National Eating Disorders Association

Stories of Hope

Hunger Speaks
By Carolyn Jennings

Writing immediately became an essential partner in my recovery from binge eating.  I was encouraged to keep a journal as an outpatient at an eating disorder clinic. In the two-and-a-half decades since, I’ve accumulated trunks full of filled pages.  Journal writing remains a necessary practice in knowing what’s going on inside me. 

As recovery progressed, I discovered that the poetry of others filled some hungry part of me never reached before. I played with creating poems—just for me.  Shaping my experiences in disease and recovery into poetry was therapeutic and empowering.  The process clarified details and connections, as well as switched me from victim of something into being an observer and a creator.

 Reams of accumulated poems led to the idea of offering my work as my way of reaching a hand out to others in a cradle of understanding.  Finding my own voice, creativity, and courage were integral steps of my healing.   The collected poems cohered into the companion I longed for in the turbulence of disease and early recovery.

…inside the poem of their lives, I can’t keep track of my own.
Kathleen Norris
Unexpected fog drapes the wall of windows.
All day I exchanged myself for a checklist. Now
a table of quiet white linen
offers unfilled wine glasses
skirted by two suede-dressed chairs
holding promise.
Over the menu, I serve this visitor, old family
friend, a question.
Vignettes and ordering,
chewing opinions and filet,
sipping stories and cabernet.
His mouth shoots his
monologues over our table,
one-way stream.
words blast down the center of me slamming doors shut
left and right. One long hallway of echoes.
His insistent need
leaves no me.
I could be the mute tumbler on the tabletop
offering a handful of pansies.
I fear he will see
I’ve somehow become
eat drink smile gulp numb,
all hunger, no self.
On cue
my best girlhood people-pleaser
performs my place at the table:
I arm myself in glistening
comments about him,
thick shield of questions,
laughter continuously flapping
like an injured bird.
I slide into the white-tiled women’s room,
startle to meet my reflection in the mirror.
Look: eyes, bones, flesh,
fully formed lips
painted a shade of rhubarb,
stained by wine.
It begins with a nibble to the ears
of the chocolate bunny, harmless
little midday pleasure
or reward or break or
private celebration of some small something.
It ends with nothing
but a fistful of pastel foil.
And no one quite there
to taste
the ripped-off chunks in between.
But someone left here
with a queasy mind
and stomach, watching
what I can’t explain:
this girl
who needs more,
this girl, quiet as a viper and as
quick, this girl who prickles just under my
skin, the girl, hollow,
who knows only two things:
comfort and then
the need
for more:
next, next, later, when? what? where? how soon?
(appointment with the therapist)
I want to hear more,
she says,
not less.
We wrangle appointments
into slots around
obstacles of two
calendars, and stretch
my checkbook’s limits. She says,
I want to hear
more, not less.
The words of her invitation
hang in the air: strange
glittering droplets
in a winter fog, dazzling mobile
new to my eyes
and just beyond my grasp.
Her request forces my need over the steep dyke
built and maintained at great cost,
flooding me with longing
overflowing the weekly
45-minute buckets
of listening.

Delay home alone. Husband
away, business. When I arrive, loneliness
howls a welcome.
On its heels marches an urge,
a little late night snack,
an offer to ease
my empty bed. Tonight I choose to indulge
hollowness only. Confronted,
sadness dashes,
leaving behind long, scaly shadows:
cravings linger, whisper, charm, seduce,
beg, jab, rage.
I refuse this con
whose promise rings hollow,
gone tomorrow. I resign myself to be an old maid
this time.
Lament amplifies
as I abandon my dear hero,
forbidden pleasure,
food as comfort.
An older couple waits at the only table set
for breakfast in the inn. My husband and I
introduce ourselves, and when I answer poet, they ask
how poems form on my page, inquire
more to my answers, more
about the process and how
I came to be.
Topics change. I remain
basking in their light.
Over an hour passes over our table.
Even the white-cow cream pitcher pricks up her ears.
Packing after to check out and move on,
I rush
for no reason, trip
over things, snap
at anyone…but didn’t gulp
coffee or pastry, don’t do that
anymore…yet something’s
pried my belly open
like a whale’s maw.
Craving forgets
the just-past feast, commands
all attention, a child
in the net of a tantrum.
Why do I still hunger?
arrived over homemade marmalade
and stoneware platters of plenty.
One hour’s worth.
Though I nibbled every crumb
of the treasure around the table,
I own no way to fill.
(appointment with the therapist)

Over the wailing
of the flood of hunger,
I say, I can do
a lot
on my own.
She says, that’s been the problem.
You need
to do less
I learn to say more
to her.
I leave our appointments choking
on all the more
I still want to say.
When I’m not with her, I hold
this pen. I learn
I need.
I arrive
at listening to myself.

