Thursday, April 29, 2010

when eating is an issue

Last night, over vegetarian pad thai and a red lotus (vodka, pomegranate liquor and cranberry juice), I spent hours catching up with one of my closest friends, who was in from London. We met when our older ones were 3 months old, which was almost 12 years ago, and even though we rarely see each other and are only sporadically in touch when I see her it's like she's here with me every day. The bond we forged as struggling new mothers is profound.

But that's not what I want to write about.

She filled me in on another NYC friend of hers, one she's known for much of her life, one who's struggling with an eating disorder. Anorexia, to name names. The conversation brought me back to when I was caught in the throes of it. It's been a long time, a really long time, since I lived that life, or even thought about the reality of it all. And for the first time in longer than I can remember, I remembered the feelings, the grip, the panic, the inability to see, feel, live any other way than in the prison I created for myself.

For someone not suffering with an eating disorder it seems like eating is not a big deal. You're too thin? Eat. Hungry? Eat. Faint, dizzy, disoriented? Eat.

It's not that easy.

In fact, it's just about impossible.

It's not just eating. Yes, food is the enemy. Calories, fat, carbs, sugar—you want as little of them in your body as possible. But worse than food is letting go of control. When anorexia rules you, you're in complete control. You have mastered your body. You are beyond hunger, biological need. And that control is your salvation, your pride, your universe. A tiny crack and it could all fall apart and then what? Who would you be? What would take the place of the constant spin in your head about what to eat, when to eat it, how to eat it, where to get it? Every morning I'd lovingly slice a Rome apple into the thinnest slices imaginable, to make it last as long as possible. And when that was done, I'd think about the diet Pepsi I'd have at 11. I could think about that can, never bottle, never fountain, for more time than you could possibly imagine. Straw or no straw. In a cup or from the can. Over ice or straight up. Straight from the fridge or let it warm up. How many more minutes until I can act on actually drinking it. And from there, once I had absorbed every last drop, it was on to Tasti D-lite (a diet frozen ice cream) for lunch. Thinking about that made my soda thoughts pale in comparison.

When I was sick—103 or 107 was my lowest, I'm 30+ pounds more than that now and I'm still thin—I took it as a compliment when people told me I looked sick. I knew, deep inside my twisted mind, they were jealous and only wished they had my self control. I thought berating myself for pages in my food journal over eating an extra bowl of lettuce or splurging to have brown rice with my chinese food was normal. That going to sleep at 8 because I was so tired from the day was ok, that needing to rest on a bench for 45 minutes after working out to scare up some energy to walk that one block home was fine.

I locked myself in a too small box with no windows, no door, no way out.

I understood where her friend is. I was there.

I am so grateful I escaped that hell. I also know not everyone can.

I wish, beyond wishes, that people could treat themselves with love and respect, compassion and tolerance. Our bodies and minds aren't the enemy. But too often we treat them that way.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your blog post on your experience with anorexia. It is so comforting to read others' experiences and to know that the psyche and the thoughts that go through your mind aren't just something I go through.

I would love to know more about how you managed to pull yourself out of your "hell" and managed to go back to a regular way of life as I currently do not see any light at the end of the tunnel so to speak. How does fear of putting on weight stop consuming your life?

Elissa Stein said...

How did I get back on track? Whew. During the height of anorexia (my entire 20s) I went to art school, which ripped me apart. For a person who's life is about complete control, expressing myself in these classes was torture. But, I stuck with it. I joined a program at my gym that helped me eat more and exercise less (the opposite of everyone else) and that was terrifying. I read the Artist's Way and did morning pages (writing as soon as you get up) for years and years as a way of letting things out.

I think there was a part of me, a tiny, deeply buried part, that wanted/needed/craved being healthier. And I grew to see that it wasn't the weight that was the issue, it was losing control.

Having kids (after the hysteria of pregnancy weight gain), was what helped the most. I had to give up all control to someone else. Plus, I was too tired to obsess as much as I had been. I still have setbacks and fall back into that mindset when I get really stressed but that happens less intensely every time.

Give yourself a break. Be kind and understanding. You're grappling with someone that controls your life and it's familiar and comfortable even though it sucks. But you're bigger that it.