Dirt For Dinner: Living With The Weird Condition Called Pica
Remember that kid in grade school whose favorite food was paste? Maybe they grew out of it, grew up into a normal adult -- or maybe they nurtured that tendency and developed a full-on eating disorder. It's called pica, and for reasons no one truly understands, it causes you to eat things that aren't generally accepted as food. We spoke to Deborah and Evan (not Evan V. Symon, who did the interview -- a whole different Evan), who told us what it's like when the world is your dinner plate.
Pica is A Very Difficult Disorder To Treat
Good ol' Pastey Patsy is probably going to be fine, but the stakes are a bit higher for Deborah and Evan.
"I bought a three-pack [of sponges] at Walmart, and found it to be really chewy," Deborah recalled. She'd happily made her way through two and a half sponges "before my stomach started screaming in pain."
Not everything needs a good scouring.
It's generally an ER situation when your organs start shrieking, so that's where she went. "It was embarrassing, but when they asked me what I had eaten recently, I said a sponge, and they looked dumbfounded," she remembers. "I had to get a stomach pump and get some fluids in me. The problem was that the sponges soaked up some of the acid in my stomach and caused a blockage, because even though I chewed, each piece was too big, and they expanded inside."
She admits to still eating sponges, but only in "small amounts."
Though we suspect that's still above the recommended daily intake of "Inedible foam bacteria magnet."
Evan is dealing with some more lasting damage. His favorite snack is dirt, and as a result, "my teeth are terrible. Eating dirt for over 20 years weather-stripped the enamel off some of them. I've eaten less dirt over time, but it still happened."
If you think your dentist is judgmental, try going in with literal dirt clogging your gum line.
"Normally I'd recommend dentures in this scenario, but I'm a little concerned you'd eat them."
They can't simply stop. Pica is a form of addiction, and both Deborah and Evan compared it to the cravings one might feel due to cigarette withdrawal. The problem is that there's not exactly gum or a patch filled with dirt or sponge. There's aversion therapy, which involves pairing whatever the patient likes to eat with a blast of ammonia to the face, but that's obviously no one's idea of a good time. Deborah says that all it taught her was how to avoid getting caught.
You Slowly Up The Ante
With a few exceptions (namely during pregnancy), Pica tends to develop at a young age. Deborah and Evan both admitted to starting early. It's easy to ignore, to chalk it up to kids eatin' weird shit -- one in four of them do, in fact -- and hope they grow out of it. The problem is that children have little to no sense of escalation, and children with pica will likely keep developing their habit until it's out of control. Deborah's paper and plastics jonesing actually grew out of totally normal foods.
"I would eat a lollipop," she says. "If you suck it long enough, the end with the candy starts to get weak, and sometimes it would break off a little before the end. That was good, so I soon started eating the stick with it. When I had a cupcake, I would take the paper wrapper off, but I noticed it still had some cupcake inside, so I would chew it ... Soon I was snapping off lollipop sticks and eating cupcake wrappers right out of the box."
They're so much healthier without all that frosting, right?
Evan, on the other hand, seemed to always like dirt, but there were environmental factors that encouraged him. You see, he moved around a lot when he was young, and every state has its own signature dirt flavor. "Georgia had this fine ground soil that was chewy," he remembers. "Oklahoma has red soil that's crunchy. Indiana had dirt that could be easily compacted and was easy to swallow." He was like a tiny wine-taster, sampling blends from around the country. His dirt habit then led to metal: "My brother had a BB gun, and when I had dirt, sometimes there would be a small BB round in there. I really liked the taste of copper, and I was soon sneaking into my brother's room and taking some of the BBs out of his rifle to taste and eat."
Sort of like a Pez dispenser that's also capable of killing a gopher.
Even at that age, he had a vague sense that what he was doing wasn't normal, so he kept a small bag of dirt tucked away in his room that he'd eat "like trail mix." Metal, on the other hand, was a little harder to come by: "I was a volunteer basketball ref, and I went through a few whistles. I would chew on it constantly during games, and after several games, the part where you blow into it was almost shut because I bent it that much. It was like gum. I still eat BB rounds, because I've found out they're the safest. There's nothing that can cut you, and it's hard for them to get stuck in you."
Psh. Tell that to everybody's little brother who still has a BB round stuck in their elbow.
Just don't tell their mom. BB gun code still applies no matter how old you get.
You Build Your Life Around Hiding Your Habit
While it may be acceptable on the first round of Fear Factor, chewing a pack of staples on your lunch break is likely raise a few eyebrows around the office. Luckily, while pica often starts at a young age, that's also when kids are most susceptible to being shamed into quitting.
"I was caught in class eating paper when I started doing it without thinking, and the girl next to me said, 'Ewww, Debbie's eating paper!'" Deborah remembers. "I was so embarrassed. The teacher scolded the other girl, though, so I was safe that time. But another time, I think the same year, we all got a roll of candy buttons in our class Christmas stocking, and I ate the candy and the roll and I tried to say I thought that's how everyone did it."
The more common method is to throw that crap in the trash and make it a point to avoid that house next Halloween.
