A Peanut Butter Ice Cream Nightmare: Food, Impulse, and (re)Ascension to Average

Today is a sort of special kind of day. Two rather significant events occurred. One: I ran a long ways (not that significant but more than I ever have before). Two. I cried. In the arms of a total stranger who had the generosity of helping warm my gloves and my heart during this awfully cold run. It’s been years since I have been that open with another human being, and we had known each other for all of about 4 minutes. It felt amazing. It’s unimaginable to me that I have held held back for so long this almost uniquely human experience for the sake of establishing a façade of stoicism. Not anymore.

So who gives a fuck right? (Btw, you’ll see this is rather uncensored commentary, and an uninhibited Duff probably falls on the heavier end of ‘vulgar’ language. Bear with me). Well, I have no idea. But it’s gonna be put out into the world regardless. Cause if 25 years of living has taught me one thing, it’s the more garbage you hold in, the more septic your mind and spirit become (yes, Ryan Duff is getting spiritual, hold onto your fucking hats). And you don’t need to be in medical school to know that sepsis is really not a good thing. In accordance with my all-or-nothing, impulsive, do-or-do-not attitude, allow me to take out the trash.

So you’ve made it this far and you have no idea what I’m talking about, or why. If you have spoken to me in person you’re in familiar territory. Let me explain. Let’s take a little trip back in time. I grew up in what I will finally admit to the world (or the maybe 5 people reading this) was not an average household. I have lied about that for a while, so let’s unpack that dumpster. Out of respect for everyone involved, I’ll just say I was privy to a torrent of alcohol addiction, drug addiction, eating disorders (remember that one we’re coming back to it), and a suicide attempt to boot. Fights were the norm. ‘Walking on eggshells’ was the rule rather than an idiom. And all around a relative dearth of communication – between anyone. Talk about dysfunctional. As the youngest of 4 progeny, I thought myself ‘lucky’ having escaped all this misfortune personally. ‘I’ll never be like that!’ said my (even more than now) naïve self. ‘How can people be so selfish?’ ‘Why can’t they just be happy?’ ‘Why would they do that to themselves?” Little Ry-blaster had it all figured out. I’d have to wait until my twenties to learn just how dumb I really was.

Sidetrack: I took a liking to running from a young age. There were times running with my mom as a grade-schooler when I remember really being authentic, having meaningful conversations, and pondering on what it means to run through exhaustion. Hell, I still use ‘run to the next street light’ as a motivational ploy to persevere through a long-run bonk, and I developed that at the ripe age of 7. It served me well this morning, this afternoon, and this evening. But it truly took off in college. I remember specifically one cold evening during winter break of freshmen year when I get lost out in the country roads for a couple hours to come back and realized I ran my first half-marathon. Go me! But it was fun. And I felt alive. And I fucking loved it. Whatever concoction of neurochemicals that were sustained in my brain (I’m sure I’ll learn more than I ever wanted to know this Spring) during that first, true, cold, long run was enough to get me hooked. And hooked I still am. But that wasn’t so much the issue. If running was the ‘yang’ of my solitary happiness, then a dark ‘ying’ lingered in the shadow of my constrained spirit: food obsession. Growing out of a sense of loneliness (not solitude) and dissatisfaction, my obsession with it manifested in much the same ways as is common among young adults (usually women, but ask anyone who knows me just how much I hate gender stereotypes). It was borne out of an obsession with body image, a sense of ‘accomplishment’ in achieving a certain look, and a more desirable motivation of wanting to just run faster and farther. It took time, but by my midway through sophomore year of college, well, I was finding out just how deep that rabbit hole went.

I never quite matched the clinical definition of anorexia nervosa. I think I never hit that low of weight, and it didn’t significantly effect my energy levels, but certainly a drop 30-40 lbs in a relatively normal weight, active 20 year-old would be cause for concern for anybody. But with a lack of meaningful interaction with friends and family, who was there to stymie the symptoms? To keep me in check? To ask how I was doing and intervene appropriately? Okay, I would never, ever, hold anybody else accountable for my actions. I was responsible for what happened, and me alone. But I would also never, ever, suggest that I had an ounce of training in dealing with negative thoughts and emotions, how to manage stress and external pressures, and how to just generally socialize with others in a way (well, in ANY way) that is conducive to emotional well-being. Without any of these skills to cope, what’s a rather impulsive, stressed-out, food-obsessed, eating disorder pre-disposed, 20-something-guy going to do?

