I tear open the small yellow package of danger and pour seven uneven, egg-shaped, multicolored morsels into my left hand. Peanut M&Ms have been an obsession of mine since I was young. Even now, even when I know that the candy coating will cut my tongue, the non-organic peanuts carry pesticides and toxic mold, the chocolate keeps me from sleep in the wee morning hours, the sugar erupts tiny red craters on my cheeks, even still, they are like good, old friends.
They rattle into my hand, three brown, two orange, one green and one blue. I toss the crumpled wrapper behind me into the trash. It lands atop a banana peel, a couple of carrot tops, and some shards of glass from the mason jar that previously contained my healthy dinner option. By now, the sweet little devilish egg-shaped candies are sticking slightly to my hand, leaving blue #27, and red #3 on my warm, moist palm. They don’t melt as fast as chocolate chips do, when gathered on the palm on the way to my anxious mouth. In this way, M&Ms are better suited for the methodical hand-to-mouth habit that I find so often I turn to for comfort. Sometimes I am not aware of what is happening, until I “come-to”, finally conscious of that familiar softness of finger tips meeting lips.
I noticed it tonight. Even with olives, or maybe especially with olives, those juicy, drippy morsels that require an extra suck and smooch to keep fingers clean. It’s funny to think of the comfort foods I created during childhood. Black olives eaten out of the can, one after another, fingers in the can, fingers in the mouth. Peanut m&ms. Smartfood popcorn. “Healthy” jalapeno cheese puffs. Red Hot Blues tortilla chips with Temptee whipped cream cheese. The list goes on.
There are only six now. The first chocolate covered peanut disappeared into my mouth earlier as I reached behind my seat to throw away the wrapper. What IS it about the hand to the mouth action? What is it about the feel of finger tips to lips? All focus on the task at hand (no pun intended). The world slows down for a moment. The fact that I don’t have a home of my own is now not a worry; my empty belly and a heart that yearns for connection are, in this short moment, forgotten.
The problem with this tactic is that the worries and emptiness are still there as soon as the ritual is through. The hunger, physical and emotional, is not gone. I have either stopped because the food is gone, or because I have noticed that my stomach is beginning to feel ill. Or, more recently, I have begun to stop because, all of sudden, I wake up. Something gets my attention and reminds me that I am already whole. That the desperate hunger which I am feeling is often not, in fact, a function of an empty belly, nor of a current lack of ability to meet my needs.
It comes, instead, from programming. From an old program I created as a child, back when I wasn’t always in charge of my situation. When I didn’t have a say, or didn’t know I had a say about my circumstances, back when the only choice I thought was mine was whether to eat, or not to eat. And usually there wasn’t a question.
Food has been the substance I turn to for comfort since I was a baby. Yes, I know, that is normal. We all do that. We feel sad, tired, etc. and mom gives us the boob or the bottle and everything is better. But somewhere along the way, I think I missed an important transition. I bypassed the fork in the road where I would (eventually) discover that I was now responsible for my well-being, and with that responsibility came the freedom to make choices about things in my life that I hadn’t felt free to make before. Missing that rather important discovery, I continued as a young adult, a teenager, and then a 20-something, to believe that when I needed comfort, food was the best option, the one and only thing I could count on.
The m&ms are still sitting in my hand. I don’t particularly want to eat them any more, and now I am not sure what to do with them. This is a common issue for me. I have a strong dislike of wasting food, so I often find myself disposing of food into my mouth when no alternative storage options are presented. I think in this particular instance, though, I will send the m&ms to join their wrapper in the trash. [I am reminded of one Christmas when my boyfriend and I had stopped eating sugar and he was about to throw away a plate of homemade cookies, all the way from his grandmother in Germany, and I stopped him, saying what a waste it was, and why didn’t he bring them into the folks at work. “Lily”, he said, “if you had a bag of cocaine and you had just quit your habit, would you bring it into your friends at work so it wouldn’t go to waste?” Good point.]
I used to be desperate enough that I might later decided that I “had to have those m&ms” and would find myself carefully picking them out of the trash. I think I have made some progress, though. I am better at breathing these days, and I don’t think it will be a problem. The glass shards would be a good deterrent — in case I am tempted.
Sometime in the last few years I realized that now, as an adult, I am in charge of my life. That may seem like a rather obvious realization, and one that maybe could have come a bit before I turned 30, but I think that even though I knew I was responsible for my life, I hadn’t yet discovered the freedom that comes along with the perceived weight of that responsibility.
I love the notion of responsibility as access to change. The idea that when I take responsibility for some part of my life, I am claiming my power and the ability to take action. Then, instead of responsibility acting as a vehicle for blame, unwillingly driven by me, the guilty victim, it is the cargo vessel for change. When I take responsibility for my life, I now, all of a sudden, have a say in how it goes. I make the shift from victimized driver to powerful captain.
When I slow down for long enough to remember that I am driving my own bus, I get present to the fact that I always have a choice about my next move. I think I need to say that again: “I always have a choice about what I do next!” When I remember that, I can allow myself to take the time to get present to what is really going on. What am I really feeling? What are my actual needs? What is the most effective way to meet these needs? What will be the effects down the road from whatever action I choose?
I am hungry. My belly is growling. I am tired. A little thirsty, too. I am about to arrive back home after traveling for a month. I am not sure where I will be living for the winter, and I have chosen to stay with my parents tonight which means I will be entering the dynamics of the place where I grew up — the place where I spent so long using the now-dysfunctional program called, “food = comfort”. I will be preparing and eating food in a strictly vegetarian kitchen, the diet my family has followed since I was young, so, while there, I won’t necessarily be able to keep the promise to myself to eat what my body wants.
And yet, even as these circumstances cause anxiety to rise in my body, I still have a choice. As I start my car and drive off the ferry onto the island I call home, I am reminded of that choice by the faint rainbow of colors still painted on my palm.