Sunday, June 20, 2010

phantom limb

I had a moment of mourning the other day, when I realized that if I wanted to be healthy, I could never binge again. The impetus for the mourning was actually reassuring--in a moment of stress I wanted to hide myself in food, live back in that swamp for a while instead of dealing with the issues at hand. But it was a wistful thought, a faraway one, somewhat like when you see an 8-year-old girl and wish you could be her again for a day. It didn't actually cross my mind to do it; less than a year ago, the second I had that impulse I would have been at the grocery store, eyes pointed down so as to avoid meeting the cashier's eye. I tried not to remember who my cashiers were, for fear I'd see them again.

Anyway. It was a memory more than an urge--a remembrance of one way that used to work for me to suppress my stress, however inefficiently and however brief the relief it would bring. And I don't want to belittle that. But the follow-up thought seemed almost grave to me: I will never do that again (I hope; I wish there were a whisper font I could write in, so that I'm not lying now if I turn out to be mistaken). I thought I had already dealt with the sort of "goodbye"s that addicts have when they enter recovery: I have waved goodbye to my symptoms (most of them, anyway) and recognized the pain that comes in having to develop other strategies instead of relying on this one. But I haven't dealt with the real goodbye yet.

I've been lucky enough to have never seriously grieved the permanent loss of someone I love (my grandmother is the closest, but even though she died young, I understood the cycle of life enough at age 11 to get that this was how things would just be sometimes). But those who have done it have reported to me the grief that comes not when the beloved dies or when they're learning how to live in the everyday without that person, but the first time they think "Oh, I've got to call so-and-so and tell them about this" before remembering that the person is dead. I feel like that's sort of what I'm doing here. The urges have diminished--they're not gone, but they're so small as to make the word "manageable" seem overblown. (At least, that's how I'm feeling today. Last week it was different. It's so hard to know in one moment how I could ever have felt anything different.) But they were a part of my life for so long that they feel like instinct, a phantom limb I feel myself wanting to scratch but being unable to.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

No, I can't lose weight

Because I've had some form of an eating disorder for more than 20 years, I have absolutely no idea what my natural set point is. I mean, I know that there's a weight range I've never fallen outside, and that when I've been on the upper end of it it's because I've been eating terribly, and that when I've been on the lower end of it I was chronically underfeeding myself. So I know my set point is somewhere in the middle. It's around where I'm at right now. In fact, given that while I've had flareups of my ED I haven't had a single true lapse (until last week, but it was indeed a lapse, not a relapse, so I'm OK) since November, it's probably exactly where I'm at right now. It's a healthy weight for me. It's not difficult to maintain. I look fine, I feel fine.

But--but. But. To say that--to say I do not need to lose weight, I am not trying to lose weight--is incredibly foreign to me. When I first entered treatment I remember feeling in awe of the possibility that I could eat normally; that no longer seems foreign to me. But as the weeks pass and I continue to be dissatisfied with my body and know that I am not doing anything to "fix" it, and that in fact I never will--well, that is really hard to accept. I am not "fixing" it because there is nothing to fix; this is where I should be, and I know it. But I feel like I'm trying to learn a language that I can read but not yet speak: I can see the words and know what they mean, but my mouth cannot form the sounds; the wrong words tumble out, unintelligible even to myself, the aggravating unease of knowing what I want to say but not having the tools to do so underlying my every word. I feel--helpless, like I'm stuck in this body that I'm just now getting to know.

One of the biggest surprises for me in getting treatment was how little I wound up thinking about my body. Part of the whole ED thing is that everything becomes wrapped up in the body: All troubles and frustrations center around food and eating and the body. When I pictured ED treatment, I envisioned lots of seminars on body image, and instead I got none. I grew to see poor body image as a symptom of my disorder, not as a cause. This makes it easier to sort of grin and bear with myself when I have poor body image, like I have been lately: I know that my body image and my eating are separate, and in fact need to be, because one is an act that I need to do to live and one is a series of funhouse mirrors that reflects absolutely nothing about reality. But what it does mean is that I'm left with that tongue-tied frustration when I have it: I can't do a damn thing about it. I have to sit with the feeling of looking down and hating what I see. I have to let that feeling just be. I have to let it just be.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Momma Don't Take My Kodachrome Away

Even before I got to the quote from the ED specialist in this Times piece about people who photograph everything they eat, disordered-eating alarm bells were going off in my head.