Okay, fast-forward. About a year and a half. And to, in my mind, more dire straits. We’ve been keeping up this restrictive diet for a while. Restrictive is maybe not the word – let’s go with highly ordered with a (un)healthy dose of mal/undernourishment. What a mouthful! Anyway, fast-forward. Right. I remember it like it was yesterday. Coming home from class, getting ready for my usual dinner of flaked mashed potatoes. Yeah, like the ones that come in a fucking box. No butter or cheese, made with water, but an abundance of salt. Delicious, right? But! A thought occurred. You know what sounds good right now? Like, REALLY fucking delicious. A peanut-butter jelly sandwich. On a bagel. A sweet, chocolate chip bagel! Now this is something similar to what I’d eaten for breakfast just about every day of my life for the past 2 years (keep the pb+j, take out the bagel and replace with 2 slices of some ‘low-calorie’ bread). But for dinner?! You gotta be kidding me – I wouldn’t dream of it! Think about how many calories that would be! Didn’t I already have a big lunch? But sure enough, before I knew it, I was putting away that pb&j bagel faster than you could imagine. Maybe not the craziest thing in the world. Not a totally uncommon snack in America. Especially for ‘runners,’ as one might describe me. But that voice wasn’t finished. That was not satiating, not even close. What’s the harm in another one? When I was in high school, two PB&J’s and a couple of chocolate milks constituted my daily lunch. What really was the harm? Come on, you ran 8 miles this morning, you can put another one away! That sandwich was delicious – have another! And for the first time in many years, well…that’s exactly what I did. Still, no regrets (yet). But here’s the kicker. Now is where it gets really crazy. I mean a little (lot of) bit psycho. About 10 minutes, 4 more Pb&J bagels, half a quart of chocolate milk, and a few handfuls of candy later, and I was, well…satiated? Full? Hmmm…let’s try sick. Enter normal brain: What the fuck just happened? I felt like I had just entered a zombie trance. At no point during that exercise did I feel anything that amounted to rational thought. And…and, well by god – it felt good! At least, while it was happening. That amount of peanut butter, bread, and dairy will put a fucking knot in your gut. But when was the last time I ate something without looking at a food label first? Without knowing it has x calories or y grams of fat? I actually thought I’d accomplished something – like I was really breaking free! Sure, now I felt sick, but wasn’t that better than being perpetually unsatisfied? Anything had to be better than that prison of malnourishment, obsession, and starvation, right? As it turns out, for the better part of four years, I’d find myself in a new rabbit hole that went deeper, and was far worse than anything I’d ever experienced before.

Having not been fruitful in meeting the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, my perturbed brain thought it would try its hand at binge-eating disorder (it was a rousing success). What I described above was my first episode of binge eating. It was, unfortunately, not the last, not the most severe, and not the last time I’d say ‘never again’. For now, I’ll refrain from expounding the gory details. Suffice to say, there was significant weight gain, a food log, calorie counting, broken promises to myself, attempts at purging (and 2 physiologically induced purges from a couple of really intense episodes), and even some suicidal ideation when I did finally bottom out (another topic for another day).  I truly cannot estimate the pints of ice cream, jars of peanut butter, donuts, boxes of cookies, whole pizzas, sandwiches, burritos, blocks of cheese, bags of chips, and every other imaginable shit food I had consumed individually in those years. If I thought I had been obsessed with food before, I didn’t understand what being under the dominion of it really felt like. Every waking moment was focused on how I could stifle the voice. What and where and how much I was going to eat. And, at its worst, about 5 nights a week, ending with an all-consuming binge. All I can tell you now, is through true recognition of what I was doing, and why, and the tools to stop it, was I able to put that beast to bed. FOR GOOD.

