A blind mum-of-two who suffers from a rare eating disorder which causes her to crave non-food substances has revealed how she has become addicted to gorging on cigarette butts and chalk.
Heavy smoker Karen Kaheni, 42, from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, developed an overwhelming desire to munch on the ends of her JPS Blue cigarettes last year—and soon after started yearning for blackboard chalk.
Now munching up to eight nub ends each evening, as she listens to the TV, she also eats 250g of chalk every week, costing £17 ($21.50) online—attributing her weird cravings to Pica, a condition that involves eating items like dirt and paint chips, with no real nutritional value.
Karen at home with her dog (Collect/PA Real Life)
While Karen, whose partner, Andrew Simon, 42, is unemployed, recalls craving chalk during her second pregnancy in 1997, she has no idea what prompted her full-blown addiction, which began 20 years later, saying:
“It’s really embarrassing and I have no idea what triggered it.”
“It isn’t so much the taste of the cigarette butts or the chalk that I like—it’s more the texture and the crunch.”
“Now though, my cravings are so strong that when I run out of chalk or don’t have a cigarette at hand, I get quite agitated and my mouth begins to water.”
In 2017, Karen developed an insatiable appetite for eating cigarette butts (Collect/PA Real Life)
“It’s a real addiction.”
Karen, who has two daughters Danielle, 23, and Sara, 21, from a previous relationship, remembers wanting to eat chalk while she was carrying her youngest girl.
“I had quite a late pregnancy and towards the last few weeks, I remember getting this massive urge to grind my teeth on something hard and chalky. I’d find myself fantasizing about the old blackboard chalk that we had at school.”
Karen with her daughters Danielle and Sara (Collect/PA Real Life)
But Karen—who cannot work because of her disability—never acted out on her weird impulses and, after Sara’s birth, the urge to eat chalk disappeared until 2017 when, from nowhere, she was overwhelmed with a desire to munch on cigarette butts.
Recalling the first time she tried one, she said:
“Because of my blindness I have to be very careful where I put my fag ends, so I don’t burn the house down.”
“I usually put them in a little tin filled with water, so that they immediately extinguish. But, one night while I was watching telly, I just thought, ‘Why not give eating one a try?’”
Karen at her home in Barnsley (Collect/PA Real Life)
“Again, it was the texture more than anything I was after. The taste was pretty disgusting—very bitter and salty—but I liked the crunch of them in my mouth.”
Very quickly, what Karen – who smokes between 60 and 80 cigarettes a day—had thought was a one off craving spiraled into a full-blown addiction,.
Ashamed of her disgusting habit, Karen, who has been blind since the age of 12 as a result of meningitis, kept it from Andrew and her daughters, chewing each night in secret, when she was alone.
But the nicotine-heavy diet began to take its toll on her digestive system, giving her constant diarrhea.
Despairing when she could not cut down, despite the discomfort, she came clean and told Andrew.
“He looked at me and thought I was a complete weirdo,” she said. “And I don’t really blame him.”
Karen’s latest craving is for chalk which she eats 250g of each week (Collect/PA Real Life)
“But he couldn’t help me and I was too embarrassed to go to a doctor about it, so I just kept suffering. ”
Rather than improving, her eating disorder gathered momentum until, in April 2018, during a visit to her courier sister, Zohreh, 33, in London, when Karen’s longing to eat chalk also returned.
“I was outside in my sister’s garden one night smoking, when a desire to have a nibble on the brick wall just struck me.”
Karen believes she has pica, a rare eating disorder which causes a craving for non-nutritional food substances (Collect/PA Real Life)
“I scraped a bit off with my nail and ate it. It was so satisfying—just the texture and feeling that I had been longing for,” she added.
But struggling already with a dicky tummy from her cigarette butt habit, Karen knew that eating chalk—which contains the chemical elements arsenic and nickel—would be foolish.
So, she found a website selling edible natural chalk imported from Russia, for £17 ($21.50) for 250g, which she could eat to her heart’s content.
Luckily, her chalk habit has helped her to cut back on eating nub ends—with her now consuming just two or three a day—but, already conscious of being a heavy smoker, she is concerned about the side effects of all elements of her strange diet on her health.
“I don’t really want to tell people about it, especially not doctors, so now only my close family and a few friends know,” she confessed.
“I did recently discover a Facebook page for people with Pica and that has been really useful for me.”
Karen has two daughters, Danielle, 23, and Sara, 21 (Collect/PA Real Life)
“It’s nice to know that it isn’t just me and there are other people out there with the same problem.”
“It makes me feel like less of a weirdo—less like I’m going mad.”