Behind a cut for discussions of food & compulsive eating.
This is probably a really, really petty problem, but it’s driving me up the wall.
I live with my mother and she’s been eating my chocolate. She’s been doing this ever since I was a little kid, and every single time she’s replaced it and apologized but, y’know. She also disapproves of me hiding chocolate in my room but if I don’t, SHE FUCKING EATS IT.
Most recently, I bought some chocolate and some mini eggs to make cornflake nests. I put them in the baking supplies so I wouldn’t mistakenly eat them. It took me a month to get round to making them because the fridge was full. I went to make them and found all the chocolate was gone. She admitted to eating it and told me she ‘didn’t think I was going to make any’. Like that gives her the right to eat my stuff. She bought some replacement chocolate and I had to special-order mini eggs online, and I made the cornflake nests. I also told her she’d already had her share but she still tried to get me to give her one and eventually I conceded. I guess I’m just a fucking doormat or something. There was some chocolate left over so I put it in the fridge. Guess what. She ate some of that. She ‘didn’t think I’d notice’ and ‘thought it was excess’ and she ‘bought it anyway’. (Yeah, to replace the stuff I’d bought!)
I also bought a box of fancy chocolate biscuits that I really like and don’t get to have very often because they’re pricy. I was planning to hoard it, but she found it before I could put it away. She asked if she could have one. I’m OK with her having some of my chocolate if she asks first. Anyway, I went to have one and I’m pretty sure there were more missing than there should be. I reacted badly. I’ve taken the biscuits and hidden them in my room, and I grabbed some of her clothes and threw them across her bed. I admit this is immature, but I want her to know what it feels like to have someone do whatever they want with her stuff. (I didn’t want to actually permanently damage anything of hers, just mildly inconvenience her.) I dunno how she’s gonna react, she’s out right now.
She’s pretty sure she’s got some kinda compulsive eating disorder, which I’m sympathetic to, but she ‘manages’ it by not keeping any snacks of her own in the house and eating mine instead. It also feels like she’s taking advantage of my generous nature. Like, she knows she’s going to have to deal with me being angry with her until she talks me down and then buy another bar of chocolate, so her stealing my chocolate is NBD to her. Whereas to me it feels like a violation of trust and it’s also disappointing that I don’t get to have the treat I was looking forward to.
Also, I don’t want to have to keep hiding chocolate in my room. I know it’s not healthy behaviour, and my room is the hottest one in the house so in summer I wind up with melted chocolate.
Do you have any advice to get her to stop taking my chocolate and also what feels like the piss?
Stop Eating My Chocolate (he/him)
P.S. Update: I managed to get in touch with mum and she says she didn’t eat the biscuits. I’m choosing to believe her, because she does tend to own up when confronted. I’ve also cleaned up the mess I made in her room because it’s not fair to punish her for something she didn’t do this time.
Advice would be appreciated though because as you can see it’s still driving me up the blasted wall. Thank you.
Hi there, Stop Eating My Chocolate:
You call it a petty problem, but it isn’t, really. How we get food right now is complicated, the few treats we manage to concoct or squirrel away are important, and the safety and comfort of our home environment is important. As adults we learn to modulate the primal DON’T TOUCH MAH STUFF feelings we screamed out as toddlers, but it doesn’t mean we don’t still have them. And for folks with eating disorders and/or stressful baggage around food, the removal of usual safe outlets and comforting support mechanisms is making it even harder to manage that stuff. [I recommend A Letter For Anyone Living Through The Pandemic With An Eating Disorder at SELF for some compassionate words about that].
