At the age of 37 I found myself staring into my kitchen trash can trying to sort out which piece or pieces of trash I could use to cover up two empty pints of ice cream I’d just eaten in the last half hour…
No, wait. Let’s back up. That’s the version I tell on podcasts when the host asks “when did you realize you were a sugar addict?” It’s the version describing my “ah-ha” moment without getting into what it took to arrive there.
I remember experiencing binge behaviors as far back as junior high. The problems may have started then but my first hint, my first inkling that maybe I wasn’t fully in control of my food choices came in my early twenties. Enron had just collapsed, taking the Houston economy down with it and making it difficult for me to land a “real” job out of college. Back then I spent countless hours applying for jobs on monster.com without ever hearing back from any prospective employers. Still, I got along better than most of my peers thanks to bartending on the weekends.
It was actually pretty sweet (no pun), making 40k a year just working Friday and Saturday night, sometimes pulling $1000 in tips on a busy Saturday alone. It was a gay bar, which I mention only because the next sentence makes a lot more sense when I do. I tended bar shirtless. We all did, those of us with the body for it. It increases tips… by a lot.
Never one to miss a workout at Bally’s Total Fitness, everybody in my circle considered me the picture of health. Oh, that and my fabricated expression. I was always smiling behind the bar. If I wasn’t smiling at you then I was smizing which is when you smile with just your eyes, a flirty trick I learned from my LGBT friends. All of it increased my tips.
Fit, happy, and loving it is what the world saw. What they couldn’t see was the mostly empty apartment, the toxic relationship with my girlfriend, and how I spent Sunday through Thursday sitting alone with a laptop; playing video games and scarfing ice cream between frantic internet job searches.
Back then I lived on protein shakes. Three protein shakes a day plus one large meal, call it the SlimFast diet for bro’s. I’d spend a few hours in the gym every day so I could “earn” the right to spend the rest of the day gaming or reading science fiction books while drinking protein shakes and binging on ice cream and the occasional pizza.
Ice cream soothed the constant gnawing feeling that I was wasting my potential (and my degree) bartending when I was supposed to be working my way up the corporate ladder. Though I loved bartending, every internet article told me I should be using this time to gain valuable job experience. Every month that went by was another month wasted. The stress of not having a “real job” increased day by day.
Stress is my main trigger. Eating is how I cope. Somewhere in this time I set a new personal record by eating an entire half-gallon of ice cream in one sitting. I can’t recall the date but I remember the flavor: Blue Bell Birthday Cake Ice Cream. It had tons of rainbow candy sprinkles that turned my shit purple the following day.
That was my first hint something abnormal was going on with me. I remember being weirdly in awe of myself, having finished an entire tub of ice cream, proud almost. It’s not like I’d set out to do it intentionally. It happened mindlessly while my attention was focused on the video game. One minute I’m totally engrossed in what’s happening on my computer screen, the next I’m looking at a near empty half-gallon tub with only a few spoonful’s left. My stomach was full but not painfully. So I finished the rest because I could.
My second or third time finishing off a tub of Blue Bell (cookies and cream this time) I began experiencing some shame and self-loathing. Binge eating feels masturbatory, hence the shame afterward I suppose. Also, it started messing with my self image. Remember, I was bartending shirtless every weekend and binging made me “feel” fat even though I wasn’t really putting any on yet. It’s a mystery how I managed to stay lean all those years and I wouldn’t blame anyone for hating me for it. Plenty of people would commit murder for a metabolism capable of withstanding gallons of ice cream.
The only explanation for my metabolic resilience is a combination of youth, too much time in the gym, and the diet “energy” pills I’d been eating like candy since college because they helped with my ADHD. Trust me, you couldn’t hate me more than I hated myself, especially after a binge.
Eventually the shame of eating an entire tub of ice cream was too much to bear so I started buying pints instead. The term “food addiction” was not widely in circulation at this time in America. There’s a chance I heard mention of it in a Lifetime movie, but it wouldn’t have registered as something that can happen to guys like me. Similarly, the term “eating-disorder” I only understood in the context of chicks who make themselves throw up or refuse to eat entirely. Granted my understanding of eating disorders was chauvinistic, but in my defense, how many movies are made about male eating disorders?
After an unnecessarily drawn out break-up, my girlfriend moved out and a random bodybuilder friend moved in. The bodybuilder friend didn’t pay rent, he just sort of lived on my couch which was fine because he hooked me up with free protein powder stolen from his job at a sports supplement store. My nutrition improved slightly thanks to him, but it also laid the groundwork for increased binging.
