Before she knew it, another week had passed and it was time for her second support group meeting. Feeling a weird sense of déjà vu, Jenny opened the cobalt blue door and entered the hall. As at the previous meeting, she had ensured she was twenty minutes early, to give herself time to wipe down her chair and organise herself. But this time, she wasn’t the only one there already. The angry physio, the one who took pills but “wasn’t a junkie”, and hated her “fucking bastard husband”, was already sitting down. Jenny glanced at her name tag quickly.
‘Uh, hi Petra.’
Petra looked at her, warily – but then her eyes softened slightly and she attempted a smile. ‘Hi,’ she paused while she looked for Jenny’s name tag. Seeing none, she finished lamely, ‘you.’
Jenny had forgotten to put it on, and quickly grabbed it out of her bag and pinned it to her jersey.
‘Oops, I’m Jenny. Don’t want to forget my tag.’
Jenny stood awkwardly for a moment, wondering how she was going to try and clean her chair without being noticed, and then shrugged to herself. She knows why I’m here, this won’t be a surprise. Noticing that Petra was sitting in the same chair as the last meeting, Jenny decided to follow suit. She took her bottle of disinfectant and a tissue out of her bag, and gave her chair a thorough wipe down. Petra watched her with interest.
‘So, is it like a fucking obsession or a compulsion, or what?’ Petra asked.
‘I don’t really know,’ Jenny answered honestly. ‘I’ve always been this way, ever since I can remember. I just like everything to be clean, and tidy. I can’t really relax until things are, well, in order. I mean, that’s not so bad right? Not like…’ Jenny trailed off, embarrassed suddenly.
Petra laughed harshly. ‘Not like being addicted to prescription drugs you mean?’
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean you.’
‘It’s okay, Jenny, don’t sweat it.’ Petra looked up as the door behind them opened and a gust of cold wintery air filled the hall. Jenny followed her gaze, and watched as Ellen walked into the hall. Petra rolled her eyes and Jenny tried not to smile. She’s scary, but I think I quite like her, Jenny thought to herself, feeling surprised.
Fifteen minutes later, almost everyone had arrived – everyone except Suzanne, the blonde brat with the shopping habit. Taking their cue from Jenny and Petra, the rest of the group had chosen to sit in the same seats as last week, and there was currently a stream of awkward ‘hi’s’ and ‘how are you’s?’ between them. Maddison once again wriggled her bottom into position on the old armchair, and consulted her clipboard before speaking.
‘Hi everyone, it’s great to see you all here again.’
A few people said ‘hi Maddison’ back, while the rest nodded or smiled. All in all, it was quite an improvement from the first meeting, and Maddison looked suitably chuffed.
‘We’ll just wait another minute or two,’ Maddison checked her watch, ‘before we start.’
After a minute’s silence, Maddison opened her mouth to start speaking when the hall door was flung open once more. Suzanne marched in, wearing a knee-length red wool coat that looked so soft Jenny had an urge to reach out and stroke it as she walked past. Without saying hello or apologising for her lateness, Suzanne pulled her coat even tighter around her as she sat down in between Jonty and Grayson. Both men said hello, Suzanne barely nodded back at them.
‘Right, we’re all here. As I said earlier, it’s great to see you all again.’ Maddison smiled warmly at them all. ‘Thanks for coming, I know it’s particularly nasty weather out there tonight.’
A universal conversation starter, the weather got the group chatting about the time of year, the fresh dump of snow on the nearby mountains and the ridiculous cost of electricity in New Zealand. Even Jenny found herself taking a small part in the conversation, adding her two cents worth on her latest power bill.
After letting the group chat for a few minutes, Maddison interrupted. ‘We don’t have a huge amount of time in these sessions, so we really should get started - though it’s great to see you all chatting together. How has everyone been since our last meeting?’
‘Grand,’ Grayson said, ‘Ireland beat the Aussies in the Six Nations last night. Made myself a few bob, so I did. Don’t tell me wife though - she’d feckin’ skin me alive!’
