Tic Tacs were my first addiction, second was Yodels. My father used to drive a beat up blue Toyota van. The brakes had to be pumped to actually brake and there were patches of rust on it. Later, I’d be embarrassed by this, but as a kid I loved riding next to my dad and listening to 60s girl groups on the tape deck. The Tic Tacs sat under the tape deck. I loved (and I don’t use the word ‘love’ here lightly) the orange flavor, but would settle for spearmint. I never wanted one Tic Tac—I wanted two, then four, then eight. I was six years old. One of my first memories is overhearing my dad, amused, tell my mom that he would buckle me in, give me a Tic Tac, then walk around to the driver’s side. In that seven seconds that I was alone, he explained, I’d already crunched and swallowed the Tic Tac, and was reaching for more.
My older brother was the one who could eat with moderation. We were polar opposites from the day I was born. Me: blonde and gregarious, and he with his dark eyes and hair and painfully shy personality. I answered for him. I ate for him. On Easter and Christmas, my brother would save much of the chocolate we were given by the Easter Bunny and Santa. I’d stuff all of mine in my face the same day. I didn’t even get a stomachache. My brother would only eat white foods, but I would eat anything. I’d be jealous for the rest of the year when he’d come home from school and eat some of his chocolate bunny and I’d have nada. On Christmas Eve, I’d set my alarm for four a.m. When it went off, I’d creep into the living room and quietly take my stocking down from the mantle. I’d take everything out of it, and take some chocolate back to my bedroom. Then I’d place it all back in. Halloween? Forget about it.
In no particular order, here are some things I’ve binged on: Yodels. Tic Tacs. String-cheese. Black licorice. Brie. Refried beans. Cheddar cheese. Freihofer’s chocolate chip cookies. Champagne. Ice cream. Coffee. Soda. Quisps. Frosted Flakes. Apple Cinnamon Cheerios. Orange juice. Hot chocolate powder. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese. Marshmallows. Mozzarella. Chocolate chips. Wint-O-Green Life Savers. Peeps. Hot Tamales. The Hot Tamales—I ate them so often, so fast, that for my twenty-third birthday, my dad sent me a package containing fifty king-size packages of them. It was more of a joke package, but I ate them—sometimes a whole box for dinner.
Do you remember Yodels? Growing up, they were the most salacious treat we were allowed in my house. I remember the junk food drawer—it was the bottom drawer, to the left of the fridge. I’d open it with my toes by grasping around the white knob and pulling to check what was in there. It’s gone now, it’s the container drawer now. Here was the problem—my mom let us have one Yodel. But Yodels came packaged in two. Like, in my brown paper bag school lunch, I’d pull out my sandwich, my apple, and my one Yodel, that my mother had taken out of the package and put in a little baggie of its own. My brother had the other one. Oh, how this made me want to eat two of them. When I was twelve, my mom, my brother, and I stayed in a house on Cape Cod with my mom’s friend and her daughters. We had Yodels in the house. The Yodels taunted and tempted me, and when I was alone in the house briefly, I pounded four of the packages as quickly as I could. This turned into a mystery. “Who ate all of the Yodels?” my mother kept demanding. I never told. Eating them was a way to do something that I knew I wasn’t supposed to do. It was a secret I could have to myself, and it was a way I could have more than everyone else. More than was acceptable.
There was music in the living room when I was kid. One of the musicians often played was Loudon Wainwright. “The Swimming Song.” This summer, I swam in the ocean and I swam in a swimming pool. Salt my wounds, chlorine my eyes, I’m a self-destructive fool. A self-destructive fool. When my mom was in a good mood she danced to this and sang along. I have a clear vision of her pointing at me singing, “Self-destructive fool.”
Eating is so many things. Stress relief, a way to avoid things, a way to be mean to yourself. I like to push myself. How far can I go? How many slices of pizza can I eat and not die? How many Yodels until I hate myself?
I haven’t been binge eating my entire life—it ebbs and flows. When I was eight years old, I had a friend named Sasha. At her house, our favorite game to play was “Doctor.” We’d have some kind of candy, Sour Patch Kids or Skittles or whatever—and we’d sit on the floor saying, “The doctor told us to only have one! Oh well!” maniacally laughing and pouring the box into our mouths. I still do this. I did it last night with those adult gummy vitamins. They advise you to take two. I ate ten. (They taste good! I couldn’t help it!)
It’s not that my parents didn’t allow sugar. We weren’t vegetarians or vegan or anything hardcore. But candy and soda were not of excess in my house. Neither was sugary cereal. (The most sugary cereal we were allowed, on special occasion, was Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, and the box would be gone in two days. My brother joined me in that binge.) At other friends’ houses, seeing boxes of Lucky Charms and cans of Sprite made my heart leap. These things motivated me to sleep at their houses.
My mother is a mindful eater. My mother eats like a bird. Proportional. “The darker it is, the healthier it is for you,” she’d say. At the dinner table, whenever we had baguette, (French bread) my family called it, my mother and I had a routine. She’d eat the crust of the slice and hand me the soft white dough. I’d roll it into a ball. I always liked the gross parts of food, the kind with more calories. The things I loved were not available in my home. I loved orange things: I liked candy corn, orange Crush soda, Butterfingers, Kraft cheese, prescription bottles, and Cheez Doodles. My mother stayed away from anything artificial. Finally, when my parents separated, my dad’s apartment had Cheez-Its. I ate them standing up, by the handful.
