I’ve never thought of myself as a liar. In fact, it was the pursuit of “rigorous honesty,” as referred to in the various 12-step manuals I’d been reading at the time, that got me into this mess. Or maybe it was my doctor.
See, when you’re a young woman, and you also happen to be fat, it’s wise to avoid doctor’s appointments all together. Not because medical intervention isn’t important, but because the aggravation of such encounters often outweighs the benefit. There’s something about all that wasted beauty—a person squandering what should be the apex of her attractiveness—that is unduly provocative. And for this reason, doctor’s visits for the clinically obese can go in one of two directions. Sometimes the doctor will discreetly avoid the subject of your size, letting you explain what’s wrong (broken toe, stomach flu, migraine) in a way that lulls you into a false sense of security that you’re actually being listened to. But then he’ll suddenly switch gears at the end of the appointment, suggesting that your malady (broken toe, stomach flu, migraine) can only really be addressed with his favorite aggressive weight-loss technique.
The other direction such office visits can go in is more to the point. As soon as this type of doctor walks in, before you have a chance to even get to the reason why you’re there (broken toe, stomach flu, migraine) a righteous fire and brimstone body size sermon is unleashed that leaves you with no doubt that you are a FOOD SINNER, and that the angel of death is in fact waiting just outside the examining room door, ready to stagger off this mortal coil with your flabby eternal soul overtaxing his bony arms. In these scenarios, tears are often shed, and the original purpose of the visit (broken toe, stomach flu, migraine) is totally forgotten in a whirlwind of born-again theatrics and promises to change.
It was in the midst of this second scenario, after my nose had ballooned into a bulbous, snot-spewing knob and my choked sobs had caused my physician to cycle from grim satisfaction, to uncomfortable silence, to cajoling parental pleas to settle down, that I was given this ultimatum. “Start going to Overeaters Anonymous meetings right now,” he said. “I don’t want to see you again until you’ve been abstinent from compulsive overeating for at least a month and have found yourself a sponsor.”
Now, I may have been a dedicated binger with no frame of reference for normal eating. But I’ve also always been a good little soldier—always eager to please. A teacher’s pet from way back, I was determined to return to this authority figure in a month’s time with a progress report that would earn me a pat on the head. So four hours later, I found myself in a downtown rehab center that opened its doors daily to the community for various 12-step meetings. Conference Room A housed Debtors Anonymous. Room B hosted a large and defeated-looking circle of Underearners, commiserating on their shared plight at 2 pm on a Thursday before all the alcoholics and cokeheads left work to take their place after 5. The food people were discreetly tucked away from the rest of the meetings down a side corridor in a dead-end hallway by the elevator bank, as if to provide the center’s homeliest sufferers with the speediest escape route possible.
Overall, my first meeting was unremarkable. The folding chairs were comically small for the few attendees like myself who really seemed to need what the program purported to provide. And the stuffy, unventilated room would have had me sweating even if I wasn’t a newcomer. But my nervousness, combined with the heat, had my bangs quickly separating into black oily chunks across my clammy forehead within minutes. The weird thing, however, was that most of the folks sitting around me didn’t feel the heat at all, since they ranged in size from average, to thin, to “OMG are you a model?” to Auschwitz. My heart slowly sank when I realized that OA was a catch-all group for everyone with weird food issues. And since this was a meeting in the middle of a weekday in New York City, the self-lacerating observations of struggling actresses, tortured dancers, and fashion industry refugees dominated the testimonials. I was intimidated. I was annoyed. I felt a surge of self-righteous snark as each beautiful starlet and sunken human clothes hanger took her turn sharing her “experience, strength, and hope.” But I stayed put.
“There’s a powerful voice inside of me that keeps saying, ‘Just get down to 110 pounds and all this pain will go away,’” shared a leggy, six-foot brunette named Jan dressed head-to-toe in Lululemon Athletica. “But I know it’s a lie,” she continued, her eyes welling up. “I can’t get down to that weight without at least a week of juice fasting. And the last time I tried that, I passed out in Acro-Yoga and then went right home and binged on Vienna sausages and sweet pickles.” A half-dozen ponytails bobbed up and down in silent identification. Someone passed Jan a box of tissues.
