It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. My partner asks me what I’ve eaten today. I don’t reply. They ask again.
“Coffee,” I say quietly.
“Coffee is not food, Sam,” they say sternly. “You need to eat something.”
“I know,” I reply. “But I need to work.”
“You did this yesterday.”
“Because I needed to work.”
This was Justification #897 and my partner was not anymore swayed by #897 than they were by the hundreds that came before it.
I was falling behind on my work (falling? Who am I kidding, I had already fallen, I’d all but collided with the ground). The kitchen was in disarray because we’re painting (it was, the only thing that was truly usable was the microwave). There wasn’t a lot of food in the apartment (there wasn’t, especially that which can be made with just a microwave).
When I stop eating, I never seem to run out of excuses.
Back in high school, it was because I didn’t like the food my parents bought, I didn’t like food (period), I was too busy with my schoolwork, I was too busy rehearsing for the musical, I just forgot, I forgot a lot, I forget really often, I’m just stressed, can you get off my back?
When I get overwhelmed, I don’t make a conscious decision to stop eating. It creeps up on me – the chaos around me is so distracting that I don’t even realize I’m doing it at first. Then suddenly, the headaches start happening, my hands won’t stop shaking, and a loved one looks at me and says, “Are you okay? You don’t look so good.”
And then someone suggests that I get something to eat, and I resist. And I don’t know why I resist. The excuses start pouring out of my mouth.
Buried beneath the pile of excuses, though, is a desperate plea: Let me hold onto this.
I just need to have a grip on this one thing. I just need to feel like I’m in control of something. And I think about everyone I’m disappointing, and I think about everything that’s unfinished, and I think about all the ways I could do better and, please.
Give me this.
And when I have everything back under control, I promise – at the end of the day, no, the end of the week, no – I’ll do some self-care, I’ll get a good night’s sleep, yes, I know, I’ll eat.
And I pause.
It’s been eight hours. I’ve had 100 calories and it’s been eight hours. It’s an iced coffee. It comes in a can and I drank it because I needed to stay awake so I could work from eight until five without taking any breaks.
Over on the bookshelf, there are two other empty cans. From the last two days.
This is not control.
Before it was coffee out of a can, it was apples. Well, one apple.
That’s not the lunch that my mother lovingly packed for me – it was what was left, after I stowed the granola bar in my locker, gave the muffins to some kid in my music class, gave the sandwich to someone in Algebra, and kept the apple for myself.
I was a shell of somebody then, both emotionally and physically.
I start to hate myself a little when I think about how restricting like this can feel good – can feel really, really good – because it gives me this illusion that my feet are on the ground.
It’s not true. But as long as I don’t think too hard, it can feel true.
But it’s not true.
Just now, Justification #898 makes an appearance in my mind as I’m writing: I just work really hard. It’s my work ethic. I have ambition. Dedication.
It feels true. True enough.
It’s not true.
I promise to eat something and my partner, trusting me, lays down for a nap.
I’m staring at the cans sitting on the bookshelf. I hear my roommate working in the kitchen, sanding the cabinets.
Justification #899: The kitchen is occupied.
An email appears in my inbox and I’m terrified. I’m terrified that it’s someone here to remind me that I’ve forgotten to do something, or that I did something wrong, or that I missed another deadline, that I disappointed them – this week, I remember, has been a week of disappointments.
Justification #900: I just keep saying “yes” to everything. And then suddenly I’m working 50+ hours a week. And then I panic. And then I fail. Why do I do that?
The email isn’t terrible. It’s the opposite of terrible. The email is a reader telling me that I’ll never understand what I’ve done for them.
I take a deep breath. The sharp inhale is making me dizzy, and I reach out for the bed post, trying to steady myself.
No more justifications. No more excuses. Not another day, or another apple, or another iced coffee in a can – this is not control.
This is not control and I know this, even if it feels true, or rather, even if I need it to be true.
“Your words give me something to hold onto.”
Right now, so do yours. I can’t pour from an empty cup. I can’t live on a can of iced coffee, though I’ve certainly tried.
So I start a new pile: Reasons.
Reason #1: This email.
Because an illusion of control is not more important than my life, this work, or the people who care about them both.