I entered Renfrew because my binge eating felt out of my control. So I pictured my treatment plan as focusing on stress-relief techniques other than bingeing ("take a walk!" "call a friend!") and, I don't know, drawing some sort of picture of my body that would then give me a Big Happy Magic Moment when I realize that my body is just fine. The nutrition part I figured would be a snap--my meals are complete and healthy; the problem comes after 10 p.m. on nights when I'm alone.
What I didn't expect was that not only would I be put on a meal plan, but that it would be SO MUCH FUCKING FOOD. When my nutritionist began asking me about my meals, I interrupted her: "I know you haven't seen my chart [my nutritionist was switched at the last minute] so you don't know this, but mealtime isn't my problem; it's bingeing." She asked me to articulate my meals anyway, which I did, expecting gold stars for my daytime eating: six ounces nonfat yogurt with berries and two tablespoons muesli for breakfast; spinach salad with bell pepper and chicken or beans for lunch; five prunes and eleven almonds for a snack; dinner, depends. (Yes, I know that eating the same thing pretty much every day is also a sign of disordered eating. What can I say--that works for me.)
"How many calories do you think you're taking in on a given day?" she asked.
"Probably 1,600 to 2,200, depending on my dinner."
"You're not taking in anywhere near that amount." I felt--proud, tight in my solar plexus, scared. Then she began saying what I should be eating, how I can make my meals more complete: Add half a cup of muesli instead of two tablespoons. Have bread with lunch. Have a cup of rice with dinner instead of "a bit." These are all things I've purposely cut down on in order to either lose or maintain weight. The thought of having bread with lunch--not because I'm at a restaurant and the bread basket is good, not because it's homemade, not because I'm choosing a sandwich over a salad, but because bread is a part of a normal meal--fills me with panic. I thought panic would be reserved for the mythical anorexic 12-year-old I had in my mind; I'm a big girl (heh heh), I can have a goddamned piece of bread without freaking out. This is a part of my recovery; I'm signing up for this.
But I had underestimated how strong the power of restriction had become for me--how easily I'd made it a part of what I considered "normal" eating. I didn't think I'd done any restricting for years--but then, my definition of "restricting" was "not eating," not "not eating enough." I had been so focused on the enormous volume of food I had been consuming that I hadn't looked at what I hadn't been consuming.
I looked at the sheet of meal plan guidelines, looking at how I could update my breakfast. A half-cup of muesli is a lot; I could instead have...three tablespoons wheat germ? I pictured three tablespoons, saw the fullness, the richness of wheat germ--a health richness, a nutrient-filled richness, a richness I had forbidden myself more than a tablespoon of, ever, without really thinking about why.
I occasionally make breakfast bars for my boyfriend, who used to be prone to skipping "the most important meal of the day" (there's an irony in there, oui? He's not the one with an eating disorder). I pack them full of wheat germ, thinking that will help him power through the day. I usually give him the whole pan minus two bars, which stay in my freezer until I throw them out. My preteen-sized nonfat yogurt is waiting.
"You're flushing," the nutritionist said. I hadn't noticed; instead, I was noticing my shallow breath, the tears, the world seeming vivid, almost hallucinatory, my nutritionist's face coming into hyperfocus. A panicked reaction I never thought I would have--a reaction, in fact, that I'd read about in my "learn all about eating disorders so I can learn how to do it right" and both wanted and couldn't at all imagine--a reaction to three tablespoons of wheat germ.
"Does that seem like a lot?" she asked. I nodded. "It doesn't seem like a lot to me," she continued. "You have an eating disorder. You've had one for twenty-five years. This will seem hard at first, but this is what will help you know what's normal." We went through the meal plan, me recognizing that my reaction was borne of those twenty-five years--of a whole box of cereal in one sitting, of day after day of starvation, of Amy's Organic Brown Rice Bowls for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which was during a period I thought I was being sensible.
So I'm sitting here with index cards, putting together meals that I think I can eat, enjoy, finish. I had two of those meals today. It is a lot of food--I went onto a calorie-counter website (which is probably verboten, but hell, the literature said "No diet books" so...) and by the end of the day I'll have consumed almost 2,100 calories--which, as it happens, is about my daily caloric need. It seems like a lot of food, but it is what I need. More than that, doing this--sticking with it, slogging my way through a full serving of yogurt with the goddamned wheat germ and toast--will help me figure out hunger, and need, and satiety. I won't have to have two grains, one fat, one dairy, one fruit every morning for the rest of my life. But until I know what my body needs, and until I have worked my way through my food compulsions, until I know what is actually, truly, really normal for me, this is what I have to do. I am already dreading when I have to step up to the next level of meal planning, which will be even more food. The nutritionist assured me at the beginning that this meal plan wouldn't make me gain weight, and I believed her--until I figured out what my caloric intake would be (which, duh, is probably why they don't want us reading diet literature). I will figure that out, with her aid, when I get there.
I thought the hardest part would be sitting through the nights when I wanted more than anything to black out with food. That might be the hardest part, eventually--I don't know; I haven't had that kind of night yet. But this part--the eating part--is already harder than I'd imagined.
One Man’s Struggle and Recovery from Anorexia
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