There’s a powerful voice inside of me that wishes you would shut the fuck up, I thought, grabbing a paper napkin out of my rumpled Jansport backpack and dragging it under the moist neckline of my T-shirt until the paper fibers curled up on themselves and disintegrated. I didn’t want to share in front of these people. So I decided to keep quiet until I had the chance to talk one-on-one with someone a little more relatable.
After the meeting, I introduced myself to a weary-looking, 40-something woman in a plaid jumper named Viv who had identified herself as someone who was able to sponsor, and who also happened to be the second-largest person in the room after me. I asked her if she could talk to me more about the program, and she sighed and hedged a little bit about not feeling well that day. But then some sense of guilt or duty or 12-step brainwashing won out inside of her so she suggested we go to a nearby Starbuck’s. I listened intently as she ordered a small, unsweetened herbal tea and quickly did the same. She told me OA had no specific food plan. Instead, members identified what foods and food behaviors were problematic for them, and then they abstained from those food behaviors, “one day at a time.” She also told me about books and workbooks they used to work the 12 Steps of Recovery outlined in Alcoholics Anonymous, the book and program that spawned all the other books and programs.
It sounded simple enough. “It’s simple, but it’s not easy,” Jan said, giving me a conspiratorial wink. I had no idea what she meant, but I thanked her for her time, took her phone number, and gave her mine so we could keep in touch. Then I looked up the local Recovery Bookstore she’d told me about on my phone’s browser, saw it would be open for another hour or so, and jumped in a cab so I could pick up “The Big Book” (Alcoholics Anonymous), The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Overeaters Anonymous, and The Twelve-Step Workbook of Overeaters Anonymous. Once that was taken care of, I hailed another cab, and while riding home, my backpack bulging with purchases (I’ve always loved that “new book smell”), I ordered a large pizza with extra cheese, pepperoni, and sausage so by the time I arrived back at my tiny studio apartment, I’d only have to wait a few minutes for the food to arrive.
Later that night, after devouring the entire pizza along with two hours of Gilmore Girls, I called Viv crying. I told her that I didn’t like what I was doing with food but I couldn’t make myself stop. In a feather-soft voice, she said it was good that I was reaching out for help and suggested that I start emailing my food to her every morning. She said I should “turn over” everything I’d eaten the day before, and then write out a healthy plan of eating for the day ahead. She also told me that I should count every day I was able to refrain from bingeing and “recreational sugar,” and that I could announce my day count at meetings. I thanked her for all of her help and support, then apologized for calling her so late. Then I thanked her again and apologized again. That’s when she said she had to go.
I woke up the next morning at 6 a.m. even though my freelance news-blogging shift didn’t start until ten. I was all set to email Viv everything I had eaten the day before, but before I hit “send,” I erased the pizza and the macaroni and cheese and the two bacon-egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwiches and the seven diet cokes and the Cool Ranch Doritos, and instead wrote: “Breakfast: Fruit salad. Lunch: Mixed greens with chickpeas, cucumber, feta, and red onion. Lite dressing on the side. Dinner: Whole wheat penne with marinara sauce and Parmesan. Snack: Kale chips.”
I knew I wasn’t technically telling the truth. But since that was what I planned to eat during the day ahead, my “Day 1,” why not retroactively let her know how much she was helping me instead of getting off on the wrong foot? I hit “send” on that email, and then walked over to Gristedes to pick up everything I had just turned over. The bill for that one day of groceries swallowed up much more money than I had been prepared to spend. And to make matters worse, when I got home, I didn’t want to cook or eat any of the stuff I’d just bought. Instead of preparing it, I filed it all away inside my fridge, then set my phone alarm for 11:45 a.m. so I could order another pizza from Nino’s as soon as they opened, and then graze on it all day while I worked.
