There used to be these great print ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes. Each featured a small black and white photo of a woman toiling, sweaty and somehow compromised. Next to it was a larger, color image of a fiercely-dressed, fiercely-headstrong “modern” woman. It read, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
No wonder I smoked.
Newport Lights, a pack a day. I don’t anymore; haven’t for a long time. I forget that sometimes.
I forget about a lot of the things I used to do. As a rule, this is a blessing. But it also makes it hard to see when I have in fact, “come a long way…”
This week I was reminded as I was preparing for my Weight Watchers meetings. The topic: Why We Do What We Do.
Each week, I receive a topic for discussion, a guide to help bring it to life, and some slides for use in the meeting room. One of the slides this week presented three characters, three scenarios.
Joe, who eats a healthy breakfast…then scarfs two doughnuts at work. Pat, who is “on program” all week, but can’t seem to do the same at Sunday night dinner. Carla, who just moved to a new city, goes home each night and makes nachos “like her mother used to make.”
I am Carla. Except it isn’t nachos. And it isn’t like that anymore. I had forgotten…until now.
I was 24 when I moved to San Francisco. I lived in a second-story Victorian apartment in Haight-Ashbury with my roommate Tim.
We painted my bedroom walls pink and hung up three black and white photographs of me – taken by my friend Blake the day before I left. I slept on a futon that I bought from a friend of a friend. If I cranked my head just the right way, I had a partial view of the Golden Gate Bridge from my fire escape.
Getting to work and back without getting lost was a victory. For six months, I walked to the train and thought I was a day closer to moving back to Detroit. I told no one. How could I? How could I tell my friends I was homesick when I lived in arguably the most beautiful city in North America.
I turned to food. Not eating. Bingeing. That wildly secret out-of-control consumption that feels both numbing and compulsive. That once started, is hard to stop. That usually resulted in me feeling physically pained and emotionally shamed. A bigger secret than the one I was trying to cover up.
I’d had a few experiences of bingeing when I lived in Detroit.
Housesitting for my friend Carlos. Sitting on the kitchen floor with a bag of peanut M&M’s and a sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. He returned moments after leaving, having forgotten something. I looked up at him from the floor, panicked. I do not remember what was said. I must have blocked it out. We never spoke of the incident. After he left, I continued.
That night I lied in his bed, bloated. Sick. I tried to throw up but couldn’t.
Passover. Perhaps the last year my parents were married, living in the country in their dream home. Each time I passed through the kitchen I picked up a kosher-for-Passover apricot square, never putting it on a plate, never sitting at the table. A perfect example of what I like to call a Weight Watchers’ Zen Koan. If a Weight Watcher eats and no one sees it, did it really happen?
When I had no room left in my gut, I left dinner. I went upstairs and lied on my side on the cool bathroom floor. My mother came to check on me. I was afraid. Of her. Of how I felt. I was in pain. I didn’t know how to get the food out of me.
She asked if I needed to go to the hospital. I told her I didn’t think so. I was too ashamed. What would they do anyway? I went back downstairs and waited it out.
Experiences like these became more frequent after moving to San Francisco.
Every night after dinner I’d go foraging. I’d go to one corner market for yogurt-covered raisins. A second for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. And a third for cookies – Pepperidge Farm, soft-baked, chocolate and macadamia nut.
I don’t know why I couldn’t buy it all at one store. Looking back, I don’t think I could even admit it to myself what I was doing.
The binges were never planned. I’d go to one store. Get the goods. Eat. Then repeat. It was exhausting.
If it was too late to go to the market, or if I was too tired or too ashamed, I would make a concoction at home – usually consisting of sugar, butter, flour and an egg, microwaved until it puffed. (I didn’t keep sweets in the house.) Unable to wait, I’d dig in immediately, burning the skin on the roof of my mouth.
I remember having dinner with my new friend Tom and his partner after one of these binges. We went for Thai food on Noe Street. I ordered soup that I could barely choke down. I told them I was sick. Little did any of us know how true that was. All I wanted to do was go home, take my pants off and sit in my shame, alone.
Strangely, all of these binges occurred when I was a normal weight. Even thin.
I shared a truncated version of my story – the going from store to store and not being able to eat at dinner with Tom – with one of my Weight Watchers groups. I hadn’t planned to. It just sort of happened. The room was silent. Then finally, one of the women asked quietly, “How did you stop?” Nearly a dozen heads nodded in unison.
I had no idea. I’m still not entirely sure.
This is what I told them. This is what I know:
I found a Weight Watchers leader I could trust and got honest with him about what I was doing. I read Geneen Roth’s When Food is Love and sobbed my eyes out – because I related.
I quit and rejoined Weight Watchers more times than I can count, eventually deciding to stay – no matter what. Regardless of what I did or didn’t do. Of what did or did not happen on the scale. I decided with them, I at least had a fighting chance.
As I write, it occurs to me that there is more. I don’t remember my last binge. It was probably 10 or more years ago. Somewhere around the time I met my ex-husband. Around the time I started drinking alcohol again.
Perhaps I merely made a trade, exchanging one fix for another as I tried to fill that insatiable hole. And yet, when I quit drinking a little more than five years ago, the bingeing did not return. Nor did it return when my husband called it quits a little more than a year ago. Neither did the drinking.
Things change. I change. So much so I sometimes forget how it used to be. How I used to be.
I’m not fixed. I still engage in behaviors that make me cringe, make me want to lie naked on the cool bathroom floor, ashamed and alone. And yet I’m fairly certain if I keep on the path I am on, one day they too will be vague memories. Shadows emerging seemingly out of nowhere, tugging for my attention, saying, “Remember when? You’ve come a long way, baby.”