When I was initially assessed at Renfrew, one of the questions they asked was about "food rituals" and whether I had any, to which I replied no. It wasn't until we had a session on food rituals that I understood that pretty much every ED sufferer has them, to varying degrees of codification. I almost always ate one food at a time; I used to count how many times I would chew. Others smothered their food in condiments or seasonings; others couldn't have one food touching another. The mark of whether something was a ritual or a mere preference (I know plenty of non-disordered people who hate it when their potatoes touch their beef) was whether it was anxiety-producing to not do it. So when I read this...

She said she takes pictures of at least half the meals she eats, omitting, for example, multicourse meals when it might “interrupt the flow.” But she has noticed lately that it’s becoming harder to suppress the urge to shoot. “I get this ‘must take picture’ feeling before I eat, and what’s worse is that I hate bad pictures so I have to capture it in just the right light and at just the right angle,” Ms. Sherman said. sounded familiar.

Certainly the hordes of amateur food photographers out there aren't all quietly suffering from eating disorders. But the reporter was perceptive enough to highlight that the hobby isn't always harmless:

Photos are also a means of self-motivation for Mr. Garcia, who began photographing his food after he lost 80 pounds. “It’s definitely part of my neuroticism about trying to keep thin,” he said. “It keeps you accountable because you don’t want to have to see that you ate an entire jar of peanut butter.”

And, ever the scientist, he hopes to one day use the photographs to calculate how much money he spends to consume a calorie versus how much he spends in gym memberships and sports gear to burn a calorie.

I can't see how this brings Garcia any joy; it seems like Kodak handcuffs to me.

This seems to bring attention to a major point for people in recovery: How do you celebrate the social rites of food without falling into the rabbit hole? When I traveled through Vietnam, I went nuts photographing what I was eating, and it felt joyous to do so. It was a way of recording and, later, sharing a vital sense of that most sensual country; I'm terrible with a video camera, so recording my gustation was one way I was able to keep Vietnam with me. I know other women who have recovered who turned their former fear of food into a celebration, with photography, food writing, and dinner clubs. But I also know that can be a dangerous line to toe: I have no doubt that my short-lived foray into pastry cheffery was linked in part (though not fully) to my disorder, and a good number of the women in my pastry course reported some seriously disordered eating in their past. At what point does waxing rhapsodic about hazelnut dacquoise veer from genuine appreciation of the gifts of food to an obsession?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Notes From Prague

So on my very first night in Prague, I'm wandering around the old town in a total jet-lag haze, just trying to make it until 9 p.m. so I can go to sleep without further messing with my circadian rhythm. I find an Indian restaurant (because what's a trip to Prague without...Indian food?) and sit down. The two women next to me are speaking English, and are talking about none other than treating eating disorders. When they got up to leave, I introduced myself, just thinking--you know, what are the chances of that happening? Certainly I don't go around introducing myself to everyone I overhear talking about EDs, but I'd been hoping to find an English-language support group while here and thought maybe they could help.

One of the women is German but lives here in Prague, doing a study about online parental support groups. Unfortunately, there are no English-language support groups here, but she not only pointed me in the direction of a therapist in case I need one (I don't think I will); she also took me under her wing, and we've been hanging out. And really, that's what I need--to not feel isolated; to share food joyously; to feel connected to someone here in my environment.

All that is a lead-in to saying that I am doing well here. Not perfect, but well. The first week was a little rough--I felt lonely and disoriented, self-conscious and overwhelmed. I found myself doing a lot of wandering around the town, then getting hungry and not knowing where to find food, and in the process of figuring it out, passing my normal-hunger threshold and entering a bad zone of thinking that maybe I should just "wait it out" until the next mealtime. I finally sat down and made a food strategy for myself--my kitchen is stocked, I always have snacks with me, I have directions to 3-4 appealing-sounding restaurants in every neighborhood. And the plan has worked.

So that's good. What's interesting to me is the areas in which I'm thriving, foodwise. There's a freedom that comes along with having no attachment to the bulk of the food I'm surrounded by; better yet, I can't read labels (metric? kilojoules? whaaaa?), so I can't stand there in the grocery aisles comparing labels. I'm eating yogurt without knowing if it's full- or low-fat and am fine with it; I'll order the goulash if it sounds good, not thinking of it as a "bad" food. My newly discovered favorite snack, it turns out, is primarily for toddlers. So am I going for comfort food, even without realizing it? Yes. But I'm not overeating it, nor am I attaching anything but pure deliciousness to it.

In fact, I couldn't do the former without the latter. Rather, I can to a degree, but there are certain foods that are still "fear foods" for me. I've had ice cream a couple of times in a healthy manner since starting treatment, but overall I avoid it, because I just know that it's too big of a challenge for me right now. The times I've had it have sort of sprung up on me--a course on the house at a restaurant. Now that I'm thinking about ice cream in particular: A few days ago I was walking around here and saw a gelato stand, and they had my favorite flavor. And without thinking about it, I got a small cone, and enjoyed it, and that was that.

