Is This Normal? “I Like Eating Paper”
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
I’ve liked the taste of paper since I was a kid. While I grew out of ingesting other non-edible items like rubber, toothpaste, and occasionally, soapy water, I never quite gave up on paper. In fact, my favorite kind of paper to snack on is a newspaper. Sounds gross, I know, which is why a colleague recently suggested I switch to hand-pressed paper to satiate my urges without having to consume possibly toxic print-ink. While eating paper probably hasn’t impacted my health, digestive or otherwise, it is still considered a “strange” habit.
Is it at all normal to experience the urge to eat non-edible items? And, if not, what is at the root of this “strangeness”?
Xylophagia is a condition that makes people want to ingest paper. It is one of the many forms of pica, an eating disorder that results in an appetite for non-food items that can range from clay, to dirt, to chalk, to rocks, and even couches.
Pica is believed to be common in children and pregnant women. Researchers note that it is often observed in autistic individuals, too. The sensory stimulation of eating paper maybe be why my autism is egging on my paper-eating urges.
Compulsion aside, the “sensory feedback, such as the taste and texture” of non-edible items contributes significantly to the urge for autistic persons. The urge gets stronger when an autistic individual is anxious, leading experts to hypothesize that pica assumes the form of a “self-soothing behavior,” or a coping mechanism, perhaps, at such junctures. Interestingly, I’ve also found my urge to eat non-edible items becomes stronger when I’m anxious during Zoom calls. Basically, when they trigger my social anxiety, if not paper, I find myself plucking out even my skin and eating it. And it’s not easy to stop; believe me, I’ve tried.
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However, just because pica hasn’t adversely impacted my health to the best of my knowledge doesn’t mean it can’t. The CDC states that depending on the non-edible items one chooses to consume, pica can result in nutritional deficiencies, to life-threatening situations like choking, intestinal obstruction, internal perforations, or even blood infections.
Besides autism, pica is also known to affect people living with or going through, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, substance withdrawal, and even generalized anxiety disorder. While children and pregnant women may grow out of pica — alongside their childhood, and their pregnancy, respectively — others might not.
In some instances, however, eating paper may not be a manifestation of pica, but of other nutritional deficiencies. “I could eat two or three of those pages at lunch. There’s a pad on my desk in my office, and I nibble all day long. And you know what else? I love the smell of cement, especially wet cement,” H. Lee Kagan, who specializes in internal medicine at Los Angeles, quoted one of her patients as saying. Through the course of treating her, Kagan eventually found the patient suffering from an iron deficiency, as a result of her undiagnosed celiac disease that prevented her body from absorbing certain essential nutrients.
Depending on how much pica is impacting an individual’s health or their day-to-day life, clinicians may prescribe behavioral therapy, nutritional supplements, or even stronger medication if they are able to find an underlying reason leading to the urges.
For me, paper continues to be delicious, and so far, harmless. However, if I arm myself with a lollipop to suck on, a gum to chew, or a snack to munch on while getting on a Zoom call, most of the time, I’ve noticed my urge to nibble on paper and chew on skin decreases dramatically.
Must go hunt for a snack now.