There are three books I read specifically that got me out of that hell. It took a while for me to put that knowledge into wisdom (much like I had the knowledge that an eating disorder could fuck up your life but not the wisdom to actually prevent it), but eventually it…well, it just clicked. Brain Over Binge, and its compendium Brain Over Binge Recovery Guide, as well as Rational Recovery. The RR book was designed for alcoholics, but if I could (and the author of the former book could as well) ascertain anything from this despicable habit, it’s that impulsivity is a mutual component of both binge eating and binge drinking. And that’s what these books got to the heart of. Again, for now, I’ll refrain from the exact processes that are involved as its not the focus of this admittedly long post. The point is that I needed just a little more than what was given to me in these books. I needed to communicate. To share. Even if it meant just putting it on paper. My true thoughts. I needed to establish friendships. I didn’t predict that my that my recovery would find its birth within the middle of the first semester of medical school – but I’ll take it. I will fucking take it.

I couldn’t have recovered, made it through this semester, and (as scary as it is to admit) possibly survived without communication. Without expressing to individuals what I was feeling. There were other factors to (another post for sure), but principally this is a story I’ve needed to share since before it even started. Anxiety and stress exists within all of us. You can hold it in or you can share. I tried the former. Hopefully this post has conveyed to you that didn’t work. Through the semester I tried the latter – no, I didn’t share this level of personal experience. In fact, this is the first I’ve told anyone any of this part of the story. But the overwhelming stress of school, the problems with family, the joys of running (and the not so joyous occasions of falling/spraining ankles). All this I started to share with friends. I could have balled all that shit up into a binge. Into isolation. You don’t destroy yourself with food while around people – it’s a solitary endeavor. Whoever said misery loves company doesn’t know how good 2 pints of Ben and Jerry’s are after a whole pizza and a box of chips ahoy cookies watching Netflix by yourself (it’s miserable). Though I almost had it beat before I started school, it wasn’t until a cold day in early November when it clicked for good (another topic, for later). I had all of the knowledge that I needed to overcome that beast. I knew I had found ways to deal with the urges, to mitigate stress, and to just be present. It’s all because I sought help, and found it within the books described above. But the final piece to the puzzle was communicating my thoughts and feelings. The everyday things that, if left untouched, WILL break you. All the things that just ad to all the toxic garbage that builds in one’s mind and soul. That place of isolation and secrecy is not a place I ever want to be again. Which brings me to this blog. If communicating some of my thoughts/feelings/emotions amounted to successfully ending this nasty ordeal, what effects could there be by communicating all of them? Why wouldn’t I try it? Let’s see how far that rabbit hole goes…

So hopefully you stick along for the ride. I have some ideas for what will be produced in this blog, but regardless of the point of each post, rest assured knowing that the words will represent, now or at some point in the past, my truest and most authentic self. Some reservations will be placed only out of respect of those people involved who would like to be anonymous. Not that I consider myself as someone with a story really worth writing home about. Honestly, this experiment is more for my benefit than anyone else. I know it will keep me ‘sober.’ And if it doesn’t, I’ll be damned if it that story doesn’t end up on here anyway. In full fucking detail. But in my opinion, even a barely average dude like me has got something to share. Meaning everyone has got a story to share. Whether that story is completely public or private, shared with many or shared with few, it deserves to be heard and understood. If I’m good at one thing (and if grad school taught me anything, it’s that that might just be true), it’s doing shit people don’t often do. Run 50 miles to celebrate ‘sobriety?’ Fuck yeah. Write a public blog detailing every hitherto tacit event that almost destroyed you for the sake of being honest? Tell me where to sign. It might be dumb, or strange, but it’s definitely me. And who I am now is definitely closer to me than I have ever been in my life.

Me. Unleashed. Hopefully you stick around. I think we’ll both learn something.

One Reply to “A Peanut Butter Ice Cream Nightmare: Food, Impulse, and (re)Ascension to Average”

  1. This is AMAZING!!! I am an anorexia survivor and used November Project to help with my recovery. Thank you for sharing your story, you’re so right about communication and openness in helping most with recovery. Thank you for being so brave and honest. I hope to meet you someday!

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