Thursday, September 22, 2011
The Last Cookie
The hostess places a platter of homemade chocolate chip cookies in the center of the table. We make the usual exclamations, and reach out simultaneously to pluck a cookie from the plate.
Minutes pass, sipping and chatting, and eventually there is only one cookie left. Every now and then someone's eyes dart to the platter, but nobody reaches for it. I call this the 'cookie dance' - nobody wants to be the one to grab for the last one, even though we're all thinking about it.
After a while we drift away to sit and chat on the more comfortable couches, and by the time I stand up to leave the last cookie is gone. Someone, at some point, snuck away into the kitchen and polished it off when nobody was looking.
On the drive home I think about the last cookie, about the unspoken code that nobody wants to be the one to eat more than the others. Part of it is politeness, perhaps, but my suspicion is that somehow scarfing the last cookie represents some kind of weakness, a feeling of need that nobody wants to reveal. Or, perhaps, it is a fear of vulnerability, that the other women will somehow have something over you - they could restrain themselves, and you had to have just one more.
But you know who's really not going to reach for that last cookie? Someone with an unhealthy relationship to food. For that person, who is sitting and chatting like everything is fine, that cookie is speaking to her. Her fear of revealing her dark secret, her obsession with food (too much or too little of it), is too great.
It reminds me of my drinking days, when I would put on my mask of normalcy, laughing and chatting with friends at a party and all the while my mind was racing, calculating how much I could drink without judgment. When the hostess would come by with a refill, I would place my hand demurely over the top of the glass and say, "No thanks, I'm driving," and then later at home, when nobody was looking, I would drink like I wanted to.
We go to great lengths to conceal suffering and vulnerability.
All this makes me think about how important our reactions are to people who take the brave step and admit their vulnerabilities out loud. For someone struggling with a secret obsession, like drinking or food, the expectation of judgment is so great, it keeps them silent and stuck in their secret would of suffering.
If a friend came to you and admitted she had a problem with food, that she was turning to food for comfort and distraction from boredom or pain, would binge eat in secret and then feel terribly about herself (or maybe purge), how would you react? Would you say "Well, I can stop at one cookie, why can't you?" Would you feel that tug of superiority that you don't have that problem? Or would you find a way to identify with her silent suffering, her feelings of inadequacy, her pain?
When someone breaks out of their silence, comes forward and admits they have a problem, they are extremely vulnerable because we are hard-wired to fit in, to color inside the lines, to stay with the pack. But our sense of the pack is skewed - when you're struggling you think everyone else has it figured out, that you're weak or flawed. The reality is everyone has something they wouldn't want the world to know about, a way they think or behave in the privacy of their own little world that they don't want anyone else to see.
I realize that alcoholism is really hard to understand for people who don't have any first (or second) hand experience with this disease. The behavior patterns and thought processes of an active alcoholic (or problem drinker) are baffling. Why on earth would anyone DO that to their lives? Why would they make such poor choices? Why would they risk so much for another glass of wine?
The answer is simple, really. They have a disease, an allergy, an obsession - call it whatever you want - that has taken over their minds and their lives. They don't want to drink too much, and they are as baffled by their own behavior as you are. THIS is why getting sober is so hard to do on your own; you are held prisoner within your own body and mind, and need help getting free.
But asking for that help is hard, because judgment is so prevalent.
Most women, on some level, can understand food problems, I think. Our culture is so riddled with images of bodily perfection that just about everyone I know diets, or talks about dieting, or has body image issues.
I find it interesting that visibly obese people are still victims of so much judgment, when most people - especially women - can understand on some visceral level struggling with food/dieting/body image. We can empathize to a point - when someone says they are dieting we are quick to offer support. But when someone crosses the line into obesity empathy becomes harder to find, because being significantly overweight pings a fear reaction in people. That person took too it too far, we think, and instead of offering support and empathy, we avoid, we gossip, we compare instead of identify.
When someone admits to struggling with drinking, or has slid into active alcoholism, they face a lot of judgment. A large part of this is likely rampant lack of understanding about addiction; people mistakenly believe it is a moral issue or a strength of character problem. If strength of character was enough to stop addiction, there would be no addicts. But another part of it is a fear response; that person has taken it too far. We go into that place where we compare ("I'd never drink that much") instead of identify ("she is suffering, and I understand suffering").
My hope is for a world where we can reach past judgment and fear and find empathy. A world where someone can show vulnerability, admit a problem out loud, and find compassion. We can't understand all problems - and addiction is one of the most difficult to understand - but we all understand suffering. Stepping outside the pack - reaching for the last proverbial cookie and admitting something isn't perfect - takes courage. And just like we can all understand suffering, we can all understand courage, too.