Hungry for Happiness

I wake up in the morning, and I pinch my sides.

I walk down the street, and I pinch my sides.

I stand in the kitchen, and pinch my sides.

I wait for the elevator, and I pinch my sides.

I skip a day at the gym, and I pinch my sides.

My stomach growls, and I pinch my sides.

I remember she used to say, “You can’t pinch an inch on me!”

I think back to that time when I followed a friend to her taekwondo practice, way back in middle school. I remember telling the instructor that I had been losing weight. I remember him raising his eyebrow at me and, with little to no hesitation, grabbing the folds of my stomach in both of his hands and clamping down on the fat that seemed ever-present. “I don’t think so,” he still laughs in my mind.

I remember eating dinner with my mother after soccer practice. I remember the look of disgust on her face as she watched me inhale my food. I remember her pointing to a friend of mine who was eating with us and saying, “Look at his stomach. Look at how flat it is, even when he’s sitting down. Now look at yours.”

I remember not being able to bring myself to finish what was left on my plate.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with food for as long as I can remember.

I spent most of my childhood not knowing where my next meal would come from. When it was just my mom and I, our refrigerator was always empty. The cans in our cabinet were over a decade old — left behind when we’d initially moved to New Orleans, only to never be thrown out. Among the few edible things that were replaced on our weekly trips to the grocery store were the boxes of Special K and bags of bread for toast that she’d eat every morning for breakfast, along with the containers of powdered PowerAde that she’d mix with hot water and drink like tea before going to bed at night.

The first school that I went to in Atlanta was The Children’s School, starting in the second grade. It was this small one, that only went up to grade six. It didn’t have a cafeteria, but gave parents the option of buying their children meal plans for the catered food they’d order during the week from nearby restaurants if they didn’t feel like packing lunches everyday. It was pretty typical stuff: Chick-fil-a, Papa Johns, some random Chinese restaurant. You know, food that most kids wouldn’t throw a huge fit over eating once a week.

Even I’ll admit though that it wasn’t the healthiest spread in the world. So I guess, in that sense, it was somewhat understandable that my mother didn’t want me consuming it with any regularity. When we made our trips to Publix on the weekends to find food for me to take instead, I’d walk down the aisles, pointing to things I’d seen my classmates eating — Spaghetti-Os, Lunchables, Poptarts, you name it — food that would have been easy to throw in my backpack in the mornings since my mom wasn’t the kind to make my lunches herself. But I’d always hear the same response:

“That’s nothing but junk.”

“That’ll make you fat.”

“Put it back.”

But with every “no” she threw at me, my options dwindled. I had to make something out of what little I had available to me.

So, for the first three years that I lived alone with her — from the second through the fourth grade — I took ketchup sandwiches to school.

Which was alright, I guess. It wasn’t ideal, by any stretch of the imagination, but it gave me something to chew on during lunchtime, so I didn’t feel left out. Though I could have gone without the sideways stares and off-color comments from my classmates who all seemed to be of the collective opinion that I was some kind of freak for ingesting such a sorry excuse for a meal in the presence of their adult-made ones.

My sandwich had many upgrades over those years though. At some point down the line, after my mother hosted a cookout in our backyard, I started to test out adding mustard and pickles to the inner mix. In its final form, it even had some cheese. The cheese started out as the shredded kind you’d find in Kraft bags, meant for tacos or lasagna. I’d sprinkle it over the other condiments, and it would solidify in the plastic bag as this strangely hard to bite into clump, mushed between two moistened pieces of whole wheat. American singles were a Godsend.

At some point, my mother stopped wanting to take me to and from school. I remember the girl who lived two houses down would always have breakfast with her in the car when they came to pick me up in the mornings. I started to wake up earlier, and would occasionally convince my mother to let me walk over to them, instead of waiting at my front porch for them to drive up and get me, because, “It’ll be faster this way.” Because I knew that their Southern hospitality would lead them to offer me something to eat.

