My Food Addiction Helps Me Survive Motherhood

The Vice That’s Everywhere — That No One Talks About

by Olivia Howell

It’s evening, and I can hear the boys shouting at each other from the other room as I'm doing the dishes, and I try to focus on the lollipop in my mouth. It's leftover from Halloween, and it doesn't even taste that good, but the sugar seeping into my cells is helping me cope with a very long day at home. It's not my first lollipop, as I load the dishes loudly into the machine and yell over to the kids to stop hitting, it's not even my second . . . It's my fifth. I just unwrap, shove, suck, and relax — literally a pacifier.

Some women have a glass of wine to calm down; or — after a long day of parenting — will crack a beer. But for me? It's food. All the food. And the problem with being a binging food addict? You can cut alcohol out of your life — but  food? You sorta need that. I've been on diets since I was three. Long before I even knew what a calorie was, I knew that lettuce was "good," and that a cookie was "bad." I knew that I had to control myself around food, or else — just, or else. I didn't know there were people who ate, happily, and then would know when to stop eating — or stop thinking about food. And, now, as a mid-thirties mom, wife, and worker — food is all I can think about. For years, I have attempted to give up sugar. I’ve gone on countless Whole30s diets (and I do love them), but when it comes down to it — I’m hopeless at sticking to them. I am a food addict — and sometimes, it can be a scary hole to crawl out of.

The next day, my phone won't stop vibrating,  My husband is texting me nonstop from work. Life has been stressful lately, and I am pushing the giant Stop & Shop cart — you know, the one with the car in front, for the kids to ride. My kids, always literally leading the way. I check my texts from my husband, and my eyes well with tears. Why is being an adult so damn hard? The next thing I know, I'm watching my feet shuffle quickly over to my drug of choice: Chocolate Almond Milk — and I know, I know — hard drug, right? Except, for me, there are no limitations with it. I know I will take it home, pour cup after cup into my body, and feel so sick that I'll just keep eating to make myself feel better. And then I’ll keep eating to take away some of that shame from eating — because “eating shame” begets more eating, and so forth. I wasn't always such a binge eater — it happened more and more over the past few years; a new house, a new baby, a sick grandparent, a sick in-law, a stressed spouse . . . The list goes on — and my habits have gotten worse and worse.

I know I can't be alone here. There must be other women whose vice is food. Tonight it's Wendy's:  a cookie, and a sandwich — and maybe more almond milk? I'm up late working, I've been crying all day, and food — what I put into my mouth — is the one thing in this world I can control. I laugh because we don't even have alcohol in the house, but there are so many hidden drugs for me: the bag of chips, my son's Goldfish crackers, Oreos, even "healthy" foods, like pineapple or melon — they will all be eaten in a fury of sadness, or fear; loneliness or anger.

I won’t eat them because I am hungry; God forbid that’s the reason. I hardly ever eat when I am hungry! I don't even know what hunger is anymore. I eat when I need to feel something — loved, or accepted, or strong, or heard. I know I need help, and in the past, I have set my mind to do something about it (Whole30s, mostly), but right now? Now, I'm just tired. I'm just SO tired. And, really? Really, what I want is some stability in my life, a long nap, more money, and a day to myself — but I don't have those things, so I turn to my pantry and find some old friends there.

Women — mothers — spend their lives mollifying their emotions because they have to care for others. By stuffing my body with food, I’m momentarily settling all of these (let's be honest here, mostly angry) emotions, so I can turn around and care for my family and work. It's not healthy, clearly — but taking the time to truly address the real problem is just too much for me at the moment. Instead,  I try to wake up every day with a new outlook, and take it one meal at a time — just like life — one day at a time.

But, why are we not talking about this? What about the lonely mother who sits crying on her kitchen floor eating donuts, or the scared mother shoving her kid's chicken nuggets down her throat,  or the disappointed mother who drinks an entire liter of soda to quiet her shame. Where are these women? I would love to invite them into my kitchen and hold their hands and listen as we all unpack our lunchboxes of shame and sadness. The shame that women carry about what they eat, and also why they eat, is so great and such a heavy burden to bear.

We are embarrassed to speak up because we are made to feel silly to say we are addicted to food, or that we rely so heavily on food fulfilling a piece of our soul. In a perfect world, I’d sit down with these women and allow for them, and myself, to have a safe space to talk all about why we are eating. It’s not about the food, it’s about the reason. I’ve learned from doing a plethora of Whole30 months that it has never actually been about the food — but about a longing for some sort of human connection. I’d love to connect with other women who long like I do, and maybe, just maybe, we could feed each other’s souls instead of relying on food to do the job.

Using food as a crutch, has been one way women like me have learned to survive and function — it's what gets us out of bed, and helps us feel something. And, we need to eat, right — so how bad can it be, we reason to ourselves? So, we give our kids a well balanced meal and tell them we will be right there to cut it up, as we hang back in the kitchen and shove donuts down our throats. It's so inviting and sweet, and in that moment, we are safe, and loved, and warm, and whatever else we so desperately need in that moment. And then we go, and cut the dinners up, thinking about our next fix, our next find, our next meal.

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Olivia Howell is the founder of Howell Media House — a full service social media management and marketing company based in New York. She lives in Long Island with her husband and 2 young boys.

Photograph by Vivian Maier, Wilmette, IL (Tomatoes on Window Sill), 1968.