I have lived with a roommate who routinely ate my food. Multiple conversations about it didn’t work. Labeling it clearly didn’t work; once he ate a box of cereal that I’d wrapped in gaff tape and paper with little cartoons of him getting stabbed if he ate it all over the box and the words DON’T EAT THIS, [NAME] IT’S NOT YOURS taped over the box flap and a similar gaff-tape message taped over the bag inside the box. More than once he ate all the actual food out of my leftovers and put the containers back with just a residue of broth or gravy, so it looked like the food was still there, but when I’d come home from work all psyched to eat the thing I’d cooked the day before, surprise! I was in grad school, I didn’t have a lot of money or time, cooking for myself was like, my one nice thing, and there was a special kind of infuriating despair about coming home at night after everything nearby is closed and finding nothing to eat in the house even though I’d spent all day yesterday making absolutely sure there would be.
Like your mom, he’d always replace whatever it was if I asked him to (but only if I asked him to), and like your mom, I sensed there was something compulsive or not-entirely-deliberate at work since he was a great roommate and friend in many other ways. There wasn’t room in my tiny room for a separate fridge or food storage, and like you, I decided against keeping food in my bedroom because it’s the principle of the thing, dammit, so, he ate my food consistently for three years.We lived together for three years. That is the math.
Here some of your math: Since you were a child and even more right now, your mom manages what she “is pretty sure is a compulsive eating disorder”* at least partly through you and at your expense. (*We can’t diagnose her but we can accept her self-description at face value.) More specifically, she’s gaslighting both of you with “I don’t want there to be snacks in the house (unless they’re YOUR snacks).” Since she’s eating your snacks, it’s now your fault/your responsibility somehow, and you become a participant in whatever cycle of secrecy/shame/conflict/apology happens next. She can also refashion her scary feelings about eating “bad” foods into judging you and your food [“you bought an excess”/”you shouldn’t keep food in your room”/”you need to share”] instead of owning her behaviors. It’s really messed up and not “petty” on your part to be uncomfortable with this!
Diet culture, even absent a diagnosable eating disorder, brings out a lot of strange behavior: Consider the person who won’t order their own dessert/french fries/whatever but will eat some if you do, the person who wants dessert but can only it if you order dessert, too, the ritual assurances (that no one asked for) about “having had a salad for lunch” or “I haven’t eaten all day” before eating anything in front of others, the weird association of certain foods with moral virtue and other foods with “sin.” People who behave this way are in a state of constant negotiation with themselves and with a sexist and fat-hating culture that wants women, especially to have to justify and pre-apologize for every fucking bite they consume literally forever. It is dehumanizing and exhausting, and the project of regaining a healthy relationship with food in a world that wants to undermine everything about that is an enormous and difficult one that requires an incredible amount of unlearning.
Please know that I have a ton of compassion for your mom. Even if she didn’t have a self-described compulsion, the culture and family she was raised in probably means she’s never felt “allowed” to buy and have her own chocolate in her whole damn life. It’s very unlikely she is self-aware of the dynamics here or doing this on purpose to upset you. She has work and healing to do to get to the “all food is just food!” and “a person can have chocolate sometimes, as a treat” place. In the meantime, her relationship with food and her relationship with you have gotten mixed up together in this fucked up way right now, and you’re starting to react in ways that are unhealthy and dysfunctional for you, from counting biscuits to messing with her things as revenge. Not okay!
Recognizing that there are limits to what you can do about another person’s behavior, here are some things you can try:
1. You can have a serious, honest conversation and level with her completely. “Mom, you’ve mentioned you think you have a compulsive eating problem. Have you ever tried working on that? Can you try/try again? I want you to feel better, and I have to be honest, it’s really affecting me, too. It makes me furious when something I’ve specially saved up for or set aside as a treat goes missing, plus you have me keeping food in my room, you have me counting biscuits, you have two grown adults fighting about who ate the chocolate or had their hand in the cookie jar. I’m sure the stress I feel around this is a fraction of what you do, but I do not want to have to count biscuits or feel like I have to be vigilant and stressed about this, and I don’t want to fight with you about this ever again!”
She’ll have some things to say, I’m sure. Listen, and if you get stuck, ask her how she wants to handle this from now on. She may not have a good answer, or even an answer, but when we’re locked in a conflict with someone there are worse strategies than asking them to advocate their own best-case scenario.
