Bite By Bite

by Mary Connors

When I was fifteen and a half, I began my first job.
It was at Grant's Department Store in Everett,
Massachusetts. I worked there after school,
a few days a week, from 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Grant's layout and function was similar to Woolworth's. You could pretty much purchase any little thing at Grant's. The candy counter was a highlight, conveniently located smack-dab in the middle of the store. People would come in and purchase pounds of chunk chocolate, raisinettes, bridge mix, and caramel patties.

By some stroke of luck, or so I thought, this confectionery center became one of my regular posts for duty. I was excited about making my own money, and so I was quite congenial as a salesgirl for the first three to four hours of work. Then an ugly transformation occurred, one spawned by sugar. The surrounding smells and sights would begin to invade my senses, and I would silently vow to have just one. Sneaking a chocolate was much too easy. I simply slipped my hand through the sizeable portal leading to these mouth-watering gems. Slowly, the effects of taking one after another began to show.

By about 8:30 p.m. my conversion was complete. My demeanor was markedly altered. I would become irritable and cranky, and literally stare down anyone who attempted to approach me. Not terribly good for sales. I attributed my change in behavior to the lateness of the hour and my age, but I realize now that it was the sugar. I would hypothesize now that my blood sugar reading was somewhere between four and five hundred. A normal blood sugar for a person without diabetes is between 70 and 120.

At the end of the shift I would drag myself up the hill home, my body sapped of energy, and drop into bed. Not only was I exhausted by the rise in my blood sugar, which left me with an insatiable thirst and visits to the bathroom all night long, but also full of remorse the next day, agitated and feeling horrid. Just like an alcoholic.

My food issues, which remained my secret for a long time, were complicated by my diabetes. Diagnosed with this condition at a young age, I was forced to limit my food intake, to eat at specific times, and most significantly to resist, resist, resist. Family members hovered over every morsel. Everyone who knew my diagnosis took it upon themselves to function as another guardian. "Should you be eating that?" still echoes in my ears.

As an active child I learned to disregard hunger. My food intake seldom reflected the level of my appetite. I was on a prescribed amount of insulin, so I was allowed a certain portion of food. My mind played a minute role regarding the activity of my stomach. When I began to rebel, food became a weapon, a very powerful one indeed.

After many years of compulsive eating, I attended some 12-step recovery programs. I began with a program for children of alcoholics, where I learned how to open my mouth, not to devour, but to express my feelings. I kept my food issues in obscurity, though. I finally made my way into a recovery program specifically for overeaters. There, among others like me, I found a solace that hadn't been present in my life. It took me a long time to comfortably enter into and exit from the meeting room. I didn't want anyone to know of my weakness. I imagined others seeing it as purely disgusting.

One time after a meeting, my paranoia was clearly present and about to be confronted. The meeting had taken place in a building that housed many different recovery programs in other rooms. As I stepped outside into a group of men in either drug or alcohol recovery, I heard raucous laughter. One man said, "Yeah, I think I'll go punish myself with a pizza." I was seized by an impulse to grab him by the shirt, and meet eyeball to eyeball. I wanted him to feel the heat of the flames emanating from my flared nostrils. I needed him to hear word-for-word that we were not that different in our attempts to negate our feelings. Like alcohol abuse, food compulsivity drains life energy, damages gastrointestinal tracts, diminishes sexual stirrings, isolates us socially, and adds to a cycle of hopelessness and lack of faith that is difficult to halt.

Food compulsions or disorders occur across the board. Both men and women of all ages and shapes are affected. But eating disorders are still cloaked in shame, and many who suffer from these conditions keep them hidden. Recovering alcoholics seem to receive a badge of courage, while those recovering from compulsive overeating, bulimia, and anorexia are still often regarded simply as having a lack of willpower.

Food has served me kindly. It has been at the core of my personal and spiritual development. Food learning to withhold it has led me directly back to God. I have learned to take comfort from God, instead of from food. A moment or two of prayer to God has helped allay my anxiety, rather than food. Conversing with God in uncomfortable situations guides me, unlike reaching for food

The problem of turning to food will persist in my life, and so will the complicating factor of my diabetes. Not a morsel enters my mouth without some thought of its impact on my system. Potato chips: oh, consider the sodium content and its impact on my kidneys. Pancakes: can my body afford the syrup? Should I risk it when I already feel a yeast infection on the rise? Chocolate: can I stop at just one? Recently, as I bent to inhale the compelling scent of an open and welcoming box of See's Candy on a tabletop at work, I reminded myself that chocolate is not my friend, and I was able to walk away. That day.

These conversations go on in the minds of many people, not just those of us with diabetes. As I continue to pray for the
strength to make the right choices, I feel much consolation knowing that I am not alone in this struggle. I never was. God is standing by to remind me, "Mary, honey, sweetie-pie (a private little joke between us), trust me."

This article was excerpted from Mary Connors' manuscript, "Filled with Sweet Blood and Fury," a nonfiction work that spans her 31-year history with diabetes and that includes reflections on her professional life as a singer and an RN.


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