Leading to this Book
WHILE SEATED AT a dinner table for ten,
people passed the last few bites of birthday cake around the table. With
intense focus, I watched the plate move like a Ping-Pong ball at play. Some
smiled and chatted as they tasted; others made irritating “mmmm” sounds. The
built amid the overly polite, drawn-out volley of discussion: “You
have the last bite,” “No, you have the last bite,” “No, I simply couldn’t!”
I snapped. My hand
flew out across the table to stop the passing of the plate mid-Pong. I wish it
had only been my thoughts, but I heard my voice rising over the volume of the noisy
restaurant. Slowly and with precise enunciation, I boomed, “Fucking eat it, or
don’t eat it. But shut-up about it.”
Abrupt silence fell across the table. All movement froze. Unusually wide eyes stared back at me.
Blank faces. Jaws slightly dropped.
I’d just ruined my
best friend’s 30th birthday.
While they’d been
sharing stories about themselves, exchanging witty comments, and cracking each
other up, I’d been growing increasingly agitated. By the time we reached
dessert, I’d already endured two hours of my head unrelentingly screeching at
me about all the food rules I’d broken.
I’d been feeling
frustrated and ashamed of how challenging that dinner had been from its start
to this finale. I also felt sad and selfish that I couldn’t seem to pay
attention to my friend like she deserved. I knew my window was closing for when
I could get rid of what I’d eaten. My public happy mask slid off without my
permission. I had lost control.
Since I usually
smiled my way through discomfort, people rarely knew how much angst was going
on in my head. That night, people saw it: the unease around food that had been
visiting me, in varying intensities, since around 11 years old.
I’d already been on various diets before I hit my late tweens, when suddenly and
without my consent or knowledge, my common dieting slipped into disorder, anorexia nervosa. Seemingly overnight, my favorite
foods became inedible. Swallowing nearly anything other than my safe, steamed
broccoli felt like a sandpaper-worm crawling down my throat. Obviously, this
made eating a challenge.
Alarmed by my
dramatic physical changes, like protruding vertebrae, my parents sought
professional help. However, treatment in the 1980s was in
its early stages. It was a terrible experience (super blaming on others) and
caused me to mention little-to-nothing about food or weight in future therapy experiences.
After I gained
enough pounds, I wasn’t considered “anorexic” anymore. People seemed to think I
was fixed and fine because I no longer looked sick.
I then spent
decades on various regimens. Mostly, I tried to eat a “healthy” and low/no-fat diet and worked out for hours in the gym. I
also replaced real foods with engineered food-like products. (As I write this,
I can still taste my cinnamon toast made with saccharin and fake butter spray.
Nasty.) I did the newest popular diets and followed celebrity diet-tips. One fad
program I purchased had these weird pills that creepily filled your stomach
once inside you. I mastered counting calories in and exercised off. I tried
aids like over-the-counter diet pills that curbed my appetite but messed me
up—they made me chase my speeding thoughts but not catch them. I smoked
cigarettes to avoid eating. And I purged (got food inside me, out).
For years, I
nonchalantly called these health and weight management practices my “maintenance.” I
accepted my demanding relationship with food and body as status quo. In public,
people often complimented me on what they viewed as my “healthy choices” and “discipline.” In private, the few
who knew of the periods of bingeing and purging said little to nothing about it. One best
friend used to stand in the bathroom doorway, chatting with me as she watched
me make myself throw up. So, no big deal, right? Besides, I wasn’t taking
Fen-Phen, which I thought was way too severe and scary. I judgmentally elevated
myself above anyone who did that.
(Back then, everything diet-related brought out a snotty jackass part of me. I
didn’t like or want to feel so petty inside, yet it happened often.)
After my initial,
fairly short period of emaciation, I was never that skinny-skinny again. In fact, I gained a lot of pounds (a
freaking lot—I couldn’t fit into “average” sizes). Then I lost most of that
weight and continued to bounce around between my
extremes. My “maintenance” practices spanned from mild to severe methods,
frequent to less frequent. Mostly, though, I looked “normal” in our society,
and my constant dieting practices were normalized every day by
advertisements, articles, and social conversations. I now realize that I would
have qualified as having both clinical (meeting the actual diagnosis) and subclinical (problematic but not matching any diagnostic
label) eating disorders throughout these decades.
