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Note: I originally posted this under the name “Tirzah.”
I’m never been afraid of airplanes. Spiders aren’t my favorite, but I can grit my teeth and squash them. I can deal with heights. I’m a little jumpy around dogs I don’t know, but am fine once we get acquainted. I once randomly looked up a list of phobias, and realized how many things I am not afraid of: cats, fog, writing.
But mirrors. Mirrors are a problem. Not so much in the sense of a phobia. More like a substance that might be deadly, but that you still find yourself poking, to see if it is still dangerous. A bad experience with a mirror can leave me reeling, sap my energy, plunge me into a sick despair. And even when I do my best to avoid obsessing over my reflection, in a world in which cell phone cameras are everywhere, I can still find myself unexpectedly confronted with a picture that reminds me that I take up far too much space. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a premodern society in which mirrors were less ubiquitous and photographs did not exist.
This all sounds very narcissistic, I am realizing. But my obsession is not born out of self-love, but out of terror. That might sound like hyperbole. All I can say is that I have been working on recovery for over two years now, and almost all my relapses along the way have been tied to seeing myself, and feeling horrified.
I’m also obsessed with food, of course. I suppose that goes without saying once you see the title of this post. If I am confronted with damnation in the form of unbearable weight, the careful control of food is my hope of salvation. It’s a demanding religion, one that will require all your time, your energy, possibly your life. But it whispers seductively to you of something better, some hope of deliverance from the burden of being yourself, and so you cling to it even if it is killing you.
The DSM-IV, the psychology bible, lists eating disorders as if they were discrete things: anorexia, bulimia. I learned about them in health class in junior high (and, like far too many young teenage girls, saw anorexia not as a disease but as a desirable state). But my experience from being in treatment, and knowing many other women in treatment, is that the categories are more blurred than such tidy labels suggest, and that people with eating disorders can be all over the map. The most common diagnosis, in fact, is the vague “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” for people who do not quite fit the criteria for one of the specific conditions—a fact which raises serious questions, I think, about the categorizations in the first place.
In any case, my own history involves years and years of veering between various dysfunctional relationships with food and my body. I’ve binged without purging. I’ve binged and purged. I’ve just purged. I’ve restricted. I’ve manically exercised. Anything to quiet the demons that tell me that eating and/or weight gain is the ultimate sign of weakness, of lack of control.
I want to talk about what this is like without romanticizing it. It’s not an easy thing to do—not only because of a culture that simultaneously expresses both concern and admiration for women who starve themselves—but because part of me still believes in the mythology. I want to be thin and therefore virtuous; I also want to be a tragic victim in need of rescue. In theory, not eating can get you both. It can magically make up for everything that is wrong with your life.
But before I head back down that path, I have to remind myself what is is actually like to live in this kind of prison. It is no kind of life. If you are restricting, you think about food all the time, from waking to sleeping. How much dare you eat? When will you do it? How will you keep yourself safe? You are irritable. You are depressed, possibly suicidal. You rage at people. You cannot sit still. You cry. You are obsessed with numbers. You are driven mad by fear. You engage in continuing self-recrimination for not having gotten it right. You tell yourself tomorrow you will do better. If you have shifted back to bingeing, your life is constituted by shame, and by hiding. You eat, and eat more, and the self-contempt is so deep that you think you would rather admit to being a drug dealer than admit to this behavior. You purge and feel light-headed and awful, and yet know that you will be back soon to do it again.
The odd thing is that despite all this, you might tell yourself that you are happy. Or at least that this is worth it. You might cling to a sense of self-righteousness, of having broken free from the masses that do not have your control, the lesser people who indulge in eating. You are different. You are special. You have an identity. And if it involves sacrifice, isn’t that a part of all worthwhile projects? Or you might simply cling to the sense of safety, believing that you have found a way to navigate such a complex world, believing you can escape the judgments constantly being made about women’s bodies. Even after all this time, it can be hard for me to really appreciate that when I am engaged in eating disordered behavior, it is a sign that I have lost control. Because it feels so much like having it—don’t we admire an ascetic who can fast for days, see that as a feat of remarkable self-discipline?
