My favorite French verb is tituber, which means “to stagger; to stumble.” The first time I read it was in the poem “A la princesse” by Cameroonian poet Patrice Kayo. The speaker tells his beloved they will tituber hand in hand, toward the horizon. It’s forward progression, however halting and unsteady. It’s hope. Tituber is how I journeyed through addiction.
One of my ongoing questions to Dr. Morgan was, “Where does my addiction come from?” It confounded and angered me that I had such an impossible relationship with food; no one else seemed to. At meetings, get-togethers, and anywhere else social eating was on the agenda, it appeared that people could eat without gorging. If a table of snacks was set out at a party, for example, everyone else seemed able to take some and stop. They didn’t return for a binge when the other guests had migrated to another room. Why did I? Dr. Morgan quickly identified the shame I felt when I compared myself to others, but I was slower to recognize it. He asked me a few questions in my second session about what I saw when I evaluated my perspective of others’ food habits.
“It seems like everyone else makes a conscious decision whether to eat,” I shrugged. “I don’t feel like I have the choice. I don’t make any decisions. I just eat what and when my mind tells me.” After reflecting for a moment, I went on: “In fact, I don’t think I’ve felt actual hunger in months. I eat too often to feel it.” I winced and looked at my counselor. “I’m crazy, yes?”
He chuckled almost paternally. “I don’t use the word ‘crazy,’” he said, lifting an eyebrow and shaking his head.
As I continued to talk, sometimes answering his questions and sometimes my own, I realized two things. First, I was losing every time I compared myself to others. I saw the majority as “healthy,” in contrast to an unhealthy me. The world was well; I was sick. Here’s the truth: not only was that impossible if I believed that “all have sinned and fallen short,” but it’s also ludicrous. You can’t walk through life without being wounded, and hurt does funny things to all of us. For some it creates feelings of unworthiness, for others it instills the expectation of abandonment, for others it’s rejection, and so on. But hurt people don’t escape unscathed. So if we are all hurt from time to time and mistake-prone by nature, some unhealthiness would have to be in all of us. And perhaps the more wounded we are, the likelier we are to develop unhealthy habits. Instead of being the one sick case, I was normal, even by my own logic.
The second thing I noticed was more practical. My addictive behavior was always in done secret. I was willing to go to whatever lengths were necessary – rearranging my schedule, “stretching” the truth, stopping before returning home to get rid of evidence, whatever – to hide my binges. They were more powerful than I was; the draw of the next private binge was practically running my life.
So when Dr. Morgan asked what one thing I could change starting that day, one thing that would get me a step closer to health, I said, “Well, if I do all the ‘bad stuff’ when I am alone, then I would be healthier if I always ate around other people.” And as soon as I said it, I shook my head, telling myself all the reasons that wouldn’t work. I rarely ate in front of others because I believed they would see my shame. I believed I couldn’t eat like everyone else, couldn’t follow all the unwritten rules that they all innately followed.
The rest of the day after I left Dr. Morgan’s office, I thought about not eating alone anymore – no drive-thrus, no picking up something while my then-husband was at work, no gas station snacks while driving home to see my family and friends. That was my way of life, and the thought of abandoning it was painful and impossible. I came up with endless reasons why I simply couldn’t do it.
But the short version is…I did. Even if I felt like I couldn’t make a decision about what or when to eat, I found myself able to decide where. I started getting to school earlier than necessary so I could take my lunch to the graduate assistants’ office. If I didn’t want to eat in front of people who knew me but still didn’t want to break my promise to myself, then I ate out in the open on the school grounds. I asked my friend E to have lunch with me often so I could enjoy her company and unwitting accountability. I fought fiercely against the voice that said, “It doesn’t matter where you go or who you’re with, you’re still sick. Still fat. Still different from everyone else. People don’t change; it’s who you are.” That voice blared, and some days it still does. Nor did changing the location of my meals have any bearing on what I was eating: I persisted in destructive choices. But I persevered with all the ferocity I could manage, and every single meal that week and the next, I ate in front of at least one other person.
By the next time I spoke with K, the friend I first confessed to, I was mentally exhausted from acting against a huge part of my natural instincts, but my brain had just enough space to feel in-control again. I had taken back just enough ground to muster some self-trust. I wasn’t healed in one week, but I had taken back some ground. If I couldn’t run or even walk toward healing, I could certainly tituber my way there. The healthy, redeemed me that I would one day grow into had gotten her first breath of life.