by Allen Zadoff
One day in 1995, I was walking toward a McDonald’s on Eighth Street in New York’s West Village. My plan had been to buy healthy food at the grocery store and make myself a nice lunch, but the moment I stepped onto the street, like so many times before, my good intentions were tossed out the window for the siren song of fast food. I started to cry as I walked, knowing I was about to do the thing I didn’t want to do, the thing that had been hurting me all my life. Now at more than 350 pounds, this thing was getting near killing me.
Suddenly, I stopped in midstride and turned back toward Washington Square Park. I’d never walked away from a binge before, and I had no idea why I was doing it then. Maybe I wasn’t really walking away. Maybe I was going to hijack a pretzel cart. I couldn’t be sure.
Five minutes later, I found myself sitting on a bench near New York University, and there was not a pretzel in the vicinity.
It was lunchtime on a warm summer day, and the park was filled with people. Businessmen ate sandwiches from brown paper bags. A line of students bought hot dogs and sodas from a food vendor. A young, good-looking couple shared deep kisses on the grass, while a tattooed man with a pit bull watched them out of the corner of his eye. The park seemed a microcosm of the world, and even in my despair I could see the world was filled with love, joy, and human interaction. Food was a part of it, but no more than a small part.
Did I really live in the same world? The world of the park was rich, yet my own was desolate. Food had become my entire life. I felt doomed to be forever separate from those around me—hiding, eating, growing fatter. Other people lived life and celebrated it, but my sole purpose had become the accumulation of pain-filled, highly caloric days.
Sitting and watching the students go by, longing to be a part of life rather than separate from it, I was struck with an intense sense of déjà vu. I had been here before. In fact, I’d spent my life here.
At ten years old, I’d sat on a hill at summer camp, watching other kids play in the lake because I felt fat and was afraid to be seen jiggling in a bathing suit.
At fifteen, I’d sat on the bench at a school dance, watching other people dance because I thought I was too fat to dance.
At twenty, I’d skipped my college graduation because I didn’t want to be seen in public at 320 pounds— ironic, given that a graduation gown was about the only thing that would have fit me at the time. I’d stayed home instead, unplugged my phone, and spent the afternoon listening to the sounds of horns honking and music blaring as people drove to postgraduation parties all over the neighborhood.
At twenty-five, I’d walked the streets of New York with food hidden in my backpack, racing back to my apartment so I could again be in my personal Bermuda Triangle–sofa, kitchen, and bathroom.
Now at twenty-eight, I was on a bench in the park, seeing it all again—but for the first time in perspective. Nothing had changed in my life except the locations where I ate. Nothing was going to change.
I looked at my life at that moment, and I saw it was in ruins. I was an emotional basket case, my social life destroyed, my spirit all but crushed. Overeating had stolen my life, but it had happened so gradually, I’d barely noticed.
Suddenly, it all seemed clear. I’d spent my life attacking my weight problem head-on, assaulting it with willpower. I knew I had to try something different, or I would fail again. I stood up from the bench, and I did something I’d never done before: I started to look for help.
But first, I went to McDonald’s and ate lunch. Let’s face it—twenty-eight years of overeating doesn’t evaporate in a second.
I desperately wanted to lose weight, but I knew a diet plan was not the kind of help I needed. After all, I’d sought help from doctors, dietitians, and nutritionists for years, and they hadn’t been able to help me get well. Instead of jumping on the next diet, I had to find a way to heal whatever was broken inside me. Not knowing where to begin, I called my first girlfriend, Julia, and, trying to act casual but with a trembling voice, I asked if she would help me find a therapist who specialized in eating disorders. I didn’t know what an eating disorder was exactly, but I had a growing suspicion that I had one.
This was 1995, and the world was a little different. There was no talk of an obesity epidemic, no TV shows about super-sized people, no mayoral initiatives regarding healthy food. There was me, fat and seemingly alone, asking Julia for help. Asking for help for the first time.
“Of course I’ll help you,” Julia said, and in that second, it felt like 150 pounds were lifted from my body and my mind.
This was the first step in a long journey that led to my recovery from overeating.
It was only much later that I was able to look back at that moment in the park with a deep sense of awe. How could I, in the midst of a binge, still half-drunk from a breakfast Danish the size of a bedroom pillow, have had such a profound awareness about my life? What force could have overcome, even for the briefest of moments, the habits that had entrenched themselves in my life for twenty-eight years?
If you’re thinking I found God, you’re wrong. I was far too skeptical for such a belief at the time. First, I found a kind of truth I’d never known before. Food, which had been a very powerful substance in my life, had no real power over me. A bagel never jumped into my mouth. A muffin never tackled me in the grocery store, pried my jaws open, and forced itself down my throat. A pizza never called me in the middle of the night and said, “Get over here. I miss you.”
I put the food in my own mouth. The food itself had no actual power, but the disease of overeating was very powerful indeed. If I was going to get better, I needed a way to overcome this seemingly gargantuan force.
You might say that desperation made me open-minded in a way I’d never been before. I stopped battling my food problem alone, and I joined forces with others. It was the best decision I ever made.
Over time, I became open-minded about spiritual matters. I started to believe there might be a power greater than the greatest thing in my life, my hunger for food. This power, whatever it was, first led me to the park bench; then to Julia; then to my first therapist, Zimmer; and eventually to people who were like me and knew how to help me recover from a disease I didn’t even know was a disease.
A close friend says that the idea of God is too abstract for her, and in order to have a spiritual experience, she needed to find “a God with skin.” For her, God only speaks through people. It’s by opening herself to the love and ideas of others that she’s able to access a power that keeps her from hurting herself with food.
Another overeater friend has her own unique definition of God. She says that God is the three-second pause between the desire to eat and the physical act of putting food in her mouth. That pause did not exist for her when she was overeating, but she has access to it today. In those three seconds, her hand no longer goes immediately to her mouth. That’s all the evidence she needs of a higher power.
My own idea of God changes from day to day, varying from the abstract to the human, to the ridiculous, to the divine. I’ve found it really doesn’t matter what I believe. At least, a specific belief is not required in order to recover from the disease of overeating.
Some belief, however, has been necessary for me to eat normally day after day. The disease of overeating was such a powerful force in my life that I simply could not fight it on my own. My utter defeat led me to explore an area where I was previously skeptical—more than skeptical.
When I began to believe there might be a power greater than my need to overeat–whether it was a group of people, a set of ideas, a God, or love—I suddenly found the strength to eat normally. But just for Wednesday.