A Conversation with Margaret Bullitt-Jonas about her memoir, Holy Hunger

Q. What does the title HOLY HUNGER mean?

A. This is a book about cravings, the story of how I grew up hungry for all sorts of things — contact, intimacy, self-expression — and buried these longings in a craving for food. It is also a story about transformation, the story of how, through the grace of God, I learned to stop acting on my addictive cravings and listen to my deeper desires. Recovering from compulsive overeating has made it clear to me that I was created with an infinite longing that only the infinite can satisfy. And I suspect that this is true for others, too.

Q. Food addiction might be a mysterious concept to some people. Can you explain it?

A. Let me begin by saying what food addiction is not. You are not a food addict if once and a while you splurge on chocolate or drown your sorrows in a bowl of ice cream. You are not a food addict just because you snack alone in front of the TV set or sometimes leave the table feeling stuffed. In times of stress, many people who usually have a fairly peaceful relationship with food turn to food as a way of comforting themselves. Anyone can go through a period of disordered eating. What distinguishes food addicts is that we have a severe and ongoing disturbance in how we handle food.

The hallmarks of addiction to food resemble the hallmarks of any addiction: you’re caught in the grip of a compulsive, habitual behavior that you can’t control. For instance, if you’re a compulsive overeater, as I was for many years, you start eating when you didn’t plan to and you can’t stop eating when you want to. You might be driving down the street on a Saturday morning, minding your own business, when suddenly the urge comes over you to stop at the bakery, pick up a banana cream pie, drive home and eat the whole thing right away, very fast. Because you’re a compulsive overeater, this idea doesn’t sound ridiculous or bizarre. It sounds eminently sensible and reasonable. And urgent. You can’t talk yourself out of this sudden craving, and you’re not even sure that you want to. It doesn’t matter if you’re not hungry — what does physical hunger have to do with it? It doesn’t matter if you made all sorts of promises to yourself just that very morning that you wouldn’t do something crazy with food today. The urge to eat is upon you, and there’s only one thing you can do. Eat. So once again you end up standing at the kitchen counter in front of an empty pie plate, feeling sick to your stomach and full of remorse and self-loathing.

People who are intensely preoccupied with food, weight, and appearance may well have a food addiction. I used to wake up every morning thinking about food: What would I eat today? Would I overeat? Would I be able to stop eating, once I started? I remember how I used to numb myself with food, using food as a way of swallowing anger and sadness. I remember how isolated and ashamed I felt, and how I tried to console myself with the thought, “It’s not that bad. I can handle this. One of these days I’ll figure out a way not to do this anymore. It’s just a matter of learning some willpower.” But of course food addicts are people who have lost control of their eating and no amount of willpower or good intentions is enough to get it back.

Q. You didn’t seem to starve yourself (as in anorexia nervosa) or purge (as in bulimia). How was the eating disorder you experienced different from anorexia or bulimia?

A. Although I never forced myself to vomit, I did try to compensate for the episodes of binge-eating by exercising compulsively and occasionally fasting for days at a time. I have since learned that this is characteristic of what clinicians call the “non-purging” type of bulimia. In addition to anorexia and bulimia, clinicians also describe a third major kind of disturbance around food, binge-eating disorder. This may be what I was experiencing when my overeating reached a crisis point. I gave up fasting and severe dieting and simply binged, day after day, secretly consuming enormous quantities of food.

Q. While you were fighting battles against addiction, you were also taking care of schizophrenics. Did this help you get perspective on your compulsive behavior?