My life dragged on this way for the next couple of weeks as my turn-overs to Viv descended deeper and deeper into fan-fiction. Full of fabricated smoothies and quinoa and grilled tofu in appropriate portions, my daily inventories were beyond reproach. Meanwhile, my refrigerator and kitchen cabinets became so overstuffed with unprepared ingredients that I soon had a phalanx of grocery bags in front of my closet to accommodate the overflow. Not that any of this stopped me from ordering takeout. In fact, I had begun to accumulate so many to-go containers that I started dividing up my trash into separate, smaller bags so I wouldn’t run the risk of seeing anybody on my way to the garbage chute while holding too much incriminating evidence.
I tried out some more meetings between blogging shifts. But aside from Viv, I was still put off by the high cheekbones and jutting clavicles of my fellow addicts, so I kept my shares brief and vague. Viv sensed I wasn’t really as “serene” as my turnovers to her suggested, so she strongly encouraged me to go home and get started on my step work. After reading the first chapter in the two-tone 12 & 12 book, “Step One: We admitted we were powerless over food — that our lives had become unmanageable,” I flipped open the maroon workbook to the corresponding chapter. Question one read: “‘In OA we are encouraged to take a good look at our compulsive eating, obesity, and the self-destructive things we have done to avoid obesity—the dieting, starving, over-exercising, or purging.’ Here is a first-step inventory of my compulsive eating history.” The essay question was followed by a whole empty workbook page full of blank lines waiting to be filled. But I knew I’d need a lot more space for that kind of assessment than what the page provided.
Feeling overwhelmed, I shut the workbook and instead opened up the blue Alcoholics Anonymous paperback and started leafing through it. I giggled at the avuncular, depression-era turns of phrase: “Though my drinking was not yet continuous, it disturbed my wife,” wrote Bill W. “We had long talks when I would still her forebodings by telling her that men of genius conceived their best projects when drunk; that the most majestic constructions of philosophic thought were so derived.” After that, I skimmed over the more boring and annoying chapters advising impatient employers and put-upon wives on how to deal with the rowdy alcoholics in their midst. But when I got to the “Personal Stories” section, I was hooked. I devoured the first-person accounts of boxcar-jumping hobos and sanitarium-bound salesmen as if they were Lifetime Original Movies and I knew I’d found a fellowship I could really immerse myself in. The fact that I wasn’t an alcoholic didn’t seem like such a big deal. If every 12-step program was just an offshoot of AA, then why not go right to the source?
At least that’s what I was prepared to tell anyone who tried to bar my admittance to the late night meeting I crashed at the Lower East Side AA clubhouse two days later. But nobody gave me any static. I just walked in, took a seat, and immediately could tell by looking around that I liked this crowd much better. Instead of snug cardigans drawn protectively over shivering anorexic shoulders, the fashions scattered around this dingy, linoleum-tiled former schoolroom tended toward elaborate hoodies, band T-shirts with cutoff sleeves, and jagged tattoos. And then when the sharing started, I was instantly transported by the dramatic tale of that night’s guest speaker—a gay man with regal faded features whose days of rent boy debauch came to an abrupt end after a horrific traffic accident.
That first time around, I kept quiet like I had over at OA and soaked it all in. But since this was AA, they had a spread with free coffee and cake afterward, so I did slow, furtive laps around the refreshment table, nibbling, refilling, and eavesdropping until a dude with stretched earlobes and an ironically preppy polo shirt came over to greet me.
Of course my mouth was full when he introduced himself, and when he stuck his hand out to shake mine, I had a paper napkin loaded up with Entenmann’s in one hand and a light and sweet coffee in the other, neither of which I was willing to relinquish. But after some awkward juggling and uncouth shirt-crumb wiping, we established that his name was Ron and it was my first time at the meeting. Ron gave me a beginner’s packet of info, along with his phone number and some words of encouragement to keep coming back. So that’s what I did.
