Autumn: The Empty Yawning Chasm
The fact that logic cannot satisfy us awakens an almost insatiable hunger for the irrational.
~A. N. Wilson
Meet my appetite:
The voracious monster and –
The Empty Yawning Chasm.
If left unchecked, The Chasm will create havoc.
Much of my life has been spent staving it off, and woe-be-onto-me should I ignore its first signs.
The Chasm retains a tight leash on me, reminding me of the numerous impulses within to grab the first thing at hand, usually a fatty crunchy carb or fast food, typically fried in grease.
(An aside: Last week, while on my walk, I slipped, almost landing on my ass, on a smelly grease stain deposited by Chick-fil-A in the alleyway behind its property – think about that as you take your next bite of its classic chicken sandwich. How that stuff must grease up one’s colon like a colonoscopy prep – we oldsters think a lot about such connections.)
I have been told that humans living in First World Countries have never experienced gut-wrenching hunger.
It may not be the kind of hunger born of lack, but its effects on appetite and weight control can have cascading and devastating effects on lives, as evidenced on the reality show My 600-Pound Life.
It’s true that if you live in a country like the U.S., you will not likely starve to death; we live in a land of plenty, which is actually part of the problem.
We are constantly bombarded with food cues on TV, billboards, on street corners, at social and community events. Visual and olfactory cues are especially powerful, often kicking in a very real physical hunger response, a watering mouth and a strong sense of anticipation.
I stave off The Chasm by eating enough so that it rarely comes knocking – this may sound counterintuitive, but inappropriate hunger is not a fat person’s best friend.
If I plan to be away from home for a significant amount of time, I carry food and drink (non-alcoholic) with me; my purse is stocked with soy nuts, fruit, and/or Quest bars and a cooler filled with sodas and water. Often, I carry a go-cup filled with coffee or tea.
Most of the time, this strategy works.
Except when it doesn’t.
The Chasm usually kicks in when I ignore its warning signs and wait too long to grab a healthy snack.
What does that Chasm feel like?
My aunt Colleen – who, by the way, has never been overweight – describes it this way: “When I get hungry, I feel like I’m falling off a cliff after my throat has been slit.”
She notes that the hunger comes up fast and furious – one minute, she’s fine, and the next, she’s off the cliff and scrambling for something to eat. She, too, carries food in her car and purse, mostly cereal bars.
When she eats the tiniest morsel – half a cereal bar – her hunger has been sated, and she moves on with her life, without a care.
Food is not important, more like a bothersome thing she must check off three or four times a day on her to-do list.
In my case, not so: food is central to my life.
The Chasm creeps up slowly, starting as a nagging, little imp whispering suggestions into my ear. “Cake.” “Ice Cream.” “Mashed Potatoes.” “Candy.”
Note the lack of healthy foods being funneled into my head.
If I ignore the coming Chasm, I start to feel draggy and out of sorts. Drinking water or some other non-sugared beverage keeps it at bay – for a time.
Then the headache arrives, just above my eyes and across my eyebrows.
I feel gaunt, my eyes widening – at least that’s what it feels like.
My speech slurs; thinking processes slow down.
My knees weaken, and I feel dizzy, as if I’m about to pass out.
I can think of nothing but food.
NEED FOOD NOW!
When I have arrived at this point, it’s almost impossible to stave off a binge.
Why do I carry around such an albatross?
There is no apparent physical reason for this malady; I’m not diabetic, and my sugar and thyroid levels always show normal.
But I have a theory.
I suffer from an outsized sense of smell, and a cacophony of mouth-watering aromas can kick in a huge hunger response, even though I may have eaten three or four hours previously.
Yet my sense of taste seems extremely muted; when I eat ordinary food, it tastes blah, no matter how seasoned it may be – therefore, I gravitate toward very sugary and greasy food, simply because it offers more gustatory pleasure and satisfaction.
In My Chasm Zone, my body does not feel satisfied with just an apple or chunk of cheese.
Yet, filling The Chasm with the “wrong” food – anything processed with fat, refined sugar, and carbs and lacking protein and fiber – often ramps up the stakes.
The problem is, when I’m in hunger distress, all reason flies away: my rational side (superego) knows what I must do to fill The Chasm, but the irrational child (id) craves that which will widen The Chasm even more.
The “cure” seems to involve avoiding mouth-watering aromas.
Good luck with that in the United States of America, where there is a fast-food joint on every corner and a social event every other day in which food is the centerpiece.