Though I didn’t
believe myself to be in danger at any time, physical quirks happened that were
likely a result of my “maintenance” practices. In addition to a regularly edgy
mood and irregular sleep, I occasionally experienced a puffy face, dizziness,
and feeling weirdly “off” inside my
body. Usually, we don’t feel or notice our insides or heartbeat; I definitely
noticed mine at times. But I disregarded it all—except the puffy face that I
frantically tried to de-puff because it looked strange.
Without telling my
doctor about my “maintenance” practices, she didn’t know to run the specific
tests to check if I was safe inside. I’m randomly lucky that I didn’t develop lasting
or fatal health problems. My “off” feeling and my noticeable heartbeat could
have been signs of electrolyte abnormalities, weakened heart, dehydration, or
other serious issues. Thankfully, the body is forgiving and can often heal when
the behaviors are corrected or stopped.
No matter what was
going on inside me, I still appeared to be fine. In fact, people referred to me
as a “high achiever.” I consistently performed well in school, and from my
first “real” job as a teen (a juicer in a juicery) to full careers, I excelled
at work, too. However, my dieting, weight obsession, and body image issues ruled my days from my tweens into my
thirties. Always present, their intensity and severity ebbed and flowed.
Correspondingly, my contentment in life was limited and uneven.
I couldn’t fully
witness or participate in most things, because there was usually this humming
or banging distraction. During my courting years, I romanced the bread on the
table instead of my dinner dates. Celebrations all involved food and were
usually more like scared-ebrations for me, like my friend’s 30th
birthday. Thankfully, she forgave me.
People tell me
that I presented, for the most part, a free-spirited, full-of-life persona to
the outside world during those years. But I was far from feeling free or
You may be wondering; when food and body
issues are that embedded—a way of existing—why and how does someone heal, change,
or recover from them?
As a mental health
professional and eating disorders specialist, I can wholeheartedly share that
what each person wants to conquer and their journeys to do so are unique. For
me, the birthday cake incident humiliated me, but it wasn’t enough to make me
challenge or change my “maintenance” practices. Instead, a bunch of other stuff
lined up to help me realize that I wanted a different, more contented life—one
with less focus on food, body, and weight.
Here’s one of the
most influential factors: anger. Though the feeling often takes a
bad rap as a negative emotion, I think anger is awesomely informative. It’s a
waving red flag that broadcasts, “Hey, something is wrong! Since you’re not
acknowledging it, I’m going to get your attention!”
For years I had
fastidiously kept photo albums. I finally noticed that when I looked back at
decades of what others regarded as “cool” or “exciting” memories, I rarely
recalled the event, my connections to the occasion, or the people in the
photos. Who did I go to that formal with? Why did I meet that celebrity? How
did I get talked into being on that parade float? Instead, I remembered my
weight or dress size in each shot. This made me
I’d met someone special who would become the love of my life. I felt protective
of being able to recall both present and future memories—and not by weight or size. Also, my parents were getting older,
and I wanted clear recollections with them too.
Then one more
significant thing happened to jolt me. Long after that cake episode, that same
dear friend confronted me in a loving way. It went something like this: “I know
you may get mad at me, and this could ruin our friendship, but I don’t think
what you’re doing—your ‘maintenance’—is normal. I don’t think it’s okay or
healthy. I feel concerned about you.” Of
course I got outraged inside. But something about her bravery touched me. I
must have been sufficiently open and the timing must have been right enough to
hear it. Plus, I think the guilt I had from messing up her birthday helped me
listen to her.
For years I’d been
working with a really skilled generalist therapist, but I’d mostly kept the
eating and weight stuff out of the room. I hadn’t wanted her to
know much about it or to meddle with it. After all, I’d accepted my
“maintenance” practices as a forever part of my life.
Angry and fed up
(no pun intended), at last, I said it: “I need accountability and help. Here’s
what I’ve been doing…” I wasn’t scared when I told her. I felt calm,
desperate, determined, and also relieved to stop hiding my secrets.