Coffee, Constipation, and Compulsion

TW: eating disorder

On my most recent trip to the Golden House, all I got was a cup of tepid, watery coffee. Diner coffee is never good, by the standards of anyone with a developed palate– there’s very little of the oils that gives good coffee its flavor. The grounds used by cheap restaurants are powdery, fine, and old. The coffee is made with water that’s too hot, to better sap small dregs of color and caffeine from the old, dusty grounds. The pot simmers on the coffeemaker for the better part of an hour, longer if it’s later in the day and nobody’s drinking. The flavor is bitter, yet weak. It coats your tongue and lingers, but it’s also unsatisfying and unmemorable. But you can drink it endlessly, which is the real charm, and it’s cheap and always there.

The coffee at The Golden House is maybe the ur example of diner coffee. It’s especially bad, I think: not undrinkable, but flavorless. In an essay about John McCain’s first Presidential bid, David Foster Wallace described a cup of campaign-trail urn coffee as hot water in which a brown crayon had been stirred, and that’s an apt description for diner coffee too. However, this coffee lacks the refreshing purity of simple hot water. It’s been tainted with something impotent, but which alters the texture, and it can upset your stomach a bit. For all its water content, it will not slake your thirst; due to its low caffeine content, it will not wake you up, and despite its acidity, it will not make you shit.

Which is a shame. I really needed it to make me shit.

— — — —

I was constipated when I met Ida at The Golden House last week. She had a horrific Spanish Omelet, bloody with unseasoned tomato sauce, and I had a coffee. Nothing else. I’d been battling constipation for several days and couldn’t imagine cramming another fluffy carbohydrate inside the living musket of my body.


Rabbits and chinchillas can die of gastrointestinal stasis, where their metabolisms slow to a crawl and gas builds up inside them without release, until their organs rupture. I’ve read too much about GI stasis because I have a chinchilla. I’m able to focus on the tight, cramped feeling in my gut and imagine that I am a closed system that will cease growing and living much longer. Even though I can burp and fart, which chinchillas cannot do, it feels like there is no pressure valve for the curdling crumbs compacted in my stomach.

Earlier this year, in the summer, I got constipated so badly there was a pain in my right side, in the back. I looked it up and determined it was either a GI problem or more major organ failure. I remembered someone I kind-of knew, younger than me, whose kidneys failed out of the blue. He didn’t live a reckless life. But he was on testosterone and had an eating disorder, and maybe one of those two were relevant, and either way, I was worried because I didn’t have the health insurance for that shit.

I ate some apples and had a shit, and the pain abated. For a while, I remembered to eat small, regularly scheduled meals with a high fiber content. It didn’t last though. After a few months I returned to my long-predisposed, ravenous-animal habits of going hours and hours without food then packing it all in. The musket got blocked again.

— — — —

I decided, this time, I was just waiting the constipation out. I would not eat until bowel movements were restored. Putting anything in my stomach before that seemed unfathomable. Besides water. And coffee.

— — — —

I always think I’m getting better, but even thinking that can be a way to keep the disordered behavior going. I can trick myself, say that I don’t feel hungry, or that I need to save money by not eating anything too expensive, or that it’s practical to walk everywhere and keep moving at all times. I can use anything as an excuse. Constipation is a perfect temptation. It makes it easy to not eat. It feels like the virtuous decision. It makes it easy to forget that my body is constantly regenerating cells and growing hair and repairing injuries and fueling body heat and generating action potentials, passive activities that require thousands of calories. If the system is closed, it doesn’t need anything new. I can just languish, empty yet full.

— — — —

In graduate school, my office mate Fatimah noticed that I would always bring bags of apples with me into the office, and eat them as a meal. “I don’t know how you can get full on just apples,” she said, no observable note of judgement in her voice.

I told her that if you had enough apples, it counted as a meal. Plus it’s so good for you! So much fiber!

I ate apples all day and heavily seasoned popcorn all night. It seemed healthy. I never felt overfull, and I was “allowed” to consume food frequently. Each apple was a small sensible meal, and I had many of them, all throughout the day. That’s good for your metabolism, right? It seemed like recovery, real recovery, the kind without binges or indulgence.

I could not recognize, at the time, that what I was doing was odd. I never know when I’m down deep in the worst throes of my disordered behavior. I can only see it when my head has broken through the surface and I can look clearly at the dark water all around me.

And I never get better unprovoked. I have to be desperate for air before I swim up. I had an eating disorder before, in high school, but that had involved starving myself all day and compulsively playing DDR to burn calories all night. This thing in grad school was different. I was eating. Every day, in fact, I ate. I thought this meant I couldn’t be sick. Even when I tried to go a full day without food — and I tried it often — — I failed. To me, this was proof of recovery. It was a seductive delusion. It was easy. It was always there.

— — — —

I had lots of rules. I had to walk while I ate anything substantial, like bread. I don’t know where I got this rule from, but I followed it doggedly for years. If I went into the Mexican grocery store on Devon and bought a donut from the bakery case, I had to also buy an apple or two, and some veggies, which I could eat at any time. But I could only eat the baked good while walking around Roger’s Park.

I vividly remember walking around the Howard Avenue Dominick’s (back when it was still a Dominick’s), late at night in the freezing cold, wearing my parka, picking at a jalapeño cheddar roll with gloved hands. I wasn’t “allowed” to eat it unless I was exercising while eating it. I had a backpack full of yogurt, and I permitted myself to eat that sitting down, if I had to. But if I wanted something “bad”, I had to work for it.