A. My eating disorder reached a crisis while I was a doctoral student in comparative literature at Harvard. Being caught up in an addiction is like being caught in a war zone. I had almost no energy for anything but trying to stave off the irresistible cravings that had taken hold of me. I couldn’t find a topic for my dissertation and I couldn’t seem to get on with my life. Anxious to make a change, I took a part-time job as a residential coordinator for twelve men living with chronic schizophrenia. My task was to help these men make the transition from long-term residency in a mental hospital to living in a halfway house. What touched me about working with them was seeing their courage and their persistent effort to create a life for themselves, despite all the inner voices and urges that threatened to tear them apart. Their loneliness seemed to mirror my own, as did their difficulty in maintaining some kind of coherent and continuous self. I felt a compassion for them that I found hard to extend to myself. Meeting and working with these twelve men gave me my first glimpse into a larger context of food addiction: the difficulty that for one reason or another many human beings have in discovering who we really are. And the difficulty many of us feel in finding a way of life that brings peace to us and those around us.

Q. You kept your food addiction from family and friends. How did you do this, and why?

A. The how part of that question is relatively easy to answer. Every active addict is desperate to get hold of her drug of choice, whatever it may be, and will probably be quite ingenious in finding ways to do so. And every addict is a liar, a master at keeping secrets. I was an expert liar. Basically I lived a double life. In public, I ate with moderation, eating normal servings of healthy foods. In private, I was eating myself into oblivion. When I lived alone, I stocked up on junk. Or kept the pantry shelves bare as a bone and went on forays late at night to Dunkin Donuts or the 24-hour grocery store, bringing home boxes of cookies and bags of sweets. When I lived with other people, I ate in secret when everyone was out. I remember finishing off a roommate’s jar of peanut butter and rushing off to the grocery store to buy another one. I ate the peanut butter down to the level of the first jar, figuring that no one would notice the difference. And no one did. If anyone did confront me, I was perfectly ready to out-and-out lie and deny everything. Of course my friends and family noticed that my weight went up and down like a yo-yo, but they hardly ever saw me overeat and they had no idea what I was doing with food in secret.

Why I was eating so much and with such secrecy is a much more complicated question, and one that I myself would have loved to have been able to answer. I think some of the secrecy around a food addiction — or any addiction — involves shame. The self-hatred of a compulsive overeater runs very deep. Admitting to someone else what you are doing with food — and how this behavior makes you feel about yourself — seems almost unimaginable. That is part of the power of the 12 step program: it gives fear-filled, self-hating addicts like me a place to tell our secrets and to discover that we are still loved, anyway. It can be painful to give up a double life and scary to let people see who you really are, but that’s the only way you’ll ever be set free.

Q. Your cravings came to control your life. There came a point when you had to make a choice: come to terms with your addiction, or die. Can you remember a moment of clarity when you turned the corner and began your healing process?

A. I am very interested in what leads a person caught up in a life and death struggle to finally choose life. Several events prepared me for the decisive moment when I knew I had to turn my life around, including the suicide of a co-worker and a phone call from a dear friend who challenged me to quit overeating and face my pain. Finally, in the spring of 1982, on the morning of Good Friday, I realized that I was sick of killing myself with food. I woke up angry, awakened from a dream of living in a world that was covered by a veil. My rage woke me up, an intense, aggressive sense that it was time to face my life, time to break the veil that was separating me from reality. For the first time in my life, I was willing to do whatever it took to get well.

Q. Overeaters Anonymous helped you conquer your dangerous compulsive eating. What made you finally decide to join an OA group?

A. I came to OA because I was desperate. I don’t think anyone decides to join OA — or any other 12 step program, for that matter — unless they’ve tried everything else. I’d already spent years agonizing about my eating with a therapist. I’d studied diet books and experimented with all sorts of diets. Counted calories. Learned about nutrition. I’d signed up for a weight-loss program. I’d enrolled in a hospital program for people with eating disorders. Nothing worked. I was as obsessed as ever. Before long I always ended up locked in my car eating candy bars, or hiding in my kitchen with the curtains drawn, gulping down bowls of cereal or stacks of pancakes.

It wasn’t until I began working the 12 step program that I began to understand that an eating disorder, like any addiction, is a three-fold illness, at once physical, emotional, and spiritual. It wasn’t until I came to OA that I received the tools to get a grip on my life. I learned to put down the extra food and begin to listen to the longing beneath my cravings.