Listless, I am
weighted. I want
only to be a shield,
in, nothing out, vulnerability
tucked tight. Sadness casts
a long shadow.
Obligations call.
I wish I could erase
me, draw myself already at
today’s destination, color
my blank spots in pastels.
I drive past a flock of black birds spiraling
slinky-like from one bush to another.
KBCO offers the B-52's, tempts
vocal chords back to college days:
shoulders could turn
suddenly sexy and sway.
Throat remains a stone.
But in the rock of body, hips
begin to grin.
Though sunglasses keep my gaze dark,
mountain peaks fresh
with last night's white
flaunt the Continental Divide
until its beauty dazzles me.
Face to face with my first human,
the brightness of eyes catch me,
blue islands amid wrinkles, this waitress' eyes.
She hands me a menu, pours a coffee, allows words
to pour from my mouth, pleasant and kind
rather than miserable and miserly.
When she fumbles the flatware,
our soft laughter
braids the surrounding air,
erases all else,
joins us
as girlfriends holding hands at recess.
How is it that the world insists
on rising to carry me over its threshold
despite all I do to let it pass, ditch it,
give it the cold shoulder?
We grieve each other,
this life and I, but it is Life who later appears
at my doorstep with a dozen roses
and a beguiling grin.
(appointment with the therapist)

Written words listen,
feed me back to me
one bite at a time,
begin to form
an outline of
a self.
I want to hear more of me too
and to believe I can be heard.
My sketchy outline and shy beliefs
land once a week in her lap
of listening. Her deep pool of attention
writes the next line.
Landfall occurs on a treacherous shore:
I discover I can be welcome,
wanted, worthy:
only when no part of me must be shut
outside, muzzled like a bad dog.
I have three favorite words.
No, not I love you,
those who love
what they need
to have from me
drown me
in my silent complicity.
I long
to hear
Tell me

A rare night of husband out,
home to myself, a gift
of my own noise or silence, but
the calendar holds the graduation invitation
of a friend’s valedictorian daughter. I celebrate
this milestone, wish my joy for them to be my gift to them,
but hours across town with them
will carve my evening,
home sliced to a sliver.
Impossible, both evenings I want in one.
The choices launch torpedoes at each other:
too selfish, too indulgent, too lonely,
too unfriendly, not nurturing,
not restful, not cozy, not fun.
Too much chatter.
Each choice gutted.
I sink. I want
too much. I am
The wounded girl within
rises like a ghost
in this push and pull of self or other.
I turn to this exasperated child I’ve become, tell me
what you want, what will please you.
In rare spotlight, she unveils an urge,
knife-edged and sticky,
to slip away as before,
to numb out, bliss out
on sugar and bloat, block out
all the too much and not enough. She
throws a tantrum for the one thing
my care will allow no longer.
Her demands bruise me
but cannot crack
the encircling wall
of my love.
She unclenches her fist from
what she can no longer have, nibbles
what she has always really wanted—
not yet sure of the taste.

An island is what I wanted. I believed
if I swam long and hard, if I followed
broken-lined treasure maps of therapists,
if I tinkered with my internal compass,
I would one day climb up onto the rocks of
The Island, deep water behind, boundary clear
—even if wavering and wave-swept—sure footing
of this, not that, now distinct from then,
a wide beach between eating disorder and recovery.
I am still swimming.
This ocean breathes, rises and falls.
I breathe, chest rising and falling.
Is it the disorder sighting others seemingly secure
on sun-drenched South Pacific green peaks,
solid above my daily uncertain sea?
No thatched roof here. Storms churn. Doldrums pass.
Beacons to mark passage or guide onward are scarce,
lost in the chop. Undercurrents yank. Tides surge.
Is it the disorder that seeks The Island, thinks
only wet or dry, chants tomorrow and someday,
plants doubts that I might be dog paddling in circles?
Dark shapes still attack out of the depths,
but I glide from the grasp of sharp teeth once
inescapable. Recovery trickles through cupped palms.
I navigate with others swimming in recovery.
We rest like a raft of pelicans, buoying each other,
floating, having learned enough to trust.
Vaster than any island, the ocean of possibility
breathes me. This recovery that gave me my life
rises and falls. We are one.
(published in Journal of Poetry Therapy)
In places wilder than home, creaks and groans
of frog song come to me: dusk to dawn
musicals in a monastery garden, fragments
through New Zealand rain, today
from the mountain marsh
down the path below the window
where I write, stepping stones back
into memory and forward into faith,
bridging the splinters of ache and trust.
Some amphibian vestige at the base of my spine
throbs along to their rhythm. Alone for days,
my pen and I let frogs dictate
poems. Uninvited, loneliness
crashes the party, cloaking herself
in her usual costume, a shove
toward kitchen cupboards. Not running
from the discomfort into the arms of food,
I listen to the song of my own
longing. I take loneliness
for a stroll. I hold her
shriveled hand. I kiss her damp forehead.
She clenches my heart. I am with her
and she is with me, twins now complete,
neither of us abandoned.
Cool evening, damp trail, soft ground
cushion the fall of pain unclasping.
I could be a frog here, belly damp, sweet earth
just under my nose. The chorus of my kind
would be my stepping stones, notes in air.
I’m not scared here, loneliness confesses.
Neither am I, I say. I tuck her into
the chambers of my throbbing heart.

HUNGER SPEAKS a memoir told in poetry is available through Gürze Books, and signed copies at my web site, where information can also be found about the journal-writing workshops, Writing Our Wings of Recovery, offered in Colorado in the Denver-Boulder area

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