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.