In October and November, Voices on Addiction is partnering with Kitchen Table Literary Arts and its creator, Sheree Greer.
Sheree L. Greer founded Kitchen Table Literary Arts (KTLA) in 2014. Having relocated to Tampa Bay after graduate school in Chicago, Sheree was looking for community, namely a community of BIPOC women and femme-identified queer writers who were committed to craft and supporting each other’s work. When she couldn’t find that specific community, she decided to create it. Born from informal writing meetups on her front porch, a local taco spot, and public libraries, KTLA became a literary arts organization dedicated to supporting and showcasing BIPOC women and femme-identified nonbinary writers in and around Tampa Bay. KTLA Arts is built upon the tradition and legacy of Kitchen Table Press, founded in 1980 by Barbara Smith, Cherríe Moraga, and Hattie Gosett. The tradition of creating and holding space for historically resilient but marginalized voices is at the core of KTLA’s work. This year, KTLA celebrates nine years of community-building and support for writers and readers alike, with book clubs, short story clubs, retreats, workshops, and online classes, as well as community partnerships with foster homes, alternative education spaces, and direct service organizations who serve individuals impacted by abuse, poverty, and/or displacement. KTLA is ever committed to amplifying voices and narratives that dismantle preconceived notions of what it means to be a writer and who gets to be a writer, a dedication that ultimately supports BIPOC writers disrupting the status quo in the literary arts space and beyond.
“I promise I’m not trying to die,” I tell my therapist, and she nods.
We both know I’m lying. It’s 2019, and we’re sitting on beanbag chairs on the floor in her Florida office. The room is cozy and dimly lit with rainbow lights. The rug beneath us looks like the galaxy, a mixture of midnight blue, cobalt, and turquoise with scattered stars.
Most of the walls are covered with paintings and picture frames. By the door, there’s a painting of an orange monarch butterfly perched on a pink flower. I use it as my anchor. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I silently stare at that painting to ground myself. With each glance, I concentrate on a different color, like the green grass or the blue sky. I look at it often, especially when we’re talking about the food I’m not eating.
On the floor between us, there’s an unopened sleeve of Ritz crackers. Once my therapist realized I was barely eating, she offered to have my favorite snacks at our weekly sessions. Sometimes I ate them, but usually I didn’t. Our sessions were on Monday evenings. Most of the time, all I had for the day was a mini bag of Cheez-Its, one cup of tea, two cups of coffee, and a headache. Dinner after therapy: wine. Just to quiet my mind, though. No memories, no bad dreams.
“Starving is kind of like a slow way to die,” she says.
I type “slow death” in my phone notes. We discuss what happens to your body when it doesn’t get what it needs. Not having enough nutrients can mess with your brain’s functions and weaken your immune system. It can cause excessive fatigue and unexplained mood changes.
My therapist explains that my patterns with food sound like disordered eating, which is a descriptive phrase and not a diagnosis. Apparently, disordered eating is irregular eating behaviors that don’t align with the criteria of eating disorders defined by the American Psychiatric Association.
“I’m sure disordered eating is real,” I say. “But it sounds like a mind game. You trick yourself into thinking you don’t have an eating disorder.”
She nods again. We both know that I know a lot about mind games. But we won’t go there today. She tells me how she thinks I restrict my eating to feel in control when life feels out of control.
I shrug. “Maybe. I can’t think straight right now.”
Her voice is softer. “If you want, you can take some crackers for the road.”
I thank her but decline the offer. Her alarm rings, signaling the end of our session. Since I don’t have the strength to stand up, I focus on the orange butterfly wings in the painting. They’re almost in flight.
On Sunday mornings, I work at a grocery store. During the week, I have a desk job, so it’s nice to be up on my feet. Most people don’t want this shift, so I can always count on the hours. The day starts slow and quiet. It gets busy in the early afternoon, but my shift ends right as things are getting out of control.
The store is ten minutes from my apartment. Like always, I roll out of bed without eating and grab a water bottle. My body is on cruise control, not awake enough yet to contemplate crashing my car like I will on the way home. I park my car in the back of the lot and button my green vest as I walk to the glass double doors beside the ATM. I ring the doorbell, and a manager comes to manually push the doors open just enough for me to squeeze through sideways.
