First of all, let me say that having to go to food pantries changed the whole way I look at food, survival, and my life as a person with an eating disorder.
I am 54 years old, single and legally disabled. I am on psychiatric disability.
Last September I spoke with a woman around my age who also suffered from anorexia. We found that we were surprisingly alike. She told me she went to food pantries and what the experience was like for her. She told me how she chose between available foods, and what her reasoning was for these choices. We had met inside a psychiatric facility and were both being treated for our eating disorders.
When I left the facility, I had a staggering dog boarding bill to pay. I emptied out my checking account entirely, but this paid for only half the bill. To date, I still owe a little more to the facility. Fortunately, I had been a regular there, and of course they love Puzzle, but a bill is a bill is a bill and they have to keep afloat and pay their employees.
So I never really caught up with the bills after that. For whatever reason, I dipped into my credit card twice for trips to London. The first trip was last November (2011) and I am flying there again in July, 2012. Both of these trips were to meet with my publisher and other writers around the world with dreams like mine. I took the plunge because as a writer, I want to change the world, talk about mental illness and eating disorders, and make all our lives better. Anyway, I’m in the hole. I might be lucky enough to find someone to have Puzzle in their home while I’m away in July, just keeping my fingers crossed, otherwise I’m further into the hole.
My life is unpredictable because of my eating disorder. One of my big fears all along has been that I’ll be locked up again, meaning another boarding bill. This has been a major factor in decisions over the past couple of years whether to go inpatient. It’s kind of hard to explain to a doctor, “But you can’t section me! I’ve got a dog home alone!” Hell, what if I had kids home alone? It’s quite similar in that we’ve got creatures or people we’re responsible for and can’t just go skipping off to a psych ward to be held for god knows how long. We have to take into account that getting shipped off to Grandma or to a neighbor or to a children’s shelter situation such as temporary foster care on a moment’s notice is going to seriously wreak havoc on the kids’ lives, let alone give society the message that parents who get locked up, for whatever reason, are unfit. In the case of Puzzle, I’m fortunate that she is well acquainted with her boarding place, loves it there, and knows what to expect once she gets there.
So again in February, I ended up inpatient, and at the same time, stuff with my family got complicated due to my mother’s waning health. My brothers have been hostile to me and this situation with them seems endless. I think it was a few months ago that my brother said he’d done some financial wiggling around, and he offered me some money without specifying an amount. I hadn’t told him that I needed money, he just offered it out of the blue. I declined, saying I thought I’d be able to stay on top of the bills and gradually pay them off. Well, I’m not. In the month of May I was able to put into my credit card a decent amount, but it got swallowed up by regular expenditures such as phone and Internet. There’s a cost on there for $40 repeating for six months for an online course I’m not even well enough to participate in, but I have all the materials, so I can do the course in the future. Still, I’m mad at myself for signing up cuz I sure could use an extra $40 a month. It’ll only be a few more months, anyway. Other than that, I pay $10 for a book about once a month on Amazon or whatever if I feel it’s important to have that book and I can’t get it at the library. If a book is going to help me with my eating, it’s worth it. Anyway, next month I’m not going to be lowering the bills. They will go up. My trip in July is paid for…we’ll see about Puzzle’s boarding…but in July Puzzle needs to go to the vet for vaccinations. It’s endless.
What have I learned? How to survive like never before. I cut out everything. I looked at things as scientifically as I could, trying to eliminate as much as possible. The obvious stuff was the following:
Membership in the online service E-music got cut immediately.
I stopped going to coffee shops and buying coffee there, ever.
I stopped going to any restaurant or place that sold prepared food. All prepared food is expensive and you can’t use food stamps to pay for it, let alone tip a food server. The only disadvantage to this is that if I need to use a bathroom at a restaurant, I can’t without buying their food. I don’t buy their food, so I have to plan for no restroom while I’m out.
I found myself unable to stop bingeing. If you have an eating disorder and have been through binge eating, you know how expensive it can be. Don’t ask me how I did it, but I was able to stop buying first of all anything I had to pay cash for and couldn’t use food stamps. Dunkin Donuts, for instance, is out of the question, ever. I ended up cutting out all prepared foods, such as cookies and cakes. I cut out sugar, because all that sweet stuff was too expensive. It’s down to bingeing on oatmeal and other quick-cooking grains, pasta, and cans of soup and stuff. Now and then I buy something like a large tub of generic brand ice cream for maybe $2.50 and wolf that down along with everything else, but not often. I wish to hell this would stop, but it isn’t. Not yet.
As to how my eating disorder is otherwise ruining my life, read the rest of my blog.
Anyway, in addition to cutting everything I could, I started going to food pantries. The many experiences I’ve had at these places have been rather moving for me. When I’ve come home, I feel like writing about the experience of having gone there, the people I saw, and what went on in my head while I was getting the food.
Everyone goes to a food pantry for a different reason. You can’t judge and say that this one has more mouths to feed and this one doesn’t, or call a person greedy because they want more than what they’re getting.
