Wednesday, April 22, 2009


When I was a kid in Paris, my family was fairly poor and in the post-war years, very little decent food was available. The major cities of France--and indeed of all Europe--were devastated and what little sustenance could be found was prohibitively expensive. I was raised on mare's milk, which is strangely blue, horse meat, leeks and cabbage, and a horrible concoction called bouillie.

Bouillie was yesterday's bread boiled in water, with a dash of red wine added and salted to taste. It resembled porridge or perhaps mucousy oatmeal, and there is not a Frenchman my age who, to this day, does not shudder in remembrance. Foods like bouillie--and there were many--lacked vitamin, protein, and even carbohydrate value. They were unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. As a result, most French people my age who were raised in the metropolitan centers have terrible teeth and very poor eyesight. And we're always hungry. Or at least, I am.

So it has been a revelation, recently, to attend 12-step meetings dedicated to accepting my addiction to food.

One of the very first facts I came to terms with is that I often cannot recognize when I am hungry. At some time between childhood and now, hunger transcended being a sensation for me; it became a feeling, and over the years I have assigned hunger to a number of other emotions that have nothing to do with my need for food. Anger, boredom, fear, frustration, loneliness, all become reasons to eat, reasons to avoid dealing with reality, reasons to instead rely on that good physical feeling of a full belly and a desire to sleep. Avoidance, denial, a yearn to control, all very familiar feelings to someone who spent many, many years dependent on alcohol and drugs.

With food dependence, the principles remain the same: spirituality, an acceptance of powerlessness, a willingness to ask for help. But if a program for alcoholics must stress total abstinence from all alcohols and psychoactive drugs, one for overeaters cannot blandly proscribe all foods. The problem is not black and white anymore--I may be able to avoid drinking alcohol, but I can't forswear eating. There's a level of complexity here that I have not faced before. I have choice, an uneasy word for an addict.

The meetings I have attended so far are low-key affairs, quieter than AA, somewhat more restrained, free of swearing and overdone familiarity. I like them. I like the quiet dignity of the people there. I came in with years of sobriety and a feeling that this new arena would be a snap. At my initial meeting, I was told by one young attendee that there's no credit given for memberships in other programs. Busted, on the very first day...

But I'll keep coming back.

Here's installment 81 of Wasted Miracles.

They sat on the front steps of the building housing the ARC. Josie shook her head, nodded, looked confused. “Yes, I mean no, I didn’t even know Herbie was a dealer, not really. I kind of suspected it, he always had money and didn’t seem to have a job, but it’s not like I really knew, you know?”
She lit a cigarette and Colin saw her inhale exactly as Catherine did. She held the smoke in, let it out slowly. He said, “OK, so a friend took you to their place, and the Zulu fixed you up.”
She inhaled, nodded.
“But you didn’t know about the missing drugs? Herbie had never told you anything about that?”
She looked at the cigarette, fixed her eyes on the glowing ember for a moment, flipped the butt into the parking lot. “No. Herbie was always kinda secretive about almost everything. I mean, he liked to show off, liked to flash money, pay for things, but it wasn’t that kind of a relationship, you know? Like, we didn’t talk a lot about stuff, real stuff. Mostly we went out. Took cabs, ate at restaurants, clubs, places like that. I think he liked to show me off.” She held up her hands, looked at her nails, smiled crookedly. “I looked kind of better than this a few days ago...”
Colin took her elbow. “Josie, listen, this is important. I know it’s not pleasant to think about, but you’ve got to. He thought you knew, the Zulu. That’s why they took you. That’s why they gave you the drugs, right?”
She nodded.
“But you didn’t know?”
She nodded again.
Colin rubbed his forehead. “So why would he keep you alive, Josie? It doesn’t make sense.”
She opened her mouth, said, “I...” Fell quiet. Colin watched her watching cars moving in the parking lot. She took a cigarette from a pack rolled in the sleeve of her tee shirt, stuck it between her lips but didn’t light it. She said, “Comfort.”
“The other black guy, the nicer one. His name was Comfort. You know, like ‘calm’; like ‘serenity.’ He was the taller one. He came into the room where they were keeping me, came in and told me what to say.”
“I’m not getting this, Josie. There’s something missing here.”
Her voice became annoyed. “He told me what to say! Like he knew. He knew where--Oh, Jesus!”
Colin leaned close to her. “What did he tell you, Josie. Word for word. Try to remember. Try real hard.”

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