After I clock in, there are heavy black floor mats to drag over to each register. There are paper and plastic bags to restock. There are counters to clean and coin rolls to unravel. I’m distracted enough by my tasks to stay disconnected from reality. I sign into the express lane and turn on my register light. There’s soft music playing, but I can also hear the hum of the air conditioning and the buzz of the overhead fluorescent lights.
I’m trying to stay outside my body. At 7 a.m., the manager comes by to unlock the two sets of automatic doors nearby, and I listen to the whoosh of air as they open and close. The early morning shoppers are usually retired folks and people making a quick stop on their way to church service. There’s always at least one guy trying to break the law and buy alcohol before 11 a.m. But all he needs to do is keep backup bottles. Shop the sales and stay stocked up.
When the day picks up, the families with full carts flood the aisles. I am surrounded by the food I’m not eating. And I’m annoyed with myself. Scanning cereal boxes and gallons of milk. Bagging a dozen eggs under a loaf of bread. Weighing a bag of red and green apples. Smelling fresh popcorn and fried chicken from the deli. Freezing my hands on cold juice cartons and frozen pizza boxes.
I’m smiling. I’m laughing. I’m reminiscing about my favorite sport, with the parents getting orange slices and Gatorade for their kid’s soccer tournament. I’m jealous of the pregnant woman buying baby food and diapers. I’m holding back tears. I’m happy for the couple buying chips and sandwiches for their summer beach day. I’m sad for the older man stocking up on soup since his wife passed away last week. I’m not fully present.
I’m seeing my regular Sunday customers. I’m chatting with coworkers. I’m tricking my mind. I’m browsing the weekly store ad for discounts. I’m discussing new recipes and quick meal ideas with the moms. I’m talking football and double-checking the grocery list with the dads. I’m grieving. I’m angry. I’m not eating.
In our next session, my therapist says, “If you want, we can go through the criteria and talk about the meaning of an unspecified eating disorder.” I sink lower in my bean bag chair and use my fingers to trace the stars on the galaxy rug, unsure how to answer.
“I don’t think I want to label it,” I finally tell her. “But something did happen at work yesterday. It only happened cause it’s July, though. Plus, there were like six pregnant ladies during my shift.”
She nods. “I know this time of year is hard for you.”
I rant for a moment, grumbling about my hatred for pregnancy growth charts and how they compare the fetus to the food I’m not eating. Is the baby the size of a sweet pea or a grain of rice? Is the uterus shaped like an egg or a lemon? I read her what I wrote in my phone notes: “These food analogies don’t digest well.”
“I’m glad you’re writing about it,” she says. I manage a small smile.
Three years ago, my baby was the size of a Sweethearts candy. She was a chocolate chip or blueberry-sized baby. At nine weeks, she would have been a green olive or a grape or a gumball. At thirteen, a peach. At fourteen weeks, she would have been a Bagel Bite. A bell pepper at eighteen. Funnel cake, thirty-two. Honeydew, thirty-five. A fall pumpkin at forty. A funeral. A Paris summer. A result of rape. A memory. A miscarriage.
“Keep writing,” she encourages me. “It will help.”
I peek at the butterfly painting before I start telling her about my shift at the store. A customer accidentally smashed a glass jar of marinara sauce on aisle three. Whenever there’s a liquid spill, we clean it up with a product called Spill Magic. It takes more time to clean the spill than to create it.
One employee stands by the mess to alert nearby customers, while another gets a brown paper bag and cleaning supplies. There’s a neon yellow collapsible caution sign, a short broom, a dustpan, and a gallon-sized container of Spill Magic. Spill Magic is a white absorbent powder that you sprinkle around the liquid mess and sweep into a circle.
The product absorbs the spill and removes any residue from the floor. You must be careful with the smashed glass as you sweep everything into the paper bag. Sometimes, if the glass pieces are too small for the broom, you grab them by hand and try not to draw blood.
“Anyway, after I was done cleaning, I stood up too quickly,” I say. “Almost threw up and passed out. But I went to the water fountain in the back and ate a cracker. So just a small moment.”
“Well, I’m glad you had a snack ready,” she says. “These moments sound like low blood sugar. But I know we already talked about working our way back to one meal a day.”
I don’t answer. I’m not really trying to do that. After my shift, I bought two bottles of red wine on sale in the weekly store ad. Buy one, get one free. Drinking helps me sleep sometimes. No waking up from a nightmare that is reality.
