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Not long after I started my first post-college job, I found myself sitting reclined in a dark room while a woman — a hypnotherapist — breezily instructed me to imagine ice cream melting and congealing into a “disgusting ball of fat” and then to imagine the fat adhering to and melting into my body.
I was trying to kick a habit that I knew for years was really an eating disorder: chewing and spitting. It is as it sounds. One chews food and then spits it out in order to get the taste without the calories, theoretically anyway.
For me, it started thus. When I was 13 or 14, I overheard my mother and a friend of hers exchanging diet tips.
“Besides not eating carbs at night, you can also eat food, chew on it, but not swallow,” said the friend, to which my mother replied that it would take too much self control.
I was old enough that sweets were beginning to be recast in a sinister light and young enough still to have a drawer full of leftover Halloween candy every November. It — which more than a decade later I know to be a full-fledged eating disorder — really just started with a conflicting desire to get rid of all the Halloween candy while not ingesting too much sugar.
I’d unwrap a Snickers, chew until the chocolate and peanuts and caramel and nougat dissolved into syrup, and then spit into the sink. Then I’d turn on the tap and wash away any lingering traces of chocolate.
There were candy bars that didn’t get dissolved by saliva so easily. For those, I’d spit straight into the trash can and then redistribute the contents to hide the evidence. I was slowly developing a system.
When I got to college and moved into a dorm, I was mainly preoccupied with how I was going to keep up “my habit,” as I considered chewing and spitting, while living with a roommate.
“I’m going to the library,” she’d say, and my mind would instantly go to my bottom desk drawer.
It was inevitable that I was going to get caught in the act one day. I’d had all my chewing and spitting paraphernalia out — candy bars, paper towel, and in those days, a line of red Solo cups — when a key sounded in the lock and my roommate came in.
Now I look back on this scene with both embarrassment and amusement, probably because the first words that came out of my mouth were, “This is not what it looks like.”
What it looked like was a girl with inflamed cheeks sitting in front of a small heap of candy wrappers and three Solo cups filled with brown liquid.
“I was, er, making something and it didn’t work,” I mumbled. My roommate was confused and asked what I was making, but to her credit, she didn’t inquire beyond that.
I no longer remember how this habit of mine progressed from innocuous diet technique — one candy bar chewed and spit out as opposed to one candy bar swallowed — to something addictive, something I couldn’t stop.
It barely had anything to do anymore with wanting to lose weight. It became a ritual.
During this decade of chewing and spitting, I used a wide repertoire of foods: pizza, Cheez-Its, ice cream, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, eggs, my 18-birthday cake, Taco Bell burritos, candy bars of all varieties.
Biting into a candy bar and having its intense sweetness fill my mouth was intoxicating and comforting. Keep at it for an hour, however, and my jaw would start to ache from chewing and my cheeks would feel hot. I remember once going into the bathroom to dispose of my Solo cups and catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The lower half of my face was noticeably bloated. My jaw would remain sore into the next day.
Other students went to the dining hall together, chatting and laughing and eating together. I rarely went, preferring to eat in private or just chew and spit instead.
It was around then, during my freshman year of college, that I learned the in retrospect highly obvious fact that chewing and spitting is bad for you. Type “chewing and spitting” into Google and you can find forums on the disorder and how to quit. There are posts from people who have been at it for decades. There are a handful of blog entries devoted to the disorder.
I’m surprised there aren’t more. The behavior involved is similar to bulimia, as are some of the consequences. According to Kid’s Health, chewing and spitting can lead to dental and gastrointestinal problems. It is near impossible to spit every morsel of food out, so hours of chewing and spitting can easily lead to weight gain.
Some speculate that chewing kickstarts the digestion process and leads to a spike in insulin. If you are chewing and spitting regularly, the elevated insulin levels over time can cause diabetes or metabolic syndrome. I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly scared me when I was 18 — just not enough to stop.
One time I confided in a close friend about my chewing and spitting. I had just started dating someone new, and giddy from the rush of serotonin, I stopped chewing and spitting for a while.
The friend and I were in the frozen pizza aisle of a grocery store, and I casually said to her, “I sort of used to have a eating disorder. I’d chew and spit food, and often I used pizza.”
“That’s disgusting,” she replied. “Why did you tell me that? Now I can’t look at pizza in the same way again.”
The only other person that I ever told was a hypnotherapist.
When I learned about hynotherapy and its effectiveness for quitting smoking and losing weight, I looked for a hypnotherapist. First I exchanged a few emails with the woman, asking if she can help with chewing and spitting.
“Absolutely, I’ve had many clients with that problem,” she replied, and I booked an appointment.
“You really have had many clients come in for chewing and spitting?” I asked her when I went in for the appointment.
“Oh yes, and you wouldn’t believe how common it is among women,” she said. “So tell me about how often you chew and spit.”
“Well, I do it maybe once or twice a day, after meals. Sometimes I chew and spit ice cream. Other times Cheez-its—”
“Wait, you chew and spit food?”
“I thought it was tobacco!”
“I can still do a session with you,” she said, somewhat hesitantly. “I have a script for people with binge eating disorder that I think can work for you.”
I agreed; I was desperate for an external cure. The hypnotherapist led me through meditation activities that put me in a focused trance. Then she asked me to name a food I used in chewing and spitting.
She asked me to imagine mountains of Cheez-Its morphing into mountains of fat. Then she asked me to imagine the aforementioned oozing fat ball.
“Cheez-Its are a fat ball! Cheez-Its are a fat ball! A fat ball fat ball fat ball!” she chanted, words that I remember verbatim to this day because, well, they were ridiculous. And also sad. Didn’t I, and probably many, many people with eating disorders, already make the food = fat ball connection?
I left the session slightly poorer and certainly not cured of chewing and spitting. I don’t include this anecdote to knock hypnotherapy, which I think is legitimate. My point is to underline how little known chewing and spitting is. If I have met someone who also had the disorder, I didn’t know it.
I still so want to hear someone say, “I used to do it, too.”
By my mid-20s, the chewing and spitting had calmed down into a small but ingrained part of an otherwise healthy diet. I ate healthily, had a healthy weight, exercised, and had no reserves about going out for beers and a burger with friends.
Still, almost every day I engaged in chewing and spitting. It was no longer the out-of-control binges that resulted in physical pain. Rather it would be a handful of cookies once a day.
Now and then I wondered, was I planning on keeping this up forever? Always having Ziploc bags around, stealthily disposing chewed up food, having a secret candy stash?
When I quit, it wasn't because the warnings of metabolic syndrome finally got to me, or because I grew tired of the stench of chewed-up food but because one month I ran out of money. That was another aspect of chewing and spitting. It was bloody expensive.
In the beginning it was difficult. My ritual was gone. I found myself eating, that is, swallowing, more sweets than usual. But payday came and went, I spent my money on other things, and another payday came and went.
My best explanation for why I managed to quit this time is that over the years since I left college, I have been gradually building a life based on healthy habits: friends, books, exercise, travel, a healthy attitude toward food, and last but not least, a couple of mild over-the-counter anti-depressants.
It’s now been six months, the longest I’ve gone in more than a decade without chewing or spitting. Hopefully the threat of wounded pride will keep me from starting the count back at zero.