We realized that our own parents had bullied us into eating: “Eat your dinner or you can’t have dessert. Finish your vegetables or you’ll sit there until you do.” But today parents were more likely to plead, cajole, guilt-trip, and even entertain their kids to get them to eat, taking them to restaurants where playgrounds and toys easily upstaged hamburgers.
“Why is it that American kids won’t eat?” someone asked. There was a long silence. Then Robert, a student from Kenya who hadn’t said a word until now, quietly responded: “Because they are not hungry enough.”
Several years ago, when I was living alone on a farm in New York and working on a book, I took a lover. She lived on the California coast and was married.
Before I met J., I hadn’t allowed myself a serious relationship. Now I could eat, drink, and inhale nothing else. So voracious was my craving that obstacles like time, distance, and J.’s husband hardly seemed to matter. We spoke daily, sometimes hourly; we wrote letters; we took turns flying cross-country, sometimes meeting in the middle. The handicapped stall in the airport bathroom became “our place.”
Two years after we met, J. got a divorce, but she didn’t want to leave the town where she had lived for the last twenty years. I understood. After all, hadn’t she already made a great sacrifice for my sake? Within days, I was packed and moving west.
J. and I were happy, until that first summer. I needed to return to New York for two weeks, and when I came back to California J. announced, with the detachment of someone speaking about a new pair of shoes, “It’s over. I’ve moved on. I hope you can, too.” In my absence, she had picked up a new lover who lived down the block.
In less than half a month, I dropped more than twenty pounds. I don’t remember whether or not I slept or ate. I was gaunt and vacant. J. had disappeared, and so had I.
I’d never had a problem with food before, but the twenty pounds I lost was soon replaced three times over. A friend of J.’s took pity on me. “I wish I had told you before,” she said. “The truth is, you are one in a long line.” I had merely been the last in a twenty-year series of infidelities.
Three years have passed and I am nearly back to my normal weight. When I meet new people now, the old hunger is gone. But so is the old passion. I think that our hunger for love has little to do with love itself, and that we must learn to be food for our own emptiness.
I fast once a week during Lent. It is a form of discipline, and frees up time for prayer and study.
While leaving home without breakfast is a cinch, by lunch time I have an empty, hollow sensation. I read or meditate or pray. By midafternoon I feel lightheaded and a bit weak. Drinking water helps. In the evening, it is hard to help my wife feed the kids, and to watch the three of them eat dinner. Not wanting to miss out on the family time, I usually sip tea at the table. By bedtime, I am often no longer especially hungry, and sometimes find myself thinking long thoughts and enjoying a feeling of health. When I go to sleep, my dreams are usually more vivid, and more easily remembered.
In the morning, I awaken slowly, feeling dizzy, but then I jog and am amazed at how light and good I feel. After a shower, I sit down to the best bowl of cereal imaginable and am instantly reminded of why I fast.
Thirty thousand people will die today of malnutrition. Although knowing this sometimes makes me choke on the words, I thank God for our daily bread.
I don’t remember when dieting became an obsession for me. Was it the day I went to the library and memorized the calorie count of the two hundred most common foods? Or the week I maintained a diet of five hundred calories a day? Or maybe it was the day I got my first compliment on how skinny I was getting.
By age thirteen, I had begun to fast for days on tea and water. When I did eat, it was half a bread sandwich and three carrot sticks. It was hard sometimes — especially when my friends were devouring pizzas, cheeseburgers, and malts — but I was finally on my way to being skinny. Still, the mirror always told me there were a few more pounds to lose.
By the time I was fourteen, I had begun to exercise, figuring I could lose several additional pounds a week that way. All the girls but me were getting their periods, and people started to remark that I was too thin. I was sure they were lying.
At summer Bible camp that year, my girlfriend showed me how to eat whatever I wanted and still stay skinny: after consuming an enormous amount of food, she led me to the camp latrine, where she stuck her finger down her throat and threw up. I was slow in picking up this new method of weight control, but gradually it began to make sense to me. Now I could have that piece of pie and enjoy every minute of it, relieving my guilt with a quick trip to the toilet.
As I turned sixteen, I no longer starved myself. I could eat a whole cake if I wanted and just vomit it up a few minutes later. I still hadn’t gotten my period. My face began to bloat, and my throat burned. By seventeen, I was drowning in my own vomit, starving for much more than food.
Mary Weiss Cashman
River Falls, Wisconsin
I eat love. I eat comfort and nurture and support and delight. I eat praise and playfulness and safety. I eat and eat, hand over fist. I can’t get enough.
I eat late at night, with the lights off and the TV on. I eat delicately and sensibly when I am with others, but alone I eat like a Venus’ flytrap, sensitive to the presence of food — snap!
I would go to Overeaters Anonymous, but I know what would happen. I would nibble on the fingers of the other attendees, and weep and laugh. “Here, here!” the group leader would say. “No nibbling, please, during meetings. This is no laughing matter.”
I should feel guilty over all this eating. I would, only I ate guilt for breakfast four years ago on a winter morning in the woods. Ever since then, the story keeps replaying in my mind about the man who climbed the high mountain to talk to a guru. “Oh please, sir, tell me why I eat so much,” the man implored. “Because you’re hungry,” the guru replied.
Linda R. Bulloch
I was perplexed by the Readers Write on “Hunger” [March 1996]. I’ve always considered it a challenge to explore the creative possibilities of your topics: in this case, the hunger for knowledge, passion, life, acceptance, peace, etc. Your selections this time reflect a limited, rather obvious approach. Why not acknowledge that nourishment can take many forms?
As a prisoner, I found the Readers Write on “Hunger” [March 1996] particularly poignant. Eating disorders are prevalent here among physically abused, psychologically wounded, spiritually starved, and guilt-ridden women. (Most are guilty about the negative impact their drug addictions have had upon their children.) Incest victims, battered wives, products of inadequate educational systems, no self-esteem, addicted, resigned, rejected by society — these are the women I have encountered here daily for sixteen years, and have been working with as a peer counselor for eight years. I am still wondering, Where are the dangerous, calloused criminals? All I see are the wounded ones.
I could identify with the emotional, spiritual, and physical pain expressed in your Readers Write about “Hunger.” After thirty years of personal anguish due to a compulsive eating problem, I went to my first Overeaters Anonymous meeting. I recently celebrated my one-year anniversary in the program, appropriately enough on February 20, Fat Tuesday.
In Further along the Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck calls the creation of the twelve-step programs the “greatest positive event of the twentieth century.” I enjoy the unconditional acceptance I find at OA meetings. And I strive to give back, to others who are still suffering, the support I have found there.