Meg LeDuc
APPETITE

I have an insatiable appetite for self-loathing. I hate my body’s neediness, the way it presses its wants upon me, always petitioning for more, more, more. I hate my fat body that medications have distended, ballooned. I hate my bottomless craving for food, even though I’ve also come to adore food as language, a wise language of chocolate and chestnuts, strudel and blood sausage.

There is perhaps nothing more ancient, other than God, than the appetite. The word appetite itself dates to 1300 C.E. It means “craving for food,” from the Anglo-French, appetit, deriving from the Latin, appetitus, literally, “desire toward.”  Its root is pet- “to rush, to fly,” which also anchors the words helicopter and feather, petition and petulance, appetence and accipiter.

In the past, I sought release from the appetite that preyed upon me like an accipiter, that bird of prey. I petitioned the divine for self-discipline, desiring the ordered paths I imagined would make my life look like a topiary garden. I grasped for lines, horizons reaching as far as I could see, books marching steadfast along the shelves, papers each in their place on the desk, words marshaled into sentences making sense. Everything just-so.

Today, my appetite has become quiescent. But it remains uneasy in its enclosure, like a caged lion.

But, at a magician’s command—God or mine? —my appetite gobbles me.

*

Sex, too, is a bottomless appetite I have known. In my early thirties, I screwed too many men to count. I lost track of names. I had nightmares, dreams of watching men rape women, and women beg for more. Off my pills for bipolar disorder, trying to lose weight, taking risks, I sidled up one night to a man named Derek in a bar and made conversation, making out with him afterwards in his sports car.

He drove me home and fucked me, hard, in the ass.

Later, I began the true spiral, the spiral that would bring me to my knees in a bare room with mesh on the windows to keep crazy women like me from breaking the glass and slashing our wrists with it. I sobbed, deluded that I had just had a miscarriage. Psychosis had made me believe that I was pregnant, the dream I’d cherished for the previous decade possessing my mind even as it splintered.

And sure, I’d had enough unprotected sex that I might well have been pregnant. For months after I met him, Derek would show up on my doorstep at three o’clock in the morning, ripe with beer. In the beginning, we went on a few dates, but soon, the dates stopped. Nevertheless, when he showed up on my doorstep, I’d give him the unprotected sex he wanted. I had an appetite for appetite, a hunger to be sought-after that swept everything before it, including dignity and self-respect. I had been lost and gained, sought and purchased, with dinners paid for and drinks bought, with attention, this perhaps being what I truly craved.

I had become a commodity to men, even to myself.

Commodity is rooted in med- “to take appropriate measures,” the same root that forms words like accommodate, medical, empty, Medea, and Andromeda. Medea literally means “cunning,” the name of the sorceress who beguiled a dragon, betraying her father to steal the golden fleece for her lover. Andromeda translates “to be mindful of her husband,” and, though the hero rescued her from the sea monster, and the king of the gods raised her to the heavens, English sailors knew starry Andromeda as “The Chained Lady.”

For too many years, I accommodated my own appetite. But these days, I have taken appropriate measures to chain my desires. Today, I’m mindful of my husband Tim.

But it took me more than fifteen years—and a bit of sorcery—to get here.

*

In her short life, the poet Rynn Williams came to understand the craving, the desiring, the striving to fly inherent in appetite. In her poem “Appetite,” from her acclaimed book, Adonis Garage, Williams writes:

The merest suggestion of mouth
and I was ravenous—I filled the house
with chocolate, chestnuts, strudel,
blood sausage; I bathed in butter.

I knew and know what she means. I fill the house with chocolate, chestnuts, strudel. I build honeycomb and licorice into towers on the roof, shave ginger into papery blossoms and set them aflame beneath the floors, cram pastry flaky with lard under my pillow—to better dream of words.

The merest suggestion of a mouth… I bathed in butter. Oh, yes, yes, yes.

Williams’ obituary includes a quote by the writer Brooks Haxton: “If Walt Whitman had been born a woman, and had been around the block, and noticed things, and wrote with all her courage, skill, and love, what we’d get, if we were lucky, is this book.” Williams died by suicide on July 15, 2009, at her home in Brooklyn, New York, age forty-seven, survived by her three children.

The grief was palpable to many. It went on and on, deathless, living even as Williams’s appetite for her own annihilation prevailed. Because tragedy stalks those of us who live large, soar to the heights, and plumb the depths, tragedy inseparable from appetite. We who crave push the limits—and sometimes, the result is deadly. I know this, yet I’m ravenous.

I’m greedy to write with courage, skill, and love.

I plunder language for my own redemption.

*

In my mid-twenties, when I lived with my parents, deeply depressed and struggling to build a life for myself, I would stop at Krispy Kreme, at Tim Hortons, at McDonald’s—all the drive-thrus, all the guilty pleasures—and pack on food until I packed on thirty pounds.

I didn’t know then that antipsychotics increase sugar and fat levels in the blood, causing the brain to stimulate appetite, “especially for calorie-intensive foods such as donuts and fast food,” says the online journal Addiction Resource.