Emboldened by my first attempt at AA infiltration, I decided to raise my hand at an afternoon meeting the next day. I was supposed to be working a shift for a celebrity gossip site, but after all, according to my doctor, this was a matter of life and death. I identified myself as an “addict” and added the caveat that I hadn’t had a drink in almost two years. (True, but not for any sobriety-related reasons. I just never acquired the taste for alcohol while single-mindedly indulging my food whims). I got teary when the room applauded my day count, and then shared that I had first come into “the rooms” when my doctor insisted that my only options were the 12-steps or death. Then I thanked everyone for letting me share.
Just like that, I was in. After the meeting, a pair of night nurses who had been nabbing their daily dose of sanity before work asked me to join them at a local diner for what they called “fellowship,” and by the time we left together, we had four other alcoholics in tow. Sitting at the head of a long, imitation-wood-grain table at the back of the Gramercy Cafe like royalty, I felt like I was finally in a cool, tough gang, and nobody could tell me shit. In fact, I didn’t even hang back and wait for other people to order first like I had on my timid OA tea date. I jumped right in as soon as the friendly-yet-frazzled waitress made her way over to us and I definitively requested a bacon cheeseburger deluxe with ranch dressing to dip the fries in and a chocolate shake. There was a brief pause as she wrote my order down, and I thought I caught of whiff of self-righteousness from the nurse on my left when she ordered a cup of minestrone soup and a small Greek salad. But when nurse #2, a bottle blonde named Sandy, flicked a long, lacquered nail in my direction and said with a deviant gleam in her eye that she’d have what I was having, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.
That first time at the Gramercy, bathed in the shifting shadows cast by the “Open 24 Hours” sign mounted above the window, it was only Sandy and I who ate publicly the way we ate privately. But I could tell by the hungry eyes tracking us that plenty more wanted to. Afterwards, she and I exchanged numbers, and when she called me while on break from her graveyard shift, I wasn’t surprised when discussion moved quickly from alcohol to food. “I don’t know what it is,” she confided. “But ever since I gave up the booze, I’ve been so hungry all the time. Like, especially for sweets.”
“It says right in the Big Book that when AA was first getting started, detoxing drunks were given lots of sugar to curb their cravings,” I told her, relishing how casually sage I sounded about a book I had just started browsing a few days before. “Most booze just turns into sugar in your body once you drink it anyway,” I advised. “So why not soothe yourself with a similar substance that’s so safe, even kids can use it?”
“I never thought of it that way,” Sandy said. Over the phone, I could hear something clicking across the backs of her teeth, like candy or a lozenge. She didn’t need me to explain to her what a relief it was to have something sweet (or salty, or both) within reach at all times. She was already there.
At my next afternoon meeting, I identified myself as someone who was able to sponsor and Sandy immediately sought me out after the meeting. I told her to get a copy of the AA 12&12, and a copy of the workbook, and said that after she had completed the writing for each step, we’d go over it. I felt a little guilty about that part, since I hadn’t done any of the step work myself, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that this girl and I were alike, and I could probably really help her. While we talked, I noticed a round, acne-scarred kid with a huge messenger bag who couldn’t have been more than a year out of high school. He was circling the meeting’s coffee and cake like a shark. “Forget that stuff,” I whispered in his ear conspiratorially. “I know a place downtown that serves half price dim sum before five. You in?”
He was, and so was Sandy, and surprisingly, so were two other women. Sandy seemed to know them, but I didn’t remember having ever seen them at a meeting before. They looked alike, like they could be sisters, only Angela was black and Erika was white. They both had closely cropped dark hair that was graying at the temples, wire-rimmed glasses that made their faces look serious and owlish, and they both wore baggy jeans and work boots. The overall impression was rumpled and nondescript, but intense, especially when magnified times two. We were all riding the 6 train downtown when Angela came right out and said it. “Sandy says eating whatever you want is keeping you guys sober, but I don’t want to get fat…. No offense.”
