I hear the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.
So… here goes.
My name is Tina Francis and I am a compulsive eater.
My Facebook relationship status should read, “In a complicated relationship with Food.”
When I was younger, my parents rarely left my sister and I alone.
When they did, we would wait for the door to click and shoot each other knowing smiles, waiting in silence for the appropriate amount of time it would take them to go down two flights of stairs, get into the car and drive off. Then we’d scamper around our little apartment finding subtle ways to vandalize our home.
One time we poured a vial of Malibu Rum into my mother’s potted plant. Another time, we broke into her secret stash of stationary, and I managed to staple my finger while trying to refill the pins.
The most scandalizing thing we ever found was a box of condoms in a filing cabinet. Ew ew ew. Wasn’t that supposed to be in a bag, in a box, in a metal safe guarded by Venus flytraps?
My sister and I would eventually part ways and continue exploring on our own. She would snoop through my mother’s dresser. And I would stand in front of the fridge.
I would play with the temperature knobs, turning them from “medium” to “cold” as my eyes scanned the contents. A tub of margarine, strawberry jam, water bottles, fresh produce: all there for the taking. I’d eventually stick my fingers in the boxes of leftover food and fish out a piece of chicken. Then I’d move on to the kitchen cabinets, hunting for hidden chocolate, eating my way through the kitchen as I searched for it.
The fridge became this magic portal I stood in front of every time I had a moment of freedom and wanted to DO SOMETHING with it.
I just didn’t know what “it” was.
I wish my fridge-gazing days were behind me. But they’re not.
Food has been my drug of choice for as long as I can remember. I savor food; but if left alone, I annihilate it. On good days, I groan over a scrumptious apple in ways that would make Pope Francis blush. But on bad days, I single-handedly consume Argentina’s annual quota of grain and sugar.
Two years ago, I realized this was a sickness I needed to deal with. I read books, attended workshops, and spent time reflecting on my hungers. I realized insatiable hunger could be a good thing if I fed “true” hungers instead of false ones.
If I found myself craving a bowl of cereal immediately after a huge dinner, I’d stop to ask myself, “What are you really hungry for, Tina? Is it connection? Rest? Intimacy? Purpose?”
“Do you need a hug? A shower? A phone call to a friend? Do you just need to go to bed?”
Sometimes it really was about food; but often it was something more.
I began to understand this when my days ended with conversations with my then-boyfriend, Kupa. I’d come home from an 8-hour work day, from a job I didn’t enjoy, via a 90-minute commute in the pouring rain. I’d walk through my front door hangry (hungry + angry) and no amount of food in the pantry could satisfy me.
When Kupa came along, I stopped internalizing these frustrations. I called him to recount the details of my day. I found I no longer needed to watch sitcoms and eat myself into a food coma.
I realized “being heard” was my deeper, truer hunger. A meaningful conversation and a single serving of dinner was all I needed to feel satisfied. Once I recognized this, I stopped numbing my fears and frustrations with high-fructose corn syrup.
I felt like Ben Affleck at the Oscars. I’d washed out the bitter aftertaste of Gigli. I’d matured. I’d self-actualized. I was “winning” at life.
But then a couple of weeks I ago, I ate 6 cheese buns. (And my entire pantry.) #rockbottom
I had just returned from a three-week trip to Uganda, Burundi and Moldova with fellow writers and editors at SheLoves Magazine. I had seen, heard and felt so much. I struggled to find the words I needed to articulate what I’d experienced to my husband.
After Kupa picked me up from the airport, we lay on our couch, like lovesick sardines in a silent full-body embrace. I spoke about my trip cautiously, one bite-size memory at a time. It felt like I need to empty myself to let Kupa in, like pouring out a little coffee to make space for cream.
The next morning, Kupa left for work. The door clicked behind him and I had a sneaking suspicion I wasn’t alone.
“Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again…”
The Voice, which had beckoned me through childhood boredom, high school crushes and adult break-ups, beckoned me to stand in front of the fridge again.
