On April 17 my friend Dannye lent me a book that’s changed my life. One month and 4 days may not seem like a long time, but it’s a long time for me not to overeat. And thanks to Margaret Bullitt-Jonas’s Holy Hunger (Vintage Books, 1998), I don’t think “long time” anymore but a day at a time. Sometimes even a few minutes at a time, until I can get up and walk around, leave the kitchen, brush my teeth, go to bed, whatever I need to do until the destructive impulse to eat fades.
Bullitt-Jonas found healing in Overeaters Anonymous, the church and the writings of psychologist Alice Miller. “Miller showed me that the true self is a potentiality within each child that only comes into existence as the child is noticed, understood, and taken seriously by its parents.”
Paraphrasing Miller, Bullitt-Jonas gives a pitch-perfect rendition of my childhood: “If…a child feels that she must earn her parents’ love by behaving a certain way or by expressing only certain needs and feelings — if…she must construct a ‘false self’ in order to be accepted and to survive — then, however successful and accomplished she may grow up to appear, inwardly she will be fragile, anxious, depressed.” And probably expressing those feelings within the framework of an eating disorder. Wow, it’s like Miller and Bullitt-Jonas grew up in my house.
So what to do to put the ice storm behind me, besides trying to figure out how my parents were themselves damaged? Reading about Bullitt-Jonas’s enlightenment in OA seems to have made brain tumblers click into place and unlock a subconscious vault:
“In the lexicon of OA, the verb ‘to eat,’ when it stands alone without a direct object, is shorthand for ‘compulsive overeating.’ To refuse ‘to eat’ means to refuse the first compulsive bite, to refuse to binge. If I wanted to have a life, if I wanted to find out who I was and why I was here on this earth, if I wanted to learn how to love and how to let love in, if I wanted to be happy and at peace with myself, if I wanted my existence to have any sense of meaning or purpose, if I wanted nothing more noble or ambitious than simply to stop being so miserable and so filled with self-hatred — if I wanted any of these things, I’d have to stop eating compulsively. I’d have to put the food down. It was as stark, as simple, and as scary as that.” Yeah, baby. What she said.
This is why “Biggest Loser” contestants are always crying and why their biggest job lies ahead of them when they leave “the ranch” and go home. Home is where the heat is (not necessarily heart). Surgical weight loss and “diet” drugs must be like slamming into menopause overnight, leaving you to deal with (or not) all this stuff in a scalpel snip or swallow.
Years ago, I found myself envying a newsroom co-worker whose dad the alcoholic butcher used to knock the kids around but when sober, told them he loved them. “We always knew we were loved,” he said. I would have given everything for that as a child.
Maybe I need to stop kicking myself for taking 66 years to manage my mouth. Maybe I need to say, it’s OK, it took this long to navigate the twists and turns of my family tree (has to be a curly willow, doesn’t it?). To realize, in Bullitt-Jonas’s words: “There’s no way in hell you’ll find out who you are, what you’re doing, if you’re eating compulsively. Every escape into food is a delay, a retreat, a decision to close down. So get with it. Work your program or die. Stay awake. Open your eyes, not your mouth.” Holy hunger, Batwoman!