Lesley's Austerity Diaries: On Fear, Food Hoarding, And Feeling Safe

Sometimes I buy food to just HAVE it, in the house, and to know it’s there, and that I'm prepared in a food-based emergency. A bit like responsible people who keep a fire extinguisher under the sink. Just in case.
Publish date:
May 23, 2013
food, eating disorders, dieting

It’s been three weeks since my husband became unemployed -- three weeks of constant togetherness in our home, three weeks of transition and adjustment and adapting. I have not done well with the shift in my routine. Previously I had easily-marked boundaries between working time and personal time -- my morning drive into the city to drop Dennis off signaled the start of my working day, such that when I returned home again it was almost like leaving my house and going to an office. Once home, I would go directly to my desk and start work.

Then, when the time came to pick Dennis up at the train station, it was like punching out for the day -- the forced cycle that required me to leave the house at certain hours created an illusory work/life distinction.

Now? I have no idea what time it is. I have no idea how long I have been working. I often forget to make tea or eat anything at all until Dennis timidly -- timidly, because when disturbed at writing my involuntary reaction is impatience and annoyance, if not a straight-up barking WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT I AM TRYING TO WORK? -- knocks on the door to the guest bedroom that is really my office and asks if he can bring me some food, because he’s noticed I haven’t had any food, and oh, perhaps the lack of food and/or caffeine prior to 3:15pm is contributing to my short temper and my slight headache and my difficulty concentrating, although he knows me well enough not to suggest it, but to let the realization occur to me naturally.

Do I sound really pleasant to live with? I’m probably not. Nor is Dennis as concilatory as I am making him out. We are well matched.

Also weird: I have no idea how one decides objectively what to spend money on. There’s not, like, a list of things-that-are-okay-to-buy-when-you-are-trying-to-live-on-a-single-income. It depends.

I find myself thinking in quantity -- in price per unit. We got a BJ’s Wholesale Club membership. Not simply because it’s funny to say “I need to go to BJ’s” although that is also true. Because when faced with financial restriction the first thing I think of is ENOUGH. I need to have ENOUGH for a few weeks, stockpiled away. I need to know there is enough.

I talk a lot about how dieting so much as a young person really affected me, and it did -- it affected my relationship with my body, it affected my self-esteem, it affected my expectations of how I deserved to be treated, it affected the limitations I placed on myself, putting off all the things that would happen and that I would do on the miraculous day that I achieved thinness.

(Which is itself sort of a ridiculous way to think about it, as though you literally wake up one morning and look at yourself and think, “Today I am EXACTLY THIN ENOUGH”? I have never known anyone that this happened to. We like to think our wants are simple and straightforward and that we are easy to satisfy but nothing we are taught from cradle to grave by this culture of self-recrimination has ever trained us how to accept what we have, but always to be seeking happiness and self-confidence as an achievement just inches out of reach, no matter how far we stretch ourselves to try to grab it.)

It’s the self-loathing that we all tend to focus on when we talk about the problems with kids dieting and girls learning early to base their primary social value on their appearance. And that is absolutely an angle that deserves a huge amount of attention, as self-loathing can be destructive in life-ruining ways no matter its origin.

But we don’t always pay as much attention to the more subtle effects -- the ways in which early obsessions with food and weight can have an impact on how we feed ourselves for the rest of our lives, the little weirdnesses so many of us share, the little weirdnesses that are sort of borderline, albeit non-intrusive, disordered eating. Only eating cereal for dinner on weeknights. An obsession with sugar-free Jello. A refusal to eat certain types of food in public. A particular number of calories eaten between 9am and 5pm every day.

Me? I stockpile food.

I’ve called it food hoarding, although reality TV has given “hoarding” a specificity that is not accurate in my case. I don’t have closets or spare rooms piled with expired macaroni and cheese. Rather,I sometimes buy certain food I have no solid plans to eat. I buy food to just HAVE it, in the house, and to know it’s there. A bit like some people keep a fire extinguisher under the sink, I suppose. Just in case. Because you’d rather have it and never need it, than face an emergency and find out it’s not there.

My husband is endlessly frustrated by this. He thinks of it as “wasting food,” which I understand intellectually, but given that the food is indeed serving a specific purpose I have trouble thinking of it as wasted. And when I do try to eat my stockpiled food, he doesn’t understand why I will stop eating it before it’s finished and leave one serving in the fridge for an indefinite period of time, at the end of which it inevitably goes bad before anyone eats it.

He also doesn’t understand why I get so angry -- really, a shield for panic -- when I discover that food I THOUGHT I had stored and safe was in fact eaten by him at some earlier point. I could have been walking about for a WEEK without that food there, the food that I thought was there, the food that I was RELYING on being there, and he didn’t tell me it was gone, and he ruined my carefully-balanced food-sanity by eating something that I had planned to just let go bad before replacing it again with more food that I would let go bad.