You know what's remarkable about that? It's not that I had it and enjoyed it and let it end there. It's that I didn't even count that as a victory because it felt so totally normal. Dobrý pro mě!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Woes for My Unborn Child

Mariposai over at The Monster Beneath raises a point I haven't thought much about because I don't want to have children myself: What if you had a child who had an ED? Because I am not a parent and don't wish to become one, I have the luxury of looking at child-rearing what-ifs from a removed standpoint. It's a game, almost--theoretical, a reflection on myself, not the child-parent relationship, because I will likely only ever know one side of that pairing.

I remember a conversation with a friend of mine who's also a new parent. My friend doesn't have an eating disorder per se but has struggled with various forms of disordered eating, specifically orthorexia. She was petrified that her child wasn't getting enough to eat--she was constantly measuring and remeasuring her son's milk (she was unable to breastfeed), peppering the pediatrician with questions about her son's growth (which is normal), researching obscure pediatric swallowing disorders (which her son had zero signs of). This jibes perfectly with what a friend of mine who is a lactation consultant told me: Inevitably, when she has a client who is overly worried that her child is underfed, when my friend pressed the issue the client would reveal a history of disordered eating.

The uninformed snapshot of an ED patient's family history is that the parents encourage a disordered mindset: Praising her for losing weight, putting her on a diet at a young age, shaming her for a pubescent growth spurt that doesn't go from beanstalk to hourglass overnight. I've met a couple of patients with those kind of families, and I'm horrified at the thought of not having family be a refuge from the daily weight-loss assault the world throws at girls.

But most people I've met with EDs don't have such a seemingly logical family dynamic. The stories I heard that were more common were: the "perfect" family in which self-expression was silenced; families with too-permeable boundaries; distant, removed parents; the parents who told their daughter she was great as-is while the father openly ogled other women and the mother constantly dieted. And, of course, the families with abuse--sexual, physical, emotional--that is all too common when discussing women's mental health. It may be a biological crapshoot as to whether it's an ED or depression or OCD or a child who manages to somehow escape the darts of dysfunction (just as a highly functioning family is no guarantee of outrunning biological factors in mental health), but the point is: The things that actually trigger EDs at the base level are usually not what we, as ED patients and those who support them, think of as "triggers." My friend would never tell her son that he needed to change his body, but I can see how growing up with worry over food could confuse his own attitude toward nourishment when he's old enough to start making his own choices.

I was raised in a feminist household--I remember saving up my allowance to buy a Barbie (my parents wouldn't buy one) and my mother sitting down with me, undressing the doll, and pointing out how Barbie's body was different than real women's. They never did or said anything that a well-meaning but ignorant observer could point to as "why" I developed an ED. They never commented on my appearance (for good or bad), and the (very) few comments about my weight only took on a potency later on, after I began to examine why, in such a seemingly supportive environment, I was willing to do mean things to my body to make it "good enough." But children are intuitive: I saw my mother eating normal meals but saw her obesity, and somewhere in there knew that she must have been eating secretly. (Imagine my surprise when, decades later, we would start to discuss our own disorders and I found that we had the same binge foods, even though I'd never once seen her binge.) I knew that as the designated "good girl," I couldn't openly rebel; instead, I started restricting and desperately hoped they would notice that I needed help.

There are many reasons I don't want children, and fear of them developing an ED isn't at the top of the list. But, yes, it's on there. I've volleyed the questions to myself thousands of times: Is it in my brain / the magazines I work for / my home / what if I were born male / am I lucky it wasn't a "worse" affliction / what could I have done differently? I can't imagine asking the same questions for someone else's disease. When I told my mother that I was going into treatment and asked her why she wasn't as supportive as she could have been when I'd come to her for help years earlier, her response was one I couldn't have imagined: Because she'd been dealing with it all her life, she couldn't imagine that my problem warranted treatment. My mother loves me deeply, yet was blind to how that line of thinking jeopardized my own health--and her own, for that matter, as it kept her from having to confront her own ED. Perhaps my greatest fear is not that I'd have to deal with the pain of watching my child destroy herself, but that if my child developed an eating disorder, I'd have to confront my own recovery failures too.

(Laura Collins writes, excellently, about this in-depth at Are You Eating With Your Anorexic. She focuses on treatment methods, specifically Maudsley, and though I am not a parent I feel as though I've learned a good deal about family dynamics and EDs through her blog. As far as I can tell, Collins did not suffer from an ED herself, so her focus is different than what I'm addressing here.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Normalized Eating and Travel

I spent six weeks in Vietnam last year in a fit of post-layoff malaise. And while I was there: I ate totally normally and didn't think about it.

