The other night I consumed a tub of Greek yogurt with peanut butter and honey so I'd have enough energy to watch a documentary about world hunger.
I wasn't really hungry. I was anxious. Whenever I get anxious, which is all the time, I eat like a demon.
Anxiety propels me to stuff my face even when I’m not hungry. The mechanical act of eating, using my greedy hands to lift food to my mouth and then hearing my mandibles and molars crunch the food matter into mush, has a soothing effect on my anxieties—like giving a rattler to a baby.
Anxiety compels me to engage in the practice of “preemptive eating,” the idea that I even though I’m not hungry in this moment, I might be “on the road” inside my car far away from nutritional resources so I had better fill up while I can.
This impulse for preemptive eating is completely unjustified when you consider that the farthest I drive is 5 miles. That’s not exactly undertaking a desert pilgrimage. But you see, my anxieties exaggerate the circumstances, so that I have food reserves in my car—cases of high-protein chocolate peanut butter bars and a case of bottled water. All that unnecessary weight in the trunk compromises my gas mileage, but my anxieties are a tyrant.
Anxiety is the reason that, in spite of my hardcore kettlebell workouts, I am a good twenty pounds overweight. Being twenty pounds overweight makes me anxious, and these anxieties in turn make me want to eat more.
Contemplating this vicious cycle is making me extremely anxious.
Good food makes me anxious.
Just thinking about good food can make me so anxious I’ll obsess over it in bed, so I’ll toss and turn all night like a heroin addict.
I suffer from food insomnia.
There’s one food in particular that keeps me up at night—chocolate brownies.
Chocolate brownies are the best delivery system for sending an explosion of chocolate into the brain’s pleasure centers. Chocolate brownies saturate my brain with so much dopamine that after eating a brownie platter it’s not safe for me to drive or to operate heavy mechanical equipment. When I was a kid, I took cough medicine laced with codeine, and there was a warning label on the back: “Not safe to drive or to operate heavy mechanical equipment.” Chocolate brownie mix should have the same warning on the back of the box.
The best brownies mix I’ve ever had are Ghirardelli Triple Chocolate Chip Brownies from Costco. I’ve purchased the same brand from other stores, but the Costco version is the best. Costco apparently uses its special powers to have Ghirardelli make an exclusive proprietary formula that is far superior to other versions. This fact has been corroborated by conversations I’ve had with Orange County housewives.
I don’t live in Orange County, and I don’t normally have conversations with housewives. That I talked with them about the superior quality of the exclusive Costco version of Ghirardelli Triple Chocolate Chip Brownies mix attests to the severity of my unhealthy dependence on food.
Costco does a good job of making you think about food. Before you even walk inside Costco, you smell the freshly baked cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies, and cream Danish. The smell makes you run inside the store.
Chronologically speaking, I am supposed to be an adult, but like a kid I’m running toward the Costco entrance while pushing an empty shopping cart. I must be a scary sight. This 240-pound middle-aged bald guy aggressively pushing his battering ram into a giant food larder where he will pillage the spoils. I’m like an Old Testament warlord about to ransack a defeated city.
Whenever I get close to food, I get anxious, and whenever I get anxious, I must run toward the source of my anxiety.
I don’t just run toward Costco. I run toward restaurants. I don’t mean to say that I casually run to restaurants after I park my car in the nearby lot. I sprint.
My wife has been complaining about this compulsion of mine since we first started dating many years ago. I’ll park the car, get out, and make a dash for the restaurant. This compulsion to sprint full-speed to an eatery is rooted in three things. One, I feel this need to be ahead of the line. Two, I’m always hungry, and I can’t wait to eat. Three, I suffer this paranoid anxiety that the restaurant will run out of the ingredients necessary to make my favorite dishes.
To help remedy this compulsion, my wife has agreed that we can go to restaurants as early as 5 P.M. before the restaurant gets crowded. But this measure hasn’t abated my compulsion to sprint to the restaurant in which I often barrel my way past a throng of pedestrians who stare at me as if I were a bat out of hell. My wife never runs with me. She shakes her head in disgust, and eventually catches up with me in the restaurant lobby before giving me a look of shame and admonishment.
Her displeasure with me doesn’t end there. When we sit at the table with our menus, I’m always quick to determine "the greatest dish on the menu" so that I can announce my decision upon the server’s first request for our order. My wife is never done studying the menu and must always ask that the server come back in five minutes or so to give her more time to decide. This always drives me crazy because I have a fear that the server will not come back or be delayed an annoyingly long time. I have traumatic memories of servers not returning until a half hour after sending them away because people at my table weren’t ready to make their order, and these memories have convinced me that I must order my food upon the waiter’s first table visit.
I also have painful memories of the server leaving the bill on the table and not returning for forty-five minutes, so I always give my credit card to the server before he has time to lower the bill to my table.