But the shaming didn't work. "After that, I learned to eat it in private, or when I could get away with it," Deborah says. At 28, she's still finding ways to hide it: "I have a cubicle at work, and I can't let anyone see the Starbucks cup I have, because I'll always have part of the straw bitten off," she says. "The notepad in my desk also has thumb-sized ripped-out sections in it when I feel like some paper. I can't leave them in plain sight."
Since Evan's craving is literally the earth, he's got to be especially careful in public. "My best friend knows about my pica," he explains, although he doesn't eat dirt around him as a courtesy. "He suggested using an empty chewing tobacco tin to carry dirt, because here, chewing tobacco is acceptable in public, and eating a pinch of dirt uses almost the same motions as putting tobacco in your mouth ... I have bags of dirt in my Lazy Susan, and I keep other things I like to eat out of sight. It would be hard to explain why I have a jar of BBs but no BB gun."
"I just throw 'em. It's all in the wrist."
That seems like an easy problem to fix, but we're not here to tell anyone how to live their life.
Pica Eaters Are Picky Eaters
Remember when we compared Evan to a wine taster? We weren't kidding. "When I get dirt, I don't go into the park and start eating," he says. He's not an animal, after all. "I make sure it's clean. If I'm not sure about it, I'll boil it and dry it." And his dirt cellar is impeccably stocked: "This might sound sad, but I keep a few varieties on me. I have a few sandwich bags of dirt. There's dirt I get here [in Texas], but also from places I visited ... Dirt isn't just dirt."
Deborah is less selective, but she still has a system: "If I'm craving paper, I have notepads and other types nearby me all the time, but it has to be clean," she says. "If there's type on it or notebook lines, that's fine, but if there's pen ink on it, I won't eat it. Pen ink has a bad taste. Same with marker and especially highlighter. Plastic can't be a solid chunk. Like, I'm not going to eat or chew on plastic Army men. Straws are what I eat most, but sometimes I'll have a plastic spoon or a pen cap."
Pen might not taste great, but Evan might disagree on pencil.
"You develop tastes on what you like," Deborah continued. "Printer paper, newspaper, and notebook paper are as different as Pepsi, Sprite, and Crush. Technically they're all soda, but [they] aren't the same flavor. The consistency, type of tree used, whether it's recycled, and if there is ink on it are a few things that change the taste." Oh, but you only get the "Hammermill shits" once before you swear off the wrong white stuff forever.
And with pica, you can't tell which end this is about to go in.
Your Poop Gets Weird
People with pica don't haul off and go hog-wild at the Office Max. Rather, they eat with precision, knowing full well that what goes in has to come out. There are a lot of factors to keep in mind when deciding what they're going to ingest.
"It can't be too jagged, but I ate staples for a while," Evan says. "And I've had balled-up copper wire with the ends tucked into the middle. It's good, but I'm not taking any chances. When I eat pencil graphite, I'll usually scribble it a little so the edges are blunt. I've eaten mechanical pencil refill packs before, and a few times it stabbed my gums or the roof of my mouth." Deborah plays it a bit safer. "It can't be too sharp," she says. "I've reminded myself I don't want my intestines punctured or to face a doctor saying they found a screwdriver handle in my small intestine."
Possibly the only time you want the doctor to assume you were experimenting sexually.
"I pulled an antique gramophone horn out of a guy's butt earlier. Nothing you survive can shock me anymore."
Eating all these weird, colorful, and mostly non-biodegradable objects inevitably leads to a weird ... product. "I'm embarrassed to say this, but I've looked down at my poop before flushing, and occasionally you can see bright colors in it," Deborah says. "It's not going to look like a party favor, but if you've ever eaten corn and look down before you flush, it's poking out like that." Evan admitted that when he poops, sometimes he'll "hear a few clinks," but come on -- anybody who's eaten their spare change rather than risk being shaken down by a bell-ringing store Santa knows that feeling.
At least with change, when you jam up the pipes and have to call a plumber, the clog pays for itself.
You May Never Know Why You Start Eating Weird Stuff
It's hard to say what might be causing any one person's case of pica. "When I have the urge to eat dirt, it's like someone who likes ice cream having an urge for their favorite flavor," Evan says, noting that his favorite flavor is Oklahoma, which is the first time those words have been put in that order. "When I get stressed out, eating dirt or copper helps get rid of stress. It's my form of a cigarette."
Hopefully with a tetanus shot chaser, since Oklahoma dirt is essentially ground-up rust.
Deborah, on the other hand, can only offer a big ol' shrug: "I don't have any mental issues, I've never been pregnant, and I get all of my vitamins." She suspected she might have ADHD, because eating paper and plastic seems to help her concentrate, "but I've been tested for it and I didn't have it ... I'm sure there's a reason, but I don't know what it is."
Evan was careful to remind us about the dangers of getting complacent: "This isn't something you want. I've learned to live with it and make it a little more tolerable for myself, but don't feel like you should carry on as usual if you have pica."
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, writer, and interview coordinator for Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience? Then hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today.
Check more inside accounts on eating disorders in 5 Unexpected Things I Learned From Having an Eating Disorder and 6 Things You Learn As A Guy With An Eating Disorder.
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