The new roommate taught me how to eat 90’s bodybuilder style; lots of chicken and rice Monday through Saturday with a “cheat day” on Sunday. Cheat day was nothing short of debauchery. It was an event, planned in advance with the same amount of relish and anticipation that goes into the planning of a bachelor party. We’d kick off the morning with endless pancakes at IHOP stopping only to pick up a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts on our way home. During football season we might also grab some wings. Then, for lunch it was either burgers and fries or Mexican food. If you weren’t bursting after lunch then there was plenty of time to squeeze in a bag of chips or a few cookies. Dinner was nearly always a large pepperoni pizza-each, capping off the night with a sensible pint of ice cream.
There were no physical consequences to this diet, but psychologically… Medical professionals don’t get concerned about a patient having suicidal thoughts until the patient accompanies those thoughts with a plan to follow. I would say the same goes for binge eating. If you have a plan, then it’s probably getting serious.
Eating this way wasn’t turning me into John Cena, but I did manage to stay lean and muscular which is all that mattered for my job at the bar. Customers complimented my appearance asking me for diet and training advice. I even landed a few modeling jobs that didn’t pay much but did wonders for my ego.
“Oh I wish I had the discipline to get a body like yours” customers would say to me.
In reality, I was white-knuckling my addiction for six days followed by a ridiculous food orgy at the end of the week. And they called me “disciplined” for it. Back then I mistook what I was doing for discipline too.
Eventually I did land a corporate job thinking it would make me feel like the adult I was meant to be. It was more work for slightly less pay than bartending and I hated every second of it.
The corporate gig was in medical technology, supervising four people who’s job it was to call insurance companies all day long. One of my responsibilities included reading ambulance reports to catch errors before the claim was denied by Aetna or United Healthcare. Nine out of ten reports involved some morbidly obese patient being transported for dialysis. It did not make for fascinating reading.
My first month working on the corporate side of medicine had me wondering just how many people in the Houston area were too fat to get around on their own. By the second month I knew they numbered in the tens of thousands. This only served to reinforce the idea that my relationship with food was normal, it was those other people, the ones in the reports who had a problem.
Not yet ready to give up bartending, I committed to working both jobs, thus transforming myself into a dual income family of one. Now I was just working constantly. Nine to five, Monday through Friday at my corporate job in addition to Friday and Saturday nights at the bar. This actually made it easier to eat like a normal human being for awhile. Sunday’s were still a big cheat day, but by the end of the week I was too tired to put any effort into it. Having doubled my income overnight, I upgraded my lifestyle accordingly. A fancy new apartment, a brand new SUV, I even splurged on a trip to Disney World with my daughter. My expenses slowly crept up until one day I found myself working two jobs out of necessity rather than by choice.
Having been a father since the age of nineteen to one perfect baby girl, I was used to stressing about things above my maturity level, but the financial stress of working two jobs and barely making ends meet was something I was unaccustomed to entirely. It’s like being handcuffed to a treadmill going faster than you can keep up with. Before long it became impossible to save money. Every time I had anything left over at the end of the month some expensive problem would crop up; like a flat tire or a rent increase.
The stress induced eating expanded. Sunday was still the big cheat day, but pints of ice cream or whole packages of Oreo’s became a thrice-weekly occurrence. I finally started to get love handles which killed my self-esteem and the enjoyment I derived from bartending. It’s tough getting through a shirtless eight hour shift when you feel dysphoric about your body. Panic set in, that’s the only way to describe it. Bartending was the only fun I had left because I absolutely hated office work and free time was nonexistent. My response was to get really strict about food, going back to the 90’s style bodybuilder diet since that was my understanding of nutrition at the time.
There is no greater motivation than having to face a crowd with your shirt off every weekend. After a few weeks, the excess fat came off (thank you twenty-something metabolism) and I kept to the diet for as long as I could until stress overwhelmed me. The foods that get me into trouble, the “only on my cheat day” foods, would again start making appearances on other days of the week. The weight would come back, I would go into panic mode once again, lose the weight, and repeat the cycle. Thus began a decade of yo-yoing.
At 28, the love of my life walked into my bar. Most people, myself included, stop believing in love at first sight around the same time they stop believing beer pong is an acceptable hobby, but it happened to me anyway one Saturday night in Houston’s wicked Montrose district. I told my fellow bartenders I’d met the woman I was going to marry that night. We spent the next three years falling in love.
The great thing about falling with someone in Houston Texas is you get to do so in the vicinity of the world’s most amazing Mexican food restaurants. Fajitas and margaritas were a frequent ritual of our relationship. We both put on weight but were too crazy about each other to notice. After our engagement we agreed the weight had to come off. Neither one of us could bear the idea of looking chubby in our wedding photos. Through acute dedication to fitness and a touch of starvation we managed to get lean in time for our nuptials.