The best I can do when I’m out and about: eat healthy food often throughout the day so that the olfactory and visual responses don’t kick in.
An excerpt from my short story “The BIG Diet,” based on one of my myriad diets – this one a three-month, all-liquid milkshake regimen – best describes how The Chasm can kick in.
In this piece, the central character Samantha shops at a grocery store for the first time in months:
I have forgotten what it’s like to navigate my way through shelves filled with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Brach’s cinnamon disks, Kraft’s caramels, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup, Cream of Chicken soup, pistachios, sunflower seeds, cashews, Snyder’s Caramel Corn, Oreos, Tuna and Hamburger Helper, Beefaroni, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, cream puffs, TastyKakes, Utz’s potato chips – I would kill for one sour cream chip, just one, please? – Um-mmm-mmmm–free Vienna sausage samples, apples and oranges and pears (oh, my!), asparagus, even lowly lettuce....
The meat counter. Ahhhhh. The meat counter, piles and piles of juicy red meat, marbleized and lovely – chunks, slices, slabs, slivers, ground round. Gleaming in their neat shrink-wrapped packages. Mmm-mm-mmm. Raw burger. I stifle the urge to grab a package of ground meat, rip off the plastic, and stuff a handful of ground animal flesh into my mouth. Glom on raw meat until I puke.
Bright lights, bright colors, bread – maybe it’s cake – baking somewhere, grocery carts screeching, children bawling, mothers yelling, Muzak version of “Incense and Peppermints” ringing in my ears. I want to jump out of my skin. GET-ME-OUT –
For God’s sake, where’s the dairy section?
Dairy products, yes, in the back. I grab a carton of God-knows-what kind of milk. I race through the aisle, all the shelves a blur of color. I dash for the checkout line. As I wait in the express line, the woman ahead tries slipping in a carton of Camels in her food stamp order. When the clerk, a high school boy, refuses to accept stamps for cigarettes, she stonewalls, trying to explain how she has spent all her money for baby formula and she really, really needs her smokes. A manager appears and explains why she can’t buy Camels with food stamps, but she pouts and refuses to move, and I swear she’s about to pull out a weapon, when suddenly, she pulls out a twenty instead and tosses it at the clerk. He accepts it as if nothing untoward has happened and gives her some change. The boy bags her groceries, and she grabs her stuff, and huffs and puffs her way out of the store, and then it’s my turn. I pay for the milk with exact change –
“Paper or plastic, ma’am?”
I freeze. The clerk glares at me, waiting for my answer, which should be a simple one, but I haven’t made an intelligent decision in weeks, and I have forgotten how. As I ponder the significance of choosing one politically incorrect material or another, the clerk shakes his head, and drops the carton into a plastic bag. I grab and run, imagining this pimply-faced boy, who might end up in one of my classes someday, telling his buddies about the loony lady who couldn’t decide between paper or plastic.
Inside the car, I roll up all the windows and lock the door. The air is stifling; I can barely breathe, and, suddenly, I’m afraid of what’s ahead, afraid of gaining the weight back, afraid not to, and realizing that I have no control over my life after all, that I’m really just running, running, running.... (1)
Later in the story, Samantha finally tucks in to eating The First Solid Food after three months of 70-calorie milkshakes, six times a day:
The minute I walk into the restaurant, my knees go weak with desire, from long-forgotten aromas of lobster; King crab; broiled and fried crab cakes; scallops; steamed shrimp and red sauce; Shrimp Scampi; Lobster Imperial; rare roast beef, freshly sliced off the slab; melted butter – I just want to dive right into the melted butter, feel the warm, silky grease coating my body and hair.
The horn of plenty – all on the buffet line, all for the taking at $19.95, plus tax. I stand before this wondrous offering, my mouth watering, and body weak from a monstrous hunger so huge I swear I’m close to orgasm –
“C’mon, Samantha.” My husband Shel pulls me away from the buffet line. “You’ve got to stop torturing yourself.”
I allow myself to be led away; if I don’t get the hell away from here, I’m going to start grabbing food and stuffing it into my mouth, swallowing whole chunks without chewing. I’m so famished I can barely walk to my table, which is tucked in the no-smoking section, far away from the bacchanalian smorgasbord. Shel literally has to help me walk.
