For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with food. I have vivid memories of stuffing myself with candy and cookies and treats at family gatherings to the point where I would become sick at the age of 5 or 6. I remember as a teenager tiptoeing into the kitchen to “sneak” food from the pantry, not because I was a growing adolescent who was hungry, but because I couldn’t stop thinking about the “goodies” that were stored there.
I doubt I know what “normal” thoughts of food are like. I certainly have no concept of what it is like to “forget” to eat. I have no concept of what it is like to suffer “appetite loss” from emotional turmoil or stress. In fact, the only time I can ever remember not wanting to eat is if I genuinely feel ill from a flu bug or an upset stomach. Even then, I still think about food.
Thoughts about food are hardly ever absent as I go about my day to day life. Sometimes I can ignore them—for a time. I can skip a meal without freaking out, for example. I can even skip a day of eating if I am really determined. But even while abstaining from food, I’m still thinking about it.
When I was growing up, I had a huge amount of self- discipline. In school, while other kids were passing notes and gossiping in between lectures or classes, I would be shutting out what was going on around me to focus on getting my homework done. I knew that if I buckled down during the school day, I would have the whole time between school dismissal and bedtime to do whatever I felt like doing. I was willing to “sacrifice” social time with friends and classmates during the day to reap the “reward” of having no homework in the evening. And I graduated high school with a 3.9 GPA.
I joined the National Guard when I was 19 in order to pay my way through college. 6 weeks into the 10-week basic training, I did something to my foot which caused incredible pain every time I put any weigh on it. Rather than be pulled out of basic training to heal, I told my Drill Sergeants that my foot was fine, and did the best I could to complete all that was required of me. Those requirements included running two miles in under approximately 20 minutes (I made it in 17) and a final march of over 20 miles on about 4 hours’ worth of sleep. My foot was x-rayed as soon as my final march was over and turned out to be broken. The self-discipline I’d had to wield to complete basic training in the amount of pain I was in was astounding when I look back on it now. How did I ever manage to do that?
So, self-discipline isn’t the problem. I have self-discipline in spades. The problem is that for the past ten or so years of my life, my constant thoughts and craving for food has pushed self-discipline into the back seat.
I have willfully chosen to ignore self-discipline. I knew how important self-discipline was to being successful and to maintaining a healthy weight. But somewhere along the way I stopped caring about both of those things.
I am an Iraq War veteran and my obsession with food followed me over to the sandbox. I remember being told that each of us could pack one trunk with any “luxury” items we wanted to bring with us. While my fellow soldiers were filling their trunks with things like extra toothpaste, shampoo, games, flashlights, pillows, etc. I went to Walmart and bought myself a hotplate. And a small kettle. And as many raman noodles that I could fit into that thing. We were going to war and who knows when we would see things like deodorant again? But that wasn’t my concern. My concern is that I might not have yummy food to eat.
While I was over there, my family and some friends were gracious enough to send me care packages. Most of them contained junk food that we couldn’t get over there. Did I volunteer to share any of that food with my fellow soldiers? Yeah right. I horded it like a squirrel hordes acorns.
My time in Iraq wasn’t exactly the best “vacation” I’ve ever been on, and when I got home, it was like that self-discipline switch just shut off. I partied like a rockstar. I skipped so many days of my college classes that I had to eventually drop out. I just didn’t view or care about my life the way I had before. Iraq changed me in some really fundamental ways. I’d experienced my first broken heart, literally on the eve of me leaving the country when the guy I thought I loved dumped me over the phone as I called to tell him good bye. I had an extremely high-stress job while I was over there, operating a fuel truck on countless convoys on IED riddled roads. I experienced a certain culture shock when I saw how others’ values and morals differed greatly from those that I’d been raised with. I’d learned to accept imminent death.
Many, many nights while I was over there I would wake up to the sound of mortar rounds landing within the walls of our base. It was always hard to tell how near or far those mortars were. The first time we experienced this, we were told to get on all of our gear and get down onto the ground. But we were sleeping in soft-shelled tents. One of our leaders pointed out that if a mortar were to fall on us, it would be like a rocket falling through an umbrella. There’d be no stopping it, and being on the floor wouldn’t help us at that point. So after that first night, when the mortars fell, all we could do was lay there, wide awake, and praying that one wouldn’t hit us directly. I can’t even explain what an awful, helpless feeling that was. I would have rather been shot at because at least then I would be able to take action. I could fire back at someone shooting at me. But I was completely helpless and vulnerable with these mortar attacks.
One attack I survived was at the infamous Abu Grahib prison. A fellow platoon member and I were trying to get back to the rest of our company while this attack was going on, and a shell landed extremely close to us. Since it was dark, the exact distance between us and the shell was hard to determine, but I would approximate maybe 50 feet. Once we made it back to the rest of our company we experienced more shelling—some of the closest I had ever encountered. I was sure I was going to die that night. It was an extremely creepy feeling to feel like I was staring death in the face like that.
People ask me how a person functions when they are scared like that. The answer is simple. Eventually you stop feeling scared. Deep down, the fear is always there, but you stop feeling it. You accept that you have no control over what happens to you, that you can’t change the outcome no matter how much you want to, and you just stop worrying about it. That, too, is a really creepy feeling. It’s something that’s difficult to explain to a civilian who has never experienced it.
Self-discipline and control go hand in hand. In actively deciding to accept that I had no control over what happened to me in Iraq, I feel like I also flipped the switch in turning off self-discipline and personal responsibility. That was fine for me while I was over there. I didn’t need to exercise large amounts of self-discipline or personal responsibility because there was nothing to do over there, no decisions I needed to make, no personal goals to accomplish, and nothing that I had to be responsible for.
After my yearlong tour in Iraq, I came back to the real world, and to be honest, I had a lot of trouble coping. Even though I had re-entered an environment where I was back in control of my life and its outcome, I had trouble flipping the switch for self-discipline and personal responsibility back on. To be honest, it’s still faulty. My year spent with it off seemed to have corroded it or something. I was able to function somewhat. Yeah I partied. I drank—a lot. I flunked out of school. I alienated friends. I got fired from a job for not showing up often enough to work. I dated guys who I knew were bad news for me. But I also managed to pay my bills. I maintained good credit. I got a different job that I was able to keep. I didn’t mess with drugs or get pregnant.
So the control/self-discipline/personal responsibility switch WAS working…but not all the way. It’s like it was halfway flipped on. I could do the things I felt I REALLY needed to do to survive—but the rest, anything that could be viewed as even “remotely optional” was out of the question. And along with that, that ever-present thought of food became overwhelming. Food helped me cope, emotionally, to some extent, and I stopped caring if I was eating healthy and gaining weight.
When you’re fat, you’re invisible. People don’t look at you the same way. You don’t have to risk getting your heart broken by a guy because none of the ones you want to date want to ask you out. People automatically have lower expectations of you from the get-go. After all, you can’t be a very successful, productive member of society if you are seriously fat, right?
I shed a few tears as I gained weight, sure, but I also liked the anonymity of it too. People’s expectations went down. I no longer had to worry about the guys I was interested in being interested in me—I knew they wouldn’t be. I could eat the whole carton of Ben & Jerry’s or scarf a whole Pizza in one sitting. Who would expect anything different from the Fat Girl? Besides, people weren’t really looking anyway. When their eyes would land on me, they’d quickly glance away. Nothing to see here. And I stopped meeting their gazes anyway—around the same time I stopped looking in the mirror. (Stay tuned for more on my story and check out my trainer’s blog.)