If You’ve Never Struggled with Compulsive Eating

I know some people fundamentally do not understand how it feels to be enthralled—and I mean an evil, cast-a-spell, I’m addicted kind of enthralled—by food. I also know that some of us who are, who have always struggled, are married to, or best friends with, or office suite-mates with people who have never experienced what we’ve experienced.

Can we ever explain?

I was just washing dishes. I’m not hungry, and I’m feeling rather proud and excited that I have lost 53 pounds and become a regular exerciser. Scrubbing away, I was thinking of my Thanksgiving check list.

We’ve planned a moderately healthy meal, and I’m bringing several dishes that will be both delicious and totally in line with my eating plan. I started thinking about how many servings of one of the desserts we’ll need. It is a pumpkin custard/parfait, so it will be in individual glasses. I like pumpkin, but I’m not crazy about it, so I thought it would be easy for me to resist. And, I still may garnish it with candied almonds just for insurance. 😉

My thought process:

Hmmmm … there will be a few smaller kids present. One of them is too young for a dessert served in a wineglass … the kids will want it because parfaits look cool … should I make it in a ramekin or bring a more kid-friendly dessert … a chocolate pudding parfait … plastic glasses perhaps … maybe a few sugar cookies decorated by that cute little shop will taste better to the kids anyway … OH MY GOD THE TURKEY CAKE … CAN I GET A TURKEY CAKE … THERE ARE ONLY 3 KIDS AND THE CAKE IS SO BIG …TURKEY CAKE … TURRRRRRKEEEEEY CAAAAAAAKE …

I was just standing there, thinking about this cake, with the water running and sponge in my hand. Quick, I thought, to the blog! Write about it and get it out of your system.

turkey cake

Like this, but three times more icing and more colors. Image by acrossthesea via Flickr.

I’m a baker, and a damn good one, frankly, so I get put in charge of desserts or I assert dominion over that part of the menu at large holiday gatherings. I enjoy making elaborate, sophisticated cakes that are really designed for adults. Not full of booze or naughty frosting decorations kind of adult, but things like bittersweet chocolate or herbs in shortbread or meyer lemon curd instead of milk chocolate and peanut butter and sprinkles.

It has to have been five or six years ago now, but one of the adults with children brought a grocery store cake to Thanksgiving. Next to my cakes and pies, it looked a little like a trashy hooker, frankly, standing next to a bunch of genteel older church ladies. Maybe a better analogy is that mine looked like shabby chic furniture at an elegant Carolina beach cottage and this store-bought cake looked like a Danish modern dining room with Nagel prints on the wall. Just a totally different aesthetic.

The cake was frosted to look like a turkey with a multi-colored peacock tail. Frosting dyed alarming colors of orange, bright blue, shocking green, startling yellow, deep purple, and attention-grabbing red was glooped and globbed on top of the dark brown chocolate layer of feathers. I bet the frosting was 3 or 4 inches deep in some places, and maybe deeper. The tail didn’t stand up off of the cake, but was just layered on top.

The rational adult in me was looking forward to a sophisticated slice of meyer lemon tart. The rational adult in me apparently had an out-of-body experience and went to someone else’s house, because from the minute that turkey cake got cut and served to the kids, the irrational, sugar-fat-enthralled me found every possible reason to keep walking past it.

Taking little bites. Cutting small pieces. Swiping frosting with my fingers, which I would then have to scrub lest the frosting permanently dye them. I also had to scrub out my mouth, because of course the colors had stained my tongue as well. I cleared the kids’ plates so I’d have an excuse to eat one little bite and get a little more frosting on my thumb accidentally. I think I eventually ate about a third of the cake.

I completely lost the ability to focus on anything other than getting some of that cake.

I imagine that is what it is like to be a drug addict in a room with people who are doing your drug of choice but not offering you any. You can’t look away or think about anything else.

When I read about people who compulsively shoplift, that sounds familiar, too. The absolute rush of anticipation followed by the release of doing the deed. For them, stealing the lipstick. For me, swallowing the frosting. Being on the brink of pain, agitated, jumpy until the sugar and fat hit my blood stream.

It is horrible and upsetting and isn’t something that you can just snap out of. I was ashamed of my behavior, trying to hide it, but unable to stop it.

I’m feeling so much stronger these days. I’ve learned so much more about what eating food like that can do to me, learned it both intellectually and through experience. I’ve learned new habits and coping skills. I’ve made it through depression and removed triggers from my life. I’ve enlisted friends and family members to support me. But I’m always afraid, a little bit, in the back of my mind, that the compulsion could seize me at any moment.

So, if you’ve never understood, you are lucky. It may never be real to you, but it is real to some people, and incredibly challenging to live with year in, year out. One little bite may be one bite too many, whether it is Thanksgiving or not, whether it is a special celebration or not.

If someone you love and care about has a problem with compulsive eating, find out what they’re worried about, and see what you can do to be supportive and remove triggers from the environment, or remove them from the environment. I’m sure we’re all about to scream uncle if one more article points out that you can just go for a walk to avoid temptation, but you can. You can also just box up, cover, or even throw away the food.

