Once, I had a friend confess to me that she wasn’t in love with the woman she was seeing. In fact, her confession went—she had never loved anyone she had dated.
At night, she would drive all over town seeing this woman and many others. Climbing into their warm beds. Clinging to their bodies. And then always, always—swearing to herself to end things because she knew that what she was doing was wrong and disingenuous. Because she felt such a flat nothingness towards these women. But she could never stop.
She broke down every Saturday night when it rained and the pavements became slick with neon. She went back every time to stand outside their houses and wait underneath the orange street light to collide into some stranger.
‘Why would you date someone you’re not attracted to?’
‘Because I would rather have the phantom feeling, than no feeling at all.’
I remember she turned to me then, her face gripped with such rolling guilt, and I wanted to say to her, it was okay—I understood.
We are all trying to go home through something.
While in recovery from a binge-eating disorder, I tried to make a list of all the new foods I wanted to try. At the time, the only food I wanted to eat was from McDonald’s.
It was summer in Sydney then and I would walk to the nearby Woolies from the treatment centre and it would still be light out; the sun setting orange against dark blue, my hand gripping another crumpled shopping list.
For weeks at a time, I would try to eat diversely. I bought tins of tiny fish suspended in oil, and smeared the fish onto sourdough bread with thick slices of tomato. I bought entire watermelons and sliced them into pink cubes that I chilled, and served with coconut yoghurt and mint. I tried oranges, cashews, eggplant and (my favourite) corn. I remember thinking to myself, after I tried corn for the first time and the kernels burst in my mouth, Wow corn is so good!
But these stretches of experimentation never lasted. It didn’t matter that these foods satisfied my hunger in a way that the binge foods never had. That I actually felt fullness for the first time in my life (‘satiety’ is the term they use in recovery). Or that my blood sugar levels normalised and my energy levels finally stopped swinging. None of it mattered. It was never as good as the Macca’s.
Have you ever driven to McDonald’s at 3 am and seen the yellow arches aglow in the darkness? The black leather booths, the white tables, the menu on the wall—all of it lit up by the white fluorescence? The comfort, the warmth, the intimation of a phantom home just off the highway.
I still remember the first time I saw it like this, in the middle of the night. I was eight, maybe nine. I had found my ma on the floor of our shitty apartment, all the lights off except for the cold static of the television. She was bracing herself against the wall, tears in her eyes.
I asked her what was wrong and that was it. The flash of a hot palm against my cheek, the sound of flesh slapping against jaw bone.
‘Ma, ma. I can’t stop shaking. Ma, ma. Come back.’
Afterwards—a strawberry thick shake, an apology. The first time the artificial sweetness hit my tongue and then the eerie high licked my funny bone. There was something brittle about it. Something not quite full about the feeling. But whatever it was—it had at least arrived.
Almost comfort, almost love.
When I was older I learned to take myself to Macca’s after school. I always ordered the same thing: a cheese burger with fries and a coke, sometimes an ice cream for dessert if I had the money.
Once, many years after the treatment centre, I had a dream that I was back at the same McDonald’s I went to after school. I saw my younger self standing in line waiting to order dinner. She was in school uniform—hunched over, awkward, so afraid. I watched her take the brown paper bag, sit down alone, and quickly shovel the food into her mouth.
I wanted to go up to her and explain to her what I had learned at the treatment centre. That you need to slow down when eating your meal, even if it is McDonald’s. You can’t be looking at your phone or watching a video. You have to eat mindfully. You have to let yourself be present in the moment. Let yourself feel all of your senses.
You have to taste the hot greasiness of the fries. The sweet syrupiness of the coke. The fattiness of the beef. You have to have full feelings.
Sometimes I think I forget what Mary Jean Chan once wrote: ‘What does a lifetime of famine teach us? Nothing. Except that there is such a thing as perpetual hunger.’
Sometimes I forget addiction is not about food or women but about disconnection. How when we are disconnected, we use addiction to feel a proxy of the real thing we need—pleasure, joy, love, a sense of safety.
And that the only way through recovery is to give up the proxy for long enough to find the real thing.
Or else there will always be a neediness. A desperate, frenzied attempt to make something that is almost the right shape fit through the hole.
Always, there we will be standing in the supermarket aisle as the florescent light flickers or lying next to a woman we don’t love—thinking to ourselves once more:
You might miss it
The feeling, the home
They’re already gone •
Tina Huang is a Chinese Australian writer based in Sydney on Wangal Land. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Lifted Brow, Cordite Poetry Review, Going Down Swinging, and Overland.
The line ‘we are all trying to go home through something’ is inspired by a line from James Hollis’s book The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other: ‘my Eden project, my desire to go home through you’.
The line ‘there was something brittle about it. Something not quite full about the feeling’ is credited to psychologist B. Smith who was a clinician I saw at the ‘treatment centre’. The line ‘when we are disconnected, we use addiction to feel a proxy of the real thing we need,’ is also credited to her.
The line ‘what does a lifetime of famine teach us? Nothing. Except that there is such a thing as perpetual hunger’ is an adaption of a line from Mary Jean Chan’s poem ‘(Auto)biography’: ‘What does three years of famine teach a person? Nothing. Except that here is such a thing as perpetual hunger.’