I remember laughing and telling my aunt that the pie was so good I just couldn’t stop. Everyone smiled, and I kept eating, but it was not funny for me. It was humiliating. In fact, it was terrifying.
I was sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen with three quarters of a pecan pie balanced precariously on my lap and a fork in my hand. We had just finished Thanksgiving dinner, and I was uncomfortably full. I’d already unbuttoned the top button of my jeans, but I could not keep the fork from going into my mouth. It had a life of its own. Though I regularly ate heartily in front of others, I typically did my real bingeing alone, so I was mortified to be shoveling pie into my mouth in front of my slender sisters and my petite aunt, who had baked it.
It was impossible to hide that I’d just put on 30 pounds in the past few months. I remember laughing and telling my aunt that the pie was so good I just couldn’t stop. Everyone smiled, and I kept eating, but it was not funny for me. It was humiliating. In fact, it was terrifying.
Control and illusion
There were no early signs that I would become addicted to food. I was a skinny and active little kid, well-loved by my parents and family, neither coddled nor neglected. I had great friends and a lot of support. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Yale and had a teaching job at an elite private school in Brooklyn, New York. I had always been able to do most anything I put my mind to, but I had become powerless over what I put in my mouth.
I used to have control. After reaching 125 pounds in college, I decided to eat a little less, and I rapidly dropped nearly 20 pounds. I felt powerful and strong, and I reveled in my ability to say “no” to certain foods or quantities. However, I never stopped wanting these foods; I was simply strong. I had little patience for people who complained about not being able to resist cookies or cakes or sweets. There was absolutely nothing I loved more, but I was able to resist. I felt superior. It worked — until it didn’t.
I’ve heard many stories of food addicts, who, like me, were able to control their weight and their food intake. Some purged, others used laxatives, some exercised excessively. Though I did run 25 miles a week and walked all over Brooklyn and Manhattan, I know it was my will power that kept my weight under 150 pounds.
Every day was a pitched battle with food. Many days I would be “strong” and would eat what I considered an appropriate amount of food. Other days, I would eat so much that I could no longer move and would have to lie on my bed in fetal position, crying hysterically and swearing that I would never do this again.
And then I would get up as soon as the pain subsided and eat more.
Desperation and help
When I really needed to eat, nothing could stop me. It was like a curtain of white noise came down, suffocating my rational thoughts. I thought nothing of taking leftover treats for my students out of the garbage can and eating them as long as they were still in the original wrapper or box. I did think twice about finishing off the half-eaten treats that my students had wrapped up in a napkin and thrown away, but I did it anyway. At home, I pulled food out of the garbage so many times that I had to start spraying it with Windex, and then I just went around the corner and bought something new.
I made the rounds of the delis, bakeries, and coffee shops in my neighborhood. I was becoming more and more hopeless and depressed, despite yoga, meditation, journaling, therapy, and antidepressants. I put up a good front; I showed up to work (mostly), dressed well, and wore makeup, but inside I was really scared and had no idea who I was or how I had ended up overweight and miserable.
I found recovery in 1998 at age 23 when a friend introduced me to Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA) and connected me to a sponsor.
My sponsor told me that I was a food addict. When she assured me that I could be sober from addictive eating (she called it “abstinence”) just like alcoholics can be sober from alcohol, I was skeptical. The solution, she said, was to weigh and measure three meals each day and abstain completely from all flour and sugar. She explained that weight loss is the natural byproduct of abstinence, and she promised me that I would be in a right-size body just by staying abstinent; I didn’t have to exercise or buy anything.
Though I only had about 30 pounds to lose, others in FA had lost over 200 pounds and were keeping it off for years and even decades. More importantly, she told me, FA members had lost their cravings and become “neutral” around food. She may as well have been speaking Greek. I didn’t know what neutrality around food could possibly mean, and I mostly stopped listening after she mentioned the weight loss, which was really all I wanted.
Surrender and change
In desperation, I took her suggestions and began measuring my food according to the plan she gave me. I attended meetings and made phone calls to other FA members who had been living this way already. I was told that the strength I needed would come from a higher power, not my will power. I did not believe in God, but I could accept that there was something greater than I was, and I was assured that was all I needed to start.
Abstinence was the biggest surrender of my life. I was used to doing things myself, so surrendering was the opposite of my instinct to grab hold, grit my teeth, and try harder. But my way had not worked, and I found myself practicing the sweetest surrender I have ever experienced. I understood that I had to let go.
When I had cravings to eat, I was told to ask for strength from my higher power, to call other food addicts, to read the FA and AA literature, to go to a meeting. I was given a whole kit of tools to use, and I used them every day. The weight fell off — even though I had stopped running — but the real change was internal. I was happy again. I stopped taking Prozac. I experienced self-respect as I learned to show up and live on life’s terms.
Over the past 18 years, I have experienced the neutrality around food my sponsor promised me on that first day. I am so grateful I don’t have to worry about my food and weight; though my Fitbit tells me I eat more calories than I burn, I nevertheless stay slender at 111 pounds. My depressive tendencies have vanished. I dated and married a man who understands that my FA program comes first so that I can be fully available to others. I have had three children in abstinence, gaining the appropriate amount of weight, and losing it rapidly each time. My children and my husband have never seen me eat addictively. I work the Twelve Steps and ask for guidance from others and from my higher power, which I don’t have to define. I am eternally grateful to FA for giving back my life, my body, and my dignity.
For more information about FA and a list of local meetings, please visit Foodaddicts.org.
Annabelle Bloomingdale is a pseudonym. The author of this personal essay wishes to remain anonymous. Anonymity is not about shame, but rather about protecting FA, keeping the meetings safe for participants in recovery, and making sure that no single person becomes the “face” of the program. To contact the author, email email@example.com.