Don’t Fear the Itis, Embrace It
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Don’t Fear the Itis, Embrace It

Living life fully sometimes means living life so fully you fall asleep…

While I was speaking with a class of college students recently, one of them told me that she was interested in becoming a child anesthesiologist. I told her my experiences of being under general anesthesia, and how it was the best sleep I’d ever had. There were no dreams, no concerns, no care whatsoever for the waking world. It was as close as I have ever come to biological bliss.

Except when I am experiencing the itis.

I feel compelled to qualify the forthcoming hedonism with an obligatory note about the impact of obesity on Black communities, how nearly 50% of Black people are obese compared to nearly 33% of Whites. Yet, if we must do away with the concepts of “big-boned” and “healthy” we must also set aside body-shaming, which has only served to drive most of its targets into depressive states rather than gyms. Mothers telling their children that they’ve put on a few pounds since their last visit have done more damage than the occasional bout of itis ever could.

Every dietician knows that even their healthiest acolytes still take the occasional drink, and really, that is all I am proposing here. I am not making a case for the embrace of unhealthy lifestyles. I am merely recommending that you remove the stigma of falling asleep after a meal during trying times. As we collectively endeavor to get over the hump of a debilitating pandemic and the post-Trump shivers, I urge you to visit the dojo of the gourmand every once in a while.

Something most of us learned over the past year is that we should have been napping all along. The dogma of the 40-hour workweek and office life has robbed us of what many cultures already know: A midday rest is a beautiful thing. When I first heard of siestas during a Spanish unit in middle school, I was enraptured. What is this magical rite when people have lunch and then, as a community, tap out of being a society for a spell? And how can I achieve such gratification?

Enter the itis.

Science has made sure that the itis has a government name — postprandial somnolence — but ‘hood rules apply: Anybody who would use your given name in public either does not love you or is very angry. And despite the laborious nomenclature, the one thing that scientists don’t tell you is that they still don’t really know what causes the itis. They know parts of the process, but it’s different enough from person to person that there is no definitive set of rules. Big meals seem a universal trigger. What’s on the menu has some say. And circulatory changes that ultimately affect our nervous systems have something to do with it all. But there are as many theories as there are testaments.

The itis can be used to heal, an aloe vera plant with sauce-daubed paper for leaves. Allow your distended stomach to grant you reprieve from the many burning fires that still comprise our American landscape.

(While we are in the laboratory, let us do away with the myth of turkey-induced itis. It is a lie, it has always been a lie, and we must do away with the lie. Turkey has no more tryptophan than other main course meats. It only has a reputation for putting people in sleeper holds because it is surrounded by a dozen other seasonal dishes and the whole meal is suffused with the spirit of gluttony. All holiday meals would put us out if they did not have social activities attached to them. At Christmas, you get to open presents. Easter has an egg hunt. The Fourth of July keeps its adherents awake through explosives. What is Thanksgiving’s post-dinner ritual? Sitting on a couch in front of a television and watching a football game. It might as well be called Pronegiving.)

I would never suggest that the itis should take the place of an active self-care practice like therapy, nor am I making a case that one should strive for it regularly. However, taken in moderation — say, as often as one might meet socially for drinks, which millions of us still don’t feel comfortable doing — the itis can be a boon to mental health by forcing you to rest. What better time to take advantage of the contents of your cabinets than in the midst of a global health crisis?

Consider your pandemic existence. Not the one you portray on social media for your friends, but the true and sordid state of your affairs. The wearying fear. The depression that not even PlayStation marathons can eradicate. The numbing daily ritual of taking out a bag of trash every day because the DoorDash icon is right next to Twitter on our phone. Every news show saying the word “Covid-19” every hour of every day, like a yearlong anti-mantra. Why stay awake for that? Isn’t a little escapism in order when travel is extinct? And what better way to do that within your budget and control than going into a meal with the intention of unplugging afterward?

The real hurdle to realizing the salutary power of the itis is getting over the shame associated with it. If you fall asleep with a plate in your lap, someone will tease, take pictures; at every ensuing gathering, that person will delight in reminding everyone of that time you fell asleep in an Applebee’s booth. Here’s what I say to that: If you have been suffering through the past year of a worldwide pandemic and you have brought the concept of shame with you into this new year, you have been quarantining all wrong. And once you conquer shame? Oh, the places you’ll sleep!

In the Before Times, when public gatherings and dining in restaurants were part of our lives, I would sometimes activate the itis with a partner or a group of similarly minded comrades who understood why we were there. When you indulge with others who know the drill, there is no judgment because everyone will soon be beached. All of the jokes at the table on those days center on how hard and fast you can knock yourself out, and what combination of foods it will take to accomplish the task. Those were glorious and heady times.

During quarantine, one must take more care when seeking out the gifts of the itis. Gathering is out the window, and so you must exercise control over your escapism, lest you launch yourself into full-on REM sleep. My vehicle of preference for an itis trip is a couch, preferably in front of a television, phone off. I keep the viewing options light, or with familiar films that I know all the beats to. It is a tango that slows down as you go.

Frederick Douglass once wrote about how food was weaponized on the plantation, used to control the enslaved by dividing them into camps of the haves (house servants) and the have-nots (field workers). In this light, actively eating toward a state of itis, one wrests the wheel from the shackles of destiny for a while, spitting in the cold eye of our ancient oppressors, who churn in their graves with every bite we take. For once, we do not resist our grandmother’s insistence that we take a plate home. But this time, Mee-maw, I will take my plate right here, right now, for a great and revolutionary slumber is to come.

The itis can be used to heal, an aloe vera plant with sauce-daubed paper for leaves. Allow your distended stomach to grant you reprieve from the many burning fires that still comprise our American landscape. Let a plate topped off with a few more slices of pizza than you would normally consume take you on vacation for an afternoon. Did you spring for extra cheese? You should. Treat yourself to a barbecue for one and become a culinary somnambulist. Splurge on a despised Monday; order three appetizers and two entrees as if you were a food critic for The Times. Which Times? Any Times. It is time you are attempting to eradicate, my friends.

Even as I write this, I have just completed a meal — strictly for research purposes, of course. I stopped into one of my neighborhood fried food joints, ordering a three-piece Boston Blue meal with two wings on the side. This isn’t even one of my good joints, but I’ll still be lucky to finish typing this sen