I ate, I eat, fast. Torture for me was that game How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Even now, just thinking about it makes my skin crawl. I put lollipops in my mouth and bit down immediately. I chewed, never sucked. This came up even in adulthood, being with a friend, putting dinner mints in our mouth, only to hear my loudly crunch down on it. “Did you already eat yours?” is a phrase I became used to hearing. Yes. I already ate mine.
In the story “The Man on The Stairs,” Miranda July writes, “That is my problem with life; I rush through it, like I’m being chased. Even things whose whole point is slowness, like drinking relaxing tea. When I drink relaxing tea I suck it down as if I’m in a contest for who can drink relaxing tea the quickest.”
In high school, I often hung out at my friend Amber’s house. Her mother had bowls of candy left around like decoration. Amber and her mother didn’t even eat from them. This baffled me. How does one leave a bowl of candy out and not eat the entire bowl in one sitting? They always generously offered it to me, and after holidays, Amber would bring me the candy she got, because she didn’t care to eat it.
As I got older, I noticed the other thing that I didn’t grow up around: Orange prescription bottles. In Some Girls, Jillian Lauren writes: Now, I am a person that never turns down pills. And if you are a person that never turns down pills, then you must always turn down pills.
That is possibly the best advice I never took about drug addiction. In 2003, when I was seventeen, I camped at Berkfest (a huge druggie music festival) for the weekend in Massachusetts with my friend Amber. The trail known for having the most and best drugs was called “Shakedown.” We walked down it (we stuck out like sore thumbs; we were dressed up and we didn’t have dreadlocks), and we took everything we were handed. Acid, molly, ecstasy, nitrous, mushrooms. Amber and I recently had a conversation about this. “Would we have done bath salts?” we both wondered aloud, flabbergasted at our own naiveté and recklessness. That was the final year that Berkfest was held. There were too many overdoses.
When Amber dropped me off at home after the festival, I went into my house and wailed. I was tired and creaky and hungover and depressed. I’d had realizations on the acid: Drugs were for imbeciles. I’d never do a drug again, I wrote in my journal.
I did, of course. Of course I did. I did drugs again and again. I smelled them on people. I looked for them and found them. I thought drugs were something only people who had their shit together could sustain as habits, and I was one of those people. Tic Tacs turned into Klonopin, Adderall, hydros. I took two, three, five.
Rock bottom moments: Standing at the open refrigerator, putting handfuls of shredded cheese into my mouth. Remnants falling through my knuckles onto the kitchen floor. Sneezing and accidentally blowing the powder from the pill all over the car and snorting it anyway. Licking the top of CD cases that have a tiny bit of powder left. Taking Zantac and Imodium at the same time because I heard the combination gets you high. Eating tuna with my fingers out of a container in the fridge.
In an episode of Sex and the City, Miranda bakes a chocolate cake, then eats so much of it without being able to stop that she finally takes action, throws it away, only to keep eating it from the trashcan. Then she pours dish detergent into the trashcan, onto the cake, and, of course, calls Carrie. We’ve all been there. Stephen King used to buy twenty-four packs, drink one and pour the rest down the drain to save himself. Most women, when I tell them I binge eat, say, “So do I.”
My nine-year old cousin, Ava, likes to boast, “Eating is my hobby. I love to eat.” I cringe, overwhelmed with love for her when I hear her say this—so unself-conscious, so proud. Her little brother, Jordan, already has a candy addiction. When he wants a piece of gum or candy, he’ll hold out his hand and I’ll give him one, and he’ll always, always, say, “Two.” A boy after my own heart. How I fear for him. How does one learn to take one instead of two?
I watch other people. Their discipline, I mean. I stare. I gape. I’ve watched people with my jaw dropped while they eat three chips out of the bag and then put the bag on the desk. Maybe they’ll eat them later, maybe not. Maybe they’ll throw them out. The notion nearly kills me. I fantasize about being able to buy a pack of mints or chocolate and have it last me over time instead of eating it all in an hour.
In high school, I sometimes bought large bags of Wint-O-Green Life Savers and ate them in one sitting. I remember my mom saying, “Imagine all of those mints sitting in your stomach.” This has haunted me for years to come. I think of it constantly.
“Imagine all of those hydrocodones mixed with alcohol sitting in your stomach.”
“Imagine that box of macaroni and cheese sitting in your stomach.”
“Imagine those twenty Altoids sitting in your stomach.
“Imagine that bag of marshmallows sitting in your stomach.
Sometimes my interest in eating subsides. Sometimes I binge on health. I pound through Buddhist books by Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön. I’ll keep an avid food and exercise journal and feel I’ve kicked everything. Another verse of “The Swimming Song” goes like this: This summer I went swimming, this summer I might have drowned. But I held my breath and I kicked my feet and I moved my arms around.
I never know when I’m going to get triggered and turn right back into that Tic Tac–popping, narcotic-snorting, Yodel-eating girl. I fantasize about being able to buy a pack of mints or chocolate and have it last me over time instead of eating it all immediately. I fantasize about it. I would like to live out that verse of the song instead of the self-destructive fool verse, but it’s a struggle. I want to kick my feet and move my arms around instead of drown.
“Did you eat dinner?” my dad asked me a few months ago as we drove home from the Albany airport. He saw me look down at the Tic Tacs and he laughed and said, “Cause I got you some Tic Tacs.” They were wintergreen, but I ate a handful anyway.
Rumpus original art by Sam Geer.