I did everything I could to ignore it. I played music on my computer. I made the bed. Perfectly. I took a shower, washed my hair, did three loads of laundry. I SOMEHOW made it through to the moment Kupa walked back in the door and all was well with the world again.
I got through Tuesday.
I got through Wednesday.
But then Thursday came and…
… The Voice won.
Kupa left. The door clicked behind him. I stood in front of the eerie, familiar chill of the fridge.
I pulled out a bag of frozen cheese buns. I set the oven temperature to 250°. I put two buns on a baking tray and waited for them to heat up. While they did, I made it through the previous night’s leftovers, an apple, and some yoghurt.
I pulled the buns out of the oven and tried to savour them. I even pulled out a knife and fork to pace myself.
Midway through the first bun, however, I got up and put two more in the oven.
I finished the first two buns. I stuck some popcorn in the microwave and pulled out a jar of peanut butter, putting a spoonful in my mouth as I waited for the popcorn and new buns to be ready.
I heard the timer ding.
The Voice said, “More.” And I gave in, ploughing through piles of food in a zombied state.
“What am I going to tell Kupa?” I asked myself. “Maybe I should finish the last two buns, drive to Safeway and replace the bag so he doesn’t know what I’ve done.”
Woah. Now I was considering lying to my husband. This couldn’t be a good sign.
I was Jim Carrey in The Mask. A green-faced, totally out of control, havoc-wreaking maniac.
“You know the problem with going on these trips?” I blurted out at my small group, later that evening.
The other women looked up at me.
“Your life is EXACTLY how you left it!”
“I ate 6 huge cheese buns today!” I said, my voice cracking. “I thought I’d made all this progress with food. Turns out I’m still a hot mess when I’m left alone.”
I told them about feeling out of control, eating until I was sick and how I’d considered lying to Kupa about it. I explained how I felt ravenous, famished, and starved; and yet, nauseous, stuffed, and sick.
They nodded in silence. Then one girl spoke up.
“I think sleep might be my cheese buns….”
Another piped up, “I think TV is my cheese bun…”
“I think this game on my iPhone is my cheese bun…”
I smiled weakly.
The next important step was telling Kupa the truth.
I recounted every sordid detail of the last couple of days. I talked about the history of my compulsive eating, how I’d been doing better but felt as though I was back at square one.
“What should we do?” he asked, his voice broken and emotional.
“I need help.” I said. “A counselor, maybe? I’m tired of going around this mountain again and again. I’m sorry. I know it might be expensive … ”
No sooner had the word “expensive” come out of my mouth and Kupa was on his knees, tears streaming down his face as he cupped my own.
“Baby… You. Are. My. World. I’d eat rice and beans every single day if it means we get you the help you need. I love you!”
It is a humbling thing to be loved in light of so much brokenness.
In her book, “Women, Food and God” Geneen Roth says that compulsive eating is a refusal to be fully alive.
She calls it “anorexia of the soul.”
She’s right. I am afraid to be fully alive.
As a photographer, it is my job to capture fully alive moments. I witness so much goodness, beauty, grace and redemption. But sometimes I fear that my heart will be crushed if I allow myself to feel their full force.
The names, faces and stories from my trip swirl around my head like a merry-go-round playing a haunting refrain. “What now…? What now?”
I don’t have the answers, but I know the only chance I have of being fully alive is to be honest–because I am only as sick as my secrets.
I love taking photographs of moms who are smitten with their baby girls.
I always notice their hands: steady and reassuring, always ready to support, encourage, embrace, and protect.
I love the look in their eyes. It’s a look which communicates how this child will be loved no matter what happens. She will be loved if she falls into unhealthy patterns, if she bends the truth, and when she lies to her loved ones. She will be loved when she goes out into the world, and encounters so much pain and so much hope, and doesn’t know what to do about any of it.
Heck, she’ll even be loved in moments of weakness, when she stuffs her face with packets full of cheese buns.
I sometimes forget that God looks at me this way too. God loves hopelessly flawed, ridiculously flaky, consistently inconsistent ol’ me.
Because of this love, I know I’m gonna beat that fridge someday.