Wanting It All

The past month has been … more downs than ups. (Referring to my commitment to changing my eating habits, not my weight.) I’m not really sure why. It might be because my birthday is this month, and in recent years, I feel a severe dissatisfaction around my birthday, caught up in coulda/woulda/shouldas—exasperation at how quickly time flies by, and frustration that I haven’t done more.

But at any rate, I’ve been in desperate quest for motivation, hoping for one thing that will somehow be strong enough to overpower all my cravings and weaknesses and impulses. And today, amid my usual checking of the Drudge Report, I came upon a link about obesity and cancer.

“Carrying excess weight has been shown to boost the risk of 13 types of tumors, including cancers of the esophagus, thyroid, postmenopausal breast, gallbladder, stomach, liver, pancreas, kidney, ovaries, uterus, colon and rectum,” reported AFP.

This summer, a doctor found a lump in my thyroid. When she told me I needed to get it checked out, I waved her off, saying if it was so unlikely it was cancer, it’d be fine to just monitor it for now. She told me no, I needed to get it checked out. So I did.

The doctor also told me thyroid cancer was the best kind of cancer to get. (I opened my mouth to argue, being the descendant of Irish people forever getting patches of skin cancer they get removed, and then realized it was probably absolutely idiotic to argue with your doctor about what the “best” kind of cancer was, and shut up.) Fifty thousand or so google searches later, I was fairly heartened: the odds of a lump being cancerous were quite low, and the odds of that cancer, if it existed, being fatal were extremely low.

Yet it was still sobering to be in a hospital for an ultrasound, and later, a biopsy. (Nothing like being told to most definitely not swallow for thirty seconds while a long needle is plunged into your throat.) I’m 29, I kept thinking, somewhat angry. Wasn’t I supposed to have a few more years before I was forced into tiresome health concerns and worries?

The biopsy came back negative: I’m fine.

Reading that news article today, I wondered how would I feel if I did have cancer—if I would have thought it was my fault, that I had failed to take actions to change my life. It was sobering—sobering enough I bought lite popcorn instead of more substantial junk food when I had to pick up a prescription at CVS tonight.

Bu I also wondered if fear was really motivation enough for the long haul, and I thought of how tired I was of shame and anxiety.

I’ve also been thinking about St. Therese of Lisieux this week, since her feast day was Sunday. St. Therese is one of those Catholic saints who seems insufferable from her short bio: pious French girl turned pious nun who died at 24 of tuberculosis. But she’s an absolute delight in her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul.” She’s neurotic, she’s anxious, she’s emotional—in short, she’s very human. And I found myself thinking of this scene she recounts from her toddler years:

One day [my sister] Léonie, thinking no doubt that she was too big to play with dolls, brought us a basket filled with clothes, pretty pieces of stuff, and other trifles on which her doll was laid: “Here, dears,” she said, “choose whatever you like.” [My sister] Céline looked at it, and took a woollen ball. After thinking about it for a minute, I put out my hand saying: “I choose everything,” and I carried off both doll and basket without more ado.

Dieting can feel like the opposite of “I choose everything,” even though I try to remind myself of all the positives coming, try to make the “I don’t choose this Ben & Jerry’s” to “I choose having more energy someday.”

At any rate, I suppose in part this passage has always appealed to me because one of my first (and most vivid) experiences of shame was when I was in kindergarten or first grade. Armed with some kind of fake money earned through doing shomework or some such, I was allowed to reimburse the “money” for things sold one day at the school, and so on that day, I went to make my purchases.

But I was still hazy on the whole math thing, and when I showed up to cashier—probably a sixth grader I was completely awed by — I was told the pile of items I’d selected far exceeded the amount of cash I had. I remember feeling horribly embarrassed, thinking that I’d revealed a terrible amount of greed by showing I thought I should be able to get so many items.

And sometimes it seems the same way to me about overeating—so much of the shame is that you’re not supposed to want to eat so much, especially if you’re a girl. The desire, even if not accompanied by actions, seems somehow shameful.

I recently stumbled upon an essay (via a comment from a friend’s friend on Facebook) that discussed appetites and women in a way that lingered with me, particularly this passage:

There’s a YouTube video I’m fond of that shows a baby named Madison being given cake for the first time. The maniacal shine in her eyes when she first tastes chocolate icing is transcendent, a combination of “where has this been all my life” and “how dare you keep this from me?” Jaw still dropped in shock, she slowly tips the cake up towards her face and plunges in mouth-first. Periodically, as she comes up for air, she shoots the camera a look that is almost anguished. Can you believe this exists? her face says. Why can’t I get it all in my mouth at once?

This video makes me laugh uproariously, but it’s that throat-full-of-needles laugh that, on a more hormonal day, might be a sob. The raw, unashamed carnality of this baby going to town on a cake is like a glimpse into a better, hungrier world. This may be one of the last times Madison is allowed to express that kind of appetite, that kind of greed. She’s still young enough for it to be cute.

Or in other words: Still young enough to be allowed to desire “everything.”

What does binging do for you? What do you get out of it? Are the kind of questions you seem to confront ad nauseam if you read self-help books or do therapy, and yet, they are still questions I struggle to answer. Because so often the answers didn’t seem to make sense, didn’t seem to be compelling enough to explain why I kept choosing the eating over health.

But the more I think about it, there’s a kind of expansive freedom in eating too much of what you love—a chance to rebel, to choose it all, instead of telling yourself once again, you’re satisfied with what you have, even though you’re not. A chance to pick the ice cream and the candy and the cookies, not just be sensible and pick one. A chance to have a credible foretaste of having-it-all.

And yet: the costs. Imagining being back in that hospital room where I had the biopsy, staring once again at the ceiling with a cut-out rectangle showing a photo of a tree’s leafy branch just as fall began to happen, and thinking: maybe this could have been prevented if I had changed my life.

I don’t know, in the end that I have faith I will someday have to this journey, whether it will be more motivated by fear or by hope. No doubt, in the end, it will include some of both.

But what I have learned is I don’t want to get to the end by having a smaller appetite. I just want to get there with an appetite directed at so much more than Reese’s and Oreos.

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