In my darker moments, I’m anxious for January to arrive and the holidays to be over, and they haven’t even started. Sigh. I’ll go for a walk and turn it around.

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20 Responses to If You’ve Never Struggled with Compulsive Eating

  1. So honest – thanks for sharing.

    • Andie says:

      Thank you. Kind of scary to put this up here – I mean, people struggle with heroin or cocaine or alcohol or high-stakes gambling, and I struggle with low-quality butter cream frosting? But I felt I had to say something in case it either helped someone else come to terms with it, or in case it helped someone who has never experienced it, but has seen someone they love experience it, gain a little bit of understanding or empathy.

  2. As the commenter above says, a truly honest and emotional post. Congratulation for taking control of your life and your desire to eat. Hats off to you!

  3. I can completely relate…in every way. I, too, have found myself unable to walk away from (or even stop thinking about) food – and usually something really awful and unhealthy. One of my rationales used to be, “If I just eat it all now, it will be gone. Then I won’t have to see and think about it anymore.” Seriously. It sounds really bizarre to me now, of course, but even four months ago that is how I rationalized eating huge portions of unhealthy food (desserts were usually worst…and something I prepared). Typically, though, I would always feel *extra* guilty after eating it…in addition to the really sore tummy. Then I would get angry with myself for eating it (of course).

    Another part of your post that really resonates with me is the section where you mention trying to hide the fact that you were eating the frosting/cake. I could not even *begin* to count the number of times I hid while eating food…usually just a bite or two here and there (not a whole meal by myself in the closet or anything). The fact remains, though, that I felt as though I *had* to hide to eat it because somewhere inside myself I knew I should not have been eating it.

    It feels great to be able to own those maladies, which makes it a *lot* easier (for me, at least) to control them. I do not allow myself to “rationalize” things like that any longer.

    Great post!

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. J. says:

    my mom says growing she could always tell who pilfered snacks she made – if it was my dad it was a mess and the tub was only half closed. if it was me, everything was precisely as it was but there were simply less goodies left.

    • Andie says:

      I guess it is a sign of my sickness, but I am GOOD at rearranging food so it looks like I never ate a bite of something. Or, when I had problems in the other direction, staging dirty dishes so it looked like I *had* eaten something.

  5. Pingback: The Holidays??? « Diary of an Angry Fat Woman

  6. Shonnie says:

    As you are aware I liked this post … since I linked to you and Erica. 😀

  7. Shonnie says:

    Oh, and I am not a compulsive eater. I do love food and love to cook. I can stick to small portions of food and be happy, but sometimes even the small portions of some foods really mess me up–BAD! So generally I don’t feel compelled to eat — Unless there are chips and dip about. 😉

  8. I’m completely with you on this. Compulsive eating has been the bane of my existence since early adolescence. It’s a way of being and is probably the toughest part of this whole process to deal with: illogical, irrational, gut-level, deeply subconscious needs are mixed up in that whole thing. Great, honest post. You are clearly so strong!

    • Andie says:

      Thank you. I hope I hope that writing this stuff down – saying it out loud – helps me own it and takes the power away from it. I hope we can both move past it.

  9. I truly think I exist some where between compulsive eating and food addiction. I’ve always known I had challenges with trigger foods, and I’m happy to be in a state of control right now. And, by control, I mean that I literally throw away anything I know I won’t be able to eat properly. I often *joke* that I need to spray things with Windex so I’ll stop eating them. I’ve never had to do that, but it’s crossed my mind. Instead i walk things directly to the dumpster.

    I will tell you, honestly, I am dreading the family Thanksgiving. And Christmas. If I see that Turkey cake, I’ll have a good chuckle.

    Learning every day how do deal with it all…. Loved your post. So relatable.

    • Andie says:

      I do feel like I probably fall on the more manageable end of the compulsive eating spectrum. I’ve become a master at throwing away food AND not feeling guilty for doing so. Good luck with your family on Thanksgiving – and Christmas. At least each is only one day.

  10. I love your writing style. It’s really comfortable to read (if that makes sense). Anyway, you’ve described compulsive eating perfectly. I think I’m addicted to food and can definitely relate to “one bite might be one too many.”

    • Andie says:

      Thanks for the compliment – I’m glad it is comfortable to read, and especially that this post, about something really UNcomfortable, reads that way.

  11. rikristin says:

    I feel the same sometimes, but for me it would be the tub of Betty Crocker chocolate frosting. I also am assigned the baking and will avoid making anything with chocolate frosting because it is definitely a trigger for me. Out of sight, out of mind, out of mouth. Thanks for the post.


    • Andie says:

      I was just realizing I have a cookie exchange coming up, and found a recipe for rum balls (I love rum, but I prefer it in liquid, not ball, form) and one for some wreath cookies that look adorable but are made with marshmallows, corn flakes, and green food coloring. Lots of food coloring. Not tempting at all. I share your passion for chocolate frosting, so no buche de noel this year for me. I don’t think I could hack it.

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