I Am Having an Emotional Affair
We aren’t, you know, doing anything. Not now, anyway.
But I can’t stop thinking about it.
And sometimes, late at night when I’m the only one awake in the house, I wander back and forth, from living room to kitchen to front window and back again, torturing myself with how easy it would be to just give in.
I am having an emotional affair with food.
I have a tawdry past with food, and like many tawdry pasts, it started in childhood. My dad was obese and close to a compulsive eater. But he was a decent dad, and in his mind, that meant not “selfishly” eating in front of his little girl unless she was eating, too. “Aren’t you a little hungry?” he would ask me, hopefully. “Maybe just for a little something?”
I loved my dad, and I wasn’t hungry. But I knew he wanted me to say yes, so I would. And then I would sit with him and we would eat crackers and cheese I didn’t want, or ice cream, or pizza. Eventually, over the years, I didn’t know whether I was hungry or not, I just ate with him, and with everybody else, too, because eating had become all balled up with companionship and loyalty. Eating is what you did with the people you cared about. Food, and the sharing of it, was love.
When I first moved in with my boyfriend back in college, I started, at some point, cooking dinners. I didn’t usually ask him what he wanted, I just served it up and he ate it. But one night, when I announced dinner was ready, he said, barely looking up from his book, “I’m not hungry. You go ahead.”
It sounds ridiculous, but I was as shocked as if he’d slapped me or announced he was leaving me for a marsupial. I refused to eat any of it myself, slamming pots and pans around the kitchen and putting it all into Tupperware, all the while feeling aggrieved and sorry for myself. My boyfriend knew he’d done something to upset me, but the poor thing couldn’t for the life of him figure out what. “It smells great, I’ll eat some of it later,” he offered tentatively from the doorway, but I just shot him a wounded look. I didn’t care if he ate it or not. What I cared about was the act of eating it with me.
Fast forward eleventy-seven million years or so and here I am today, with my food issues properly sorted out and in front of me, instead of lurking behind me in the shadows. I still sometimes feel anxious when the people I love don’t want to eat at the same time I do—especially at dinner. But I know why, and I’m capable of being reasonable about it. More importantly, I know I have a choice: I can choose to eat when I am hungry, regardless of whether anyone else is, or I can choose to wait for everyone else to feel hungry, too. I can make it a big deal, or I can find other ways of being together with my dear ones.
The weird thing is, having finally landed that albatross, I’ve noticed, lately, some weird stuff going on with me and food. For health reasons, I’m on an unreasonably strict diet. I don’t do dairy, grains, fruit, sugar, soy, most nuts, chicken, eggs, and several vegetables. This leaves me with most lean meats and most vegetables–a #firstworldproblem to be sure.
So the junk food my dad (and, in the ensuing years, I) used to binge on is gone. No crackers and cheese, no ice cream, no pizza. But weirdly, under stress, the behavior of comfort eating persists. Tonight, for example, I tossed a pound of baby carrots with some olive oil and kosher salt and roasted them. And then, mindlessly, I ate the panful while watching Netflix, as if I were eating potato chips or popcorn.
Doesn’t sound like a big deal, right? After all, there are only 186 calories in a pound of carrots (just Googled it), and another 100 or so in the tablespoon of olive oil I used. At under 300 calories, given that this was also my dinner, that’s a pretty healthy binge.
My problem with it is that I ate long past the point of satiety—in fact, I ate until I felt slightly sick. I ignored my own body—just like I did when I was a child trying to please her father—and ate for company, for comfort, for something to do with my hands while I watched a movie.
I’ve lost 40 pounds since last September, so my body is doing pretty great. My brain, however, still has some major stuff for me to work out. I’m flirting with food. Teasing myself with it like it’s a naughty toy. Denying myself until I can’t stand it and then exploding into an act of greed and gluttony, no matter that carrots will hardly carry the consequences of, say, a pound of crème brûlée.
I can’t break up with food, because, you know, I’d, like, die. But food isn’t the problem anyway. The problem is my reflexive behavior. My problem is my story, the one I thought I’d put aside. Food = love.
And so, the next time I eat dinner, I will choose to notice what I’m eating, and feel when I am full. And then I will stop, just like that. And if it’s comfort, or companionship or entertainment I’m hungry for, I’ll remember I’m not going to find it in food—whether it’s a pound of carrots or a pound of crème brûlée. Come to think of it, as much as I love crème brûlée, a pound of it sounds purely disgusting. I think, if forced to choose, I’d actually go for the carrots. What say you?