Everyone laughed, except Maddison who was scribbling a few notes down on her clipboard. Jenny couldn’t help looking at Grayson’s hands, which were tapping his knees to some private beat. Ok, so he’s the gambler. She glanced at Anthony (aka Tom Selleck), who was sitting between her and Grayson. What’s he here for again? The Brat is here for shopping, Whispering Jonty is the alcho, Fat Phil’s obviously the overeater. Is Tom Selleck the prescription drugs? No, no. That’s Scary Petra the husband hater. Oh, I remember, it’s…
‘Stealing,’ Jenny said out loud, immediately clamping a hand over her mouth. Damn it mouth. Stay. Shut.
‘Excuse me?’ Maddison asked. Tom Selleck flicked a glance at her, and Jenny lowered her eyes to the ground.
‘Er, nothing,’ she mumbled.
‘Right then, does anyone else have an update?’ Maddison asked hopefully.
‘I haven’t done so well this past week,’ Ellen said, sighing heavily. Jenny didn’t have to rack her brains to remember why Ellen was here. Sex addiction was something she had heard about, but never believed was an actual thing. In fact, she thought it was just a made up thing that male celebrities used as an excuse to cheat on their wives. When Maddison gave Ellen an encouraging nod, she continued. ‘I managed to get myself in a bit of trouble at work, actually. As a result, I’ve been asked to take a month’s paid leave, to sort myself out.’
The group all looked at her, riveted. She shrugged. ‘I’m feeling a bit lost without work, you know?’
Jonty nodded sympathetically at her, and looked as if he was about to speak but thought better of it. The rest of the group waited with baited breath, hoping she was going to elaborate on what sort of trouble she had gotten into.
‘I’m sorry to hear that Ellen,’ Maddison said instead. ‘Have you made any plans for the time off work? Some constructive hobbies to keep you busy?’
‘Not really,’ Ellen looked thoughtful. ‘I’ve only really had one hobby these past few years.’
Jenny glanced sideways at the men on her left. It wasn’t that Ellen was beautiful, but there was definitely something about her, an animal magnetism that men seemed unable to ignore. Jenny suddenly felt sorry for Ellen, and wondered how dreadful it must be for her at times. She considered putting a hand on Ellen’s shoulder, but knew she’d never be brave enough to actually do it. Who knows what those shoulders have been rubbing up against.
‘Well, perhaps as a group we could talk about some possibilities?’ Maddison said, and Ellen nodded gratefully. ‘There might even be a few suggestions that everyone could think about trying?’
Fifteen minutes and several suggestions later, Ellen had agreed to join a local gym. The idea being that physical exertion of another kind might reduce her cravings for sexual contact. Ellen seemed quite happy with the notion, and Maddison moved the group on.
After the rest of them had given a very brief update on their respective weeks, Maddison said that she would like one member of the group to talk each week – to elaborate on their own individual story, the challenges they have faced and were currently facing, and their progress to date. They would then use this as the basis for a group discussion. ‘How much information you give, or don’t give, is up to you – but I do hope that you will be honest with yourselves and with the group.’
Jenny felt her breath quicken and her heart thump in her chest. Shit, poo, bum-bandit - how am I going to get out of this? They’ve all got addictions, real addictions, and I’m just weird. No way am I telling them anything else about me or my cleaning habits. Jenny gritted her teeth. I won’t be telling them about The Incident and I definitely won’t be telling them that I’m always afraid I’m going to shout the word titties, or bum – or worse. At any second. Of any given day. Oh man, what if I stood up right now and said it? Not even said it, but shouted it. What would they say?
‘Is there anyone who wants to speak this week?’ Maddison looked at each of them in turn.
‘I don’t mind going first again,’ Phil said. Maddison smiled, and motioned for Phil to begin.
‘Just talk about myself?’ he asked her. ‘Anything specific?’
‘You can tell us whatever you’d like to Philip. Sorry, Phil. You might like to talk a bit about your background, or why you think you’ve ended up in the position you’re in.’