I mean, I keep most of this deranged panic inside my head. To my husband it just sounds like "DAMN IT YOU ATE MY FOOD."

At present I don’t have much hoarded. I have some homemade pineapple ice cream in my freezer, which turned out not that great because I screwed up the ratios when I made it, but at least I can think to myself, “I have ice cream in the freezer,” and have it be true. Because it’s not actually about eating the ice cream -- the hoarded food is not for eating. It’s about knowing the food exists where I can get to it, that I can remember it exists and hold the security of that knowledge in my mind like a soothing balm.

Because knowing it gives me some degree of control. The control, as in many eating-disordered people, is not simply a matter of intake -- it’s not a matter of “I will allow myself to eat one spoonful of ice cream and that is all,” and it’s not even a matter of “I will put a bite of ice cream in my mouth and taste it and then spit it out,” which is another popular ED shortcut between hunger and discipline. It’s a matter of access. For me, the control I need to exert is over the food that I have access to.

This is a curiously specific need, I realize, and it probably doesn’t make sense to many, if not most, of you. Because I am like a fat superhero to a lot of people. The rift my childhood dieting opened in my relationship with my own body? Solved. The effects on my self-esteem? Sorted. My social expectations and assumptions that I deserved to be treated as a lesser creature because I was fatter than all my friends? Totally eradicated. The idea that my life would always be stuck in neutral, that I would never have adventures or be loved or feel any sense of self-worth or pride in the person I am? Ridiculous, now.

All of this done and yet I have not yet managed to get over the fear that someone will come into my house and take all my food away from me.

This fear is so weirdly primal and deeply rooted that a part of me wonders if there isn’t some food-security instinct buried deep in the survival meats of the reptilian brain -- that young humans who experience sustained food restriction over their formative years will learn to always be expecting the famine to strike again. I feel it with the same reflexive urgency as if I put my hand on a hot pan; my hand snaps back before I even have the chance to think coherently about the fact that I am burning myself. The food-security fear is like that -- it happens without me even registering why I'm afraid.

I can’t explain it any other way, and the fact that my dieting was, by and large, a self-imposed arrangement seems to have no impact on this fear. I respond as though circumstances beyond my control were starving me and that I must be prepared for those circumstances to reoccur at any time -- even though I have not dieted in sixteen, seventeen years and I know I get to decide independently what I get to eat and when and how much. I do it every day.

Still, the fear squats in my peripheral vision, like a ghost that disappears as soon as I try to face it head-on.

You can understand, then, how my inclinations here are incompatible with an austerity budget. We can’t currently afford for me to be buying food that I don’t actually intend to eat. This is forcing me to consider whether I think of this behavior as a problem, as I have spent most my life lightly analyzing it and concluding that it wasn’t really a huge issue, as issues go, in the larger scheme of issues.

It’s a coping mechanism, one that I devised as a small dieting kid, even without realizing I was doing it, when I would get off the school bus every day in the sixth grade and go to the supermarket, where I’d buy a loaf of fresh rye bread to hide in my closet, or a box of Honey Nut Cheerios to stash under my bed. (When I first read Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted” and she discovers the chicken carcasses under Daisy’s bed, I understood. When I first visited my husband’s grandmother’s house in New Jersey, and saw her basement cupboards filled with expired canned food, dusty boxes of pasta, jars of tomato sauce from the 1980s, her separate storage freezer piled with six and seven year old frozen meat bought on sale and stacked so tightly it looked like an icy wall of plastic-wrapped white-styrofoam-bottomed bricks, all of this the source of much hilarity within the family -- I understood.)

That said, currently I'm eating our food. Aside from that disappointing ice cream. And it's mostly going okay, although part of that is probably because the wholesale club purchases come in such massive sizes that we go through quite a bit of any single package before I start obsessively worrying that we are going to run out and I won't be able to get more. But it's a start.

Coping is how we survive. Some strategies are more destructive, more compulsive, or more all-encompassing than others. I was a hungry kid in circumstances that were otherwise plentiful, in a home where I never sincerely wanted for anything, aside from permission from myself to be allowed to eat. This is mine. I keep food. Not to eat. Just to have. Like a fire extinguisher under the sink, or a life vest under the airplane seat, or baseball bat behind the bedroom door. It’s not there to be used, it’s there to make me feel prepared, and secure, and safe.

And who among us wouldn’t do almost anything, no matter how strange, to feel safe when everything feels unstable and unsure. I don't really care if it's normal or "okay" anymore. It's how I get by.