LEALMAN — From a faded green recliner in her tiny mobile home, Cheryl Dixon punched a number into her phone. Behind her, kitchen cabinets burst with Hamburger Helper and ramen noodles, bags of doughnuts and Cocoa Diamonds cereal.
"I'm Cheryl from St. Pete," she said. "Can I share?"
In the past year, for the first time in her life, she had reached almost 300 pounds. She was 44 and already diagnosed with diabetes. Her doctor warned that if she didn't change her eating habits, she would likely die.
So Cheryl went to a dietician and started walking three times a day. She joined Overeaters Anonymous, and every evening, dialed into this call with strangers across the country, to spill her troubled thoughts.
"About a year ago," she told them, "I lost 50 pounds. But then I started fighting with my daughter and I started relapsing.
"I gained back 60 pounds in the course of a year.
"The last two weeks, I threw myself into recovery wholeheartedly."
With no job and on disability, she strung her days together with handfuls of Chester's Cheese Flavored Puffcorn.
She hoped to go to college and become a counselor. More than anything, she wanted to get out of her trailer and find a purpose.
But first, she needed to fix herself. She had to stop hoarding food. She had to stop eating every time she worried or got sad.
"This," she told the support group, "is the hardest thing I've ever done."
• • •
Cheryl quit drinking in 2010. She quit smoking in 2014.
But neither of those addictions took root as early as this one.
She was 7 years old, crossing the street, when a drag racer going 60 mph struck her down, fracturing her pelvis and puncturing her kidney.
She remembers the pain and how she ate to comfort herself.
She learned when the neighbors ate dinner, and rode her Huffy Green Machine from one house to the next before returning to eat dinner with her parents, a truck driver and a nurse's aide. Her family ate at buffets; "it was cheaper than buying groceries," she said.
Cheryl went on to become a security guard, a job she held with pride for 18 years.
But in 2009, when she was 37, she had a breakdown, lost her job and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
She took medication and began drawing disability.
She ate what she picked up at local food pantries and low-cost groceries. With only $945 per month, it was cheaper to get processed, high-calorie food.
She found herself reaching for it more and more, counting the items in her cabinets and growing anxious if she ran low.
Though not in the diagnostic books, researchers study food addiction as a chemical dependency.
Sugar changes brain chemistry just like cocaine or heroin or alcohol, by releasing dopamine that desensitizes the brain's reward centers.
A food addict builds a tolerance, some researchers have found, and needs more and more to feel satisfied.
Within a few years, Cheryl was eating as often as 14 times a day.
She realized how bad it had gotten when she began to keep track.
Food log 2-27-16
12:00 cheese puffs 5 handfuls
1:00 a.m. 3 blueberry muffins
1:00 a.m. 2 hot dogs, 2 applesauce
8 a.m. 1 pot coffee
8:30 a.m. 2 oatmeal packets,
9 a.m. 2 slices toast
12:05 p.m. 1 turkey sandwich 3 slices
12:45 p.m. 2 hot dogs
3 p.m. 2 hot dogs, 2 puddings, chips 2/3 can
4:15 p.m. 14 nuggets
9:30 1 bratwurst cheddar 2 slices cake
1:30 a.m. 20 chips Lays
2 a.m. 2 packages oatmeal, 1 pudding
3:40 a.m. 3 slices cake
3:50 a.m. 1 box of Rice a Roni
• • •
Cheryl was still on the phone, listening to the only people who understood her loneliness.
One woman talked about how much she hated her body. Another complained she would never lose weight unless she was happy.
Cheryl shared her phone number with them, asked them to call her, and then the session was over.
It was dark, her weakest time of day, and she was hungry.
She'd avoided sugar for three days now. She'd even lost 10 pounds.
She pulled some baked chicken quarters from the oven and put them on a plate next to a scrawny baked potato, proud of her lean meal.
But it wouldn't be enough.
Less than an hour later, she grabbed her wallet and headed out the door, trudging through the dark to the convenience store across the street.
She spotted cheese puffs, Brisk strawberry melon drink, a freezer full of ice cream bars — Blue Bunny Big Alaska, Snickers, Twix, Cookies and Cream.
Cheryl's big brown eyes widened with anticipation as she laid it all in front of the woman behind the cash register, along with $10.44.
"This is considered relapsing," she told the clerk, her voice, a sad monotone. "You're not going to see me anymore."
"Okay, don't threaten me," the clerk joked.
Cheryl would binge for a couple of weeks. She would gain back the weight she lost and hit almost 300 again. She would have a dream in which she ate herself to death and green insects escaped from her body.
It would scare her all over again, and she would kill the sugar and lose 7 pounds and once more, declare herself free.
But right now, she would head down the narrow alley between the mobile homes until she came to hers. She would settle back into her faded green recliner and rip open the Big Alaska.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Leonora LaPeter Anton at (727) 893-8640 or [email protected]