There was no need for the alarm on the first rainy Saturday in April. It could have been the barometric pressure, or it could have been some noise outside, a bad dream, or, more than likely, the sugar from the wine I had shared with my friend the night before. It was 3am. I was awake. And no amount of Netflix drama was going to help me back to sleep, so whatever I picked to watch had better be good. I had at least two more hours before I had to get up for work, and three more hours before I got tired enough to really sleep.
Five hours later I was at my desk under fluorescent lights listening to the ladies talk about the course of the nor’easter as they exercised outside my office. “It’s no joke” the newspaper headlines declared as they reported on this latest April Fool’s day storm.
I was in a bad mood. It was that seething, deep depressive funk that I knew only too well after a long winter month peppered with sugar binges. The winters in New England can be long, and the month of March can feel endless. Having spent the month living out of a suitcase, focusing on the needs of my job, my move, the dog, my responsibilities, in fact, the needs of everyone but myself, I was tired and angry. I was only too willing to turn that anger onto myself to avoid snapping at others. Fortunately I had had lunch with my father the day before.
“It’s fascinating, Dad, these hormones get released when you’re hungry and, among other things, trigger the reward system in the brain.” I started to explain. He nodded as he listened. “So, when I am in a good state, sharing meals in healthy relationships, I eat healthy. But when I am in a bad mood, or in a toxic state of mind or relationship, I eat garbage.” “So what is this?” he asked pointing at our food. I laughed, “it could be better and it could be worse,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “food addicts come to AA meetings, but, it’s hard to help them. If your addiction is food, you can’t just talk them into avoiding food.” No, the reward system was designed for survival, and food is necessary for the survival of the species. You can’t just call a sponsor to keep you from eating, but you can call a buddy to get you past the bad feelings.
“Hey, buddy. It’s raining up this way. Got any jokes you can easily share? I need a lift.” Within a half hour, the man I used to work with texted me back. The jokes were clean, and shareable, and bolted me into vociferous chuckles. I texted more friends and asked for more jokes. When one texted me back to say she was too depressed to think of any jokes, I forwarded my jokes to her. “What else makes me happy?” I think to myself.
I remember a playlist I posted online ten years ago when I wanted to share my joy. I stuff a headphone into my ear and play Natasha Beningfield. She reminds me that I have all I need in the pocket of my soul and that this is the first day of the rest of my life. I share the songs on social media. There’s nothing like helping others out of their funk to get you out of your own.
In the 1940’s the government starved a bunch of male volunteers. The men wanted to serve our country this way instead of going abroad to fight in WWII. They were starved to understand the effects of hunger on people. You see, war and famine go together. Hitler had been starving Jews. The victims of war would be finding refuge on our shores. They wanted to be ready for them. Like me, what they discovered is that hunger turns men into beasts first, then zombies, and often, both. The consequences of starvation endured long after starvation ended.
Survivors of the experiment recalled, “noticing what was wrong with everybody else” and exploding with rage at the tiniest provocation. Indecisiveness in others gave rise to ire and suspicion. The men “blew up” at each other. Mannerisms that might go unnoticed before starvation became sources of friction. Men tended to experience more anxiety and insecurity and restlessness. Most men became less social, and, those who continued their social contacts often felt animosity towards strangers.
Communication degenerated. They could not keep up the pace of conversations. Questions often came too rapidly. At parties, they could not think of things to say so they tended to find chairs by the fireplace in which to slouch away the rest of the party.
Starving men lacked humor. They could not make light of things.
Some men took to acquiring and storing things in place of food. One man stole the china from the mess hall and stored it in a box under his bed.
Starving men had difficulties making decisions. When out walking, one could not make up his mind which corner to take. The little matters which are inconsequential to the normal individual became major matters of deliberation with all of the torment that entailed.
It was often a relief for a semi-starved man to walk with a healthy person because then the starved one did not have to make up his mind where to go.
During starvation the men found themselves often confused trying to undertake, or even think about, too many things at a single time. They wrote many reminder-notes to themselves.
Many of their habits carried with them during the rehabilitation, when they started to eat normally again. They continued to hold onto things, “in case they needed them later”. They became more irritable and the expression of their ire more boisterous. Their aggression was often directed outward.
They became men who postponed their living, while they endured the awful present.
Some men wanted to be babied physically, but not mentally. The men said they wanted no pity, no “gushiness”, no expressions of sympathy. Do not ask a starving man how he feels, the researchers warn, they do not want to admit how bad they feel, even to themselves.
If only I had known.
My schedule changes and my day off comes early. I am four months into the process of moving into a home that I own after seven years of homelessness interrupted briefly by the five months I shared the apartment with J and five more months of sharing a rental with first an alcoholic, then a drug addict, then an anxious boy. I have moments at home when all there is to do overwhelms me. Today is not one of them. I went to bed early last night. The dog I care for accompanied me. His slow and steady breath lulled me from the darkness at the foot of the bed. This morning, he let me sleep in.
It is raining and cold outside and I have just returned to my home from town hall. I am one step closer to establishing a rhythm of daily living. I set an intent to build a compost bin for my balcony. I make my bed. I prepare some tea. The dog-walker will tire out my charge. I have a few hours to take care of - just me. I put myself first.
I get hungry, I turn on the TV and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is on. I check the fridge. A fresh bag of arugula, a carton of shredded carrots, cilantro, salmon, and a hardboiled egg greet me. I check the cupboard. Next to the jar of roasted sunflower seeds I see Paul Newman's smiling face. “Awesome!”