‘Okay, cool.’ Phil looked around the group, and smiled at them all. ‘The story of Philip Sampson, fat git.’
Everyone except Maddison laughed, albeit awkwardly. He was a fat git, but he was also a genuinely nice guy and it felt a bit mean to laugh at his expense. Even if he was the one making the joke.
‘My story goes something like this.’ Phil turned his cap sideways and started singing to the tune of the Fresh Prince theme song:
‘In West Hamilton, born and raised, in the cafeteria is where I spent most of my days…Eatin’ out, maxin’ relaxin’ all cool, And eatin’ some donuts ev-ery day at school…’
He laughed, and the rest of the group followed suit. ‘Just kidding. So, I wasn’t always fat.’ He waved an arm to indicate his giant girth. ‘Not this fat anyway. I was chubby when I was little, definitely chubby. My mum always said it was their problem, not mine. The bullies, that is.’ Phil stopped for a minute, and looked troubled before shrugging his shoulder as if to say it was a long time ago and water under the bridge. The rest of the group shuffled uncomfortably in their chairs.
‘In my teens, I just started to get fatter and fatter.’ He looked around the group. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to blame it on my slow metabolism or some BS like that. I put too much in here,’ he indicated his mouth with his finger, ‘and that’s always been the issue. I don’t know why I can’t stop eating. I just love food so much. And for a while, it wasn’t really a huge issue,’ he smiled at the group, ‘excuse the pun.’ The group tittered back dutifully.
‘But one day, in my early twenties, I woke up and took a good long look at myself. A proper look, you know? And I didn’t like what I saw. I went to see my GP, and he told me I’m putting myself at risk of diabetes, or a heart attack, or all sorts of other conditions and death-inducing illnesses. It was fucking scary, I tell you. Excuse my French.’ He looked at Maddison apologetically. She indicated that he should carry on. ‘He’s right, of course. The doctor. But do you know what I did on my way home from the appointment?’ He looked at them all.
‘Decided to go on a diet I hope?’ Suzanne asked, an edge to her voice. Several others in the group glared at her.
Phil took it in his stride. ’Not just yet actually. No, I did the opposite. I stopped at McDonalds and bought myself a couple of Big Macs. And then I drove to KFC. By the time I got home that afternoon, I was almost catatonic after everything I’d eaten, and I was kind of at the end of my tether. Thought I’d reached the end if you know what I mean. Wondered whether I’d ever lose the weight, contribute to society, get a girl to even like me let alone consider sleeping with me.’ Phil looked momentarily embarrassed, as did the women in the group. ‘I just felt like such a failure, like I had no control over myself. I was incredibly frustrated and lonely, and ashamed of myself.’ Phil sighed, and cleared his throat.
‘Fortunately though, I’ve got some really great mates and one of them had organised an interview for me the week before, for a security guard position at Northfield Mall.’ He looked at Suzanne briefly, as if anticipating her scorn. ‘I know, it’s not the most glamorous of roles. But,’ this time he winked at Ellen, ‘I get to wear a uniform.’ She winked back at him, and smiled encouragingly.
‘Anyway, while I was star-fished on the couch wishing I was anyone else but me, wishing I was dead actually, the phone rang. It was the recruitment person from Northfield, and they were ringing to tell me I had the job and I could start the following week.’ Phil smiled at the memory. ‘Suddenly life seemed okay, like maybe I was a worthwhile person after all. It was then that I decided to go on a diet.’ He looked over at Suzanne, she begrudgingly nodded her approval.