2. You can recommend resources where she might find insight, help, and comfort. I’ll put some links at the end of the post.
3. You can set some boundaries both with your mom and with yourself.
One that comes to mind: Have you ever told her “no” when she’s asked for treats that you didn’t actually want to give her? What would happen if she said “Can I have one of your birds’ nests?” and you said “No, I’m saving them, sorry.” Would she eat them anyway? Would there be a scene? Would you be “in trouble”?
Whether you actually start saying “no,” I think it’s worth thinking about whether the word “no” can ever be respected and normalized in your house or in your relationship with your mom, about anything. Isn’t that the heart of this conflict, really? Chocolate can be replaced, your mom’s feelings about food are her feelings, but the feeling that nothing is actually yours and that you can’t trust her is the big deal here. When I moved into my own place eventually after living with the roommate who ate my food, there was a palpable relief in knowing that everything in the fridge was just mine and that anything I put down would still be right where I left it when I came home. Ahhhhhhhhh. I liked him so much better when this weirdness wasn’t between us! When you don’t have that feeling in your house it’s hard to relax and ever feel safe. With that in mind, don’t mess with her stuff ever again. That’s the first chapter in How To Lose The Moral High Ground In One Simple Step. 🙂
Another possible boundary: You don’t have to accept shitty apologies. Meaningful apologies have distinct steps: 1) Acknowledging the specific harm done and accepting responsibility 2) Making restitution, where possible, and 3) Not repeating the offending behavior. Your mom says “I’m sorry” and she does eventually replace what she took, but #3 is a total fail so far.
Edited Script: “Mom, I know you’re sorry, but it really bothers me when you take my stuff. Please work on this!”
A reader correctly pointed out that telling the mom she isn’t feeling sorry isn’t cool – she probably is feeling sorry about a compulsion and the regret is truthful – so I offer an edited script that acknowledges the feeling but still restates the boundary. Thank you. [/Edit]
When someone apologizes, we’re conditioned to reassure them and forgive pretty immediately, like “It’s okay!” and then everyone hugs. Do you find yourself saying “It’s okay” to your mom when it’s not okay with you? What if you let it stay as Not Okay as you feel for a few hours or even a few days? “No, you can’t have a birds’ nest, and I’m still mad at you about this.”
Boundaries aren’t mean. You’re allowed to eat whatever you want and to expect that the people you share a house with will respect your stuff, that’s not selfish or weird or “excessive” on your part. When someone is having a hard time regulating themselves, having a loved one be able to calmly and consistently point out where their own guardrails are is a form of care.
Sharing every morsel of food is not obligatory. It’s routine to share meals as a family and/or a household, but it’s also okay to have some things that are just yours.
[Confidential to the people who wrote to me because friends and new date-friends always want a bite of your food or to split things and you don’t like sharing food: Try “Hey, I don’t really like sharing food or splitting things, can we not?” (“This is a quirk about me you should know!”) and also add “But you should totally get your own!” (“I am not going to judge you for eating food, we don’t have to play that weird shame-game”) and see if things get better. In February, when I reunited with some very old friends, it was awesome to see the automatic, friction-free, zero-judgment “oh, right, Mikey doesn’t like sharing, let’s get 2 hummuses!” still held fast after 20 years. 🙂 People can’t know what you never tell them, but they can absolutely adjust once they do know. If they won’t, maybe they aren’t the most compatible dining companions for you.]
4. You can make conversations about food direct and boring.
Label things you are saving as yours. Do it every time. I agree, you shouldn’t have to. Do it anyway. Make it very clear that it is not community property. “Oh hey, that’s mine.” “Don’t eat that, it’s mine.”
“Mom, I’m ordering some chocolate, what can I get you?” “Oh, nothing, you know I don’t like to keep snacks in the house.” “Okay!” Take her at her word, don’t fight about it, don’t remind her of what happened last time, don’t make snide comments. Treat it like a very normal, routine thing to ask. Treats are tasty and eating them is fine. Repeat your offer every time. She has choices about how she handles this and how she treats you: She can say yes, she can buy her own, she can respect your stuff. Keep offering her the choice to do the reasonable thing.