I thought about my intake, of course; I made a point of walking everywhere to burn calories; I noticed that I was losing weight and was pleased. But as far as what I was actually eating: I ate with pleasure and gusto when the occasion called for it, and treated food as tasty sustenance when that was appropriate. I didn't overeat; I didn't restrict. I wasn't forcing myself to stay in line--it just happened, which, even at the healthy place I'm at right now, seems sort of miraculous.

Part of it was the lack of boredom, and the general lack of stress--I do fine in immediately stressful situations that travel calls for and am not a freaker-outer; the stress that triggers symptoms in me tends to be more of the chronic kind. Part of it was not wanting to miss out on the delicious foods surrounding me; to only stick with the familiar (which would have been impossible anyway) would have robbed me of an essential part of the adventure; part of it was the need to keep my energy up so that I could see all I wanted to see.

But what really made it felt so natural to eat normally in Vietnam was that I was culturally displaced. All of a sudden, food was how the rest of the world saw it, not how I've spent decades seeing it. Food was not comfort, food was not love, food was not a salve for anger or irritation or boredom or self-loathing, or an enemy to be conquered in order to feel like I had a right to exist. Instead, food was a way of connecting with my surroundings; a way for me to garner energy; a way to get to know people; a way for me to utterly enjoy myself; a way to be surprised. Half the time I had no idea what I was eating, and instead of being panicked by it, I went with the flow (even when it turned out I was eating half-hatched duck eggs). If I wanted to have rice crepes with barbecue sausage at 9 p.m., I had them--there was no cultural cue telling me that it was "wrong" or that I would need to somehow compensate for it later. Other people were doing it, it was available, I was hungry, so: I'd eat.

The Vietnamese do eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner of sorts, but there are also foods that are eaten at different times of the day (and different times of the day only--some vendors would sell their goods only from 3-5, for example), and besides, my idea of what a meal was became irrelevant. All of a sudden I was beginning my day with a steaming bowl of beef soup--I couldn't cling to my rigid patterns or treat every variation as an "extra" or "indulgence."

If I was to feed myself at all properly, I had to simultaneously A) look at the people around me and deduce from their food what was appropriate at any given time, whether that meant eating pho for breakfast or ordering multiple milky che drinks because one just wasn't enough, and B) let my body guide me to what it wanted. Rather, let my body guide me to when I wanted, because what I wanted was also irrelevant, as I never exactly got the hang of how to find exactly what I wanted to eat. But that also normalized my eating: If I was craving glass noodles and could only find buckwheat noodles, well, that's just how it is, and isn't it good anyway?

I'm going to be spending a couple of months in the Czech Republic soon, and I'm nervous about what this will mean for my meal plan. I've sort of gotten my meals down pat--still allowing for variety and flexibility, but I pretty much know what I'm going to be eating every day. I'll be thrown into a country with completely different food, with a lot of fear foods to boot--potatoes, breads, dumplings, etc. I'm trying to remember what Vietnam did for me--and that was unintentional, and before I had the tools that Renfrew gave me. But European culture is closer to American culture than Asia was--I will still be in a new place, but will have neither the continual awe I had in Vietnam, nor the sense of total displacement that forced me to go with my gut in an eat-or-die sort of way.

Friday, January 8, 2010


New post over at Velvet Steamroller about hyped-up food trends. I'm suspicious of trends of all sorts, but food trends not only are baffling, but I think can teeter on dangerous (or at least unhealthy), for the reasons I list there.

I haven't blogged much lately. Instead: I have been quilling, decoupaging, completing Project Zero (going from 445 messages in my personal e-mail inbox to 0). I have been investigating crockpot recipes, working a lot, cleaning my apartment. I have been sleeping eight hours a night.

In short, I have been living my life.

I have no intention of slowing down the blogging--I just got started, after all. But I was feeling like I was living in Eatingdisorderland--apparently it happens a lot in recovery, that you get so enthused about learning more about recovery that you sort of become preoccupied with it. I replaced reading about superfoods and the like with reading wonderful blogs like Are You Eating With Your Anorexic?, Weightless, and Grey Thinking, and I don't plan on stopping--but I wasn't reading much else. I was engaged with my eating disorder in a MUCH more positive way than I ever had been, but by having such a laser focus on it, I was still allowing it to become too much of my life. So I checked out for a while, coinciding with the holidays (which were good!), and feel much more moderate--I feel like I'll be able to better focus on the ED issues that interest me rather than just taking it all in indiscriminately, and I hope to develop more thoughts of my own through this blog.