At McDonald’s, I ordered Oreo McFlurries and those addictive baked apple pies the fast-food chain sold for eighty-nine cents. They reminded me of holidays with my family, only this was a holiday thrown all by my lonesome in the front seat of my Ford Taurus, as I scattered sugar over my thick thighs, my hands sticky with cinnamon and apple, wrappers and cartons abandoned to the back-seat trash pile as I gorged myself. I lusted to be filled by something, anything, but instead, I devoured myself until there was nothing left, celebrating these Thanksgivings-for-one with guilt rather than gratitude, at least twice per week.

The McDonald’s description of its baked apple pie, taken from the franchise’s website, is pure marketing magic, a romance novel passage:

McDonald’s Baked Apple Pie recipe features 100% American-grown apples, and a lattice crust baked to perfection and topped with sprinkled sugar. There are 240 calories in McDonald’s apple pie. Pair it with a Hot Caramel Sundae for your own twist on Apple Pie A-La-Mode!

And yes, I did sometimes couple the baked apple pie with a hot caramel sundae—to find it was nothing like apple pie a-la mode. But the description is a come-hither gaze and beckoning finger to those of us whose unnaturally heightened blood levels of sugar and fat crave sugar and fat. I note the bone thrown to conscience: “There are 240 calories in McDonald’s apple pie,” 240 calories sounding like a good number, a reasonable number. How clean these products are: “100% American-grown apples.”

Appetite must be as American as apple pie. So sinless.

But not as sinless as staying sane.

*

People with severe and persistent mental illnesses mostly die of the same things everyone does: chronic physical medical conditions, such as cardiovascular, respiratory and infectious diseases, diabetes, and hypertension. But the statistics are abysmal. People with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder on average die ten to twenty-five years earlier than the general population, according to the World Health Organization. People like me with bipolar mood disorders have high mortality rates ranging from thirty-five percent higher to twice as high as the general population.

I’m terrified of developing diabetes. There’s something very wrong when the best drugs available to treat a disease also leave a person at risk of becoming obese. If serious mental illness was another condition, like childhood leukemia, would drugs like these represent society’s best efforts? I note that no politician campaigns on a “moon shot” to end schizophrenia. Serious mental illnesses have a piss-poor marketing team.

Those of us with serious mental illnesses die of lots of things—often, by suicide.

My dad always wanted to go to Africa, read Ernest Hemingway, and collected Browning Bolt Actions. “Could bring down an elephant with that gun,” he would say. He was good at keeping them locked up. He took the deer guns out only to go hunting and to clean them.

During that time in my mid-twenties when I was gorging on the plenty offered by drive-thrus, I picked up a 12-gauge my dad had left out to clean and cradled it for several minutes. I fantasized about fitting the barrel into my mouth and pulling the trigger with my toe. I wondered if I would be able to do this. I wondered if I could buy shells for it. Would the salesperson be able to see my history of psychiatric hospitalizations when they rang me up?

Someone like me should not be able to buy shotgun shells, I remember thinking. But I wanted to. I considered jumping into my Taurus and running to the Fish & Game section of the Meijer at 26 Mile and Van Dyke. So close, so very close.

I craved closure, finality—rest. But today, other than remembering those longings, I don’t remember what caused me that day to cradle the shotgun like a baby, entranced by my own end. My memory of my deathly appetite is fractured, like so many of my memories.

What I do remember was that my parents came home too soon.

*

When I went off my pills, I feared sleep because of the nightmares. I rarely did much beyond doze. Rynn Williams, too, seems to have suffered from insomnia. I would have cast any spell to satisfy my desire to sleep. So would she, as she describes in her poem, “Insomnia”:

I try tearing paper into tiny, perfect squares—
they cut my fingers….
…I’ve been told
to put trumpet flowers under my pillow,
I do: stamen up, the old crone said.

Tiny, perfect squares. When I went off my pills, what was I tearing if not myself? Could trumpet flowers placed stamen up under my pillow mend me? That was what the old crone whispered.

When I tore myself into tiny squares, I sliced my skin, minute papercuts that bled.

I craved this bleeding.

Society pushes mending upon those of us with large appetites. We are commanded to be smaller, ever smaller, and to control our cravings. Is it so strange that Rynn Williams suffered from an eating disorder? But we, too, know that a certain cunning stitchery is needed. Tragedy and craving cross, and we must cast spells, “stir warm milk counterclockwise” in “a cast iron pan,” as Williams writes, to ward away our own disintegration. We must be “medea,” cunning.

Cunning, these days, means taking my pills.

Cunning enables me to be a writer.

*

At age thirty-three, living on my own and having stopped my atypical antipsychotic, I decided I wanted a gig. A well-paying gig.

And I wasn’t thinking clearly: if anything, I labored under a spell.

I was freelancing, writing newspaper articles for $50 an article. My editor limited me to writing four articles per week, so I earned $800 a month. I also drew Social Security, but it was minimal, and my mother managed it, using it to pay major bills like my car insurance. But to keep my Medicare—and access to my other medications, including my anti-anxiety medications and antidepressant—I couldn’t earn more than approximately $1,000 a month over-the-table from my journalism. The more I earned, the more my Social Security check shrunk.