Here’s a scenario I invented, that very well could have taken place:
A woman around my age, or maybe older, shows up at the local food pantry and is delighted to find that there is a bag of chopped walnuts sitting there ready for her to take home. She ends up getting hassled for taking the nuts. She argues that she needs them for a recipe, but to no avail. You can live without walnuts, she is told. You are only allowed one thing from this shelf. You are taking too much.
She has grandkids. The grandkids have another grandma. The other grandma takes the kids to bakeries and ice cream stores. The other grandma serves luscious fruit salad, tahini and pita bread and salmon and tofu, not macaroni and cheese out of a box. But our lady hasn’t got the money to take the grandkids anywhere.
It completely sucks cuz the middle generation is very busy telling the kids that one grandma is better than the other because she has more material goods to offer. The macaroni and cheese that our lady has comes from the supermarket at 88 cents a box, or from a food pantry. It’s very, very easy to get the kids turned against you. Our lady feels like shit and her own grandkids call her names, baiting her and telling her that they love the other grandma more. Yep, kids are cruel, and yep, this happens.
So our lady decides to do something. She’s lucky enough to get a good brownie mix at the supermarket for 25 cents because the box is dented. But if she makes these brownies, the middle generation is just going to put her down and tell her they’re from a cheap mix, can’t she do better? That’s where the nuts come in. The little special touch that means she’s not going to put up with this shit any longer.
I know what the storybooks say, that a hug means more than brownies with real nuts. But these are the same storybooks that tell you everyone lives happily ever after. It doesn’t pan out the way it’s supposed to. Hardly ever.
To further this scenario, years later our lady ends up severely depressed because she is unwanted, isolated, and neglected. The middle generation keeps the kids away from her, saying they don’t want the kids poisoned with her negative crap. She sees them less and less, and when she does, it’s always tough because she’s torn between being honest and being a phony just to keep them from disowning her entirely. She acts sweet and kind, like everything’s fine, and in doing so, feels like crap.
I guess you could say I’m in the same boat in terms of phoniness. I am always torn as to whether to act sweet and kind and say I’m doing okay, which is more likely to keep my friends from running away, or tell the truth, risking the end of a relationship. The storybooks tell you that folks come running to your side when you’re in pain, that everyone loves everyone else, if you’re down and troubled and need a helping hand just call my name and soon I’ll be there is a bunch of bullshit even if Carole King and James Taylor sang and sang and promised that it was true back when I was a kid. It’s funny how one song can set a standard for what friendship should ideally be. We used to sing that song with our guitars and long hair and hold hands and stuff and promise we’d write letters. It turned out that these letters that never got mailed or even written, and to this day, the flowery stationary remains unused.
So I walk around on eggshells with people just to keep them from shutting me out entirely. Guess it’s better to have a phony relationship than to have no relationship, but I’m not really sure about that. I could get a TV at a tag sale, watch it for a few hours a day and learn about movie stars and then maybe I’d have something to talk about that my friends could relate to. I don’t want to spend even five bucks on a TV just to learn how to be boring. I don’t even want to buy eggs so that I can have eggshells to walk on. If I have eggshells, I certainly won’t waste them that way, but grind them up to use as a calcium supplement for Puzzle.
Which brings me to the dog food issue. I never told anyone why I switched Puzzle from dry kibble to real food, or even that I had even done this. It was part of the whole poverty transformation I went through. Like I said, I have an eating disorder that will stop at nothing. I binged on the freaking dog kibble all time. It was like a knife in my side that I couldn’t take out. The stuff was gross beyond belief. I boiled it in a little water, then shoved it into my mouth. Sometimes, I’d add seasoning so it would go down faster. To stop bingeing at all, I had to get the kibble out of the house.
I figured that canned dog food was grosser than kibble and no way would I eat it, so I switched Puzzle to canned. The price is staggering for this shit. Feeding her would cost maybe $90 a month at $3 a can. I looked for cheaper stuff and found some.
Then, I don’t know what got into me. I was in the supermarket, totally mesmerized by the presence of the fancy colorful food packages, wandering around like a dazed idiot when I ended up in the dog food aisle and bought three cans of…I really don’t want to admit this…Alpo. No, I didn’t think I’d go so low as to eat this stuff myself.
It broke my heart.
Three days later it was clear that although Puzzle is the hearty sort, no way could she tolerate Alpo. Let’s just say her stools told everything.
They tell us folks who have eating disorders that we should learn to stop reading labels. Huh? What I learned from reading the label of Alpo Chop House Original Flavor Cooked in Savory Juices changed my life. I have the can right here.
Water sufficient for processing, meat by-products, chicken, beef, soy flour, brewer’s rice, added color…
Huh? Added color? For a dog who supposedly can’t see in color? Further down the label is says, “Red 3.”
…which explained the red stools, of course. I told myself no way. I wanted to wrench my heart out of my chest. In my mind, I fell to my knees. I wept, and begged the world for forgiveness.
