by Linda Romano
In her memoir, Out of the Pantry, Ronni Robinson confronts how a childhood eating pleasure turned into a full out “compulsive eating disorder.” As a latch-key child, Robinson found solace in biking home hurriedly from school to indulge in whatever variety of cookies her mother had tucked away in the kitchen drawer with a tall glass of cold milk. With an older brother at home, who mostly ignored her, she sat alone at the table, dipping cookie after cookie, “like a robot, losing all sense of what was going on around me … the shimmer of happiness seemed to float down.” Robinson’s willingness to share her journey from bingeing to recovery is inspirational and shows it is possible.
Different from anorexia or bulimia, compulsive overeating is similar to binge eating or emotional eating. Robinson writes, “It includes eating faster than usual, eating past the point of fullness, eating alone or in secret, and feeling guilty or upset after overeating, and/or feeling ‘taken over’ or ‘driven’ in respect to eating.” Robinson resonated with all of these traits when she heard it discussed on television, a few months shy of turning forty and with two young children. By then sneaking food, mostly sweets like cookies and pastries, had become an engrained, lifelong habit. But with a loving husband, Efrem, in her life, the habit was becoming exhausting to maintain without being caught or questioned.
She tried to avoid her husband at a work Christmas party, but he found her, for the second time, hovering around the cookie trays:
My compulsion was unmanageable. I can’t explain why, despite being full, I still wanted more. I was stuffed, and they didn’t taste as good, but I was driven to find that perfect bite, that perfect taste again. That perfect combination of chocolate and dough that tasted as good as those first few bites eluded me, but I kept trying. These cookies were like oxygen for anyone else. I literally didn’t think I could live without them.
While eating one, I heard Efrem’s voice from behind. ‘What are you doing?’ He’d caught me. Again. Startled me.
‘I was just having one more,’ I lied.
Robinson’s obsession with cookies began when she was a child. One day, when Robinson was in the seventh grade, she came home from school and the cookies were no longer in the drawer even though she knew her mother had bought them. Robinson alludes to the emotional distance that was building up between her and her mother; she envied her best friend Jen who lived down the street with a stay-at-home mom. “I could picture Jen and her mom making dinner together, standing shoulder to shoulder, wearing matching aprons.” Robinson does this well throughout the memoir—recalling glimpses of childhood scenes to connect the emotions that led to her eating disorder, how she longed for a happier family life. With the cookies subversively taken away, Robinson recognized her mother’s silent disapproval, not the overt anger, she observed, of her mother scolding her father when, just like her, he sat at the table and devoured “a whole bunch” of cookies. To avoid further conflict with her mother, Robinson used babysitting money to buy her own cookies and developed tactics to avoid being discovered. “I had to figure out how to hide the empty carton, I crumpled it up and back into the grocery bag … crumpled that up too … and buried it deep into the kitchen trash can.” Characteristics of her parents could have been further developed throughout these scenes since they are clearly the impetus to Robinson’s food addiction. They are almost as invisible to us in the writing as they were to Robinson in her life.
Robinson provides involved and detailed descriptions of her cookie fantasies and the elaborate strategies she uses to keep them hidden but hesitates to elaborate on her emotions. The only focus was “not to get caught.” We can all relate to the childhood pleasure of a Chips Ahoy, like Robinson describes, “I carefully ate the little chips out” and dipped them into milk “until the cookie got soggy and dissolved in my mouth.” And the Oreos, “fun because there was so much you could do with them … twisting one open and licking out the sweet white filling.” And who hasn’t snuck a cookie or two before dinner without their parents knowing? For Robinson though, it never stopped. Because her weight stayed relatively stable after college, bingeing privately could be compensated for by taking long runs and exercise. For her, eating was a pleasure and keeping it hidden was no different than possibly any other woman trying to maintain the public image of a perfect body. We develop compassion for Robinson from our own experiences, but it is difficult to connect with the shame or loneliness she felt. She acknowledges later, once she accepted the addiction, how she missed out on developing deeper friendships while being so “laser-focused on food.”
Robinson suggests the distant relationship with her mother led to her food addiction, although she admits, she never realized it at the time. “I was trained to just let things happen to me, to accept situations with little or no challenge.” She refers to the tension in her parents’ marriage, the arguments at dinner, and how her mother embodied a “don’t make waves behavior.” In her first marriage, before meeting Efrem, she realized the emotional abuse of her ex-husband was similar to her parents’ behavior. Many of her feelings are expressed through her food habits. After a fight with her first husband, she omits details about her anger and, instead, describes the trip to the market and the spoonsful of chocolate marshmallow ice cream in the parking lot. We can only imagine her loneliness.
With individual therapy and supportive groups like Overeaters Anonymous (OA), Robinson discovered that overeating created a sense of fullness in order to “numb out” uncomfortable feelings. Like other addiction programs, like the Twelve Steps used in Alcoholics Anonymous , the important first step is to “admit the powerlessness over food and that life has become unmanageable.” It is important to get past “the pink cloud of abstinence,” Robinson warns. This is the vague term used in the OA community of having the mental willpower to no longer food binge, but without confronting the root cause of the behavior. For some people, mental willpower is enough to quit, but for most, it is easy to slip back into temptation. Robinson stresses the importance of being honest about past behaviors and sharing the truth with others. Her memoir is personal and provides a guide to resist the physical and mental control of an overeating disorder without obsessive calorie counting.
Robinson currently speaks publicly about eating disorders and emotionally abusive relationships and serves as an administrator on the Facebook page Overcoming Food Nonsense.
Linda Romano grew up on the south side of Chicago and currently lives in California’s Silicon Valley working as an engineer. She received a PhD in Materials Science at the University of Illinois and is presently pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction at the UC Riverside Palm Desert Program. She is working on a memoir about her upbringing and life as an engineer while raising two children. Her favorite pastime is enjoying the outdoors, especially on a bicycle.