I struggled to buy food trying to live on $800 a month, and I skipped meals, my denial of my appetite making me feel capable, as if I could handle this situation. Once, I ran out of gas at two o’clock in the morning on the freeway because I didn’t have the money to fill up my tank. Any reasonable person would have applied for SNAP benefits and started going to food banks. Any reasonable person would have made amends with her parents and moved home. But I wasn’t reasonable—I was delusional. And I felt used, used up.

So, what if yet another man used me?

I answered an ad seeking “a cuddle buddy.”

As Rynn Williams writes in “Reflections in Porcelain”:

This was my gig: white lace apron,
cut-out bra and crop….
He wasn’t the first to love the thought
of the redness of a bottom, mark of a heel.

 The first definition of “gig,” dating to 1791, is a “a light, two-wheeled carriage, usually drawn by one horse.” The second, “job,” attested to from 1915, was slang originally used by jazz musicians. By 1939, “to gig” was a verb. “Giglot,” from the fourteenth century, connotes “a light, wanton woman.”

In the end, I was too terrified of being strangled and dumped in a ditch to accept this gig. But how I wanted to be wanton.

*

In the end, this is not about lust or craving. This is about poverty and mental illness. This is about degradation and power and lack of it.

This is not about appetite—or is it?

*

Six months after I answered the “cuddle buddy” ad, a lanky psychologist with soft, coffee eyes and a dross of curls threaded with silver folded his body into a chair beside my hospital bed, leaned over his notebook, gazed into my eyes, and said to me, “You’ve been through a lot, Meg.”

Maybe it was the directness of it all. Maybe it was the gentleness of the words, their simplicity. Or maybe it was the suicide attempt I had just survived. Whatever it was, the tears started streaming down my face. “I’ve put myself through a lot,” I replied.

In group therapy, Dr. Bach asked me, “Meg, you’re a journalist, and you must write a lot. Do you ever journal as part of the healing process?” He was acknowledging my profession, never mind that I didn’t know if I could ever return to my job. It was also a nod to my love of writing. I began to piece my shattered identity together.

In the hospital, I became medication compliant. My parents later helped me stay medication compliant, providing the structure, the very home I needed to recover.

After discharge, I sought out Dr. Bach as a therapist, driving north from where I now lived with my parents in an exurb of Detroit to a city in Michigan’s Thumb, an hour-drive one-way, to attend sessions. The roads proved treacherous in winter. But I remained faithful. I made that drive for five years.

I told Dr. Bach secrets, secrets I told no one else. No matter what I told him, I knew he still respected me, still genuinely liked me: It was as if he cast a healing spell simply by listening.

“Is that action in line with your values, Meg?” Dr. Bach often asked.

A few months after I met my husband-to-be, Tim expressed that he wanted to learn more about bipolar disorder and how to help me. Dr. Bach suggested I invite him to a therapy session.

Tim took notes.

Later, when Tim and I chose the first verses of Psalm 139, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me,” for a reading at our wedding, Dr. Bach told me that was a very good choice. “You are saying that God knows how to attach you in friendship and in love, both to each other and to him,” he said. I also was saying that God “knew” me, inside and out, just like Tim had come to know me and my body.

And just as Tim loved me and my body, so God loved me. Perhaps I could even believe that God waved a wand and conjured my forgiveness—

But could I forgive myself?

*

Now, these days, nearing forty, I desire my husband, writing, and cooking and baking. I simmer Mahi Mahi over finely sliced fennel and leeks with tomatoes and dill, concoct summer berry buckle, or bake Tahini Blondies for sheer pleasure, or for the joy of inviting my parents and grandmother to our house and feeding them together with my husband, cooking and baking my means of nurturing, food an expression of love.

Yes, these days, I have a deep appetite to love, to give of myself. Maybe these healthy appetites are why I’m happy now, happy with Tim. I no longer gorge myself until I’m sick, then slice my skin with a razor as punishment. I take the atypical antipsychotic I once stopped, and it has restored me to myself.

But not slicing my own skin is about as far as I have gotten in the unwinding of the guilt. I both do and don’t accept myself. I struggle to allow myself to eat normally, “punishing” myself for gorging one day by restricting food the next. I fight to reconcile myself to my body—and my history.

There are too many days when I look in the mirror and see a fat slut gazing back.

Yet there are also days when after baking Tahini Blondies, I munch on a gooey, brunette square and laugh at Stephen Colbert’s punchlines and lean over and give my husband a sticky kiss.

I have come so far—

And my greatest appetite is for my own good.


Meg LeDucMeg LeDuc’s essays and flash nonfiction have appeared in Mount Hope, Brevity, Atticus Review, and New Delta Review, among others, and an essay is forthcoming from Third Coast Magazine. Another essay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2020. She is an MFA in Writing candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is working on a memoir. Please visit www.megleduc.com

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