I remember begging them not to drop me off at home in the afternoons. Claiming that I’d be too scared to be left in my big ole house all alone. “Can’t my mom just pick me up from your place?” My request seemed reasonable. They’d often comply if they didn’t have their own plans after dropping me off. I’d eat dinner with them whether I liked the food or not. I’d always get seconds. Maybe even thirds.

I remember the day that my mom told them to stop feeding me. “She’s getting fat!” She’d say. And I was.

On the days when I couldn’t dine with them, I remember sitting in my mother’s empty room, watching TV with the door locked and the alarm set. Six o’clock, I’d call her to ask her what was for dinner. She’d tell me she would pick something up on her way back from tennis practice. Eight o’clock, I’d call her to ask where she was going. She’d tell me she was grabbing food with her friends and would let me know what was on the menu when she got there. Nine o’clock, I’d call her, but she wouldn’t pick up. Maybe the restaurant was too noisy? Five more times, straight to voicemail — I’d accept that she’d probably turned it off. Eleven o’clock, I’d wake up to the sound of the garage door opening. I’d turn off the alarm, and run outside to meet her. Open her door, only to find her, empty-handed. “I didn’t see anything that you’d want,” she’d say. “Besides, it’s too late for you to be eating anyways. You don’t want to get fat.”

I remember my mother joking a few years ago with her friends about all of the calls she’d gotten from my school asking her if she knew what I was eating. I remember her laughing and saying, “They thought I was neglecting her! But I kept telling them that she was just a picky eater.”

My life felt like it’d changed forever when I transferred to a school with a cafeteria. Lunch was paid for in tuition, so meals were unlimited. I’d pile my tray high with vegetarian “chicken” nuggets, veggie corndogs, meat-less potpie. I’d engorge myself until I could eat no more, and sleep through my classes for the rest of the day in a carb-induced coma.

The families that I carpooled with changed many times over the years because of how often the kids around me switch schools. They always had strict instructions to take me straight home so that I could be there to watch my sister when she got back. Sometimes, however, I’d still be able to convince their parents to buy me something if we stopped at a drive-thru, though they’d often look at my stomach and hesitate. “Aren’t you going to eat dinner at home?” My mind had been trained to take food when it could. I was always willing to beg for it, whether I needed it or not.

The doctors told my mother I was pre-diabetic. I started sitting in the car when she went into the grocery store because I apparently wasn’t even allowed to look at food anymore.

In high school, I’d stopped carpooling with people all together. I would just wait around on campus until seven or eight o’clock at night, until my mother could bring herself to pick me up from school. We had a student lounge that served breakfast. I never got to school early enough to grab anything hot, but would run to get a bacon biscuit or two in between homeroom and first or second period. For dinner, I’d either walk across the train tracks to a restaurant nearby, or find a friend who lived in the area to let me hangout and snack with them at their place. I just had to be back on campus by the time my mom came. She could never know I was being fed.

I remember my first boyfriend in college stopped talking to me when I called him shallow for saying that he would dump me if I gained another pound. “I mean, you’re already pushing it,” he’d added.

I remember falling into a deep depression my second year that wouldn’t let me get out of bed. Not even for meals. With no effort at all, I lost thirty pounds in a little shy of three months. I remember my mom saying, “You’re doing better. But you could stand to lose about 10 more.”

I remember making the mistake of going back to her house for the holidays two years ago. I spent the day unpacking boxes of books from my closet to see if any of them were worth taking back home to DC. I remember leaving to go do some Christmas shopping, only to come back to the boxes being repacked and replaced in my closet. Save the three books on weight loss that had been strategically placed on my nightstand.

My New Year’s resolution every year is to be skinny. To not reflexively grab my sides when I feel hungry, or think about how much I’m going to regret that piece of pizza tomorrow. Every year, on the day after my birthday, I tell myself that this will be the year that I’ll stop hating the person I see when I look in the mirror. But that birthday wish has yet to come true.