If she eats something of yours, make that conversation as neutral and direct as you can. “Mom, I can’t find ____. Did you eat it?” “Yes (+ a bunch of feelings, probably)” It is okay to interrupt her feelings download, shame spiral, justification, denial, accusation that you had excessive chocolate so she was just relieving you of some for your own good (that’s for billionaires + their wealth, not you + your snacks). Interrupt her! “Mom, whatever, just, please either replace it today or give me $X so I can, that was mine.” You don’t have to pretend it’s not happening or hide that it pisses you off, but if you can stay very matter-of-fact you can possibly remove some of the drama and tension from the situation.
5. Never, ever comment on what she eats or how much. If she tries to do the dance about that in front of you – “Oh, I really shouldn’t eat this” or “This is positively SINFUL” or “I won’t be able to fit into anything if I eat this” or whatever (ughhhhhh) just don’t engage with it. Be really, really boring about it. “Huh, if you say so. Pass the salt?” “You’re the boss of you. How’s that book you’re reading?” This is partly about not taking on her relationship with food as your own, and partly about making it safe for her to eat with you and in front of you. Nobody is monitoring her, judging her, observing her, shaming her, you literally don’t give a shit what she eats (as long as it’s not yours).
6. She’s not allowed to comment on your food either. Push back on any judgment of you about what you eat or where you keep your food. “Mom, we’re not talking about me, we’re talking about you. I’m okay with how much chocolate I buy/eat. I’m not okay with keeping my food in my room, but it’s better than fighting with you about it so we all make compromises.” “I don’t want you to eat my food or comment on my food. Both are off limits.”
7. Practice saying only kind things about food and bodies, especially when you’re around your mom. Part of decolonizing our brains and bodies from harmful diet obsessions and body hatred is being aware of how we talk about media figures, people we know, and our own bodies. We just “met” so I don’t know where you are with your relationship with all of this, but I can bet you’ve picked up some harmful ambient messages about bodies and eating because they are so prevalent in the world, and being raised by a parent who has a lot of shame and weirdness about her own body and food habits is only going to magnify it. This is fixable, with some effort. For starters, don’t insult people or compliment people because of their weight or how they eat. Don’t talk about “good” food and “bad” foods if you can help it. Don’t say mean stuff about your own body or judge yourself for eating certain things, especially in front of your mom. You can’t fix her relationship with all of this but you can do your best to not pass it down through the generations in your family.
8. Non-discussion strategies for accepting difficult realities.
Letter Writer, what if you’re expressing yourself just fine, you’ve always expressed yourself just fine, and there is no conversation or tips that will convince your mom to stop eating your chocolate? What if she’s just like this, and she’s going to be like this until she fixes her own relationship with food or decides to change her behaviors?
What would you do if you knew for sure that she’s going to keep eating your stuff even though she knows you hate it, and it’s clearly labeled, and you asked her not to? Whether she can help it or she can’t, she isn’t helping it, so let’s deal with that.
I’m going to be honest, I hate defaulting to tech-support solutions for interpersonal problems, but when reasonable conversations don’t work, sometimes that’s what we’re left with. I told you about my former roommate, and that the situation never changed no matter what I did. Here’s what I’d probably do if I found myself in that situation today:
- I wouldn’t try to dig into why my roommate was doing any of this. It’s really his business, the way my food is mine. He needed to know my needs and boundaries, like, “Don’t eat my food” and “If you eat something of mine, replace it the same day.” I didn’t actually need to know “Why are you eating all my food?” to need it to stop.
- I’d get a mini-fridge and keep it either in my room or in my office or the basement storage area. I’d try to bring it into the house & install it when I knew he wasn’t home and I’d dispose of all the packaging immediately. If he notices, he notices, it’s not like we’d never talked about the problem or that it’s a secret or anything to be ashamed of, just, I’d try to buy myself some time to adjust to a new normal without additional conflict or comment if I could.