This technique further reinforces my stressful approach to dining out. Restaurant dining is less of a relaxing, leisurely event and more of an obstacle course inhabited by dragons that I must slay with all the weapons at my disposal. My poor wife returns from our “evenings out” in a state of utter exhaustion because, let’s face it, my generalized anxiety disorder, a diagnosis my therapist assigned to me, sucks the energy out of people.
My poor wife will come, plop on the couch, have a few glasses of wine, and convalesce in front of the living room television. Peering at her glazed, tired eyes from the hallway, I have a deep pity for her. She looks like she just survived an invasive medical procedure that didn’t go as smoothly as expected, and she’s waiting for the pain meds to kick in. In those moments, I’m tempted to come into the living room and apologize for my behavior at the restaurant, but I know from past experience that she needs distance from me, and that the best thing I can do for her in those moments is make myself disappear.
To my defense, over the years I have improved my behavior somewhat. I no longer order meals for both my wife and me, inhale all my food in a few minutes, and then hungrily take half of my wife’s entrée. You see, I have matured somewhat.
But I still sprint toward restaurants. Recently, my wife, our six-year-old twin daughters and I went to the mall to eat at The Lazy Dog Café. When we got out of the car, I suppressed my urge to sprint toward the restaurant as I held my daughter Natalie’s hand. Fifty yards ahead of us, Natalie recognized a classmate from her kindergarten class. She wanted to catch up with her classmate and say hi to her. In my gut, I knew my daughter’s classmate and her parents were going to Lazy Dog Café, and I didn’t like that they had a head-start on us. You see, they were no longer pleasant acquaintances for me to get to know better. I now saw them as competition for restaurant seating.
Holding my daughter’s hand, I ran toward the family, and said to the father, “Are you going to Lazy Dog Café?” He said he was, upon which my daughter and I sprinted toward the restaurant, leaving my daughter's classmate and her parents in a cloud of dust behind us.
When my wife and my other daughter Julia caught up with Natalie and me in the restaurant lobby, my wife said, “You just embarrassed yourself. Now that family knows that you were racing to get a seat before them. You always have to have the advantage.”
My competitive nature at restaurants, not surprisingly, raises its ugly head when I shop at Costco. When I smell all those cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip cookies, I plow over the other shoppers toward the baked goods area. I feel I have to fill my cart with all the desserts before the other customers get to them first—as if Costco is going to run out.
I’m actually competing with the other customers as if living out some sick Paleolithic drama—only instead of hunting for animals, I’m filling my cart with baked desserts.
At this point, I am no longer shopping like a rational human being. I am frantically loading my cart as if hoarding food provisions for the Zombie Apocalypse.
Then when I get all the food home, I suffer the two major anxieties. Anxiety number one: How am I going to fit all this shit in my kitchen? I now have the task of being forced to eat food in order to make room for the new Costco freight. You know how disgusting this is? There are millions of people starving in the world, and I’m force-feeding to make room for the new food cargo.
Anxiety number two: Costco sells everything in bulk. I’ve already packed the freezer to the max. How am I going to eat all this before it goes bad? I have to eat huge food quantities at an accelerated pace. It’s like there is this invisible stopwatch ticking in the background of my brain, and I’m a contestant in The Amazing Race. Being in this mental state does not make me happy. It makes me anxious and downright miserable.
When I consider how debilitating these anxieties can be, I wonder if I should stop shopping at Costco.
Are you kidding? Costco is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I’m an exclusive Costco member who enjoys the privileges of membership. These nice people greet me when I flash my Costco card at the entrance. I get the lowest prices on the highest quality food, clothing, and electronics that the world has to offer. Friendly people give me free samples of pizza, tamales, crunchy salmon sushi rolls, spicy quinoa chips, guacamole, mango smoothies. I’m eating a seven-course meal while I shop. As if in a dream, I’m wandering inside this huge consumer Shangri-La.
But like every paradise, there’s a dark side. The Costco employees who work the cash registers tell me fights break out every day for parking spaces.
Imagine an environment where the anxiety levels are so high that fights break out for parking. What kind of anger, desperation, and anxiety are roiling at that parking lot? Is that the kind of environment you want to go to? Hell no, but you go anyway because Costco is your Shangri-La. This is the only time you, an unrecognized, lowly member of the suburbs, feels distinctive and important. You’re greeted at the entrance like you’re some kind of consumer lord, and you enjoy the special privileges of shopping inside a shopper’s wonderland.
Shopping at Costco is like being Dorothy in the Land of Oz. It’s an escape from your boring life. And like all escapes, shopping at Costco can be an addiction.
There should be a reality show about shoppers who are addicted to Costco. Imagine their back-story. At Costco, they feel special, and they enjoy this temporary spike in self-esteem. But then they return to their cookie-cutter tract home or their prison-like apartment complex where their life has all the vitality of a mildewed dishrag.
I want to stop for a moment and thank Costco for giving a morsel of joy and self-esteem to the downtrodden souls whose dreams have been crushed for all eternity.
Costco, we thank you, and we worship you. Promise you’ll never leave us because we really, really need you.