Standing on Pearl Street in downtown Boulder, Colorado. It is 7pm, the shops are closing. I am here with a purpose. I choose an Italian restaurant for my experiment. There are a few people inside, it is cozy and warm – yes, this will work for what I am here to do. I examine the menu and find some things that I think I could persuade the committee of voices in my head to accept – one voice is vegetarian and cannot stand the thought of eating flesh, another voice is hungry all the time, one loves fried food, one thinks that all bread is terrible for him and that we should just mostly drink green juices, and one is only happy when devouring a good burger and fries.
I am here to find and face the Hunger Monster.
I have shared this body with Hunger Monster for a very long time. I can remember back to age 10 or so and Hunger Monster would take over this body. I remember being scared of it, hiding alone in shame after it had come and done its thing, and then it left me, alone to deal with the consequences. Leaving me alone with the memories of the actions it had done in my name. I’m 47 now, so that makes almost four decades of sharing space with Hunger Monster. I never see its face, and I never quite know when it will arrive, it comes unannounced. So ultimately powerful, it relentlessly takes over this body as its rightful property. It is not a negotiation. I’ve tried that many times, but it has no interest in dialogue. Why would it, it has all the power. I have learned to recognize the signs of its impending arrival, and I watch in a frenzied but powerless terror as these mount up. Like guerrilla warfare revolutionaries I have tried all sorts of tactics against this more powerful occupying force, mostly in vain.
It certainly comes less now than it used to, and with a lot of training I have developed a good amount of awareness of my mind’s inner workings, yet when it comes, my skills are no match for it. But in the spirit of a warrior going out and putting my head in the mouth of the dragon, I have decided to purposefully see if I can call it into being, so that I can know it more. See how far or near it is to the surface. See in some way how animal am I, how thick is my veneer of civilized humanity. See whether it still rules the roost in my older, deeper lizard brain.
While picking the restaurant, standing outside in the cool Boulder air, I begin. I scanned the menu to see if there would there be enough for me to eat. What could I find that was within parameters, and then would there be enough of that. Would it be a full size or starter. I spent several minutes planning how many dishes I could possibly order without exceeding cultural boundaries. If I ordered three what would they think. Could I get away with that or would I have to make do with just the more socially acceptable two.
I’m seated by the host at a table for one. Next to me two women sit, enjoying a meal together. I imagine they are good friends, having a catch up dinner after a shopping session together in the beautiful outdoor mall of Pearl Street outside the restaurant doors, based on the pile of shopping bags next to them.
I remember, I am here with a purpose. I turn my attention to the menu. The waitress brings a basket with two pieces of bread inside. Immediately I hear the thought – not enough. Don’t they know I need more. What am I going to do. When am I going to ask for more – now or later. The waitress probably brought me two because I’m so fat she doesn’t think I should eat. But on the other hand I remember reading one of my favorite authors, Geneen Roth, and she says its ok for fat people to eat. Is it though? This is a question that does not have an obvious answer. The dissent amongst the round table of voices inside me indicates that there are deep difficulties embedded in that question that need to be considered before saying yes or no.
And so it begins, this relentless inner dialogue.
Avocado bruschetta comes. Immediate reaction – the serving size is way too big. The waitress clearly thinks I’m enormous. She probably told the kitchen staff to put extra food on the plate for the fat guy.
The observant reader may notice immediately the obvious incongruence between these two thoughts that immediately followed each other. The waitress brought me less food because I’m fat, and the waitress brought me too much food because I’m fat. I also noticed this at the time, and a little smile escapes. I have learned to not identify with my thoughts so much any more, and so I can watch them swirl without going down the drain with them. Yet.
I drop a piece of food by mistake as I’m eating. The immediate thought – the waitress now thinks I’m so fat I can’t eat food properly, and I am a total slob and disgusting.