At 31 I discovered CrossFit. It changed my eating habits forever. Not because of CrossFit itself, simply because in 2009 the Paleo diet was as much in fashion with the CrossFit community as Lululemon and those godforsaken toe-shoes. Robb Wolf’s Paleo Solution Podcast became my new obsession. By then, I was working in outside medical sales which meant spending hours in my car passively listening to Robb Wolf and his co-host Gregg Everett. From there I began devouring books on nutrition from the people on his show; Dr Robert Lustig, Melissa Urban, Dr. Michael Eades, Mark Sisson, Gary Taubes and several others in the “real food” movement.
Prioritizing nutrient dense, unprocessed food became more important than restricting calories. This worked out way better than my old way of thinking about nutrition. With the addition of high intensity exercise, staying lean was as effortless as it had been in my twenties. I developed a conceit around the quality of my food choices. In place of Blue Bell, I switched over to Haggen Das because it only has 5 ingredients compared to Blue Bell’s 40.
One day at Whole Foods I discover a new, organic brand of ice cream called Jenny’s. My anticipation builds as I watch two lonely pints of it move down the conveyor belt to the cash register. The clerk and I are both startled when she rings them up; $22 plus tax.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how expensive these are” she said, ringing them up again just to be sure it wasn’t a mistake. “Did you want to put one back?”
Looking at her like she’s crazy I reply, “No thanks, I need to explore what $11 a pint ice cream tastes like.”
My cheats were better, pricier but I was still stress eating multiple times a week. By 33 I’m coaching CrossFit classes and giving nutrition seminars at our gym. Members looked up to me as the “nutrition guru” even though I was binge eating organic cookies a couple times a month. As a CrossFit/nutrition coach, everyone believed I had my shit together, I thought I did too. The quality of my cheats had improved, what hadn’t was my ability to say no.
Another thing that hadn’t changed were my reason’s for binge eating. For the first time I began to notice the voices in my head, the one’s saying things like “you deserve this” or “it’s been a really long day, kick back with a pint of Jenny’s on the couch.” It eventually dawned on me that that voice isn’t me, even though it sounds just like me. I was still a few years away from understanding the difference between feeding my body and feeding that voice.
My wife handles the finances in our relationship. She’s just better at stuff like that. I can go weeks without checking our bank account, she looks at it every day. Half the time I get a fraud alert from our bank she’s already caught it and ordered new debit cards. The downside is her seeing every purchase I make in real time. She would tease me when she saw from our online banking portal that I’d visited the fast food drive thru. “I see you had Whataburger today!” she’d say with a smirk. To her it was harmless ribbing, but to me it felt like the time my mom found an adult magazine hidden under my mattress.
I started hiding the evidence of my binges from my wife and daughter out of shame even though neither one of them suspected I had a problem. The dilemma with having this addiction minus the common side-effect of obesity is that even the people closest to you won’t worry about how you eat so long as you look healthy. If I didn’t get fat no one would ever care what I ate. Shame was the only thing compelling me to hide the evidence of my disease.
So I found myself staring into my kitchen trash can, attempting to conceal two empty pints of ice cream by covering them with other items of trash from the bin…
It sounds like we’ve come full circle but we haven’t, not just yet.
I hid discarded food packaging at the bottom of the trash to avoid embarrassment for years, never questioning why I was doing it. If the trash was empty, I’d wad up paper towels to cover my tracks, like I spontaneously decided to clean the kitchen counters after wolfing down 36 Oreo’s. The voices demanding pizza and ice cream were as strong as ever. But another, quieter voice in my head began to whisper, “This isn’t normal.”
The new voice gnawed at the back of my mind for a long time. It spoke up after every binge. I did my best to ignore it.
“This isn’t normal.”
At the age of 37 I found myself staring into my kitchen trash can…
Let’s say it differently: With a kid in college and a mortgage, a grown man in every sense of the word, I was pulling trash out of my own trash can and using it to cover up my inability to maintain a healthy relationship with food.
“This isn’t normal.”
The other, louder voices tried to drown it out but finally the message broke through.
“This isn’t normal.”
You’re damn right it isn’t.
How come it took me so long to acknowledge this voice? My voice. The one whispering “you’re far too loved to do this to yourself anymore,” now speaking at full volume. When did I lose my ability to hear it?
Right then I started to reflect on my behavior, asking “why” instead of just shrugging things off and telling myself I’d get back on track Monday. Why am I, the nutrition nut, the CrossFit coach, the guy who everybody comes to for advice on how to eat; why am I struggling so hard to maintain a proper diet? Why is it still so hard after years of “discipline” and practice? Why does it feel like this constant struggle to eat healthy is more about feelings than it is about food?
Absolutely fed up, I sat down with my laptop and wrote a blog post attempting to answer those questions.
I titled it “The Sugar Demons.”