“None taken,” I said smoothly. I took a few extra breaths before responding further, waiting for the flush to subside from my cheeks and my heart to stop racing with the primal beat of shame. “Look at it this way,” I said. “Life is hard. It’s too hard. I used to feel bad because I felt like I was the only one who couldn’t handle everyday stuff without something to take the edge off. But then, the more I got to know people, and the more I got to observe people, the more I realized that nobody does it cold turkey. Nobody can face the dark night of the soul naked and without comfort.” Now I had their attention. “Luckily, the world is outfitted with anesthetics to suit every personality type and predisposition. We all gravitated toward alcohol, and some of us picked up some other side habits along the way too, like gambling and pills and weed and sex….” I waited to see who’d flinch, but there wasn’t a flincher in the bunch. This crew had been around.
“The way I see it,” I said, taking turns looking each of them in the eye, “abstinence is not a long-term solution. Sooner or later, we all lose our grip. So why not choose the crutch that’s the softest? The easiest? The cheapest? Why not pick the one that’s OK to do anywhere? Why not choose the one that doesn’t cause blackouts? That doesn’t make us lose the trust of our families? That doesn’t make us lose our jobs?” (On that last one I ran out of steam, thinking guiltily of the voicemails I’d been getting lately from editors regarding my whereabouts.) “If you don’t want to get fat, then exercise! Exercise until running that treadmill replaces delicious, soul-comforting food as your primary addiction. Choose what works for you. I’m just here to share what works for me. Take what you like and leave the rest.”
By that time, the train had lurched to a stop at Canal Street and we all tumbled out. Everyone else took the stairs, but I chose to wait for the elevator instead, which took a while. When the door finally opened, I was joined inside the urine-soaked compartment by a Caribbean woman shoving a double-wide stroller bursting with wriggling blond twins. She smiled and gestured at my abdomen. “When are you due?” she asked, before swooping down and wrenching a plastic dinosaur out of one of the kids’ mouths. “Any day now,” I replied, shifting my backpack to one shoulder so it hung more in front of me than behind me.
When I reached street level, I discovered that Angela had taken off. But the other three, Sandy, Owen, and Erika, were still on board, and between the four of us, we were able to consume a truly heroic amount of half-price dim sum at my favorite little spot at the end of Mott Street. Steamed buns, rice rolls, fried dumplings, spring rolls, barbecued meat, congee, it was all a salty, greasy blur. Our grins gleamed with satiety—with peace.
Over the course of the next few meetings, I noticed more and more mouths twisting into suspicious grimaces when I shared what a relief it was that my higher power had removed all desire to drink from my life. And there were even a few occasions when I wasn’t called on to speak, even though I knew my hand was clearly raised. But afterwards, when I sought out company for post-meeting fellowship, invariably my own private group grew. It wasn’t just Sandy, Owen, and Erika now who wanted a piece of the pleasure pie. Newcomers and oldtimers alike would casually swing by our gathering spot near the cake to inquire where we were planning to go that day, and would then decide if our pizza party or all-you-can-eat sushi field trip or Mexican nacho bonanza was to their liking.
During all the years I spent eating alone in my studio in the dark with the TV on and my comforter catching all the crumbs, I never realized how much I was missing out on. I had no way of knowing there would be so many like-minded people out there who would eat right alongside me without making me feel judged or dirty or gross or bad. In fact, they said I was helping them. One day at a time. I was helping them. “I want to drink so badly!” they would wail. “Easy does it,” I would coo, and offer them a bite of my Fettuccini Alfredo. “I’m desperate to find a connection to my higher power, but I just feel alone in my crazy brain!” another would lament. “Just order the chocolate peanut butter cheesecake, take a bite, and then try and tell me there is no God,” I’d reply.
When some of my sponsees began qualifying about the success they’d had staying sober with the help of ”God’s healing bounty,” a few old-timers started voicing their concerns that we were lending the AA name to an “outside enterprise.” And then when Owen in particular shared the good news that his sobriety day count was rising in relation to the numbers on his scale, that was the last straw. Ron, who had so cordially invited me to “keep coming back” when I’d first arrived, politely asked my sponsees and I to leave. Apparently, our views were confusing the newcomers and he somberly suggested that we each try to fill the “God-shaped hole” inside our hearts with something that wasn’t deep-fried.
