The one rule that I have never been able to stick to in every diet I’ve ever been on, is don’t eat in front of the TV. The reasoning for the rule is that when you watch TV you go into a dissociative state – you are focusing on the TV characters or the story or the horrible news, or the sound effects, and not on yourself – and therefore you are likely to overeat. But distracting myself from myself is pretty much the point of watching TV. I find my own thoughts overwhelming, especially my own thoughts around food.
I haven’t had a problem with other aspects of dieting – I can drink enough water, and exercise, and use small plates, and eat-this-but-not-that, and reduce portion sizes – but I can’t turn off the TV. If I were only allowed to eat at the dining room table, with no distractions, I think I might starve to death – because food just isn’t worth that kind of suffering.
This sounds crazy, I know. But I think the problem started because nightly family dinners were one of the most consistently awful parts of my childhood. And it was consistent. My parents, who didn’t believe in regular chores or bed times, believed in eating dinner together as a family, every night, no matter what. I couldn’t escape to eat alone in my room, or say I wasn’t hungry, or even leave the table early. Those were just not options in our house. When I found out that other families didn’t always eat dinner together, I was shocked.
We didn’t eat “kid food.” I heard about families where the kids ate fish sticks, or chicken nuggets, or refused to eat vegetables, or only ate white food, but I thought those were fairy tales. There was only one menu for dinner and it had to fit what my father wanted to eat and that was that. There was a time when my brother tried to be a picky eater, keeping his peas away from his meatloaf on the plate, or refusing to eat cream cheese and jelly sandwiches because they just didn’t go together, but that didn’t last. He trained himself to eat whatever was put in front of him, whether he liked it or not.
My father also had a habit of throwing dishes (if they had minor chips in them), or yelling about having to eat chicken twice in one week, or just yelling because he was in the mood to yell. Otherwise, dinner conversation was most often focused on my father’s problems at work, or arguments about paying the bills, or other adult problems that needed to be solved. There were so many times when all I wanted to do was to crawl under the table and sit with the dog, whichever dog we had at the time, but I wasn’t allowed to do that either.
I remember Friday night dinners, the worst of the worst of family dinners each week, when we had to stay at the table for hours, with guests, and discuss the news (Jeffrey Dahmer), and the gossip from our synagogue (ugh, don’t ask), and the latest unfairness my father had experienced at work (where they were all out to get him), and listen to my father’s childhood stories, where the moral of every story seemed to be that he could get away with doing any crazy shit he wanted. Everyone acted like all of this was normal, but I didn’t want to hear about the serial killer who ate his victims, or the rabbi’s affairs, or my father’s paranoia. And when I didn’t join in with the laughter or sympathy the way I was supposed to, I became the problem. That was when I became the target of jokes about my sensitivity, my looks, my eating habits, etc. I was a rich target, they told me, because I always “overreacted.”
I remember a few times in my teens when I desperately wanted to leave the table, and leave behind yet another endless argument about whether murder is really wrong, or monogamy is necessary, or sexual harassment is actually a thing. I was the only one on my side of every argument (Mom abstained, excusing herself from the table to serve food or fill the dishwasher or do pretty much anything else). As the awfulness continued, I actually fell to the floor hiccupping with high pitched giggles, unable to catch my breath.
I still wasn’t allowed to leave the table, though Mom came over to rub my back and give me a glass of water (which I promptly snorted through my nose).
My eating habits were already disturbed by then. I was sneaking food past my mother after school, and alternately starving myself and binging on cookies I didn’t even like (either because my father liked them and if I ate them he couldn’t have them, or because they were the only cookies in the pantry).
I tried, once, as an adult, to force myself to eat at the kitchen table in the old apartment. I put a notebook next to me so that I could write down whatever came to mind, and I sat solemnly in my seat, alone, staring at my food. But I couldn’t eat, or write, or breathe, really. I persisted, one meal a day for a week. If it had led to pages and pages of writing, and insight, and recognition of the emotions behind it all, I might have continued the experiment, but none of that happened. Everything in me just shut down, and all I could do was force myself to sit there and fork food into my mouth, but I couldn’t taste anything.
So when the week was over, I let myself eat all of my meals in the living room again, in my comfy chair in front of the TV, and color came back into my life and food tasted good again. I knew I was choosing to dissociate from my body, and most of my mind, as I sat there eating in front of the TV, but I also knew that that was the best I could do at that moment.
I still struggle to taste the food when I eat at a table with other people. The anxiety is too big and I just eat mindlessly, unaware of hunger or taste or how much I want to eat.
With my Intuitive Eating project, I didn’t even bother trying to eat away from the TV, even though it’s high on the list of rules, or suggestions. I told myself, and my nutritionist, that this was one rule I knew I couldn’t follow, and if she insisted on it then I wouldn’t be able to continue. But she accepted it. She said that you should only challenge yourself as much as is helpful, because pushing past your limits is counterproductive.
So, I eat while I’m watching the news, or Christmas movies, or Law & Order. I eat with a towel on my lap, to protect the couch and my clothes. I eat with my dogs surrounding me, begging for my food with their eyes, and then with their voices. And the food tastes good. Maybe someday I will be able to eat dinner at the dining room table (I’ll have to move the dog treats, box of wee wee pads, and containers of snacks first, though), and maybe not.
In the meantime, I hope I can come to some kind of peace with food, even if I can’t come to peace with the dining room table.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?