Q. As an Episcopal priest, you must come in contact with people struggling against addiction fairly often. How has your experience helped you help others?

A. On a very practical level, I can tell those who suffer with addiction that they are not alone and that there is hope. I know from my own experience that wrestling with an addiction can be a lonely, confusing business. I try to pass on to other addicts some of the experience, strength, and hope that I myself received. And try to help them find the resources they need in order to recover. None of us can get well alone. Only some of the people that I minister to suffer from an addiction. Not everyone is an addict. But all of us, I think, whether addicts or not, often get confused about what we really desire, what we really hunger for. We live in a society that is all too eager to tell us what we want, to create a climate of craving. We grow up learning that our heart’s desire is somewhere “out there” — in possessions and material things, in accomplishments and prizes, in fame and worldly success. We get busy looking for the perfect lover, the perfect job, the perfect body. And wonder why we still feel so restless and empty inside, why our inner ache never seems to go away.

I’ve learned over the years to treasure the inner restlessness and longing that I and others feel when all our external needs have been met. I think all of us are born with a hunger that nothing in this world can ultimately satisfy. We have different ways of naming that hunger. Some call it a hunger for wholeness or happiness or meaning. For me, it comes down to a hunger for the sacred, a hunger for God.

That is one reason I love my work as a priest: whether it be teaching courses in seminary, leading retreats, or serving in a parish, I want to help other people connect with their own deepest longing and discover what they’re really hungry for. It is an arduous process, sometimes, to name your heart’s desire, for you have to stop acting on your cravings in order to listen for what you long for most. It’s hard work, too, to align your life with your deepest desire, so that what you do and say lines up with what you hold most dear. But that is where freedom is found, and inner peace. It’s worth it. We’re worth it.

Q. What did you learn by writing HOLY HUNGER?

A. Writing HOLY HUNGER taught me a lot about the power of the stories we tell ourselves and one another. When I began to write this book, I thought that I’d be giving an account of a healing that I’d completed in the past. After all, I began my recovery from compulsive overeating back in 1982, so I thought the healing would all be in the past tense. What I hadn’t expected was that the writing process itself would challenge me to go to a deeper level of healing. For example, by the end of the first chapter I realized that I had no desire to put into the world one more victim memoir full of blame and finger-pointing. I also began to see how difficult it is to tell the story of a painful childhood in a way that is both honest about the pain but kind to everyone without exception.

To be specific, early in the first chapter I tell the story of moving into a Harvard dorm where my father served as master. I was eight years old. Soon after we moved in, our little dog fell to his death off the edge of the penthouse terrace, because no one had taken care to keep him indoors until the chain-link fence was finished. I tell this story in HOLY HUNGER as an early-warning sign of the distress our family was in, with a mother who was depressed and a father who was succumbing to alcoholism. As I wrote all this down, I could feel myself starting to move into blame (How could my parents have been so distracted and self-absorbed as to ignore the needs of our little dog? To say nothing of the needs of their four children? How could they have failed so miserably?).

Right around then I happened to change the water of our home aquarium. I cleaned out the filter but somehow re-installed it improperly. Within 24 hours, every fish but one was dead. My eight year old son was shocked. And so was I. Clearly the neglect and haste which I had just condemned in my parents was alive in me. I was obviously capable of misjudgments and mistakes comparable to those of my parents. This incident reminded me that until I learned to tell the story of my life with compassion for everyone in it, for every single character, then I would never learn to be fully compassionate towards myself, much less anyone else. How we tell the stories of our lives really matters, for our stories shape how we see ourselves and everything around us. Whether or not I’ve been successful in my intention to tell a story about my life that is both loving and true, I will have to let the reader decide.

Holy Hunger: A Woman’s Journey from Food Addiction to Spiritual Fulfillment
(272 pp/paper, ISBN 0375700870, $13.00) may be ordered directly from the publisher, by contacting Random House toll-free at (800) 733-3000, 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m., Monday-Friday.

Also available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, or at an independent bookseller near you through indiebound.org.

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