I see that there is a salad that came with the avocado toast – I think: they’re going to think I’m fat if I leave it, the fat guy clearly is fat because he doesn’t eat salad. Next thought – if I eat it they will think I’m eating it just because I think they want me to. Next thought, if I eat it they will think oh my god he even ate the salad, that was a huge serving, he cleaned the plate, no wonder he’s fat.
Completely contradictory thoughts one after the other, all presented as facts.
It seems too complicated to eat the salad, I leave it.
I don’t fit at the table properly, I have to move it out a little. They think I look awful. The fleece I’m wearing because it was cold outside is huge. I look huge.
Then in between the courses, I want to ask for more bread. Again, I play out asking for that, and what they will say. If she says no I will be mortified. I remember on the very first flight I took on my own as a young adult in business class, the air hostess on Aer Lingus said no I couldn’t have a second piece of bread. Wait till everyone else has had one, she said. I cowered back in shame and dared not look at her for the remainder of the flight.
But the bread is so good. I want more. More and more. I could eat three loaves.
I look over at the table next to me. They still have bread left in their basket. Of course they do. They are normal people with normal appetites.
The pasta arrives, brought by the waitress.
I want to ask for bread.
I want to ask for bread.
I want to ask for bread.
I want to ask for bread.
She walks away having left my dish on the table, continuing on her job.
I didn’t ask for bread. I am too scared. I look sadly after her. Hungry. For something.
She walks back my way and quickly I blurt out before one of the committee voices can stop me “can I have some more bread?” I put the words out there, leave them hanging in the air, terrified of being told no.
Wow. There he is. That tiny frightened child. I can feel him looking out these adult eyes. Hunched over in shame, inside my shoulders, closing in and down on ourself in case someone says no. He has plucked up a morsel of courage to ask for what he wants, but absolutely assumes the answer will be no, and with pleading and frightened eyes awaits his judgement about to be delivered, his head placed in the guillotine looking up at the blade about to drop.
The waitress answers “of course!”, and smiles with such a genuine look of reassurance that my terror melts. The child fades a little underneath the surface again.
I take a spoon of pasta – it’s spaghetti carbonara, i asked for it without egg. And now so many rules swirl around: pasta is bad it makes you fat, eating animal is disgusting, cream is bad for you, dairy is bad, but no butter is ok now. I genuinely don’t even know if it tastes good. Does it? It’s creamy. It’s rich. But I can’t connect with it. The rules are in the foreground, not the food. I’m vegetarian, I can’t eat this. Well you are eating it so you clearly you’re not, you’re a liar. But my trainer said I should eat meat. You’re supposed to be eating greens only, why are you eating this.
Well, the bread is so good. I start to dig it into the pasta and for a second I forget myself and grab some pasta up using the bread. Now I’m engaged with the food, reveling in the taste and a flash of pleasure washes over me for a few seconds. But quickly I catch myself and drop the bread and let the pasta fall back on the plate: use your fork says the voice. Don’t be so eager to eat food – that’s disgusting.
I look back at the plate now, after hearing that voice, and feel sad. I take a bite half heartedly and register the taste of disgust in my throat.
This is over. I hate this.
I bring myself back to a single strand of pasta. It tastes ok and the room warms up again, I come back to present.
I take another bite, including some pancetta, and the thought of this piece of meat coming from the back of a beautiful animal romping through the fields disgusts me. I almost puke. I bite into the fat and start to cry.
Bread is a lot simpler. It only has one rule about it, it’s just overall terribly bad for me. It’s easier to willfully ignore one big rule than 7 different competing overlapping swirling rules about pretty much every other ingredient in the dish.
Now the meal seems like utter poison. I for real cannot eat any more slaughtered animal pieces, the entire plate is poisoned with them, it’s all I can taste now.
So I finish the bread.
And I am hungry. I start thinking about what else I can eat. Can I go to another restaurant. Can I get fast food. Burger and fries will work.
Ahhhhhhh. I recognize this feeling. It is bottomless. A yawning gaping pit.
Hello Hunger Monster. I see you. You’re not so very deep down at all, are you.