Sometimes, I work the register for the whole shift and sometimes stop halfway through to bag groceries instead. After my thirty-minute break, I start bagging. I eat four Ritz crackers from a snack pack on break and drink some sweet tea from the deli. I put the rest of the crackers in my vest pocket, just in case.
Sometimes my body is okay with snacks for the day; sometimes she reminds me I’m not eating. It happens all of a sudden. I’m drenched in sweat with a dry mouth. Dizzy with blurred vision. My hands shake and my stomach feels like a fist crushing it. It feels like the blood stops rushing through my body. I’m suddenly very aware of being alive because maybe I’m dying.
Sometimes I throw up on an empty stomach, and sometimes I catch myself before it gets to that point. I drink some juice and eat a cheese stick or a slice of salami. And then I pour myself a glass of wine. Because the sluggish feeling and whole-body sweat rarely happens at the store. I’m usually home, able to have my moment alone. But I’m at work this time, wishing for an equivalent Spill Magic solution.
I don’t mean to keep starving, which is a lie. I don’t mean to enjoy it. And I don’t know how to stop. In control, yet completely out of it. After cleaning the marinara sauce spill, I stand up and steady myself on the shelf. This aisle contains sauce jars, canned vegetables, dry pasta, and microwave mac and cheese. I put Chapstick on my dry lips, wishing I had my water bottle.
I stagger to the back of the store and stop at the water fountain. Push through the heavy swinging doors and lean against the backstock shelves. Wipe the sweat from my forehead with a tissue and slowly eat one cracker. When I head back to the front of the store, I plan to find an open register in need of a bagger. Practice my smile before I get there. And just in time, I run into one of my regular customers. She’s got short, curly brown hair. Despite the summer heat, she’s wearing a cross necklace with a burgundy dress and a black sweater. She usually shops with her husband, both retired.
“There you are, my favorite cashier,” she says. “I was trying to find your register.” She smiles big and squeezes my hand, clearly noticing how clammy it is.
I smile and say, “Aw, it’s good to see you again. I’m bagging today.”
We head to an open register together, and I unload her groceries onto the conveyor belt. A bag of kale, yogurt, granola, canned green beans, ground beef, and other food I’m not eating.
“Catch me up on life,” she says as I walk to the end of the register. The cashier scans her groceries, and I start packing them into her green reusable bags.
“Nothing new over here,” I say. “Tell me about you. Did your husband book that trip to Paris yet?”
“Yes, we’re going in October. You have to tell me all your favorite places. The food, the wine. I can’t wait!”
“The wine especially,” I say. “You’re going to love it. I’ll make you a list and bring it next Sunday.”
When I see my therapist again, her beanbag chairs need more stuffing. I arrange extra pillows behind me and put my water bottle on the galaxy rug. We talk through food solutions other than a drive-thru diet. Instacart is an option. Or Shipt. Uber Eats or DoorDash. HelloFresh or Blue Apron. But those feel like luxuries—options I don’t deserve and can’t comfortably afford. My therapist asks me why I don’t deserve them, and I tell her about my recurring nightmare. It’s nighttime, and the doorbell rings at my childhood home. When I answer the door, there’s a baby girl with black skin and glowing white eyes. She’s holding a knife. She lunges forward to stab me, and I stab her first.
My therapist takes a deep breath before responding. Her voice is gentle. She says, “You didn’t kill her. You didn’t cause her death. Miscarriages happen often, but nobody talks about them.”
I nod in agreement without letting her words change my mind. I shift the subject back, explaining how I have trouble shopping in the store after work. I also don’t like stopping by when I’m not working. After listing out my excuses, I finally tell her I did some shopping after work on the day I almost threw up. But I only bought wine. I pause, planning to say more. She waits patiently for me. In the silence, I open the sleeve of crackers between us and take one out to eat.
I want to tell her that starving softens the edges of everything. When I’m not eating, only the moment at the end makes me feel present. Drinking makes me disappear. Wine is the easiest way to leave my body behind. Sometimes, I like to stop feeling. I want to stop remembering my rapist behind me, his heavy hand on my back. Stop hearing my own screams. Stop returning to my Paris apartment, alone on the bathroom floor, staring at the toilet full of blood.
“I’m not ready to talk about the drinking yet,” I say quietly. I focus on the pink flower in the painting but can’t see the petals once I start crying.
“That’s okay,” she says. “We don’t have to talk about it yet. You take your time. We’ll get there eventually.”
Rumpus original art by Dimitry Samarov
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.