“You know what would be a good idea?” Either of us might ask it of the other. In those days, it was a question that had several answers, some of which are not printable. Mostly, though, the “good idea” would be:
Me: “I didn’t eat any more than you did!”
Him: [looking at me incredulously. Points to himself, then to me, then to himself, then to me].
Me: [suddenly realizing that I am almost precisely half his size, therefore I just ate twice as much].
He used to make me “whole grain” homemade waffles every weekend. Or, I should specify, A waffle, because they were the size of an entire dinner plate. When he started doing Weight Watchers, we found that these waffles were 22 points each, and I get 21 points a day. I would eat this 22-pound waffle and then go back to bed and sleep for three hours, which I think is how bears work. You know, bears, those animals with a weight range from 180 to 1500 pounds?
We once had a mild quarrel when he was helping me move out of my apartment, and I was cleaning out my fridge, and there was a jar with three maraschino cherries in it, and I ate them all rather than call him over and share them. (And I kind of choked on the syrup, so it serves me right, I guess).
We had another mild quarrel when I had filled both the chest freezer and the fridge freezer, and the doors wouldn’t really close any more. Him: “You have to stop cooking.” Me: “No!” My solution was to start sending the overflow to various hungry bachelors in our acquaintance. Then we started having more people at our open house, so I had a channel for my fixation on feeding people.
Our relationship began in a paradigm of being overweight and knowing it, planning and working to “do something about it,” yet also really, really enjoying recreational eating. I introduced him to Nepalese, Vietnamese, and Ethiopian cuisine. He made me dozens of pancakes and waffles. We went to the gym together, sometimes for 90 minutes a session. We went for long walks, generally to a restaurant, where the 100 or so calories we burned would poof back into existence like a freshly reborn phoenix.
We denied each other nothing. If either of us suggested “a treat,” the other was for it. On the rare occasion when one of us was trying to “be good,” it might last for that instance, but then it was almost like spending a voucher. The next time a choice point came up, it was back to indulgence.
Something interesting about this is that he is an Upholder and I am a Questioner, yet this dynamic of “giving each other permission” to overeat seems to work across tendencies. It’s probably near universal for Obliger couples, who are the most vulnerable to caving in under peer pressure. Counterintuitively, I tend to be the bad cop, because if I stop thinking something is a good idea, it loses its appeal, and I won’t do it anymore. Upholders seem to operate more along the lines of “as long as I am upholding everything in my rulebook, everything else is fair game.” When I realize that I have a loophole, I feel embarrassed, like I forgot to put on pants, and the loophole pulls closed. “Whoa, I have never turned down an opportunity to overeat, even though I always eat sensibly at home.” To me, that feels almost as dodgy as the cheating partner who claims, “It just happened.” Oh, I tripped and fell and suddenly I had a box of a dozen Voodoo Donuts, where they only take cash and you have to wait in line for half an hour? That “just happened”? We’ve both learned to acknowledge our desire to eat stuff and then discuss it.
Part of what changed our dynamic around food was that we made a formal agreement before we got married. We vowed that we would both commit to take care of our health and to be accountability partners. We agreed that we would take each other’s direction if either of us felt the other needed to see a doctor or other health professional. We’ve lost 100 pounds between us, and we discussed keeping our weight within a healthy range, too. We know full well that we each have our own independent tendency to overeat and steadily gain weight, and that we have the ability to reinforce those tendencies when we work as a team. A sort of competitive eating team, trying to win a bronze medal at least, which is darn tough in the US!
Another thing that changed our food paradigm was learning more about nutrition. I am the driver of this effort; in the world of dietetics I am what is known as the “nutritional gatekeeper.” In many families, that gatekeeper is the one who keeps buying pies and cases of soda and bringing home steaming hot paper sacks of fast food. In some households, that gatekeeper is a preschool-aged picky eater, bound and determined to get rickets or die trying. In our marriage, it’s me, the Questioner with the insatiable appetite for nonfiction books and articles and documentaries. He read a few of the books and watched a few of the movies and went to a couple of the seminars. We mutually agreed to double, then double again, our vegetable consumption. If anything, he genuinely enjoys eating vegetables even more than I do, and he’ll gladly eat just about anything. (He hates winter squash and eggplant, but he has been shifting on those and trying them occasionally, because we both think picky eating is poignantly sad).
Something else that changed our food paradigm was my sudden, completely uncharacteristic obsession with distance running. To say it came out of nowhere would be understating the case. We both had a membership at the same gym for a while before we started dating. Sometimes we would work out together. He noticed that I was up to 4.5 mph on the treadmill, on a fairly steep incline. He asked, “Why don’t you just start running?” I tore him a new one. I went off on how much I hate running, and how he obviously hadn’t been paying attention about my fibromyalgia, and how I did things at my own pace (always), and how he needed to mind his own business and not lecture me until he was fitter than I was. (Athletically, he was fitter than I was, at least at the time). Naturally, he was right. I was too caught up in my perception that I always know what is best for myself, which is what makes me uncoachable. He was speaking from three decades of experience as an athlete, training as a team, playing as a team, and working under the tutelage of a knowledgeable leader. He knew how to assess people’s body mechanics, fitness level, experience, and innate suitability for different sports at a glance. I knew nothing about any of those things, and I wasn’t prepared to accept his expertise. I’m stubborn, but I’m not dumb, and gradually I started listening to him and being more open to advice.
The other thing that changed was that I finally decided to look up the “healthy weight for my height” and do whatever it took to get there, at least for a while. I had never been at that healthy weight, and I had no idea what it felt like. I figured I would find out, and if I didn’t like it, it could be temporary. I know how to gain a pound a day. If I felt weak or frail or dizzy or whatever, I could be back to “normal” in a few days. What happened was that I tried it and I loved it. Every message our culture has to send, it is sending toward “people like me,” warning that we are in severe danger if we do such insane, self-loathing things as use the scientific method to experiment on what feels best for our bodies. Things such as using metrics, like weighing in every day and tracking what we eat. Things such as eating a salad when we want a salad, or turning down free cake. I’m being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee next week because I refuse to eat bacon. Anyway, my examination of our cultural dynamics around food changed my position on a lot of things. We now have this continuing dialogue thread that has kept us more focused on the intellectual side than that “mouth wants flavor” thing we used to have going on.
It was up to me all along. There are a million things I can do as a “treat” that don’t involve poisoning my organs with excessive, biologically inappropriate food intake. There are also a million things we can do as a couple that don’t revolve around licking a spoon. Just because a large part of our relationship involved overeating for a long period of time doesn’t mean we lost anything after that changed. We still love to eat, and we still go out. Not as often, but then we both love to cook and we often prefer our own version of a dish to a restaurant’s version. We’ve learned to love eating things that are better for us, and leave us feeling good after the meal instead of groaning through a food hangover. What we’re doing is exploring uncharted territory together. We’re becoming stronger, more aware, more capable and active people. We have newfound physical stamina that allows us to enjoy doing things we would have ruled out in the past, such as living in a tent in Iceland for three weeks. When we turned our backs on the frozen Oreos, it opened up new vistas of adventure and excitement. It turns out that recreational eating is a flimsy substitute for the good life.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.