For as long as I can remember I have had food obsessions. When I was little, these obsessions revolved around things that I could never or rarely have.
For instance: my mother was a vegetarian when I was growing up and I used to fantasize about meat. My aunt would babysit me, and apparently witnessed me wandering around saying “maaaybe a little meatball?” in a dreamy, hopeful sort of way.
Then there was the incident of the Hot Chocolate Fudge with Ice Cream. We (me and Mum) were going somewhere, I completely forget where – maybe Stonehenge – that’s not important, the fudge is important. I must’ve been about 9 or 10. We stopped in a village somewhere along the way. I have no idea what came before it, but for desert I had the most glorious hot chocolate fudge sundae known to man. I can actually still remember it. But what I remember more than the sundae itself is my obsession with it afterwards. I dreamed about it, I fantasized about it; I tried to contrive reasons to go back to this village so I could eat more of it. I dreamed of moving there, of winning the lottery and buying more hot fudge sundaes than I could possibly eat in a lifetime. I had to write an essay for school about this outing that I’d been on, and I’m fairly certain that about 90% of it was a detailed description of every flavour and texture of the hot fudge sundae, and the rest was pretty much “oh and we also saw some rocks”.
A little less than 25 years later, I again had a really excellent fudge experience. I mean, there’s been some decent fudge between the ages of 10 and 34, I’m not gonna lie – but nothing like this. By happenstance I came upon a market, that amongst others had a stall selling fudge, where you could buy three sample pieces in a small box. I have been dreaming of this fudge ever since. It is, in fact, the fudge of my dreams. The market was a one day affair, and by the time I realised that this fudge was my raison d’être it was already too late. I had no idea who made it or where to find more.
It seems that fudge in particular (Flipz white fudge covered pretzels are another good example) has a way of becoming an obsession, but it’s happened with many another food or snack as well.
I used to be skinny and sickly and obsess about the things I couldn’t have, because I was not in charge of what I ate. Though I’d spend all my pocket money on sweets – which I guess is pretty typical kid behaviour.
In my teens came a period of indulgence and regret – known as the binging phase. I’d hide snacks in a cupboard in my bedroom and then stuff my face and throw up. I actually think this phase originated from a particularly fateful stay in Germany where I was forced to eat chicory for a month. I naturally – as anyone forced to eat chicory for a month would – resorted to filling up on sweets that I’d eat secretly in my bedroom. And because I didn’t want my host family to find the various candy wrappers in the trash, I did the only logical thing: stuffed them down the side of my mattress. Yes… to 15 year old Sarah that was a totally logical solution. Only problem is I forgot they were there when I left… I still cringe thinking about the discoveries they must have made when I was gone.
Clearly, I had no impulse control but I still felt shame.
Then… In my twenties, I lost shame – or at least buried it deeply. I suspect in a similar way that I’ve managed to do with my feelings of late. At this stage I would just eat. And drink.
The reasons for my strained relationship with food are varied and many, but part of it at least has to do with obsession.
A little over 2 years ago by now, I made a huge lifestyle change because I didn’t want to get diabetes. I lost close to 30 kilos and have been at a healthy weight for a little over a year. I exercise regularly and I try to keep my eating and drinking in check, and manage to some extent given that I’ve so far not put the weight back on. But the obsessions are still there, as much as ever.
Or maybe it’s better to call them cravings. I get really strong cravings for things. Sometimes they can be quite benign, like orange juice or avocados, but mostly it’s cheese, chocolate or other not-so-good for me stuff. Sometimes I manage to suppress them with sheer willpower – I don’t ever want to be that fat again and I feel almost physically unwell thinking about how I used to be – it’s a pretty powerful motivation. But sometimes the cravings sneak into my brain and every fibre of my being and beat me into submission. It’s like I cannot function until I’ve had whatever I’m craving – it makes me want to cry, it becomes all-consuming. And that just doesn’t go away. In fact if I’ve been eating extra healthy for a while it only seems to get worse. It is probably my biggest source of shame, and makes me feel weak and pathetic. And the fact that I feel shameful and weak and pathetic starts this negative spiral where I hate myself regardless of whether I give in to my cravings or not, which obviously is not good for my mental health.
I’d like to be more spontaneous. I’d like to go out and do more stuff, have experiences. I cannot blame my lack of spontaneity on my issues with food, at least not wholly, but it definitely contributes. I have a general need for control, which leads me to plan everything out, because it gives me the illusion that I’m in control. Yes, I’m aware it’s an illusion, but it’s a comforting one nonetheless.
This is how my week goes: At the end of the previous week I will start planning my week out. This includes what groceries I’m going to get (and which days I need to go shopping and whether I will be going directly after work in which case it’s more convenient to go to a different store, and in which case I want to park my bike next to said store in the morning and make sure I have tote bags with me so I don’t get unnecessary plastic waste) what food I will make, what I will be eating for each meal throughout the week (and I usually plan it so that I have leftovers for dinner 1-2 times a week so I don’t need to cook every day). And I may spend quite a bit of time over the weekend looking up recipes because I don’t know what I’m in the mood for and I don’t want to get stuck in a rut, and I want to be healthy and I want to be vegetarian (mostly)… It also includes what exercise I will do on which days (taking into account what the weather forecast is so I can plan to do something indoors rather than run if it looks like there’ll be a lot of rain), and when I’ll need to get up in order to do said exercises. It includes when I’ll need to do my nails and wash my hair. And of course the normal things like when I have plans to meet someone or go somewhere.
While I’m sure there are people more excessive than me (Alison from The Sure Thing comes to mind – yes, she’s fictional but I’ve no doubt there must be real people out there like this), I do have two problems with my planning mania. The first one is that I simply spend too much time on planning stuff that ultimately doesn’t really matter. The second is that I have too much trouble deviating from my plans, which leaves no room for spontaneity or going with the flow. I’ll go stubbornly against the flow if it happens to clash with my carefully planned life. And if I’m forced to improvise – let’s say there’s a train outage and I’m stuck somewhere (happens too often, Dutch Rail!) – I have real trouble with that. More often than not I’ll freeze up and just stand around waiting patiently (OK, more like irritatedly) for everything to fall back into place.
I’ve talked about my planning mania and need for control before on my other blog, and it is something I’m trying to work on, I’m just finding it quite hard. And specifically in relation to food I do think I need some measure of control to not go off the deep end again. I’d love nothing more than to not think about food and just eat what I feel like when I’m hungry, and basically just get on with my life. But I doubt I’ll ever be able to do that. I have built up too many unhealthy habits when it comes to food, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere.
I know weight struggles are not uncommon, they’re kind of the blight of modern society. Acquiring sustenance no longer requires intense physical labour, a lot of us have desk jobs and then go to the store or a restaurant and buy our food – it requires almost no energy burn. Even relatively poor people can be fat (in first world countries) because the cheapest and easiest food is often the most unhealthy. Nevertheless, I have this feeling that most of the world’s population, even in first world countries, don’t go around obsessing about food most of the day, or avoid doing things or going places because it involves food that they have limited control over. And I envy that.
I’m constantly thinking about if and when I can eat things. I haven’t exercised for almost a week because I’ve not been feeling well, and yesterday I overindulged in ice cream. Thinking about that, I can literally feel myself getting fatter, and I feel the panic start to prickle up my back.
So I wish. I wish for a healthy relationship with food and with life and to interact with food and life in a normal way. But I just don’t know how to achieve this.