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How the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Made Me Realize My Greatest Fear

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

I have learned something about myself recently: my greatest fear is not nearly what I would have expected. I am not afraid of creepy crawlies, nor wee beasties. I am not afraid of what waits in the dark, or a fall from great heights, or the unknowability of life. I am not afraid of pain or poison, lions or tigers or bears.

I am afraid of hunger.

That is not prose or flowery literation — I am literally afraid of not having enough food.

I’ve noticed this before on a smaller scale; when other areas of my life are uncertain, I begin to stockpile food. Baskets and boxes overflow with dry goods; my freezer is packed beyond capacity like a chilly game of Tetris where I am determined to zero out every line; my cooler doors barely close on the bags of produce, jugs of milk, stacks of cheeses and meats. My bread bowl is piled high, and five-gallon buckets of flour and sugar are difficult to close without a mess. Given the scope of our current crisis due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system — one can extrapolate the state of my larder as I type this.

Food was not an issue growing up. We had money for groceries, and while we did not have any great overabundance of treats, we were all healthy and fed. I come from a long line of women who cooked, cleaned and cared for their households throughout much worse than anything I lived through. My father was in the military, and while we did move (a lot) and he was gone (a lot), I grew up safe and happy.

My fear is rooted in the time, nearly a decade ago now, just before and after my children’s father and I separated and divorced; roughly a year of being almost always unbearably hungry.

Due to a very overwhelming set of circumstances, I found myself working multiple low-paying jobs, going to school full-time and spending what little money I had on childcare. There were days when I had class from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and work from 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., but before any of that could happen I had to be at a food pantry by 6 a.m. in the hopes I would find myself in the right half of the line to receive a box. I very rarely was.

One of the jobs I worked was as an ice-cream churner. We once made a batch of a new flavor that did not go over well: sweet pea and sorrel. For a few weeks, “grass cream” (as my children called it) was the vegetable that went with dinner. They look back on this memory with fond hilarity, as children do when they don’t quite realize the gravity of the situation. I look back on it with utter horror.

I received a shift meal at my other job each night that I worked — I would order a plain burger, eat the fries at work (they’re never as good reheated anyway) and take the rest home hidden in my backpack to save for a night when I didn’t have anything else for us. We ate work burgers that were a week old sometimes. The kids loved them though, and thought they were a treat.

I was in culinary school and would eat the items we made during class. I finally broke down and told one of my professors how bad it was, and I was allowed to take the extra items home — something that was typically against the rules to prevent students from “overmaking” and wasting supplies. Our food situation got a little better after that, but it was still terrifying to see a refrigerator and freezer with less than 10 items total inside. Go ahead — go to your cooler right now, open the door, and choose only ten items. None of them are full. That is all you have.

We so rarely had enough food; I would often eat crackers or dry cereal so that anything with actual nutritional value could go to my children. I lost a large amount of weight during this year — I was overweight to begin with, but despite living off of cheap, simple carbohydrates, the amount of weight I dropped was frightening. To this day I have an incredibly unhealthy relationship with food and will frequently overeat to the point of pain just because the food is there, and my brain fears I might not have anything else for a while. My weight still yo-yos, down a large amount back within a year.

At the very beginning of this, before I was medically advised to self-isolate, I tried to go shopping at my neighborhood market and had a nervous breakdown that carried me through the night. I tried again with my partner and the empty displays closed in around me; I could not catch my breath, I could not stop the fluttering of my hands and the sinking feeling of desperation. We tried to divide and conquer, but I largely spent my time in the aisles actively stopping myself from taking one of everything, spending every penny in my account on food.

A significant moment for me happened when I tried to order my groceries through a delivery service instead. Nearly half of my order was unavailable and the sweet shopper, trying so hard to be helpful and having waited in the line wrapped around the building just to get in and shop my order, sent me photograph after photograph of the stark shelves where each item should have been stocked. I could not politely ask her to stop; I could not explain that the sight of the white printer paper indicating rationing levels taped to the beige steel was enough to make me vomit more than once. I just thanked her and said “No problem! Next time!” with more smiley faces than I have truly felt in weeks.

Thinking about people being as hungry as I was terrifies me. Thinking of my children being as hungry as I was fills me with the most visceral kind of fear — the stinking, sweating, bowel-loosening fear — as though you were being chased by a pack of wolves or stuck on a sinking ship in a vast sea. I am doing what I can to help, to make sure people have the things they need and go to bed with food in their bellies. My partner is a peace officer who is overseeing meal distribution to the school children in our district while they engage in distance learning. I am spending a disproportionately large portion of my now-reduced budget buying meals from local restaurants and hiring out-of-work friends for odd jobs, organizing volunteers and donations around the city.

I can’t leave this house to go help in the way I always have. I can’t see if it’s getting better or worse, if the people I love and care about are OK.

I am stuck here with plenty of food, and I’ve never been so scared of going hungry in my life.

Can you relate to Ande? Let her know in the comments below.

Concerned about the coronavirus? Stay safe using tips from these articles:

Photo by Luke Jones on Unsplash

Originally published: April 9, 2020
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