The Cookie Monster: My Edible Neuroses
I love eating. Like, a lot. Probably more than I love food.
If that statement doesn’t make sense, think about the difference between savoring a perfectly pink filet mignon that’s been bathing in a thyme-infused pool of clarified butter, and drunkenly eating a pound of Smartfood white cheddar popcorn.
As much as I love quality meals and trying new cuisines, it’s the physical act of eating—at times, gorging—that defines my relationship with food.
My addiction to consuming started when I was a child. My parents—both fitness gurus—did a stellar job keeping me away from unhealthy food for the first four or five years of my life. I had well-rounded meals, was never picky, and ate every crumb put in front of me. But on a flight to a commercial shoot in Chicago (the story of my childhood fame will have to wait for another article), I tried McDonalds for the first time.
I can’t say I remember that first french fry—my first fry ever. All I can recall vividly is the Birdie the Early Bird toy that came with my happy meal. But I know for a fact that everything changed following my McDonald’s christening.
No matter where we went out to eat, all I wanted to order was a burger and fries. I slowly realized that there was way more food out there—better tasting, worse for you—than what was in our refrigerator. My mother would only buy skim milk, wheat bread, baked chips and Country Crock “butter.” Once it came out that my parents were keeping me from “bad” food, all I wanted to do was get my mouth on it.
True story: I would call kids I wasn’t even friends with for playdates in hopes of going to their houses and seeing what treasures hid in their pantries. It didn’t always work out, but sometimes it was worth the trouble (Dunkaroos and Pringles, anyone?). At that time in my life, I wanted to know what a Gusher was and nothing was going to stop me from finding out.
I became obsessed with eating junk food. I didn’t want to be rewarded with money for a lost tooth, or a new shirt for a straight-A report card. I wanted Sour Punch Straws from the pharmacy, Screwballs from the ice cream truck, Sour Cream & Onion Lays from the grocery checkout. We never had much money, and I was incredibly annoying—a then-sixty-cent piece of candy for my temporary silence was a fair trade in the eyes of my parents.
My preoccupation with food continued throughout my middle school years. My diet didn’t prepare itself for puberty, and my once-scrawny physique quickly became softer and rounder. I wasn’t what most twelve-year-olds would call “fat,” mostly due to the fact that I was a year-round competitive swimmer, but my body started changing in ways I would grow to be ashamed of.
Despite my rigorous workout schedule, my weight stayed about the same for the next few years—mostly due to my dad and I sharing secret fast food runs behind my mother’s back. After at least two of my five swim practices a week, my dad and I would stop somewhere—Popeye’s, Wendy’s, Burger King—for an obscene amount of food, and then eat it all in the car so my sister wouldn’t be jealous, and my mother none the wiser. Even now, as an adult, I find myself crippled in the face of too many food options, not knowing how to control myself in terms of food quality or quantity.
I still sometimes brag about the ridiculous Taco Bell food orders I used to finish. My signature order was as follows: one spicy chicken Crunchwrap Supreme (R.I.P.), one cheese quesadilla, one side of either Fiesta Potatoes or rice, one bean burrito, one medium raspberry iced tea, and an order of Cinnamon Twists if I was feeling like dessert.
My dysfunctional relationship with food can be blamed in part on my father specifically; he taught me to hide my gluttony, my bad habits, and my lack of control. Our closest years were based in our secret food runs, and I grew to associate junk food with our bonding, conversations, and harmonizing sessions. I was rewarded with food for years, so I still manage to see food as a way to compliment, treat, and love myself—though treating myself and abusing my appetite seem to be synonymous.
If there is one thing my relationship with food taught me in college, it’s this: the freshman fifteen is really the freshman forty and it is real.
My inability to make healthy choices—or maybe my decision to make unhealthy choices?—followed me into young adulthood, and I wasn’t swimming five days a week anymore. This got rough fast. The recognition of my long-undiagnosed depression lowered my inhibitions even more: had my unexplained bottomless stomach and never-ending appetite really been emotional eating all along? Why didn’t I care about what I was putting in my body?
The answer to that question is “no.” It wasn’t about what I was eating, but rather just the fact that I was always eating something. My mother used to tell me the reason I’d get bloated after so many meals was due to the ridiculous speed at which I ate that caused me to swallow extra air. I never ate to savor—simply to chew, swallow, and consume.
Fast-forward a year: an emotionally abusive partner teaches me I am physically inadequate. He grimaces at my “lack of control” while claiming my jar of Nutella for himself. He puts carrots on my plate even though I despise them. He comments on my slowly thinning stomach with pride as if it is his. Fifteen pounds migrate from my frame to his, and I don’t know if I am proud or ashamed.
Once he was finally out of my life, I stood at a lighter weight but with more food-related mental complexes than ever before. I’ve maintained my weight since then,, but my toxic love affair with junk hasn’t changed. I still eat when I’m sad, spend too much money on snacks, and keep Wendy’s bags in my car so my mother won’t see them.
As much as I wish I could say this piece will end with me saying I’ve overcome the junk food monster that I’ve fed all these years, that’s not the case. One day I hope I’ll be able to write that ending.
One bright side: this essay is not about the weight, or the body, or the pound of Smartfood. There are days that making myself sick on Milanos makes me feel whole, but there are others that all I need is to get back in the pool. Sometimes a fork in my hand is as good as a disease; other times, it’s a vaccine.
I’ve grown to love eating and food (almost) equally and I’m working on seeing food as sustenance rather than a cure-all. But that’s not the point of this piece.
One night while tipsy on cheap vodka and eating a cake made for four, and I said “I wish I was a carnival; people love carnivals.” It sounds sad but the cake was delicious and I went to sleep happy.
I can’t say I’m positive just yet, but I think that’s what this is about.