My meal comes. A pale lump of white meat chicken in a watery juice and three steamed asparagus spears, fanned out like three prongs. Carrot curls, fresh parsley, and strips of pimento add color to the plate. My Diet Coke comes with a bowl of lemon and lime slices.
I stare down at my plate. Where I should begin? Should I even begin?
Shel’s meal comes. Grilled chicken breast, plain baked potato, plain steamed broccoli, salad with vinegar dressing – simple fare, only slightly more tempting than my own meal.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten how to swallow, so take tiny bites,” Shel says, trying to be helpful. He cuts a bite of meat, spears it with his fork, and pauses. “I wouldn’t want you to choke, you know.”
Like hell you don’t! I unfurl the wet coolness of a carrot curl. When I let go, it curls up again, but not as tightly as before. It looks longer now, like more food.
I’m not difficult to please.
Shel pops the bite into his mouth and chews methodically and absentmindedly. Food means nothing to him. He has a satisfied look on his face.
I pick up the parsley sprig and shake it over the chicken breast; drops of water sprinkle on my dress. I nibble on the sprig, chewing its crispy lace.
The crunch echoes in my head.
Who says parsley has no taste?
“Are you supposed to be eating the garnish?”
“Look, you jerk,” I say, shaking my finger at him. “If it’s on my plate, I’m going to eat it, so there.”
He seems surprised, but he doesn’t say anything.
It’s true: I feel gaunt and mean. Starved. I pop the rest of the sprig into my mouth and chew it to a pulp, its bitter juices coating my mouth. I gulp the Diet Coke.
Shel puts his fork down and gapes; I systematically cut each item on my plate into tiny pieces, beginning with the pimento strips, continuing with the carrot curls and asparagus spears, and finishing up with the chicken. Then with my fork and spoon, I mix all the pieces together as if I were tossing an elaborate salad.
Shel, ever the shrink, leans toward me and whispers, “I’m not sure this is altogether a healthy response to your refeeding program –”
“Shut up.” I grit my teeth, not looking at my husband. I mix and mix.
He takes my hand and covers it with his own. “How are you feeling now?”
I yank my hand away.
“I’M GODDAMN HUNGRY, YOU ARROGANT SON-OF-A-BITCH! DON’T TOUCH ME!”
Everyone around us stops eating and talking. All eyes on us now.
Shel holds his hands in front of his face. “Okay, okay. Just keep it down.”
“I don’t want to hear any mumbo-jumbo shrink stuff. I just want to eat without being analyzed.”
“Okay, so eat.”
As Shel looks on, I eat my mixture, first slowly like I have been told to do by the diet program gurus, and then shoveling it in, breathing it in, consuming it with a fire that I have never felt before, even during those first love-filled days when Shel and I discovered our heat for each other.
Maybe this is lovemaking in its purest form.
And then the food is gone, but I’m not satisfied yet, and I need more food, more lovemaking –
I grab the lemon and lime slices out of the bowl, sprinkle them with NutraSweet, and literally suck the pulp from the rinds, little sacs filled with love-juice – sweet and sour, sweet and sour, sweet and sour.
I grab Shel’s plate. He watches in horror as I slice large chunks from his chicken, potato, broccoli, salad, and stuff the bites into my mouth, swallowing without thoroughly chewing.
My body craves food, my cells need sustenance now, needed it yesterday, will need it tomorrow, I’ll never get enough, never in my lifetime –
And then Shel’s food is gone, and I’m still looking for more.
I grab my plate and run to the smorgasbord, race through the line, slap God-knows-what onto my plate, I don’t even see or smell the food now, I know that I need it, and I can’t stop needing it until my body fills up, fills up, fills up, balloons, and bursts – (2)
Of course, this is an exaggerated and fantastical description of what really happened after I ingested that first sold food – in real life, I did carefully cut my food, including the carrot, pimento, and lemon, and then hoovered it all up, but I didn’t eat my husband’s food, nor did I attack the buffet bar – though that’s what I wanted to do.
Instead, I went home and simply fell off the diet wagon altogether, engaging in a binge that lasted for the next 14 years.
(1) Siegel, Jennifer Semple, Excerpt from “The BIG Diet,” Are You EVER Going to be Thin (and other stories), West Conshohocken (PA): Infinity Publishing, 2004: 214-215.
(2) Siegel, Jennifer Semple, Excerpt from “The BIG Diet,” Are You EVER Going to be Thin (and other stories), West Conshohocken (PA): Infinity Publishing, 2004: 223-226.