From then on, we were on our own. A dozen strong, my followers and I returned to the Gramercy Cafe every few days and adopted its largest formica table, the one flanked by ferns hanging from elaborate macrame harnesses, as our regular home base. Sometimes my gang would have step work to share, so they would read aloud from their workbook questions dealing with issues of surrender, faith, and humility, and I would carefully take notes and respond like any good shepherd would to an ailing flock.
“What do you mean you’ve never been truly loved by anyone?” I’d ask gently. “How do you know? Most of us are so self centered, we never truly become aware of how much our higher power loves us, cares for us, and wants us to be happy.”
Other times, I would give the group culinary assignments to help them in their recovery. “Before you order your meal today,” I suggested one afternoon in an inspired moment, “I want you to imagine something that your mother once made for you to eat that made you feel especially cared for and safe. Close your eyes. Picture it in your mind. Taste it with your memory. Now open your eyes and try to find the item that most closely approximates that meal on the menu and order it. They have a pretty large selection here so it shouldn’t be too hard.” When the waitress came to take our orders that day, she seemed a little unnerved by the veil of tears that encircled the table as my fellows ordered matzoh ball soup and lasagna and pancakes and grilled cheese as if they were begging for their lives. When our food arrived that day, we didn’t dive in with our customary greedy carelessness. We reverently bit into our edible time capsules, held each morsel on our tongues, and then swallowed and swallowed and swallowed until we had never felt more full.
Looking back, I think that was the last time we all dined together as a group. After a few months of blowing off freelance assignments, I fell behind on my rent and had to move back in with my folks in Yonkers until I could round up a new batch of clients. For a while, I would take Metro North into the city once a week to meet at the Gramercy, but one by one, we lost our members back to the regular AA afternoon meeting, or to OA, or to Weight Watchers. Then one week, just before my mobility issues made it too difficult to make the trip anymore, I showed up to find just Sandy sitting alone at what was once our big, rowdy table. ”You’ve always been a really good listener,” she said carefully, spearing a chunk of sad iceberg salad with her fork in a way that can only be described as resentful. Her colleagues at the hospital had given her the fire and brimstone treatment since the last time we’d met, and without our gang to support her, the pressure had been too great. She was back on that weary hamster wheel of dieting I recognized so well, on the run from death.
“I was always so glad to have your attention, and your guidance, and your company,” she continued, giving up on the salad and putting down her fork. “I don’t think I ever properly listened to you.”
“To me?” I asked, wiping the grease from my patty melt off my hands in a sudden flinch of self-consciousness. “You listened to me,” I countered. “You always listened to everything I said. Every instruction I gave you, you followed to the letter. And I hope you don’t mind me saying, you seemed a lot more ‘happy, joyous, and free’ back then than you do now.” I gestured at the sad salad, hoping it would make her laugh and steal some of my fries. But she didn’t move. She just held my gaze steadily.
“Did you ever have a drinking problem?” she asked. Just straight out like that. As if she were asking me to pass the salt.
“No,” I answered bluntly. “But like I’ve always said, everyone picks up something to lean on. Just because my substance of choice is different than yours, it doesn’t make me any less of an addict than any of you are.”
“Nobody would ever accuse you of not being an addict,” Sandy replied sharply, and for a second, I thought she might actually hit me. But she didn’t. Instead, she reached over, stole a fry from the edge of my plate, and bailed, leaving me with the check. Luckily she had only ordered the salad.
I finished my meal and then finished all of Sandy’s sad salad, just for the heck of it. Then I hailed a cab and caught the next train home.
EMILY REMS is the Managing Editor of BUST Magazine in NY. Outside of BUST, she is also a music and film commentator for New York’s NPR affiliate WNYC. Her writing has appeared in the anthologies Cassette from my Ex and Zinester’s Guide to NYC as well as on The Awl and in Tom Tom magazine. Her short story “The Apartment” will be published by Lumen in September 2015, and my short story “Andy” will appear in PoemMemoirStory in January 2016.