Monday, September 21, 2009

On overeating

Today I said the words: "My name is Neal, and I'm an overeater." I wasn't at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, though I hope to attend one soon. I was at my therapist's office, and I was telling him that my recent and past behavior suggest that the "overeater" label might be useful for me to work with. Another option: "food addict," the term preferred by British journalist William Leith, who wrote The Hungry Years, a memoir about his own bout with food addiction that also serves as an investigation of the Atkins hypothesis that carbs, more than fat, are the enemy.

I understand the argument that labels, especially those doled out by some large, authoritative body, can do more harm than good. I get that diagnosing someone as an ADD sufferer or a depressive can make that person feel "broken," and perhaps unfixable. But diagnoses and labels have their positive sides, too. I didn't necessarily go around saying "My name is Neal, and I'm depressed" before starting on Lexapro last year, but I was depressed, and I had been, off and on, for a long while. My mother saw it, my friends understood it, and I knew it on some level, too. When I confessed that I wasn't looking for work last fall because I simply didn't want to (because, in turn, I didn't believe that any effort of mine would be rewarded with anything of value), it was tantamount to an acknowledgment of depression.

When you stop trying because you don't think anything you do will turn out well, because you believe your situation can't be improved, well, you're depressed. Similarly, someone who eats 1260 calories' worth of pasta in one sitting (plus some untold number of calories from the pesto that's mixed with the noodles) is an overeater. I don't overeat at every meal, and I haven't always overeaten in the past. Indeed, as a teenager I was anorexic, and I've had periods of self-starvation since then. (It's the only way I know how to lose the weight I inevitably put on during overeating periods like the one I'm in now.)

What I hope to do this time around is find a healthier, more constructive way to lose weight. I weigh around 222 pounds, which is roughly 30 more than I weighed two years ago, and more than double what I weighed when I was anorexic. While I try to attend waterobics class every week and am now also on a kickball team, I'll need more exercise, and more vigorous exercise, if I want to stay fit in the long term. Also, I'll need to treat my eating the way I've dealt with money management: I'll need immediate and longer-term plans and goals, ideally with a dedicated advisor to help mold and adjust my program as needed. Moorea Malatt, my financial advisor, has done a fabulous job of helping me budget and plan for the near and far future. Now I need someone -- myself, my therapist, or another paid advisor if need be -- to assist me in making my eating habits sensible and sustainable.

I'm willing to try a support group, which is why OA, which is free, appeals to me. Being around other people who struggle with something similar to what plagues you can remind you that you're not alone, and that other people can understand you. In the past, I've avoided OA because I was afraid I'd be surrounded by severely overweight people, whose appearance would be a reminder of what I fear most -- losing control of my eating so definitively that I end up morbidly obese. But it's hard to say what the other members of an OA meeting will look like. Most will probably have at least the "few extra pounds" so often described on dating-site profiles, and some will be heavier than that. Maybe a few will be profoundly large. But being around people of various sizes who fight a common enemy could not only be inspiring for me, it could also teach me to be more tolerant, and less scared, of people who seem to embody my worst nightmare about myself and my possible destiny.

In 1999, I wrote a nonfiction piece called "A Diary of Hunger" for a creative writing class. I remember feeling exhilarated to finally be getting the story of my eating disorder down on paper. The sentences flowed freely, and the piece ended up being one of the best things I wrote at college. I had an urgent need to tell my story, and that's part of what made it effective. The subject tapped into an emotionally significant and vulnerable area for me, and I was able to talk about my history with unprecedented honesty. It's been 10 years since I wrote that piece, and it might be useful to write another -- a document of the last decade's (mis)adventures in eating. I've made some progress, to be sure, and have gained some degree of perspective and wisdom along the way. In Park Slope in 2006, I was actually able to cook balanced meals and eat them slowly and mindfully -- a tremendous achievement for someone whose eating has veered between cruel self-deprivation and unfettered excess.

I still remember the night, also in 2006, that I went to meditation class, then proceeded to eat far too many cookies during the snack time that followed. Rather than moving directly to self-loathing, I tried to observe myself without judgment. I walked back to my apartment, took my blanket up to the roof, lay on my back, and looked at the stars. This felt like the first time I'd ever overeaten without mentally collapsing into paroxysms of shame. What had happened had happened, and I'd survived without descending into self-hatred -- the very feeling that sustains the vicious cycle of overeating.

We overeat, I suspect, because we're upset about something, and we're increasingly upset at ourselves the more we overeat. A perfect feedback loop, yet one that I'm determined to break. My name is Neal, I'm an overeater, and I want it to stop. Soon.


Diana said...

Oh Neal, you are so inspiring. You know I'm also an overeater, and you've brought up some good points about root causes that really struck home. Though I'm perhaps not ready to join a group yet, being a solitary person, I have been thinking more about exercise. Thanks for your post - it's always good to know you're not alone.

Neal said...

It warms my heart to know you're reading. I wish we didn't live across the entire damn country from each other! :-P Ah, well. How's the family?