I guess that was about a month ago. I’ve fed Puzzle real food ever since. I got rather obsessed with doggie recipe books and doggie nutrition and getting it just right, but I think we’ve got it down now. Feeding her is still cheap, because she’s such a tiny dog. Now and then I spend a whole bunch of time making the tastiest batch of dog food you can imagine. It is an act of love. Just another lesson that poverty, and my eating disorder, taught me.
I’m not saying that poverty exists to teach a lesson to the poor. Poverty teaches everyone. There is no such thing as deserving to be poor because you were bad, or deserving to be rich because you worked hard. There is no such thing as “deserved.”
Winning the lottery can ruin a person. It leads to further gambling, drugs, casinos, drinking, and misery in some cases. You can give away the money to a good cause, but you’ve still got your feelings to deal with and all the guilt of having received something we’re programmed to believe we don’t deserve, having not worked a forty-hour work week to get it.
Needless to say, I’m grateful for what I learned, and continue to learn. Yep, I’m in debt, but the numbers on the credit card bill are only numbers. They don’t cause disease or break bones. I’ve learned to put these figures out of my head unless I’m doing some budget planning, then I shelve all of the numbers and put the issue to rest.
The other day, some tape recording called me telling me, “Press One to lower your interest rate.” For the heck of it, I did. A person got on the line, a woman, who asked, “How much debt do you have?”
I said, “I really don’t care to discuss the exact amount over the phone without knowing who you are. Can you tell me about your program?”
But already, before I even finished this last sentence, there had been a click on the line. The phone was dead. Hmm.
When I go to a food pantry, I’ve got my agenda just like everyone else. No, I’m not trying to be a cool grandma cuz I have no grandkids and no family. I have an eating disorder. I’m scared to death of food. It’s hard enough to get out of the house to begin with, with all the ordeals I go through regarding what to wear, changing clothes over and over because I think I look “fat.” I can recall times that I couldn’t get to the food pantry cuz I was so scared that someone would look at me and think I was a fat pig if I did so much as walk out the door and trudge over to the mailbox down the hall. But hey, I’d get out sometimes, so long as I was covered in just the right jacket to hide whatever shape my body was at at the time.
It’s called survival.
It gets very scary when I go there, but I now know what to expect. I pressure myself like you wouldn’t believe to make the right choices. Scared of this, scared of that, scared to be seen reading a label (though many do), scared to pick something up, then change my mind and be seen putting it back again. Carefully calculating sizes of containers, and scared to get too much.
For instance, applesauce. They say you can have a bunch of four-ounce containers (here I remind myself it’s 40 calories if it doesn’t have additives) or one large container. I get one tiny container and leave it at that. Why? I’m scared if I bring home more, I’ll eat it, and I don’t want the calories.
Beans. Dried, or canned? Well, duh, dried is the way to go. I’m scared that as soon as I open a can of canned beans, it’ll all go down the hatch and I won’t be able to stop myself.
Oatmeal. Sometimes, I give a little to Puzzle. But it’s fatal to acquire a large container of oatmeal cuz yep, it’ll be gone in a few hours and next thing you know, I’m on a three-day binge. So when they have those little envelopes and I can get one that’s just plain oats with no sugar, that’s what I get. One envelope.
One day, I was overjoyed to get a tube of toothpaste. That shit is expensive.
So I lug this stuff home, knowing that it’s rather obvious where I’ve been. I see a handful of my neighbors lugging their groceries home from the food pantry, across the street from me walking in the same direction, toward our subsidized housing building. I try to sneak in the back door and quickly inside if I can sneak through the dining room. This means no one can be in there. I mean, surely some former neighbor, these folks that were constantly harping on how thin I’d become only months ago, have a few words to say about my current body state. The community meals happen in that dining room, and my former neighbors show up for that meal daily. I work my ass off trying to avoid them, avoid being seen by them, avoid the rude comments.
But last Tuesday, coming home from the food pantry, I found that the dining room was empty. I cut through, climbed the back stairs, and slipped through a short bit of hall to my front door, unseen. All the cans and stuff and even meat for Puzzle I laid out on the counter.
I even got herbal tea this time. Lemon Zinger. Memories of Celestial Seasonings back in the 70’s. Pelican Punch. Roastaroma. Red Zinger. Morning Thunder. Back in the days when they weren’t adding “natural flavoring” to the stuff, when it was all herbs.
I remembered sitting with roommates sipping Lemon Zinger, the latest thing, kinda like Red Zinger, isn’t it?
Yeah, how’s the zing?
Dunno, I’m too stoned.
It’s still a treat. I rarely drink coffee anymore. That, too, is just a very special treat. Less is more, trust me.
When you learn that less is more, a whole world opens up to you. The biggest car isn’t always the best in the lot. The biggest house doesn’t necessarily have more love in it than the smallest house on the block. The most expensive education isn’t necessarily the best one for your kid. And so on.
When you learn that less is more, it can change your life. It changed mine.