‘I’ve been on lots of diets. You name it, I’ve done it – Atkins, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, the Zone, South Beach, eating for my blood type, paleo... I even tried a raw food diet – which probably lasted all of a day. I mean, there are SO many diets out there. Surely one should work for me right?’ He looked around the group, and a few of them nodded back uncertainly. No-one else in the group was remotely overweight, almost the opposite, and weren’t therefore in a position to know. ‘Well, none of them have worked. Not one. Sometimes I might lose a couple of kilos, and then I just put it all back on. I just can’t stop stuffing my cake hole. And, I think I probably would have just carried on eating, if my boss hadn’t pulled me aside recently. Northfield’s bringing in new minimum fitness requirements for all their security guards, and he wanted to pre-warn me. Said that if I didn’t meet them I’d unfortunately lose my job. I guess a big fat git who can’t run after a shoplifter isn’t much use as a security guard.’
There was silence around the circle of chairs. ‘So, he suggested I make a goal for myself to get fit, and maybe join some sort of support group to help me stick to it. The new fitness requirements are going to be enforced at the end of the year, so I figured the Auckland marathon would be my goal. It’s a long shot, I know – but I’ve got to do something. So, that’s me, that’s where I am.’
Phil looked over at Maddison, and she smiled warmly at him. ‘Thank you for sharing your story with us Phil, you’ve really provided us with some insight on the challenges you face, and I know we all appreciate your honesty.’ Maddison looked around the group. ‘Does anyone have any comments or suggestions based on Phil’s story, or anything they would like to ask Phil?’ She flicked a glance at Suzanne. ‘Constructive and honest feedback only please.’
‘So, Phil,’ Anthony was looking at him with interest, ‘it’s a compulsion for you right? Eating, that is. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time with my psychiatrist and I understand having a compulsion to do something or, er, take something.’ Anthony paused, and coughed self-consciously. ‘I just don’t really understand a compulsion that well, you know, puts your body in danger. Like, with all those illnesses that your doctor told you might occur.’
Maddison nodded at Anthony, and turned her head back to look at Phil. ‘A very interesting question. Phil?’
Phil was about to speak, when Petra interrupted. ‘Some might say stealing puts your body at risk too, Anthony. At least Phil won’t ever go to fucking jail for eating.’
‘Not unless I eat someone,’ Phil said with a smile.
The rest of the group laughed and then fell silent. Anthony shrugged, ‘That’s a fair call I suppose.’
‘I think you’ll find Anthony,’ Maddison said in a soft tone, ‘that you and Phil aren’t too dissimilar.’ Anthony looked at her in surprise. ’A compulsion is an impulse or feeling of being irresistibly drawn to perform an irrational action. In your case, it’s taking something. In Phil’s case, it’s eating something. The fact that you might go to jail, or that Phil might get heart disease, doesn’t really come into the equation when you’re performing the action. In that moment, you both feel powerless to stop yourselves. The same could be said for a number of others in this group.’
Phil and Anthony looked at each other thoughtfully, and Jenny could see the light of recognition between them.
‘One major difference,’ Maddison continued, ‘is that you, Anthony, are hoping, and able, to stop taking things altogether. Phil, on the other hand, can’t stop eating altogether. He has to carry on eating to survive. So instead, he needs to identify the food triggers that cause him to eat compulsively.’
‘Jaysus,’ Grayson said across the circle, looking at Phil. ‘You poor bugger!’
After another twenty minutes discussing Phil’s compulsion to eat and the repercussions of this on his life, Jenny checked her watch. It wasn’t that she actually wanted to go home, like most of the group she was more interested in the discussions than she had anticipated (although not yet brave enough to really take part), but force of habit compelled constant time keeping. Maddison saw the movement, and checked her own watch. It was 9.15pm, and they had run over time.
‘Excuse me everyone,’ Maddison said. Ellen, who was currently suggesting that Phil think about joining the same gym as her, fell silent. ‘Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time and we’ll have to leave it there. Can I just say thank you to Phil, for both his honesty and for being brave enough to speak first. And thank you to everyone who listened and contributed to the discussions.’
Suzanne yawned loudly, and the rest of the group flicked glances over at her. ‘What?’ She looked at the group innocently. ‘I’m tired. Fucking sue me.’
Anthony and Grayson automatically looked over at Ellen. She winked back at them. ‘Sorry guys, I’m a criminal lawyer. Yawning might be rude, but it’s not a criminal offence.’