— — — —

What a view

I hoped this coffee would churn right through me, dislodging the impacted shit as it traveled to my urinary tract. That didn’t happen. I decided I needed fluids. Caffeine can be dehydrating after all. So I went to Emerald City and sipped a blood orange tea and worked on some freelance stuff.

Ida joined me some time later, and read across the table from me while I worked and willed my digestive system to do its bloody business. Not that I expected there to be actual blood in the poop. But I woulda accepted it at that point, if it meant progress was being made.

— — — —

Working alongside Ida was nice. She’s the ideal level of extroverted; great at keeping conversation going, rolling with whatever weird shit somebody has to say. But she can sit quietly and just chill, too. She’s a really friendly person, and warm, but she can shit-talk other people with subtlety and a little bit of delight.

Ida does not have a constipated personality. I do. She seems to be open to new experiences, ideas, and possibilities; I am a cramped, cranky turd slowly coursing along a flesh tunnel filled with too-viscous mucous. She flows along, and I crawl, with painful cramps at every inch of progress.

Everybody has poop problems sometimes, I’m not saying it has anything to do with a person’s personality. But it’s not a coincidence that when I slip into restrictive, unyielding patterns of thinking and behaving that my body gets restricted and unyielding too.

— — — —

I had a friend once, who lost someone to colorectal cancer. My friend developed the nervous habit of digging around in their rectum, to look for polyps. Or maybe just to break hard poops loose prematurely. The practice hurt them. Sometimes there was blood on the toilet paper. They knew it was an anxious response to the fear of disease, but they couldn’t stop.

I felt kind of blessed this friend felt comfortable sharing such intimate details with me. In return, I told them about some of my more questionable eating-disordered habits. I can’t remember which. My eating disorder was very bad at the time, which had the effect of coloring my judgment. My friend didn’t remark that I was fucked up, or tell me to stop. It didn’t even seem to register as bad to them. They complimented how sleek I looked in the jeggings I frequently wore at the time.

I liked those jeggings specifically because they were too tight to eat in. If I’d had a “bad” day — meaning one where I’d eaten a lot — I’d punish myself and set myself back on the straight-and-narrow by wearing those pants. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.

— — — —

Eventually, that day, the water and coffee combined and my constipation was relieved. It got better when I stopped thinking about it. Stress has a way of..compounding things.

One way to treat gastrointestinal stasis in rabbits is to rub their tum tums.

I’d gone almost a day without eating at that point. My digestive upset probably would’ve resolved more quickly if I had kept eating. The body makes adjustments when you neglect its needs. I know that. When you’re facing a calorie deficit, your metabolism slows. Your body temperature drops. You process information more slowly. Stress hormones in your body summon fat cells to store up what fuel you have left. Appetite increases, and images of food fill your head.

This can happen if you merely feel deprived; you don’t have to actually be starving for your body to go into disaster preparedness mode, batten down the hatches, and hold onto everything it has. Anxiety makes us tighten up. Doesn’t matter if the fear makes a lick of sense.

— — — —

Since I can’t trust myself to accurately perceive my own health, I have new rules. I don’t look at my body much anymore. I don’t stand sideways in front of the mirror and assess whether my stomach has grown or shrunk, or curse my hips for being so wide. I don’t look at any of that. I don’t have a full-length mirror. I don’t look at calorie counts on food. I try not to keep track of what I’ve had to eat in a day, or pass judgement on the quantity. I do not know my weight. When I go to the doctor, I tell them I don’t want to hear my number.

I try to trust my feelings of hunger. Try to eat whenever I get the faintest urge. I dress in a way that makes me feel less ashamed of what I’ve got. I don’t exercise every day. I eat when I’m at a social gathering and people are having food.

Of course, I find myself making bargains, loosening the rules. If I’m sick, I don’t have to eat. If my stomach is hurting, it would be foolish to have food. If I have somewhere to go, no matter how far, I can walk to it, and burn those calories that I’m totally not counting. Out with other people, I’ll order the smallest thing on the menu or just drink a hot cocoa. I’ll save my pennies by getting cheap groceries and making them last. I’ll feel satisfaction if I get a glimmer of a hint that I’m getting smaller, but I won’t try to verify the change. I’ll take iron pills so I don’t get anemic no matter what my intake is. I’ll ignore that things are getting worse, for just a little while, but not until I’m blue and freezing.

And in that way, I’m still me, even if I am growing and improving. I’m getting better at acknowledging when things are bad, while they still are bad. I don’t need months or years to pass for me to look back at my actions and worryingly say, “Oh, shit, that was not good.” My emotional metabolism is faster than it once was. I can process things in close to real time.

Recovery is an evolving process, not an achieved state. Like bad, cheap coffee, eating disorder logic is ever-available and omnipresent. My hope is that someday, if I keep fighting, those urges will be as lukewarm and lacking in potency as the brown stuff at Golden House.




I’m gonna eat every breakfast item at The Golden House in Chicago and (kind of) write about it.

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Devon Price

Devon Price

He/Him or It/Its. Social Psychologist & Author of LAZINESS DOES NOT EXIST and UNMASKING AUTISM. Links to buy:

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