But you have no idea what you have lost. Because you start to forget what else there is. Or maybe you never knew in the first place. You might think that it’s not really affecting you that much. In my worst phases, I kept the misery of it far from me; it was like I lived my life on parallel tracks that rarely intersected. There was the me that was going about my life, my studies, my work. And then there was the me that fought a war with food. I knew that I was doing it, of course, and yet in some way I didn’t entirely believe it, because it was so separate from the rest of my life. I questioned whether it was really that serious of a problem, and quickly pushed aside those biting moments of clarity when I knew I could not stop. And the truth was, I was not sure I wanted to. I did not know who I would be.
As I said, I’ve been working on recovery for over two years, with some relapses, but also significant periods of normal eating. Sometimes that feels like a long time, but sometimes I feel I am barely out of a life dominated by an eating disorder. I know I can live without it. That is still remarkable to me. But at times I hate that knowledge, and I want to go back.
Things have been hard in different ways than I imagined. By the time I got into recovery, much of my life had become dominated by bingeing and purging. And I thought if I stopped, I would spend my days longing to binge, thinking about food but always having to be careful. Somehow, even with all my experience and history, I did not realize that that is actually a pretty accurate description of the life of someone who is not eating enough. Being obsessed with food is not a moral failing, but—surprise!—a consequence of being malnourished. I’m not sure why it took me so many years to figure that out. It was only in working with a nutritionist that I realized that I had no idea how to eat in any kind of normal fashion. Perhaps the most amazing thing for me was to realize that when I ate enough, when I was in a fed state, I could manage the urges to binge, that they lost a great deal of their potency. The first eating disorder therapist I saw told me that she saw an eating disorder as a kind of phobia—fear of food. I said that was crazy; my problem was that I wasn’t scared enough of food. She said, if you knew how many times I’d heard that line. It took a long time to realize that she might be on to something. Because I thought my fundamental problem was too much hunger, too much wanting. I did not anticipate that eating regularly could be so incredibly hard. That it would mean ignoring voices that told me this was evidence of failure, of weakness—that I would have to re-think my assumptions not only about food but about what it means to be strong.
And the weight gain involved in recovery has been emotionally brutal, enough that I have periodically gone back to eating disordered behavior out of utter desperation, even knowing that it will backfire. At times it has reduced me to a bleak hopelessness, a defeated sense that I have lost the one thing that mattered most to me for so long, an erosion of a carefully protected identity. A voice in my head still asks me, was it worth it? I find myself feeling lost, disoriented, terrified. I do not know how to be this person, who is no longer thin. I do not know if there is anything good enough about me to compensate for what I have lost.
On the other hand, I have also been surprised to realize how much eating has contributed to my emotional stability. I had read extensively about eating disorders long before I got into treatment. I knew that my behavior was affecting me physically. I considered myself reasonably bright. But somehow I never put the pieces together that it was taking a psychological toll, to an extent that I only realized when I started eating regularly. Somehow it never occurred to me that depression and anxiety could be profoundly influenced by something as mundane as food. (This isn’t to say that I’m in the camp that wants to solve all psychological problems through various nutritional strategies. Like just about every other person I know in eating disorder treatment, I’m on meds, and they’ve made a real difference. But they work a whole lot better when I’m eating.)
I am still figuring out who I am without the eating disorder. It is scary to engage a life no longer centered around food and weight, to look for other sources of identity. To learn to work through painful emotions, rather than jump immediately to self-destruction. To find my own voice, my own sense of things, my own experience. Sometimes it is amazing. Sometimes my life is different, better, than I ever imagined it could be. And yet sometimes I miss being in a prison which may be confining, but which is reassuringly familiar. And so I linger on the premises—venturing out, and then slipping back. But I am slowly coming to believe that there is a world outside.