Suzanne’s lips drew into a tight line, while everyone else around the circle laughed.
Jenny stood from her chair, and started zipping up her jacket. She was startled when she felt Ellen lay a hand on her shoulder. Jenny tried to stifle a scream, panicking at the prospect of where that hand might have been lately. Ellen immediately looked apologetic as she withdrew her hand. ‘Sorry Jenny, I’m a bit touchy feely – I just assume everyone’s the same.’
Anthony, who had just got up from his own chair, stood beside Jenny and smirked at Ellen. ‘You can be touchy feely with me any time.’ A ‘me too’ and a ‘yes please’ came from Grayson and Phil. Everyone laughed again, except Suzanne (who was already marching out of the hall) and Petra (who was grimacing with disgust).
‘Now, now boys,’ Ellen said placatingly. ‘I’d love to oblige, but I’ve been given some strict guidelines about my behaviour in these meetings.’
‘By your father?’ Jenny asked.
Ellen looked surprised. ’God, no. He doesn’t want to know anything about what goes on at these meetings. He just wants to know that I’m going, and he wants to believe I’m getting normal.’
Jenny nodded in sympathy. ‘My father too.’
Petra clicked her tongue, and shook her head as she walked out of the hall past them. ‘Men. They’re all a pack of fucking bastards.’
Ellen looked after Petra’s retreating back in confusion. ‘I just don’t get men haters. I love men. Anyway,’ she looked back at Jenny and Anthony, and then lowered her voice to a whisper, ‘when I joined the group Maddison had a chat with me about appropriate behaviour. You know, about not trying to get off in the toilets with anyone or whatever.’
The three of them looked over at Maddison, who was putting some paperwork in a box.
‘Er, me too, actually,’ Anthony said.
’What? She told you not to um, do rude things in the toilet?’ Jenny asked incredulously.
Anthony and Ellen both laughed at Jenny’s use of the term ‘rude things’. ‘No, not rude things,’ Anthony replied, ‘just about stealing other people’s stuff.’
‘Oh, right,’ Jenny looked at Ellen, and they both looked back at Anthony. ‘So, have you?’
‘Have I stolen anything?’ He looked at them both, as they nodded back. ‘Nothing much, just these.’ Anthony pulled his hand out of his pocket, and opened it to show them a bunch of teaspoons, a lace doily and a screwdriver.
Jenny and Ellen started laughing. ‘Where did you even find that stuff?’ Ellen asked.
Anthony smirked at them both, then quickly swallowed his smile as Maddison looked over. She motioned for him to go over to her, and Anthony whispered under his breath, ‘time to face the music.’
Jenny watched him walk over to Maddison, and then collected her bag off the back of her chair. Ellen put on her coat, and looked at her questioningly. ‘So, I’ve been told not to get off with anyone in the toilets and Anthony’s been told not to steal anything. What are your special instructions?’
Jenny looked thoughtful, and shook her head. ‘I guess you can’t really warn someone not to clean anything.’
Smiling at each other, they both turned when they heard Phil saying goodbye to them. He had been chatting with Jonty and Grayson over by the hall noticeboard, and the three men were now heading out of the hall together.
‘Good to see you again,’ Phil said to them both. ‘See you in two weeks.’
‘You too Phil,’ Ellen replied, ‘and good luck with your running. I’ll flick you a message and let you know which gym I’m going to join. We can get together there.’
Ellen turned back to Jenny. ‘Why don’t you join the…’ Her voice trailed off as she noticed the look on Jenny’s face. ‘Right, of course, a gym is probably the last place on earth you want to go right?’
Jenny nodded, and Ellen smiled good-naturedly as she looked at Jenny’s slim frame. ‘It’s not like you need to go to the gym anyway. So, time to get out of here. Let’s go, I’ll walk you out.’
Jenny said goodbye over her shoulder to Maddison and Anthony, who were still talking, and walked out of the hall with Ellen.