Binge Eating Was My First High
What lengths would I go to feed my hungry heart?
The one-liter glass wine carafes in the bottom of my mother’s closet taunted me. Filled with change from her bartending tips, each one was dedicated to a particular coin. Quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies were all encased in glass. In a row. In order. My mother was nothing if not tidy. Painfully tidy. Everything in the house was always neat and organized. Everything, that is, except me. I was the soup can turned sideways on a shelf of properly faced canned items. The sore thumb. The odd duck.
I wasn’t a latchkey kid, but I was latchkey adjacent. My mom would be there when I got home from school. About an hour later, she’d leave for work. I’d make my dinner, do my homework, watch TV, or read, and then go to bed or, once I was about 14, I’d go out and get into whatever trouble I could find. I was bored, mostly ignored, and often angry.
By the time I was ten, my clothes no longer fit me. Being the fat kid left me open to ridicule, practical jokes, and physical bullying. I occasionally hid in my room and cried, as tears weren’t acceptable in my house unless you were physically sick or injured. I sought solace in the depths of fiction. I voraciously read fantastic stories about strong and fit heroes, magical warriors, and noble scholars. These stories let me, for a few hours, be someone other the fat kid. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling as my mother sighed in disappointment when I came out of the children’s dressing room of a local department store, handed her all the clothes she’d had me try on, and said, “Nothing fits.”
Within two weeks I was dressed in a paper gown, uncomfortably perched on an exam table in a cold room at a children’s hospital. I don’t remember a word spoken between my mother and the doctor. Looking back, I draw a blank and wonder what was said about me. All I know is I came home to a 1,200 calorie a day diet.
For almost two years, my life was filled exclusively with dinners of skinless chicken breasts that had been boiled, broiled, or grilled, iceberg lettuce salads with fat-free dressing, and vanilla ice milk for dessert. Have you ever tasted vanilla ice milk, a lowfat frozen dessert that’s like when ice cream gets freezer burn, but worse? It tastes like sadness.
Raw carrots, turkey sandwiches and, for a treat, six vanilla wafers comprised most of my school lunches. Breakfast was bland cold cereal with artificial sweetener and skim milk. The food was uninspiring, and I was continually hungry. The grumble in my stomach was an audible counterpoint to my growing anxiety about food. Everything I ate was measured, and every calorie was counted. We had a special scale to weigh certain food items and a food diary to track every bland morsel that passed my lips. I started to dream of delicious foods I wasn’t allowed to consume. At that time in my life, this deprivation felt like torture.
My mother was on a perpetual diet, constantly complaining about being fat, although she was quite thin. She seemed to exist on diet soda, coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. She was my first example of a disordered eater. My mom couldn’t understand what I was going through. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure myself. I never brought up how I felt. I know I desperately wanted to be accepted and loved by her, but being thin seemed to be the only way I would be deemed acceptable in her eyes. I was deeply lonely. My few friends couldn’t relate to what I was going through and the other adults in my life thought my shrinking body was worth any cost. Being skinny was valuable, at any price.
I paid that price. At 12, I was taken off the diet as I was now considered too thin. Skinny. Hungry. Tired. Hurting. This was how seventh grade began. Junior high can be a hellscape for a lot of kids. For me? It became a love/hate experience. Since I was no longer on the diet, my mom began giving me money for lunch, admonishing me to make good choices. Ha! That was funny. I hadn’t been taught anything about good nutrition. I was simply expected to fall in line and be obedient so I could have a body that wouldn’t embarrass my mother. How could she possibly have a fat girl child?
I was deprived of much more than just food, though. My older sister left home when I was ten and my mom and stepdad divorced when I was thirteen. I rarely saw either of them. It was just me and mom and she was seldom home. I made the most of this sliver of financial and edible freedom. When I went to buy my lunch in the cafeteria, I excitedly chose from a bevy of bakery snack cakes, soda, chips, and candy. I indulged. Daily. My lunch money was spent on Ding-Dongs, Zingers, Pepsi, Doritos, and Snickers bars. I quickly learned to binge. The surfeit of sugar was my first high, filling me with manic energy and a reckless attitude. I felt full for the first time in what felt like a very long time. I finally understood what being satisfied meant, maybe even loved. I’m not saying it’s logical, I’m just saying it’s how I felt. Soon my sugar-laden lunches weren’t enough. I wanted more. However, more meant more money. Extra cash was something I didn’t have.
Enter mom’s wine carafes. It took several weeks for me to work up the courage to go into her closet and steal some of her tips. I started small. I took six quarters, ten dimes, and ten nickels. I didn’t bother with the pennies. Two hours after my mom left to work at the bar, I left our apartment and walked down the block to our corner convenience store. I’d nervously walk the few aisles, worried I’d somehow get caught.
Snack selections were made with considerable care. One can of soda. One candy bar. One small bag of chips. I’d carefully take them home, acting like I was carrying contraband. In a way, I was. Once home, I’d turn on the TV, set the snacks on the coffee table, and settle on the couch to consume all of it as quickly as possible.
During these food binges, I was awash with competing sensations. Pleasure and shame. Contentment and anger. My feelings confused me at first, but within a month’s time, I simply stuffed all my feelings down with every bite I took. Snacks create trash and the detritus of my thievery was never tossed in our home’s garbage can. The risk was too great that my mom would see it, question me, and my disordered eating that had quickly morphed into an eating disorder would be discovered. Instead, I walked the trash across the parking lot to the dumpster, wrappers buried deep in my pockets and the Pepsi can crushed tight in my fist. I made certain no one was looking as I threw the proof of my twin crimes away.
From that point on, my binge eating escalated. I felt like a tornado, wildly out of control and unpredictable. I grew bolder in my stealing. I would take more money. Not enough to be obvious, but I’m still surprised she never noticed—just like she rarely noticed me.
Being thin didn’t make her appreciate me more, as I’d hoped. I was left, for the most part, to my own devices. My behavior grew reckless in other areas of my life. I stopped caring about getting good grades, and they began to slip, resulting in my first D. As time went on, I started skipping school, and I failed as many classes as I passed. I started getting in trouble, serious trouble, for the first time in my life. I was caught shoplifting at our local mall. My mom didn't come and get me from the mall's holding cell. Her best friend did. Mom picked me up from her friend's house in the middle of the night, after she got off work. I was grounded from going to the mall for six months. I found I could capture my mother’s attention for brief moments by acting out. I did anything to be noticed. She never really did, though, not in any meaningful way. Once, I gave myself a mohawk. Her response was "That better grow out, and it better grow out fast." She wouldn't take me anywhere and it was clear she was embarrassed of me. Again.
I never told my mother what I had done. I never expressed how I felt, or the effects it had on me, even decades later. Now that she’s dead, I never will.
Kelly Varner is a self-professed “word nerd.” She’s a creative writer who is equally at home writing about mythical beings, space jockeys, or deeply personal facets of her life. She resides in San Diego, CA with her spouse, a clowder of cats, an ever-expanding library, boxes of photographs, and a bevy of hats for every occasion. You can find Kelly on Twitter @VarnerPhotos, Instagram @kellyavarnerauthor and @varnerphotos as well as at kellyvarner.substack.com
Open Secrets is a reader-supported publication for memorable, revealing personal essays. To receive new posts, support our work, and help us continue to publish, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.