- I’d install a lock on said fridge. You can’t eat what you can’t see. I’d also get a small airtight container with lid for dry goods.
- I’d still use the communal fridge for most things, but I’d put anything where “If this gets eaten, my day will be ruined” in the new, more secure storage.
- Now and again I’d buy decoy cereal (or, in your case, decoy chocolate). Yes, I’d absolutely buy some extra of the cheap stuff and leave it in “my” cabinet shelf or fridge shelf as I usually did and label it as I usually did. If he ate it, I’d still make him replace it, but over time it would be a rotating stock of the stuff I didn’t actually care about.
- I’d probably resent every dollar and every minute spent on any of this and having to keep food in my (truly tiny!) bedroom, but I’d also weigh it against the advantages of shared expenses, a beautiful apartment in my favorite neighborhood, and a roommate who took out the garbage consistently (not my strong suit) and was a dear friend in so many other respects. There’s a reason you’re living with your mom and not somewhere else, so, can you try to remind yourself of that when the going gets tough?
- I’d (hopefully) be free of the daily worry and stress of my food going missing and (hopefully) of fighting about it.
- Specific recommendations for you, Letter Writer:
- Probably do not stock up on things you know your mom is likely to munch on before you can get to them. Buy treats in smaller batches and use them up quickly. I know, I know, she shouldn’t eat it, but since you know she is likely to eat whatever you have around, you can actually minimize the damage to your wallet and your relationship if you plan slightly more.
- You can also utilize the “decoy snack” recommendation and make it explicit rather than implicit When you shop, buy one extra of certain things, and label it “Mom” when you label your stuff. I know (I know!) she said she didn’t want to keep snacks in the house, but obviously she does want there to be snacks in the house, so could you remove the pretense and be real about it for a second? She doesn’t have to eat it, she won’t even find it she’s not snooping through your shit in the first place, but when and if she does, she can snack guilt-free (or at least free of the tip of the guiltberg marked “filial guilt at stealing her son’s preciouses.”)
Should you have to do any of these things? Should you have to manage your mom’s eating issues and disrespect of your stuff? Should you have to keep food in your room if you don’t want to (or be judged about it if you do)? NO. Absolutely not. It is unfair that you have to.
That said, as long as you live with her, accepting the reality of the situation and taking realistic steps to manage it is a way that you can take care of yourself right now, even if she’s not doing the best job. Our parents are just people and they don’t know best about everything all the time.
I’m not opening comments on this, but if anybody needs resources about compulsive eating or other eating disorders, here are several:
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). They have a helpline, referrals to local resources, and notably, they’ve instituted several virtual programs like online support groups during this pandemic. NEDA is USA-based but online programs are worldwide as far as I can tell.
- If you refer to “cookies” as “biscuits,” good news, I also found this list of eating disorder organizations in the U.K.
- The Ellyn Sattler Institute – Lots of articles, resources, and guides around “eating competence,” it’s especially good for parents who want to raise kids who have a relaxed, enjoyable, healthy relationship with food.
- Friend-Of-Awkward-Blog S. Bear Bergman recommends Geneen Roth’s books about emotional eating, calling her “Ellyn Sattler, but for grownups!” and full of friendly, encouraging, compassionate, non-judgmental, nurturing advice on identifying and breaking patterns around, say, hiding food.
- The Fat Nutritionist – Michelle Allison is a registered dietician who works with clients, she is also a great writer with a wealth of material on unlearning damaging messages and re-learning eating competence.
- Lindo Bacon’s books Health At Every Size and Body Respect remain supportive, encouraging resources about managing relationships with bodies and food, I recommend them to everyone.
This is not a comprehensive list, nor will everything work for every person, hopefully this gives people a place to start narrowing the search for something that fits just right. I’ve tried to go with things that people I trust have personally recommended and resources that talk about healthy eating and healing relationships with food for all bodies, without advocating dieting or weight loss.